Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings



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School of Ministry, Part Two

Jesus summed up the entire curriculum for training his disciples with a simple command, “Come, follow me.”

The Problem:

For many of us “Come follow me” is too simple. Jesus is no longer here, how can we follow? Jesus lived in another place and time, how does his life serve as an example for ours today? Or perhaps the greatest challenge: Jesus is the sinless Son of God, isn’t it impossible to follow him?

Perhaps the very fact that we stumble at the invitation demonstrates why individual Christians (and the church as a whole) have difficulty impacting our society. We are good at study. We are big at planning and organizing. We are very good at structure and control. But we are not very good at following. Those who cannot grasp “Come follow me” underscore the problems we face.

I suspect that we are limited in our effectiveness because we have placed understanding above obedience. We have prized our intellectual capacities above the kind of love that causes us to become imitators of the Beloved. In a natural family children learn first by imitating their parents. Only later do they understand. But in the family of God we are at risk of being the kind of people who James, the brother of Jesus, cautioned: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” His warning reminds us that if we separate actions from what we learned we are setting ourselves up for deception.

“I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Jesus did not say, “I know the answer,” he said “I am the way.” He did not say, “I know the truth,” he said “I am the truth.” And he did not say “I will teach you about the life,” and said, “I am the Life.” Jesus did not come to produce “agree-ers,” he came to produce followers.

Some may object that since Jesus is no longer involved in earthly ministry that the model had to change. But He Himself said, “I only do the things I see the Father doing.” (John 5:19) He demonstrated how to follow an “invisible” God. He showed us how it is done. His actions present a clear pattern for us to follow.

The Beginning of the Solution:

The beginning of the solution is to look for his presence. It is that simple. He has promised it to us. Even as Jesus prepared to return to the Father, he made a startling assertion: “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28: 20)

Through the agency of his Holy Spirit Jesus remains alive and present among us. We must train our faculties to recognize his presence. He did not lie to us; he is here for us today. The first step toward becoming a follower of Jesus is to refuse to settle for anything less than his presence. This is a challenge to a society (the church!) which has prized education over relationship. We have substituted learning about him for being with him.

If this first step sounds too mystical, too subjective, it may underscore the extent of our need. The plain promise of Jesus is that, through the agency of His Spirit, Jesus remains available for us today: to lead, to guide, in short--for us to follow.

There is ample encouragement from believers in other cultures and times that he is available to us today. For example, Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite from the 17th century, lacked the necessary education to become a cleric. Instead he entered a monastery as a servant, working in the kitchen. From this place of humility he discovered the presence of Jesus in that kitchen and wrote letters to his friends, sharing that discovery. These letters and conversations were collected into a simple book, The Practice of the Presence of God. Its central message is that to those who are willing, the very presence of God can be cultivated in our lives. Or in Biblical language, “You will seek me find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13--but also Deut. 4:29; Prov. 8: 17; Matthew 7: 7; and Acts 17:27.) It is the testimony of scripture that God’s presence is available to all who desire it.

The beginning of the solution is to accept the invitation given to us--he is available! We can only follow those we see and hear, and Jesus still speaking, still pointing the way. Our “studies” in his School of Ministry begin with the refusal to accept anything less than his presence.

School of Ministry

Jesus’ message was the good news of the Kingdom, and his Kingdom method included making disciples. Just 15 verses into Mark’s gospel Jesus announces, "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15) And in the next four verses he calls four men to come and follow him.

From the very earliest moments of his ministry Jesus called men to follow him. It was the call of the Kingdom and it was his invitation into his school of ministry.

After Jesus finished his mission, the inspired record of the book of Acts shows nearly every believer “doing” ministry. Even as Acts depicts the rise of leaders within the church, it still reveals everyday believers doing the works of Jesus and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Acts contains stories of men like Stephen, Philip, and Ananias chapter after chapter (Acts 7, 8, & 9). Men who were “ordinary” believers doing Kingdom works. As the church grew there was an indisputable need for leaders, and while there is Biblical warrant for leadership in the house of God, but it appears that the Scripture does not set apart “ministry” as an activity reserved for the few who led. When did ministry become a task exclusive to leaders?

