Don’t Sit Alone in Church (and other thoughts on corporate worship).

Here’s a lesson worth learning (for the story inspiring this thought, read here): God cares how we approach him in worship.

Meanwhile, a lot of what we American Christians spend our time thinking and worrying about  is first-world stuff. My friend in Nigeria tells me that Christians in his country wake up every day prepared to die while many in my country wake up frustrated by how slow the line at Starbucks is. We tend to judge churches by the quality of their donuts rather than the depth of their spirituality. Maybe this isn’t you … but you get my point.

Americans are truly graced by the options we have for worshiping together freely and without fear. It is a privilege we ought not take lightly. In that spirit, I want to challenge you to consider how you show up for worship and how you lean into it once you get there. Here are ten ways to lean in on Sunday mornings, so you’re all in as a full partner in building community among your people:

  1. Community is essential. Be in worship because we are not created to do this alone. And be a full participant when you get there because community is essential for discipleship and for rich and vibrant corporate worship. I believe the oncoming revival of the American Church will be its emphasis on partnership over presentation, each of us acting more like owners than renters of the space we take up in church.
  2. Leaning into community is a kindness toward your pastor. Everyone in the room participates more actively when every person participates. That means not sitting on the back row (which means leaving your rebellious spirit at the door). It means finding a few others to sit with so there is a sense of love and energy in the room. It means bringing your Bible and something to write on, and leaving your phone alone during worship (you know whether you’r actually looking at a Bible app or your facebook page …). All this is a kindness toward the one who has labored over a message, and who will stand up and look out on a crowd of people who speak volumes by their posture about the state of their hearts.
  3. Leaning in is a kindness toward your worship leaders. The mostly volunteer team that leads fully half of a worship service has worked hard to develop a set of songs to lead us into the presence of God. These folks give of themselves week after week, and through the discipline of leading worship they grow in their own spiritual lives. They want that for you, too. Get close enough to that fire to be warmed by it.
  4. Be a visual aid to newcomers. Show them what you want them to believe about your church, namely that you love each other. Don’t be under any illusion that where you sit doesn’t matter to a newcomer. I remember visiting a church some years ago, and thinking to myself as I walked in, “These people are angry with each other.” It was a large sanctuary, only half-full of people. As the congregation had dwindled, those who remained kept their usual seats. The effect was about five small pockets of people with huge gaps between them. I found out they were not at war with each other, but my first impression was that they were.
  5. Create energy. It is a fact that people sitting in close proximity to one another will create more energy than people sitting apart. For some reason, this is an uncomfortable barrier to cross when folks walk into a room, but if you can get people to sit together it creates great energy. And this is a way every single person in a church can participate in changing the spiritual atmosphere in worship. Just make it a point to sit with others. What could be simpler?
  6. Mess with the enemy’s plans. He’d rather you sit as far from each other as possible. If you can judge each other, even better. Separate the coals so the fire cools more quickly. May I also say very lovingly that if you are stubborn about it, that resistance may well be a gift to the enemy who loves a rebellious spirit.
  7. Don’t leave a single person lonely. Our church serves quite a few single adults, so I’m aware of their lifestyle challenges. Some have shared just how old it gets having to go places alone. Many confess chronic loneliness. It is hard going places alone, and even harder when you get there to sit awkwardly by yourself while others enjoy talking and catching up. A great gift you can give to another single person (whether you are single or married) is to sit next to someone sitting by themselves. Then get to know them.
  8. Be the Christian in the room. Christians love beyond good sense. Christians believe in the power of community. Christians show care and concern for those around them and for those on stage. Christians get outside themselves and think more of others than of themselves. Christians take time to know others and find out their needs. If you walk into a room, sit by yourself, and passively receive through the entire worship service, how will anyone know you’re a Christian?
  9. Be there for someone else, believing that one day they’ll be there for you. Sometimes we go to church for ourselves, and sometimes we show up for others. There are days I’d rather not go … and I’m the pastor! But I know that if I don’t show up, others will miss me.
  10. They call it corporate worship for a reason. Worship together, and let your praise be your witness.

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The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”

A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.” 

As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.” 

This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?

Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote.  Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?

After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar. 

(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life. 

What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.

So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:

Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.

Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life. 

Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us. 

By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.  

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Fetching Grace

Mephibosheth.  Sound that one out, then imagine yourself with the burden of that name hanging around the neck of your life.

Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. David found him when he went looking for a way to make good on a promise he’d made to Jonathan years before. It was a vow to honor Jonathan’s family — any time, any place. One day long into his reign as king, he goes to the palace staff and asks (2 Samuel 9:1), “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” At the question, someone remembers Mephibosheth.

His name, by the way, means “shameful thing.”

Mephibosheth had bad feet. When he was five years old, a nursemaid dropped him or let him fall and somehow his feet were damaged. So now, here is a boy named Shameful with feet that don’t allow him to play with the other kids or follow in his warrior-father’s footsteps. After his father’s death, they did with him what they often did with kids like him. They sent him off to someone willing to keep him as a servant for the cost of room and board.

So a guy named Shameful who is labeled as Lame gets shipped off to a place called Lo Debar, which means “place of no pasture,” or sometimes, “place of no word.” No word.  No blessing.  No intelligence.  No honor.  This is where Mephibosheth lived.

Then, completely out of the blue, King David sends for him. The Hebrew word used here literally means something like “fetch.” Someone has called this act of David fetching grace. Don’t you love that? It reminds me of Jesus’ word to his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you …”

When Mephibosheth was presented to David, the king said, “Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father. And I will restore the land that belongs to your family.” The story ends with Mephibosheth living in Jerusalem, eating at the King’s table.

And this is the place in this Old Testament story where Jesus shows up. As I consider Mephibosheth coming to live with David, I realize there is no miraculous healing. David doesn’t hire great doctors to fix him up. Mephibosheth comes as he is and as he is he is welcome at the table of the King.

Welcomed, not as a servant but as a friend.

In that scene, Jesus says to us also, “You don’t have to be different than you are to sit at the table and be part of the things I have for you. We are not all sitting around waiting for you to be better, different, healed. You have been chosen as you are, loved as you are.”

Transformation will come in the nourishing, of course (we are Methodists, after all, who believe sanctification is the other half of salvation). But transformation begins with an invitation to the table. Come as you are.

And right here, right now, I want to thank Jesus for that word. Isn’t that exactly what he did for me? For you? After the resurrection, he showed up to this woman who would have been an outcast in her world, once crippled by demons. He showed up to her and her circle, and to those guys walking down a road toward their house in Emmaus. The story says, “He was known in the breaking of the bread.” He was known at the table, in the conversation, in the moment.

Jesus came bearing the inestimable power of friendship. He comes bearing a rare kindness, for the sake of the Father, saying things like, ““Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. ”“I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.”

Friendship is the gift of the Kingdom. Jesus came to us as friend, and invites us to befriend people in authentic ways. This is how the gospel gets rooted. It gets rooted in the soil of community and it bears the fruit of friendship.

(This story is also part of the Encounter Jesus study, available at seedbed.com)

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Is this a test or a temptation?

In seasons like this (political, social, racial, denominational … you name it), it is easy to get confused about who is responsible for our personal and corporate pain. Our tendency is to externalize. “This is their problem. If they would straighten up, we would be fine. ”

Of course, not everything that happens to us is everyone else’s fault, even if we’d like to say so. And not everything is the fault of the enemy of our soul. I’ve ranted before about that awful line: “Everything happens for a reason.” Sure. Everything does happen for a reason, but some reasons stink. Racism stinks. Cancer stinks. Financial crises stink. Some things just are — because of human fallenness or my own bad choices or a myriad of factors that may or may not have anything to do with God’s best.

And then there are things that are actually initiated in the spiritual realm. Some hard things come to us from God and other things from the enemy of our soul. Depending on their source, they are designed to either build us up or tear us down.

How can we tell the difference? When we’re in the midst of a difficult season, it can be unnerving. We’re prone to “think” with our emotions (which don’t actually think), rather than our spirit or mind. It is too easy to react rather than respond.

Wouldn’t it be worth it to learn a little about the difference between a test and a temptation so that next time a bump surfaces in the road, you’re better able to diagnose and negotiate it?  Here are a few differences I can think of:

Satan tempts. God tests. That may be oversimplifying it a bit. God can do what God wants to do, so I don’t want to limit him. But my experience is that because God deals in truth, he’s not in the habit of setting us up to fail.

Tests refine faith. Temptations destroy faith. God will never place anything in your life or mine meant to tear our faith down (after all, he is the one who gave it to us; he wants us to have and enjoy strong faith). The enemy, on the other hand, will never do anything to build our faith up. At least, not our faith in God. The enemy of our soul doesn’t care what we believe in, so long as it isn’t God.

