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Entries in discipleship (36)

Monday's Meditation: The Cosmic SitCom

It’s the stuff of sitcoms: the authority figure leaves the scene with one final instruction: “Don’t push that button,” or “Don’t drink the wine.”  Halfway through the comedy, the rule is broken, the cover-up begins, hilarity ensues. It’s inevitable, right?
I suspect many people have the same view of their relationship with the Heavenly Father. From the very beginning, God is the one who is absent, the one who leaves behind some kind of warning: “Don’t eat from the fruit from this one tree,” or, “Don’t engage is this (or that) activity.” We are the screw-ups in a mad-cap cosmic comedy: eating, drinking, messing up and covering up. It’s inevitable, right?
Except we give such a viewpoint more respectable, religious, language. We are simply “miserable sinners,” constantly in need of grace and forgiveness, provided without measure by Jesus Christ. It’s inevitable, right? 
It’s true--his mercy and grace flow unending, constantly meeting our need. Yet many followers of Jesus find themselves trapped in what Dallas Willard calls Miserable Sinner Theology: our destiny is constant failure; his ministry is unending forgiveness. When we limit the work of Jesus to nothing but forgiveness, we lose sight of the possibilities of experiencing a new kind life with him here and now.
This week’s meditation finds it’s source in two passages and two questions:
Passage One: “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30: 11 - 14)
Passage Two: “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.” (Matthew 28: 18-19)
Question One: Is obedience possible?
Question Two: Is Jesus the kind of person who would demand of us something we can never give?

Most Popular Posts vs My Favorites (I Lose)

Apparently, gentle readers, we don’t always see things eye to eye, you and I.  On Monday I listed my twelve favorites posts of 2010. Today, as I list the five most-visited posts, only one of them was among my favorites.

Students of Jesus welcomed readers from 105 countries on all five inhabited continents. Next year I'm hoping the penguins in Antarctica get wi-fi. And Students of Jesus reached all 50 of these United States. I'm particularly grateful to that one guy in Cheyenne for putting Wyoming on the map (I hope he comes back next year as well).
The final week of the year is the traditional time for retrospectives, and I’m nothing if not traditional. So, in the continued spirit of all-about-me narcissism, here are Students of Jesus' most-visited posts of 2010. 
When Famous Christians are Gay When Christian singer Jennifer Knapp came out as a lesbian (with simultaneous interviews in The Advocate and Christianity Today) I ventured away from the center of Students of Jesus and gave my opinions on the church, on sin, and on the abuse of scripture. Not surprisingly, my views satisfied no one--not even myself.  This post generated 25 times the normal traffic to my blog, but it wandered away from the premise of Students of Jesus by commenting on current events and the church at large. I’ve learned that such posts generate a lot of heat and almost no light.
Monday’s Meditation: Sex, Celebrity and Discipleship Just four days later, shocked at the traffic that flooded my little dog and pony show, I tried to get back to the core of my concerns (I'm actually quite proud of this post). I commented on why issues of sex and celebrity draw an audience 25 times larger than the issue of discipleship. Really? Sex and celebrity garners more attention than following Jesus? Who knew? A crazy side effect of this post is that because the title contains the words sex and celebrity it draws traffic every week from search engines around the world. I feel sorry for the people who eagerly click on the link. The average length of a visit to this post? Less than two seconds.
The Great Fall of Wisdom This is the only overlap between my top twelve and the most-visited posts. I suggested that an omniscient God isn’t impressed with how smart we are. I also suspect that the reason it was visited so often is that 22.6% of Reformed-theology seminary students came to laugh at my reasoning (I made that last statistic up, but I stand by it nonetheless). I still like this post, and I would appreciated if all four of my regular readers would email it to Zondervan, Lifeway, and Thomas Nelson.
Monday’s Meditation: Three Important Questions I’m not going to tell you what the three questions are, but believe me, they’re important. This post also generated the most comments of any post all year, but only because I shamelessly ended the article with these pathetic words: I’m begging: tell me what you think.”
Monday’s Meditation: Indigenous Worship (dot com) I thrilled this post was well received because my dearest friends launched a website dedicated to songwriting and creativity in the local church. It’s an awesome site, and you should definitely check it out, but you should always do so by going to Students of Jesus first and then following the link to their site. Then they might buy me lunch.