In the centuries which have followed the the book of Acts, the church has endeavored to develop various schools of ministry, schools which qualify who is able to do the work of the ministry. The church has drawn from Greek models of philosophy; from military models to business models, the church has sought to produce leaders fit for serving God. The church has looked to educational models and developed universities and seminaries. But something has been lost--or largely lost--in formal methods to equip people for ministry. In my opinion what has been lost is the Jesus-curriculum for a school of ministry. Rarely has the church imitated the example of Jesus and simply repeated his call, “Come follow me.”

(To be fair, there have been communities throughout the centuries who have not lost the Jesus method: for example the Waldensians of the 12th century or the Moravians of the 18th century. Or the “Back to Jerusalem" movement of Chinese house churches in our day.)

But most especially in our modern era--an age which values accreditation and authorization--the church itself looks skeptically on those who would attempt to “do ministry” apart from specialized training or recognition conferred from others. And not without reason: one doesn’t need to look very far to find people who have been harmed ministry done badly. But somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the wise and simple pattern laid down by the Master: come and follow.

Jesus selected tradesmen and villagers to follow him. And in the act of following they became fit to do his work and to train others to do his work. They learned his ways not through formal education but by being with him and imitating him. When Mark’s gospel presents a list of the disciples it states simply that Jesus chose them “that they might be with him and he might send them out . . .” (Mark 3: 14). The pre-eminent qualification for ministry was that they were with him. Even their detractors observed by their actions that these men “had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

It’s not difficult to imagine. These men traveled with Jesus, camped and ate with Jesus, and shared life with him. If he was invited to a wedding, they went with him. If he taught the masses, they were with him. If he stayed up most of the night healing the sick, they were with him. It was their constant exposure to his presence and activity that became their school of ministry. Jesus did not assign readings or lecture extensively. If they had questions about what he said publicly, they asked him about it privately. And if Jesus had a concern about their behavior he asked them about it (for example, “what were you discussing just now?” Mark 8:17).

It is worth noting that with respect to preparation for ministry, neither Jesus nor any of his original twelve disciples would be considered qualified to teach in a university or seminary today! Our educational biases tilt strongly toward knowing about Jesus or about the scriptures as opposed to knowing him or being with him. Objective knowledge is certainly easier to quantify, but Jesus seemed to care far more about relationship than formal education. Clearly he and his disciples valued the scriptures and all of them demonstrated knowledge of them, but these abilities were secondary to relationship with Jesus.

Here is a challenge to our understanding of Jesus and his value system: after sending 70 of his followers out for their first ministry experience, he rejoiced before the Father with these words: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. “ (Luke 10:21)

What are we to make of this?

How can we Humble Ourselves?