Tests reveal graces. Temptations reveal sinfulness. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul teaches, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, God will always provide the grace to walk through a test. He wants to see us succeed. Satan only provides dead-ends and wants to see us fail.

Tests set us up to succeed. Temptations set us up to fail. If you’ve ever dealt with an addiction and tried to recover, you get this. Every temptation is an opportunity to relapse. A test, by contrast, is an opportunity to move forward. Tests release creativity. They inspire us to something more than we thought we could be. Temptations release frustration and when we give in, they make us feel like failures.

Tests prove strength. Temptations prove weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul is describing his conversation with God in the midst of a test, and God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say that it is when he is weak that he is actually strongest. When we rely on God to pull us through, we’re strengthened by his strength.

A test will often prove whether or not we can withstand the weight of God’s call. This was the reason for the test of Abraham and Isaac (see Genesis 22). It was to see if they were able to stand up to the weight of God’s call. It was the last hurdle before God unleashed an incredible vision into Abraham’s life. God doesn’t test us just for fun. He isn’t playing with us. He isn’t against us; he is for us. He tests us to see if we’re ready to move on to greater spiritual effectiveness.

So how do we master both tests and temptations? The answer is faith. Which seems way too simplistic, but that is the key. What Abraham instilled into the people of God is a quality of faith that is God-focused, not people-focused. Mature faith is our inheritance and birthright as children in the spiritual line of Abraham.

Mature faith leads us to better responses. Whether I caused it, God caused it, or satan caused it, a holy response will lead me closer to God and closer to my created design. Whether test or temptation, we lay it up on the altar of God and let him tell us whether it is to be destroyed or redeemed.

Here’s the thing: This thing (whether its racial, political, denominational … whatever) isn’t only valuable because of where it came from. Ultimately, it is about your response. Its usefulness to the Kingdom of God is determined by your response.

What if God wants to use this very thing to channel his glory through you? And all he is asking from you is faith enough to stay with him while he works?

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Ten Marks of Spiritual Leaders

Leadership is both a privilege and a choice. To participate at the highest levels in God’s mission of redemption is a high and humbling honor. It is also a choice freely made by those who sense a call from the Lord to step forward; it should never be forced. These ten principles have helped us at Mosaic set a standard for healthy spiritual leadership:

  • A personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ. This goes beyond a mental assent to a set of principles. This is about a personal connection with God that is transformational and liberating. Without this kind of faith, we would be setting people up for failure at best, spiritual attack at worst.
  • A fervent commitment to prayer. Intercede regularly for the ministry, people and leaders. Spiritual leaders are not afraid to lead in prayer, and would not consider starting a meeting or leading a ministry without saturating it in prayer. Spiritual leaders understand and engage in spiritual warfare.
  • An enthusiastic commitment to being here. Spiritual leadership requires a commitment to the vision throughout the life of the church, not just in your ministry area. This includes a commitment to small group membership, as well as attendance at any leadership gathering or important meeting of the church.
  • A joyful commitment to giving. The Christian life stresses the importance of investing in the community that feeds you. Solid Christian leadership also stresses the importance of good modeling. People want to know that if you’re standing before them as a leader, you are invested in the life of the church in the same way they are. They should not be expected to trust the leadership of someone who is not sacrificing in the same ways they are, nor should they be expected to allow you to make decisions on their behalf if you are not invested.
  • A humble commitment to serving. This means not only serving where you are appointed, but making time to serve where you are called by the gospel to join in — particularly service to the poor.
  • A radical commitment to the Great Commission.  This means a willingness not only to see the church winning people to Christ, but a personal desire to share your faith story and invite people into a saving relationship with Jesus.
  • A healthy commitment to practicing emotional intelligence. This means open, direct and honest communication; a willingness to ask clarifying questions and accept constructive coaching; an absolute commitment to grace; and a refusal to feed any spirit of offense. It means being willing to deal honestly with your own brokenness. It means being willing to approach people immediately when conflict arises, placing a high value on reconciliation and an absolute trust in the principles of Matthew 18:15-20.
  • A transparent commitment to loyalty. In both speech and action. Leadership is for those who are committed to both the vision and the team. If you’re not, then my question would not only be, “Why are you in leadership?” but also, “Why have you chosen this place for your spiritual care and feeding?” Because life is too short to serve someplace where you’re not all in.
  • An educated commitment to an orthodox, evangelical expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Understand our theology so you can support our message and care well for those exploring the faith.
  • An unwavering commitment to excellence. No one person comes into leadership fully equipped. A continual commitment to education and training is critical for the leadership of a growing community. If we are going to stay on the leading edge of God’s movement, we need leaders who understand what God is doing in the world today and who are enthusiastic about joining Him in that work.

