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The Essence of Christian Leadership

Over at YouTube I've launched a Students of Jesus channel.

The latest upload is a 90-second reflection "The Essence of Christian Leadership":

Since this is a brand new effort, I'm looking for feedback: yours is welcome!

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17 Random Observations From Matthew 13

How about something completely random today? Here, like marbles across the floor, are 17 observations, without any unifying theme. All of them are from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 13. It’s one of my favorite gospel chapters, perhaps because it’s perfect for our modern brand of ADHD spirituality.

Jesus shared parables of the Kingdom of Heaven. We listen; the joy is in the discovery. Grab your Bible. It could take five minutes or we could spend an hour.

Verses 3-9: Why do so many people presume that an equal amount of seed fell on all four types of soil? Wouldn’t it make more sense that a tiny amount fell on the hardened path, and that lots and lots fell into stony or thorn-infested soil?

Verse 11: The secrets of the kingdom are given to disciples, not casual listeners. Really?—Would God actually conceal things?

Verse 12: Not only would he conceal things, he apparently entrusts treasures to those who have demonstrated that they will take care of them.

Verse 16: Yet he tells the disciples they are blessed beyond the prophets and “righteous.” He’s lavish with those who are following hard after him.

Verse 19: “Anyone” can mean me, too.

Verse 23: I remember Derek Prince pointed out that thirty and sixty-fold add up to ninety. He said the hundred-fold dimension is a kind of fruitfulness that exceeds the other two combined. After 30+ years I’m still not sure what Derek meant.

Verse 27: Why does everyone require the Master to explain himself? The implication is that it’s his fault. I wonder if I do that: do I demand that God explain why things go wrong?

Verse 29: Even in the presence of evil, God cares about the harvest. The wickedness of others doesn't throw God off his game.

Verses 31- 33: Jesus used little tiny “bookend parables.” Not everything has to be L-O-N-G.

Verse 36: People who hang around after the crowds go home usually get something extra. What’s my hurry?

Verses 44 & 45: Two more bookends. These are strikingly different. One guy finds the treasure, presumably by accident; the other guy has been purposefully looking for that one pearl. One guy recognizes what anyone can see—treasure. The other guy has trained himself to recognize something rare and precious. Both sell everything they have. Would I sell everything?

Verse 46: For the sixth time, “the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Jesus is using images, not allegories. Where did these images come from? Well, what do you think he was doing those first 30 years of this life?

Verse 49: For the second time, “so it will be at the end of the age.” True, the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking into the here-and-now, but it is also about the end of the age. Do I live my life with the “end of the age” in mind?

Verse 51: Breathtaking! They answered, “Yes.”

Verse 52: Good news--we can be “trained in the Kingdom.” There’s hope for anyone who wants to be his student.

Verse 53: This should be the end of chapter 13. When Langton divided the scripture into chapters in the 13th century he got this one wrong.

Verse 53 (again): When you’re finished, it’s time to leave.

(Bonus observation, not counted in the 17: When Jesus uses the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" don't think for a minute that he's talking about heaven as in "Go to Heaven when you die." He's not!)


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It turns out the serpent was right, which makes him the worst kind of liar. You remember the scene played out in the garden that provided seed for all creation: the serpent said, “You will not die; God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” It was all true.

But it was all beside the point.

This is the most dangerous kind of lie: misdirection. By the time the angel took up a flaming sword to guard Eden’s entrance, we began to see that the issue was fruit: God was concerned with the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

Generations later we’ve discovered that it’s precisely because we will not die that the fruit was so dangerous. It’s precisely because we would become like God that the fruit carried such power. God’s imagination reached beyond ours: imagine people who know the difference between good and evil, a people who judge everything they see, a people without the necessary love to temper such knowledge. We became beings filled with judgment and enmity forever and ever.

The fruit of knowing good from evil is that we really do become like God—and we think we are entitled to judge the world.

Generations later a repentant know-it-all named Paul or Tarsus tried to warn us: “knowledge puff up, but love builds up.” It turns out having a big intellect is no defense against having a small mind, or worse: a heart without the love of God.

The result—the fruit—of knowing good from evil is that we feel empowered and authorized to judge others. And who can withstand our judgment? We are correct! Only later, when the wheat is separated from the tares, do we realize that being right was never the goal. We were called to love. And indeed we have loved: we have loved knowledge, and the feeling of power it brings, more than we have loved God or our neighbors.

And love, as it so often happens, is the issue. Only love can temper knowledge. Only love volunteers to take judgment upon Itself. Only love has the maturity to handle the awful burden of certainty. The Creator wanted first to nurture in us the quality of his character (“God is love”) before allowing us to know good and evil. Only love can hold knowledge. Only love protects us from becoming the very monsters we feel privileged to destroy. The difference between knowledge and love is the difference between inflation and substance, between a hollow core and a hallowed heart.

