Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is Obedience Possible?

Imagine this scene: a man lies naked, hungry and cold.  A stranger approaches and offers these words, “I wish you well. Be warm, and filled.”  Then the stranger walks away.  Now imagine the stranger who walks away is Jesus.

Unthinkable, right?  Too many Christians possess just such an image of Jesus when it comes to the issue obedience.  God wants us to obey his will.  It’s good.  It’s necessary.  The problem is many of us see ourselves as incapable of obedience.   We have failed too often.  We find ourselves naked and cold, in desperate need.  And into our helpless situation, we imagine that Jesus walks up to us and says, “be obedient” without offering any practical help.

Would the grace God demand from us something we cannot give?  If we were “miserable sinners” before turning to Jesus, why does Jesus expect his followers to become obedient to his will?  How do we become something other than “forgiven miserable sinners?”  Some believers find themselves trapped in a Christian existence of forgiveness, more sin, and more forgiveness.

The good news is that God’s grace does something more than say, “Be warm and filled.”  Jesus calls us obey, but he does not leave us on our own.  He demonstrated how to become the kind of follower who is not trapped in the forgive-sin again-forgive cycle.

The Jesus way of teaching believers how to obey is contained in the famous verses we call The Great Commission:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
The Great Commission does not command obedience, but rather discipleship--which makes obedience possible.  Discipleship is God’s plan to grow in obedience.  Jesus breaks discipleship to two functions--immersing believers in the three revealed identities of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and instructing disciples in how to obey everything he commanded.  To separate obedience from teaching how to obey would be the same as merely saying “Be warm and filled” to a naked homeless person, and Jesus wouldn’t do that.

The church, however, has fallen into the “Be warm and filled” fallacy.  We attempt to “teach” obedience apart from relationship.  In fact, obedience cannot be taught apart from relationship, it can only be demanded.  Sitting in church listening to the demands of obedience usually results in guilt--a guilt incapable of producing fruit.

A better pattern is the family model.  Good parents teach their children to obey in an atmosphere of mutual love and commitment.  Fathers and mothers love their children, and children love their parents.  Relationship and obedience grow side-by-side.  The love felt by both parents and child provide the motivation for discipline from above and effort from below.  Healthy families provide examples of obedience.  Day-by-day children can witness whether true obedience lives in the household.

New life in Christ means the Father has provided a new family for each of us.  We become a part of God’s household.  If obedience resides in the house, it becomes a way of life--something for us to enter into, not something imposed from the outside.  Obedience becomes the natural response of loving hearts.  The family of God becomes the context for learning how to obey.  Our obedience helps provide a setting for others to discover the way of life.  This is one of the reasons that our obedience is not merely a personal matter.  It’s also why some Christian mystics describe God as Father and the church as the mother of our obedience.

Could you be God’s means of grace is someone else’s life?  If you respond to the Great Commission by making disciples, the answer is yes.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Monday's Meditation: Daring His Presence

One great need among followers of Jesus is the experience of God’s tangible presence.  What good is it to have a theology that asserts God’s presence is everywhere if we have no evidence of it?  Has God gone on vacation?  Has he left the building? 
From beginning to end the Biblical narrative is filled with God’s tangible presence.  The first two chapters of Genesis are marked by his personal presence: God personally forms man from the dust of the ground, he kisses the breath of life into the first man, he instructs and guides his children as he walks in the garden with them.  At the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation depicts the intimate nature of God’s personal interaction with creation. “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21: 3)
From start to finish the scripture reveals the God who is present. He visits Abraham.  He wrestles with Jacob.  He talks with Moses face to face.  He reveals his presence in the cloud and fire around the people of Israel.  As Solomon dedicates the temple, God manifests in a cloud so thick with his presence that no one can remain standing or perform the duties of worship.  Ezekiel saw God’s traveling throne and Isaiah saw the temple filled with God’s presence and glory.
In the New Testament the presence of God becomes something even greater: the Incarnation.  “God arrived and pitched his tent among us.”  (John 1:14)  This marks even greater intimacy and presence: God not only interacted with the world he created, he became part of that world.  And he came to stay: the final words of Matthew’s gospel are: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 20)  Like I said: from start to finish, God is present.  Really present, actually present, tangibly present.
It’s Monday: may I suggest a meditation?
  • Can I expect the same experience of God’s presence as people did in the Bible?
  • Have I settled for something other than his presence?
  • If I believe he is present, can I ask him to reveal his presence?
  • Do I dare?