In my earliest years I attended a parochial school. I remember second grade distinctly because the “character theme” one month was humility. At the end of that month, in an assembly before the entire school, I was named the winner of the “Humility Award,” but they took it away from me because I actually accepted the award!
OK, perhaps the story is not true, but it does illustrate the conflicting ideas Christians entertain regarding what it means to be humble. Where do we get our ideas about humility? If God “gives grace to the humble,” how can I eagerly pursue his best for me without falling into mere self-interest?
This blog draws its identity from the words of Jesus in Matthew 11: 25 - 30. These words point to an important revelation: Jesus invites anyone who would follow him to come under his instruction and learn his way of life. Surprisingly, his first reason for calling us to follow him is that he is “gentle and humble in heart.” Even as he offers the benefit of rest, he highlights his own personality--a gentle and humble man. The Teacher does not want to impart merely information, at least not first and foremost. His first lessons are his very own attributes--gentleness and humility. It is a bold offer to follow him, and perhaps the boldest aspect of this offer is the unimaginable possibility that we can learn to become like him.
Jesus uses the image of a yoke. This image was common enough in his day: A yoke is a large collar which places the strength of an ox or horse at the disposal of someone else. We are the ones placing our strength at his disposal. He will not conquer us, we must bow before him as a matter of choice. The path to becoming like Jesus starts with his invitation, “Come to me;” and after he speaks we can choose to accept that invitation by only one method: to humble ourselves.
In fact, on four separate occasions Jesus employs this phrase: “the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” These passages are not simply repetition caused by the gospels re-telling the same story--each passage is unique (Matt. 18:4, Matt. 23:12, Luke 14:11, and Luke 18:14). Four times Jesus lays out the challenge: humble yourself. But how?
If you have time this week, I invite you to read each passage and meditate on each setting. I would like to suggest that each passage teaches us the “how to” of humility:
Matthew 18: 1 - 4. Lay aside dreams of greatness and embrace dreams of dependency. This is the highway of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said that among men there was none greater than John the Baptist, yet the person who was “least” in the Kingdom of Heaven was greater than John. Living in the Kingdom requires God’s intervention every day. We cannot “make the Kingdom happen,” we can only proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is breaking in, and then depend on Him to invade the ordinary with his presence and power.
Matthew 23: 1 - 12. Lay aside the thrill of recognition and find the joy of serving. If we are honest we will recognize ourselves in the people Jesus describes--those who strive for recognition by the way they dress, or where they park, or by the titles they hold. It is thrilling to be noticed, to be selected from among the crowd for recognition. Meanwhile the servants come and go in the midst of all the clamor, quietly attending to the Master’s business. But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reveals that the Father is the one who “sees in secret.”
Luke 14: 7 - 14. Lay aside the thirst for honor from others and seek to honor others instead. In fact Jesus tells us to honor those who cannot repay us. True, there is a time of reckoning and a place to receive repayment, but it is not here and now; it is later. Can we delay gratification or does our thirst drive us to be satisfied now?
Luke 18: 9 - 14. Lay aside self assessment and depend on God’s mercy. Jesus draws a picture of two men at prayer. The first begins with “thanks” but quickly tallies up the score of the game he has been playing. He has been keeping score all along and reminds God that he is the winner. The other man starts with God's mercy instead of self assessment. Score-keeping (and judgment) belong to God. Let’s be careful. If we have a measuring stick, we will eventually be asked to stand next to it!
These four passages are the very words of Jesus. Later his disciples would encourage all followers of Jesus to stand in the grace which comes to us as we choose to humble ourselves. It’s how we take the yoke. It’s how we position ourselves to learn from him.

The Challenge of Grace

It seemed like he would never get off the phone, and I had somewhere to go right now.

We’ve all been in situations like this: late for an appointment, packing up our things while talking on the phone so we can bolt the moment the conversation is over. “When will this guy finish?” I thought. “I should have left five minutes ago . . .” and then it hit me--I was in my office, but I was talking to him on my cell phone. I could have left the office and headed for my appointment while he rambled on!

My real problem was not the long-winded guy on the phone, it was that everything I learned about the telephone came from a time when using the phone meant staying in one place. What a lesson: there are times when we must examine the things we think know, when we must clear the slate and begin again.

In my opinion followers of Jesus must see the grace of God through new eyes.

To those of us who have been in church for some time, grace means that Christians have gotten a great deal. In church circles, grace has variously been defined as “not getting what we deserve,” or “God’s unmerited favor,” or “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” I am coming to see that all of these ideas about grace are true, but only tell half the truth.

The more I read the New Testament, the more challenging grace becomes. Instead of presenting grace as sin-cleansing bargain, the Bible seems to present a grace that comes with some challenges. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to a young pastor:

The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2: 11 – 14 NIV).

What kind of grace is this? If grace means getting off scott-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me a new way to live? Most believers are very comfortable with “the grace that brings salvation,” but why would grace instruct us to “deny ungodliness?” Isn’t that a little judgmental? I thought God loved me just the way I am.

Apparently God’s grace is not finished with us at the moment we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. The grace of God wants to teach us a new way to live. “God loves me just the way I am.” Everyone is comfortable with that statement, but how about this one: “God loves me so much he won’t let me stay just the way I am.” First his grace saves, then it teaches. I think everyone is OK with “being saved,” but perhaps we skip school when it comes time to learn how to deny ungodliness, deny worldly passions, live sensibly and live upright lives.