This is our list. What is yours? What matters to you in a leader? Having a clear vision and standards for healthy leadership is a prime way we can battle against the usual accusations about what it means to be “church.” Shoot for excellence so the Holy Spirit has room to work.

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The Gospel of Welcome

There are few phrases that evoke more warmth or comfort than this one: Welcome home. In that welcome, we experience all we need. We are safe. We are loved. We belong. This was the radical contribution made by first-century followers of Jesus. Their brand of religion was so much more than a set of rules. It was a people and a place — a family and a purpose to which anyone could attach. This expression of faith in God exposed His heart for people.

In the gospel of welcome, we remember that God is for us.

Seven times in chapter 9, Luke uses the word “welcome.” He gives instructions for what to do when one is not welcome, then contrasts that with a picture of the radical welcome of the Kingdom. It isn’t a picture a first-century audience would have anticipated, nor is it the one more typical of our sermonizing about Jesus’ heart for people. It isn’t Jesus with a leper or Jesus with a woman or Jesus loving on someone no one else likes. Not this time. This time, it is Jesus with a child.

The moment comes as his followers are immaturely arguing over who is the greatest. Frankly, they sound like fifth graders in this scene. You don’t get the sense they are arguing in front of Jesus; at least they know enough not to do that. They just can’t help themselves. Likely, they were tired and impatient with one another. Someone probably called someone else out as not pulling his weight and before reason could set in, they were all one-upping each other.

Like I said, you don’t get the sense they were doing it in front of Jesus, but everything eventually ends up in front of Jesus. He knew, even if he hadn’t heard. Jesus knew their competitive, self-justifying hearts so he put a child in the midst of them and said, “Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes God. And you need to make a mental note here, my friends, because you don’t have the same values as the Kingdom. What I’m about to say won’t sound logical to you, but the person you least want to welcome is the person most likely being pursued by God and the time you least want to welcome them in is probably the time God is most open to using you.”

This was Jesus’ teaching on the gospel of welcome: It happens, he says, when we least expect it and often to the person we least want to welcome in.

There is one other use of the word “welcome” in Luke 9. It is in the description of Jesus heading toward Jerusalem and his death. He sent messengers into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him but the people of that town didn’t welcome him precisely because he was heading for Jerusalem and into the will of God. Hear that: the Samaritans didn’t welcome him. Samaritans … the ones Jewish people tended to avoid at all costs. Samaritans, who Jesus used in parables to talk about people we’d walk by without thinking twice about their suffering. Samaritans, whose very land a Jewish person would avoid walking on. Samaritans were the ones who didn’t welcome Jesus, a Jew, nor his followers — the very ones who’d just been arguing over who is greatest.

If we gather up all these uses of the word “welcome” in Luke 9, we get a 360-degree view of Kingdom hospitality.

  • Welcome people when you’re tired.
  • Welcome people when you’re inconvenienced.
  • Welcome people as a way of right-sizing your own ego.
  • Welcome the ones you don’t trust, don’t like, don’t value.
  • And don’t just welcome them with southern politeness. Learn to welcome people all the way through or as Peter would later write, love deeply from the heart.
  • Recognize that even when you get the welcome right, people on the receiving end of God’s grace might not appreciate it. Sometimes the “Samaritan” won’t return the kindness, but don’t let that stop you from heading into the will of God. Don’t let your welcome ride on their response.

Hear that: Don’t let your welcome ride on their response.

That may be something you need to hear as you begin your week. You may already be tired before you’ve even gotten started, and you just don’t see the need to give more than the minimum. Maybe you don’t realize that the problem is less the other person’s distastefulness and more your ego. You may be oblivious to the callouses building on your heart toward those who matter most to God. Or it just may be that you’re giving and giving, and those on the receiving end ought to appreciate it … but they don’t.

And to you, however you find yourself today, Jesus would say: Don’t let your welcome ride on your circumstances, on your ego, or on their response. Let your welcome ride on the leading of the Holy Spirit. Welcome others into your life because Christ has welcomed you.

Amen.

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Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This post is excerpted from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The 19 explores the 19 questions asked of those intending to preach in the Methodist Church since its earliest days. This post features #6: “Do you know the General Rules of our Church?” The General Rules are three simple statements meant to guide life in community among those seeking to grow in faith together.

Three simple rules:

Do no harm.