    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    The Fellowship of Low Expectations

    About this time last year I posted a reflection on the ambivalence many Christians feel about following Jesus.  You can read The Impossible Mentor in full, but here is the heart of that article:
    I believe that the central problem in nurturing followers of Jesus in North America is our view of Jesus as the Impossible Mentor. It’s a paradox: nearly everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus as a worthy role model, but almost no one seriously believes it is possible to live up to his example. Our esteem for Jesus’ life of obedience to the Father and our desire to be “just like Jesus” does battle with the deep-seated notion that it is impossible to be like him. Who would choose a mentor who is impossible to imitate?
    In the last twelve months I have seen first-hand how many believers feel the urge to go deeper with Jesus while struggling with the conviction that it is impossible to measure up to him.  What has surprised me is how many church leaders also hold this view.  How does a leader build and shape the church if he or she believes that the goal is impossible?
    Across the spectrum of Christian worship, our churches are filled with individuals who do not believe Christlikeness is possible.  Even more striking is the number of church leaders who have largely abandoned the task of making disciples.  Local churches place any number of expectations on their pastors: preaching, visiting the sick, counseling, and supervising the ministries of the church are all standard aspects of the job description.  Reproducing the character and power of Jesus in the lives of individual members is rarely on the list.
    The challenge is reflected in more than job descriptions.  The preparation and training for pastoral ministry in North America seldom includes courses focused upon the process of making disciples.  For example, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s core curriculum for a Masters of Divinity degree does not include a single course on disciple-making.  The rise of graduate-level “Christian Leadership degrees” in recent years is a more promising trend, but these degrees are explicitly marketed against the expectations of traditional pastoral models. The language of Fuller Theological Seminary’s website is revealing: 
    “Students who are pursuing the MA in Christian Leadership degree are typically looking to be well grounded but not necessarily interested in ordained ministry or those working in churches that do not require a seminary education for ordination.” 

    The issue is more than education.  It goes to the priorities we place on “ministry.”  In some church circles, there is a common saying from the pulpit: “There are only two questions God will ask when you get to heaven: ‘Do you know my Son?’ and, ‘How many other people did you bring with you?’” These questions reflect the priorities of many evangelical pastors.  Evangelical churches have placed leading others to the conversion experience as the highest calling of the church. 

    Liturgical churches have frequently placed corporate social action as the highest calling of the church.  Their witness is to the community at large through the corporate actions of the congregation.  While taking the lead in ministry to the poor or in matters of social justice, the formation of disciples capable of reflecting the character and power of Jesus is left behind.  The emphasis is on the prophetic voice without producing prophetic individuals.

    In both evangelical and liturgical circles, the growth and maturity of believers is secondary at best.  The consequences are plain: we have produced congregations of people willing to work for Jesus, but unable to relate to him.

    What would happen if pastors and leaders began to operate from the conviction that it is possible to reproduce the character and power of Jesus in his followers?  Jesus apparently held that idea:
    Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. (John 14: 11 - 13)
    The Apostle Paul apparently labored under the idea that his mission was to reproduce Christ in his converts: “I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you..." (Gal. 4:19)  In fact, even more telling, Paul offered himself as and example: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1)  The fact that neither the Galatian or Corinthian people had yet measured up to the standard of Jesus didn’t stop Paul from pointing to the center of the target.  The best way to hit any part of the target is to aim for the center.
    What are church leaders are aiming for these days?