One glimmer of hope for people who search the InterWeb is that the sixth-place post was actually written in February of 2009. Somehow, among the millions of people using Google-dot-antichrist, several hundred found their way to Students of Jesus by searching “How Can We Humble Ourselves.” That just provides just enough hope for me to keep writing another year.
That’s it, friends. 2010 is in the books, and my prayer for all four of you is that you will experience God’s richest blessings in the year to come. And hey, what would you like to read about in the coming year, I’m begging: tell me what you think!

Discipleship: not a choice, it's the mission

When I told one of my best friends that for my (third) career I wanted to be a writer, he gave me life-changing advice: "Try to imagine talking about your subject every single day for two years. If the idea still thrills you, you've found your topic."
This Christmas will mark two years of writing Students of Jesus, and I can report my passion has grown! Becoming a disciple of Jesus--and making disciples of others--takes me deeper and deeper into life with God. When I encounter familiar old Bible passages on discipleship, they seem constantly-fresh, filled with life: always revealing the new possibilities of following the Lord.
Will you allow me to share a few of these ever-new passages? Here are three foundational passages for anyone who longs for something more than a fire-insurance relationship with Jesus:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • If heaven is the ultimate goal of the gospel, then discipleship is merely an option, like a choice in the cafeteria. But discipleship is not a choice, it's the mission.  There is something lacking in each one of us until we become disciples and until we make disciples of others.
  • Discipleship is open to anyone willing to worship Jesus. Intellectual curiosity is not the ticket in, nor are good works. And here is the really good news: doubt does not disqualify you from worship.
  • At the place of worship we discover that Jesus considers us partners in his mission. He never intended the original twelve disciples to be the only ones: he intended they would reproduce themselves. Amazingly, he intends the same for us as well.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)
  • The good news is better than we think: the Father intends that each of us can become conformed to the image of his son. This is staggering: if we are disciples of Jesus, the Father has set a destination for each of us--Christlikeness!
  • Jesus is unique: the only begotten of the Father. Yet that same Father is determined to have a large family. He sends a spirit of adoption into our hearts. We see him as our true Father and we discover our older brother is none other than the Lord of glory.
  • When we first heard the gospel--presented as Jesus‘ sacrificial death on our behalf--how many of us imagined the Father had a destination in mind better than Heaven itself?
At that time Jesus declared, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)
  • If the destination of Christlikeness seems too far-fetched, Jesus comes to our rescue. He himself offers to be our guide and instruct us in the kind of life that flows from being with our Creator moment-by-moment.
  • We can simultaneously learn from him and find rest in him. For example, anyone who has tried to learn a new language, skill, or life-habit understands the hard work involved. Yet Jesus tells us that when we are hooked-up in right relationship with him we will experience new life and refreshing at the same time. No university in the world can offer that combination.
  • Human models of training and leadership depend on intelligence and worldly wisdom for their effectiveness. In this passage the King himself looks heavenward and gives thanks that the kids at the head of the class have no advantage over the rest of the us. In fact, they are in the dark--God rejoices that human intelligence is inadequate while offering the benefits of relationship to all who will simply come to him. Who wouldn’t take a deal like that?
So in the same year I’ve qualified for the seniors discount at Denny’s I’ve discovered that two years isn’t near enough to explore that possibilities of life with God. I’m delighted you’re along for the ride. In fact, I’d do it whether or not I ever find a publisher. (On the other hand, if there’s a publisher looking for a passionate soul with growing skills, you can reach me at ray.hollenbach@gmail.com)

