Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 01:33PM
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 at 01:15PM
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 at 01:04PM
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.
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Samaritan’s Purse, Compassion International, World Vision, Convoy of Hope
Monday, January 11, 2010 at 10:24AM
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 at 11:05AM
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?