It turns out God is many things and we can “be like him” in many ways. But the wise and loving Father knew that love is the first and ultimate calling if we desire to be like him. Perhaps grace second, maybe service third, and somewhere way down the line, knowledge.


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Surface the Fear

It sounds so beautiful, so calm, so reassuring: “Perfect love casts out all fear.”

Until we realize that “casting out” is dangerous business. Perfect love casts out fear, but part of that process is surfacing the fear hidden in us. 

When fear finds its way to the surface we find ourselves shouting at Jesus, “We’re perishing! Don’t you care?” Fear urges Jesus, “Don’t stop for that woman, hurry along to my daughter—she’s dying!” Fear doesn’t want talk about lilies of the field or birds of the air—fear wants clothing, food, safety, or better yet cold hard cash. Fear speaks with an urgent voice.

Still other times fear walks a few steps behind, whispering “Why are we going to Jerusalem? We will die.” Fear directs our eyes to the crowds and the soldiers, the wind and the waves, the ledger and the purse, the hospital and the grave. Fear knows the insidious tone of voice; the feel of goose bumps down the arm; the single idea that triggers a thousand racing thoughts; even the smells of deep memories.

Yet even fear itself is afraid of the abyss, and searches for anywhere—anyplace to exist. Fear itself is afraid. It settles for some flesh, any flesh, on which to work its way. There’s nothing special about humanity: swine will do. Just give us something to torment.

But here, exactly here, fear overplays its hand. It is no different than us—it is also afraid. Love flushes the quarry and sends it running zigzag for its own life. Love exposes the lie, brings the light, and vampire-fear dissolves. Love casts out Wormtongue and sends him back to Isengard.

There’s a command. A flurry of events. Suddenly, the world looks different. Fear gives way to peace, followed by impossible joy. It’s a narrow passage. Fear would have us roaming naked among the tombs. Love would have us seated with Jesus, clothed and sane. Fear demands that God himself should ignore the problems of others. Love suggests that nothing is final except itself. Fear cries out in despair. Love leads to faith.

We want the fear to be gone. So does our Master. He takes our hand, turns us toward the torment: “Don’t be afraid, only believe.”

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Character is Plot; Plot is Character

He’s gone from the American landscape now, but Walter White was a study in decline. From his first decision to cook methamphetamine, we watched the main character of Breaking Bad go from bad to worse. We saw in grim detail how a character flaw could destroy a man—and those around him.

In fiction, the saying goes, “plot is character” which means both heroes and villains take actions consistent with their personalities. Villains don’t become good for no reason at all; heroes act in a certain way because that’s who they are. Indeed, many of the best stories present characters with elements of good and bad; their actions reveal the conflicts within. We read novels or watch movies (at least good ones) because people are going through transformation. The true destination is the condition of their heart.

Who know that quality entertainment is really spiritual formation? “Character is plot; plot is character” means our choices flow out of who we are. And it’s not just entertainment—it’s the real-life challenge of Jesus. In the gospels we see Jesus acting in ways consistent with his personality. When he shows mercy to a sinner but condemns a Pharisee, both actions reveal something of his person, his character. In fact, sometimes we can’t quite figure him out because is character is so complex. He’s hard to figure even though we have a deep-down sense that he’s good, always good, always loving, always showing us the Father. The only way Jesus makes sense is if we know him well. Knowing about him isn’t enough; becoming his friend is the only way figure him out.

That’s one reason why, if we view him as an academic subject, Jesus is a study in contradictions. The sad truth is many scholars hardly know the man. Worse still, many of his “followers” hardly know him. Worst of all, his followers have little expectation that it’s possible to be like him. “Being like Jesus” is a noble idea, but hardly anyone carries the hope of a transformation so deep they’d be able to reflect his goodness or glory. And yet, this is the only kind of “knowing” capable of producing transformation. I can tell you where he was born, where he went, or I could tell you all about what he did—but none of that information produces deep change in me.

The popular wristband from years ago turned out to be no help at all: the only way to know What Would Jesus Do is to be the kind of person Jesus is. It turns out the gospel stories are far more challenging than the decline of Walter White. The human road downward is all too predictable; the road to glory comes as we try to become the same kind of person Jesus was (and is).

When a great story has a surprise ending we smile because it finally of makes sense. “Of course,” we say. “How could it have turned out any other way?” The surprise turns out to be the real thing—we just couldn’t see the possibility. We were into the story too deep to see it coming. There’s a surprise ending waiting for followers of Jesus. Our surprise ending is not the tired, worn-out preaching of Heaven’s pearly gates (true as it may be). We are not simply reading his story; it's our story as well. He wants to make us like himself. He offers a transformation truer than the movies, more grand than a great novel. Our surprising, delightful, and eternal ending is the joy of becoming conformed to his image. Will we sit on the couch and watch others, or climb through the screen (or climb into the book) and follow him?


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