This seems on the surface like an unnecessary word. Surely, grown adults don’t have to be told to not harm each other … right? Except that we do it all the time. Not in obvious ways, of course. Most of us don’t kill people or do boldly illegal things. We don’t play around with evil on purpose and we try to stay on the right side of the ten commandments. We know how to avoid the more conspicuous harmful things. But it turns out that some of the worst damage is inflicted not by the obvious things but by more subtle forms of unkindness. Greed causes Christians to do harm by making us stingy when we ought to be generous. Fear causes us to be unkind by fostering a lack of trust. Living an undisciplined life can wreak havoc on all our relationships. When we can’t follow through on commitments because we’ve over-committed, and when we don’t honor others’ time because we’re disorganized and unprepared, we frazzle other people and fray our relationships around the edges.

Think honestly about this. Do you use people for your own ambitious ends? Do you stretch yourself to your emotional limits, so that others have to contend with your mood swings? Do you tend to the state of your heart not just for your own sake, but for the sake of doing no harm to others?

Be clear on this: doing no harm does not mean “never disagree.” To the contrary, I’d say that sometimes a refusal to call someone out on their foolishness is the most harmful thing you can do to them, not to mention plain unkind. Who wants to be left to sit in their sin while others use politeness to avoid confrontation?

In the issues being debated in the UMC these days, there is a premium placed on tolerance. Yet, our core value as Christians is not tolerance but holiness. God commanded, “You are to be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness informs my response to the culture around me. My opinions must be rooted in the values of holiness as I find them in the Bible. I don’t interpret the Bible in light of how the world turns. I interpret the world in light of the Bible, even when it means I will look a little crazy by the world’s standards.

Holiness does not give me a pass on practicing a whole host of other character-defining traits — patience, humility, gentleness, endurance, bearing with one another in love. When followers of Jesus take this call to holiness seriously then eventually, they will look less like the world and more like the Kingdom of Heaven in the ways they live life. I pray like crazy that as I live the art of holiness, I will “do no harm,” as Wesley counseled…

Do good.

If doing no harm is the “being” side of community-building, then doing good is the “doing” side. Authentic communities of Christ are doing communities…  It’s not that we work our way to heaven, but without works, there is no proof of what we believe. This is our divine design. Our faith is connected to what we do, and what we do connects us to each other…

Attend to the ordinances of God.

The ordinances of God are what we might call spiritual disciplines or means of grace — things like public worship, ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence, meeting together, and caring for the poor. The means of grace are the things I do that lead me more directly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This rule, then, is a challenge toward spiritual transformation. It is an inspiration to grow more deeply into holiness…

When Wesley asks if we know the General Rules, I suspect he is really asking if we have owned them. When we own them, these rules are not really rules at all. They are our ticket to getting a Kingdom perspective and making a Kingdom investment for the sake of a Kingdom impact. It is one thing to know what is right. It is another thing completely to be committed to it. Am I concerned only for my immediate surroundings — my family, my workplace, my church — or do I have the mindset of a Kingdom Christian? Is my heart yet broken for the whole community of faith? Am I so committed to loving the other that I will hold myself accountable to holy practices that strengthen my own soul and by extension the fabric of the community of Christ?

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Act like who you are (a charge to graduates).

This week in worship, we let the last words of David to his son, Solomon in 1 Kings 2:1-12, inspire a charge to our graduates. Following is the heart of that charge to those stepping into new seasons after reaching milestones:

Graduates, this is our charge to you. It is a charge to step up to the front line and to act like who you are. You have been designed with a high calling, to glorify God with your life. This is who you are: You are a child of the Most High God. You are not an orphan, nor are you an island unto yourself. You are a child of the King; you are not your own. You were bought with a price, designed to glorify God.

You are a child of the Most High God, and you will impact future generations. The question isn’t whether or not you will influence others, but how. Too many of our decisions come from our near-sightedness. “I want to make things right for my home, my marriage, my family” … but at what cost? You may win the moment but lose the next generation. Too many people in the world  compromise the future tense for the sake of a more comfortable present tense. That brings us back to this: you will be an influence. Your decisions determine what kind of influence you will be.

Your influence is determined by who influences you so follow Jesus. If you are a follower of Jesus, you live under the shadow of the cross, and the cross changes us. Hear this and internalize it. If you are a follower of Jesus, you live under the shadow of the cross and the cross changes us. It will make us counter-cultural. It will set us apart, but too much evidence teaches me that excellence trumps culture every time. You don’t have to live like everyone else in order to make a difference. You just have to live excellently for Jesus.