Richard Foster, a man who has spent his adult life encouraging Christians to grow in the grace of God, points out that the message of grace is the more than the first step, it is necessary for every step. Sadly many Christians have been taught that any effort on their part runs counter to God’s forgiving grace. “Having been saved by grace,” he writes, “these people have been paralyzed by it.”

The Apostle Peter concurs on the subject of God’s grace: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5, NIV). In fact James, the brother of Jesus, says the very same thing (James 4:6). It turns out they were both quoting Proverbs 3:34, those inspired words written nearly a thousand years before the church came into being.

If Peter and James both latched on to this teaching from Proverbs, it must be important. First, it tells us that God gives grace. Fair enough: isn’t that what God is supposed to do? But this verse also tells us that God gives grace to certain kinds of people—humble people. Finally it also tells us that God can withhold grace from another kind of people—the proud. Keep in mind that Peter and James were writing to believers.

So it’s true that God is in the giving business, but apparently there is something we are supposed to do as well. We should be the kind of people who humble ourselves. On the other hand, if we do not humble ourselves, we may just find out that God is opposing us. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not a good thing. Many believers are surprised to learn that there is something we can all do to bring the grace of God into our lives: we can humble ourselves.

Some will object that this sounds a lot like “works.” We can’t work our way into heaven, can we? But Paul’s advice to Titus says that grace does at least two things. It saves and teaches. Perhaps that’s why theologian Dallas Willard says that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but it is opposed to earning. Two pretty different things, aren’t they?

The Bible is full of surprises, and for me some of the biggest surprises come from words and concepts that I think I already know. Grace is about more than knowing, it’s also about being. If God wants to give me the grace to be more like Jesus, and if it takes a little effort on my part, then count me in.

The Impossible Mentor?

I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. Sitting in my office was a young man who had been cheated out of $200 by someone else in the church. Both men attended our church, and one guy really did owe the other $200. But the guilty party wasn’t in the office, the other guy was--and he was full of anger and frustration because of his loss. That’s when I made my hasty suggestion:

“You could forgive him his debt,” I suggested. “Jesus told us to do just that.” Big mistake.

“Well I’m not Jesus!” he nearly shouted back at me. End of discussion, end of ministry time, end of opportunity to take the yoke Jesus offers. It was my mistake. Not for suggesting a perfectly Biblical remedy to his anger and frustration, but for expressing the solution in such a way that he would consider it impossible.

It’s impossible to be like Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus was perfect. He led a sinless life. He was God-come-to-earth and his life sets the bar impossibly high for any of us.

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?

Some passages in the Scripture inspire fill us with confidence. Some light the fires of hope in our hearts. Other passages seem too idealistic, too fantastic to find their way into even our dreams, much less our daily lives: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8: 29) Is this possible? Does God really look at each one of us and see a destiny in which we look like Jesus?

Whatever our theological foundations regarding this passage we should all recognize that it is about God’s intention for each of one us--to become “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” Simply put, God desires to have more children like Jesus. Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, but we become his sons and daughters by adoption. The destiny of those adopted into the family of God is that we, too, should bear the family likeness. That is: we will look just like Jesus.

In a conversation with a dozen young Christians this week, I asked them if they felt it was possible to live a life without sin for even one day. No takers. So I rephrased the question and asked if it is possible to go for an hour without sinning. Only one of them thought it was possible to stay within the will of God for a single hour.

These questions are not academic. They go to the heart of our life “in Christ.” If our intuition tells us that following His example is impossible, for one day or even an hour, how can we have the confidence to pursue his vision for us? The bottom line is that God has a greater vision for what is possible in our lives than we do. Perhaps the reason the Apostle Paul instructs us later in Romans to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is so we can see the possibilities of a life lived in harmony with Jesus. A practical, day-to-day moment-by-moment harmony capable of generating the rest and peace he promises.

Let me encourage you this week to ponder the foundations of your commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. Here are a few suggestions for meditation and prayer:

Is it possible to learn from him?

If Jesus is my mentor, have I committed myself to failure with no possibility of success?

What kind of Master would invite me to be his apprentice if he thought there was no possibility to follow in his footsteps?

The answers spoken from our heart will determine whether discipleship is possible.