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    Monday's Meditation: Not a memo today, a meditation

    in my usual place.  I close the door and my room feels secure.
    I start to read.  The words ring in my ears with the sound of my own voice.  I am the narrator, “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them . . .”  Of course, they’re not my words but I hear them in my own voice.  I’ve been here before.  The words continue, “. . . so that your giving may be in secret.  The your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
    Because I’ve come to this place often, a natural process begins.  These words are as familiar as my morning coffee, yet each morning I can savor the taste and smell anew.  I make a note in the margin of the book.  “He sees in secret.  He rewards.”  I consider the fact he also sees the murder and adultery in my heart.  Am I comfortable that he sees in secret?  Apparently there is danger and reward in what he sees.  Other people see only the surface.  They reward, too, with smiles or words. 
    Go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  The voice in my head sounds less like me.  He’s telling me about my Father.  He knows my Father better than I because I was separated almost from birth.  Now that I’m grown I am trying to connect again.  “Your Father,” he says, sees and rewards.  Other people may see and reward, but it’s out in the open, when we can pretend to be anything we want.  We can even pretend we have forgiven.  Others might reward, but they do not see in secret.
    I finish his words about my righteousness: he tells me to comb my hair, wash my face and fool my neighbors, “and your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  The voice is now completely his, offering assurance and revelation.  He sees me, even in the secret place, and he longs to reward.  I consider for a moment: could I trust anyone to see all of me, even in secret?  Can I trust him?  He says yes, and this is what I take with me when I open the door: “If you trust me to see you in secret, you will not need to be seen by men.”

    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    The Kingdom of God in Haiti

    Tuesday at 5:00 PM a powerful earthquake shook Port au Prince and Haiti to the core.  Like many poor countries the core is not very solid, so nearly every structure in the city collapsed, and along with them our understanding of following Jesus was damaged as well.

    Many Christians feel compelled to explain current events from a religious perspective.  This compulsion is not altogether bad, provided that those who speak have some connection to God’s mind and heart.  Sadly, most people caught up in religious tradition do not possess God’s heart in such matters.  Jesus clearly was on the look-out for the false assumptions that nearly always follow disasters:
    Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." Luke 13: 1-5
    This challenging passage reminds us that disasters have occurred in nearly every culture in every age, and the response of religiously-minded people have been predictable in every age.  Predictably wrong.  In this short passage Jesus judges the lives not of the victims but rather the thoughts of his followers, and urged them to change their way of thinking.

    “Do you think . . .” Two times Jesus challenged his followers to consider their thoughts about the horror going on around them.  It seems that their default position regarded disaster as pay-back for wickedness.  Were these Galileans or Siloamites really bad people?  What does it take to rise to the level of “worse sinner,” or “more guilty?”  The problem is with the way we think: we want to rate sin, and worse, rate sinners.  Jesus had a different perspective, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)  The heart of the Christian message is that our world (and all of us in it) is already desperately sick and dying.  It does no good to divide the passengers on the Titanic into first-class or steerage, we are all in need of rescue.  Who can anticipate an earthquake or a heart attack?  The core issue is whether I am reconciled to the Creator.

    “Unless you repent . . .”  Surprisingly, Jesus calls for his disciples to repent!  With God issue is not other people’s sin, it is my sin.  And perhaps even more surprisingly, the sin I should reconsider is my tendency to evaluate the lives of others.  We have not come very far from the first century: “bad things happen to bad people” we think, presumably because God’s way is immediate punishment.  Drop the F-bomb during the day and you will stub your toe that night.  This way of thinking does no justice to God or the poor guy hopping around holding his toe.  Mark this down: the essence of the New Testament word “repent” is to change the way you think.  Metanoia, literally, to change your mind.  A hundred years of fundamentalist thunder cannot alter Biblical revelation.

    Suffering has been set loose upon the world since the days of Adam and Eve.  The causes of suffering are wide-ranging and difficult to divine. The suffering of the innocent is the most gut-wrenching.  We are now exposed to that suffering in Haiti, but we should note that such suffering was going on in Port-au-Prince before the earth began to move.