Learn to make the hard calls. This was David’s lesson to his son, Solomon, at his death. It was a charge to bend toward justice, to slay the giants and not just offend them. The good news in this hard call is that God will never leave us to fight our battles alone. When my heart is right and I’m on the front line, God is right there with me, fighting the battle, beating back the enemies. He never leaves us to fight our battles alone. God is with us.

Think farther than you can see. Think beyond your own retirement. I challenge you to move from a financial mindset to an eternity mindset. Let your finances line up beneath eternity, rather than asking eternity to take a back seat to your finances. Think beyond your immediate needs. Think even beyond your own household. Isaiah’s prophetic word to the Israelites in Isaiah 49 is for us, too. “It is too light a thing that you should care only about the tribes of Judah and the people of Israel. You have been called to be a light to the nations, that my salvation might reach the ends of the earth.” This is a caution for us about small living. It is not enough to think only about us and ours. Our charge is to take on the mind of Christ — to think globally and generationally.

If you are heading into a new season, this is my charge to you: Act like who you are: 

You are a child of the most high God, a follower of Jesus Christ, a treasure hidden in a field. You are an overcomer, a sinner saved by grace, a member of the household of God. You are the Church, a tabernacle for the Spirit of God … salt and light. You are designed to shine like stars in a dark and perverse generation, to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth. You are the answer to Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

That is who you are. Nothing else. Nothing less, so go out there and act like who you are.

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Jesus is a dangerous idea (or, why reciting the Apostles’ Creed is a subversive act)

Jesus is a dangerous idea.

That was the answer Peter Hitchens gave at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia in 2014. They’d gotten their theme, I’m sure, from The Edge, an online think tank for academics and scientists. Every year The Edge offers a question and invites responses that are then anthologized into a book. The question for 2006 was, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

Hitchens, participating in a panel discussion at the Australian conference, was a well-known journalist in the UK whose brother was an even more well-known atheist (Christopher Hitchens died in 2011). Asked to respond to the question of the day, Peter’s fellow panelists offered ideas that spanned from disappointing to shocking. A famous feminist said her dangerous idea was freedom. From a famous atheist the answer was to make abortion mandatory for thirty years to control the population.

And then there was Peter Hitchens. When they asked for his most dangerous idea, he said, “The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.”

The guy hosting the discussion followed up: How could the resurrection be dangerous? Hitchens said, “Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”

Hitchens’ response was a reflection of his own remarkable story. He was raised in the Anglican church, left Jesus behind when he was about fifteen, and then came back to Christ after marrying a Marxist atheist who eventually found Jesus on her own road of discovery. When Hitchens became a Christian, he was already a respected journalist. Acknowledging faith in Jesus was a bit of a risk for him; colleagues wondered what he was doing. For years, he lived his faith under the radar.

Because Jesus is a dangerous idea.

Jesus himself said so. He said he would set people against each other, even those who love each other. If this idea of Jesus as life-giving, sin-defeating redeemer of the universe is a lie, then think of the billions — literally billions of people — who have been deluded. But if it is true, that changes everything. And if it is true, then when we confess that publicly, vocally (think of Christians around the world who weekly stand to declare one of the three historic creeds) we are participating a divine conspiracy to alter the course of the world.

And that is how a creed ought to be handled. The words we use to describe Jesus in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are a statement of subversion. Carved out by people who died for those words, they have altered the course of humanity. They have blasted through atheistic regimes and changed the character of countries. Those words (and more specifically, the truths they represent) have won wars and cast out demons and angered infidels and confounded scientists. For more people than not, they make no sense but for billions they make everything else make sense.

This thing we believe? It is a dangerous idea. So how dare we stand up casually on a Sunday morning and lazily roll through the creed as if we’re scrolling through the credits at the end of the movie. How dare we treat them with such routine indifference that they no longer mean anything even to the ones reciting them week after week. How dare we allow anyone to speak the creeds without some sense that they are participating in the welcome and advance of the Kingdom of God, and indeed have that responsibility if they utter those words as if they are real.

And this is how I believe the historic words professing faith in Jesus Christ ought to be voiced when they are voiced: as if you are standing for truth and justice and everything good and the whole human design and God’s plan. And as if you intend to walk out of that moment and change the world.

Pastors, when you stand to lead your people in the recitation of the Creed on Sunday morning, for God’s sake, please shake your people awake and help them understand just what bold conspiracy they are committing.

Otherwise, why bother?

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