    When the world asks, “Why?” the church should answer with Presence.  The good news of the Kingdom of God is that the Suffering Servant was already there, already in place before the most recent disaster struck.  He was present in his followers, who have been in Haiti for generations, loving the poor, caring for the orphan, and comforting the widow.  It is unspeakably sad that the poor, orphaned, and widowed have multiplied overnight, but the servants of Jesus have been and will be there with them.  Wall Street had no interest in Haiti last week, and has none now.  The political powers of this age had no regard for the Haitian people and will return to politics as soon as the cameras find other subjects to record in the coming months.  Who else worships a God who bleeds and cries?  Not the businessman, not the politician, and not the soldier.

    Mother Teresa observed that it takes no theological training to give a cup of water to a thirsty child.  This, too, is part of the good news of the Kingdom: as the world turns its attention to Haiti it draws closer to the Kingdom and the King.  Movie stars forget their self indulgence and offer their wealth and influence to people in need.  In so doing, they are not far from the Kingdom of God.  Soldiers use their training to save lives and feed the poor.  They are not far from God’s Kingdom.  Comfortable middle-class people finally open their wallets to the cries of the poor.  They are not far.  It will be the church who remains in Haiti next month and next year, because the Kingdom of God is in Haiti for generations to come.

    Monday, January 11, 2010

    Monday's Meditation: Making Disciples

    Following Jesus includes making disciples.  The path to full discipleship includes the joy of helping others to become disciples.  Some have mistaken the “Great Commission” Matthew 28: 16 - 20) as a call to evangelism, but the Lord had in mind that we should also teach others to obey everything he commanded.  Others have mistaken the Great Commission as a call to personal discipleship without regard to the welfare of others.
    Of course, we should share the good news of Jesus’ substitutionary death--he paid the price for us to be reconciled to the Father.  But the good news also includes the promise that anyone who turns to Jesus can be taught how to obey everything he commanded.  How many of us have considered evangelism in the light of raising up obedient followers of Jesus?
    It’s no surprise that our example is the Lord Himself.  His proclamation that the Kingdom of God was breaking into the here and now also included “Come, follow me.”  When we encounter these words it’s easy to think, “Of course, everyone should follow Jesus.”  But Jesus of Nazareth was an unknown teacher from the hill country of Galilee; in effect he was saying, “I can demonstrate the good life.”  His message was more than information, it included the invitation to imitate his way of life.  The Apostle Paul understood the implications of the Great Commission when he boldly asserted to the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1)  How many of us are comfortable in making the same claim: “Imitate my life, and in so doing you will learn how to become like Jesus.”
    Our personal growth as followers of Jesus is not complete until we lead the way for others.  It’s part of Jesus’ plan for us.  Pointing to Jesus is not enough.  Demanding obedience to God is not enough.  Real discipling is about making a way for others to approach the Father.  Jesus not only insisted upon obedience, he showed his disciples how it was done.  May God give us the grace to do the same.

    Thursday, January 7, 2010

    Salt & Light

    Famous phrases are dangerous precisely because they are so familiar.  After we have heard something a thousand times we are tempted to think we know what it means.  As a father, I’ve come to understand that just because my children can repeat my words back to me doesn't mean they've understood what I meant.  That’s the way it is with the words of Jesus: the famous ones contain more than we have imagined:

    You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.  You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5: 13 - 16)

    Students of Jesus--his disciples--are salt and light.  Like everything Jesus taught, we would do well to reflect on these words again and again.  Here are a couple of suggestions:

    Salt is local, light is far-reaching:

    We think of salt as a seasoning, but it was first used as a preservative.  Salt only preserves at the point of contact.  Without touching others, we cannot be the salt of the earth.  Light, on the other hand, helps from a distance: other people can find their way when light illuminates their path.

    Jesus explained that we could sustain our neighbors and give them hope: that co-worker going through a divorce is preserved by your kindness.  You can bring peace when your family is in turmoil.  When you stay in contact with someone subject to depression and separation, you restore them to community.  The worth of salt comes through personal contact.  It slows down the corruption that is naturally in the world.

    Light, on the other hand, helps from a distance.  It helps others see clearly.  Notice that Jesus called himself the light of the world just after his words helped people see their own hypocrisy (John 8: 1- 12).  When Jesus shared a meal with Zacchaeus, he did not tell his host what had to be done: because of the light Zacchaeus saw what needed to be done.  The light came to his house, and he took action. (Luke 19: 1 - 10)

    Salt and light are for the benefit of others:

    From Abraham’s time to our very day, we should receive the blessings of God in order to bless others.  In the first century salt and light came at a cost, and so were used intentionally.  Since we are salt and light, we must have value and should intentionally “apply ourselves” to the world around us.  Back to Jesus’ images: salt came at a cost.  It was sometimes used as a form of payment (we get the word salary from the Latin word for salt).  The Lord applies salt where grace and preservation are needed.  Likewise lamplight was generated by oil, which was also of great value.  That’s why the one who lights the lamp places where it produces the greatest effect (see verse 15): “it gives light to everyone in the house.” 

    In our day, salt is cheap and commonplace: one preference among many seasonings.  We give almost no thought to light because each electricity and light bulbs are commonplace.  In his day, Jesus used the vivid examples of salt and light because they were valuable substances in everyday life.  The lesson?  Jesus sees his disciples as highly valued, and wants to use us to bless others--the entire world, in fact!  The salt and light belong to him, will we let him use us as he desires?

    The ultimate benefit is the Father’s glory:

    Jesus’ final words here are not mere poetry.  He wants to teach us how to shine in such a manner that God’s purposes are fulfilled.  “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  (v16) This is practical instruction with a calculated purpose: have we considered how others can recognize our work as the work of God?  If our work simply wins praise for ourselves we should rethink the mission.  This is no small task.  Jesus commissions us to live, speak, and act in such a manner that our actions result in praise to the Father.  The “natural” response of our obedience should be that God gets the credit.  It’s one thing to win personal approval, it’s another to win approval for someone else.  Here’s a worthwhile meditation: how can my actions win praise for the Father?

    We do not need world-wide prominence or influence in order to fulfill the words of the Master.  Salt and light are needed in every home: how many homes do our lives touch?

    Monday, January 4, 2010

    A Year of Discipleship:

    This week marks the one year anniversary of “Students of Jesus.” I’ll leave judgments of quality to others, but I’m amazed at the reach of a text-driven blog with almost zero promotional effort in just 52 weeks: in 2009 Students of Jesus had more than 2,700 unique visitors from more than 60 countries. It reached all 50 of the United States--who knew North Dakota had computers? I’ve enjoyed dialogue with new friends from Maryland to California, as well as interaction with readers on four of the five livable continents (com’on, Australia, join the party).

    Please allow me to share just three of the lessons I’ve learned this year:

    1). God gives generously and without reproach. After 40 years of walking with Jesus I thought I might have something to offer, but in just a dozen or so posts it became clear how small was my storehouse. Fortunately, God encourages us to ask for wisdom, and His streams are full, rich, and never-ending. His mercies are new every morning, and the scriptures assure us that his voice goes out to all creation day after day. We need only to be still and listen. A notebook helps, too.

    2). I rediscovered the place of Scripture. My faith tradition emphasizes the importance of encountering God both practically and experientially. During this first year of trying to share these priorities, I have been reminded that there is one sure location to encounter God: his written word. While many Christians make the mistake of worshipping “Father, Son, and Holy Scripture,” it is equally true that some believers so frantically desire experiences with the Holy Spirit that they rush past the word of God. For those with ears to hear, the scripture is the Holy Spirit’s home address. Of course, He gets out of the house a lot!

    3). Inspiration is the intersection of our faithfulness and God’s grace. God is looking for those who will step on the dance floor with him. He provides the music and He will lead, but we have to excuse ourselves from the banquet table and wrap our arms around him. We’ve been tempted to think that inspiration will sneak up from behind and wrestle us to the ground, when the most inspired moments come as our effort meets his kindness. His kindness is always available--what about our effort? Showing up day by day, ready to work, is the best way to find the breath of inspiration--whether you are an artist, businessman, or student.

    Blogging is an exercise that combines both hope and vanity. It’s pure vanity to believe others would really care to read my words. But I hope you do.