The Fellowship of Low Expectations

Across the spectrum of Christian worship, our churches are filled with individuals who do not believe Christlikeness is possible.  Individual believers have camped beside the river of God’s grace and drink daily of his forgiveness, unaware that this same grace can can provide spiritual transformation into Christlikeness.  Discipleship, they suppose, is for those few super-saints called into the ministry.
Perhaps even more striking is the number of church leaders who have largely abandoned the task of making disciples.  In the first years of my work as a pastor I attended a weekly breakfast “prayer meeting” of local pastors.  I was looking for practical help in fulfilling my vision of equipping every believer to do the work of the ministry.  Assembled were church leaders from a variety of faith traditions, both liturgical and Evangelical, representing a variety of the American denominational spectrum.  In two years of regular meetings with these shepherds of the flock, the only subject which drew complete agreement was their low opinion of the people they were called to lead.  Each pastor shared story after story of petty arguments and disagreements, all to the same point: the people were impossible to lead!  Clearly, I had fallen in with the wrong crowd.  It will come as no surprise that by the time I celebrated my fifth year in the pastorate, every single pastor who attended the prayer breakfast had moved on to other churches or left the ministry.
Our difficulties embracing discipleship occur not only at the individual level, but also at the level of Christian leadership.  Pastors rarely describe their task in terms of reproducing the character and power of Jesus in the people of their congregations.  Nor do the people of the church expect their pastors to be spiritual mentors.  Sadly, many pastors do not think the image of Christ is reproducible in their charges.  As a result, leadership in Christian churches looks less and less like the Biblical model and more and more like models drawn from the secular world.
Individual Christians struggle in their relationship with Jesus, and his call to become like him. Pastors struggle with the same thing: the idea that Jesus calls each one of us to become like him.  When pastors do not have a realistic expectation that every Christian can live up to the example of Jesus, pastoral ministry becomes about something other than making disciples.  If pastors are not convinced of the Christlike destiny of each person in their charge, the role of Christian leadership drifts away from the Biblical example toward any number of earth-bound substitutes.  These earth-bound substitutes may each be a moral good in their own right, but they will miss the high calling of developing a royal priesthood capable of demonstrating the glory of God to a watching world.
How many pastors carry the vision Peter expressed for the people in his charge?
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (I Peter 2: 9 - 12)
These four verses express high expectations for the assembled people of God.  Consider this partial list drawn exclusively from these four verses:
  • The people are chosen by God to do ministry;
  • God has a regal view of his people;
  • The people are ordained to represent God;
  • The people are the light-bearers for the world;
  • The people have a new identity with one another;
  • The people have a reason to embrace life-change.  

Peter presents a vision that the everyday conduct of “average” Christians will elicit praise for God from those who are not yet believers.
In my personal experience pastors rarely present such a high view of those they are called to shepherd. Many pastors lack the vision of a church filled with mature disciples. Is it any wonder the church at large is powerless? 

The Most Excellent Way

There’s a wedding in town this Saturday, so I have at least a fifty per cent chance of hearing someone read 1 Corinthians 13 out loud. You know the passage, right? “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. . . ”

This week I conducted a Twitter, facebook, WalMart, totally-unscientific survey. I’ve been asking, “Do you think it’s possible to live up to the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13?”

No one has been comfortable with a simple “yes” or “no” but everyone has an opinion: “Oh, that’s the ideal, no one could ever do that . . . Well, the Bible says ‘all things are possible’ so I suppose so . . . On our own strength, absolutely no. With God, absolutely yes.”

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
We want to believe these words. They fill us with hope. They remind us of what is best. They point to a life fulfilled. But we have also seen the worst, experienced the disappointment and felt the pain. Do we dare believe? When the scripture reads like poetry we are tempted to dismiss the revelation. When our life experience contradicts the good news, experience can trump the truth. Is it possible that faith, hope, and love really are the things that remain? If they remain, can we attain them? Receive them? Live them?

When I go to the wedding Saturday I will listen to the beauty of the scripture with a few practical thoughts also in mind. Perhaps they could help you answer my survey question as well:

“I will show you the most excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12: 31) It’s easy to miss this verse because it's at the end of chapter twelve, but Paul wanted us to know from the very start that love is a way. It’s a path. With a guide we can learn the way. If we expect love to magically overtake our hearts and change our lives, we are taking to the whitewater of life--out of control. But if love is truly a way, we can learn from others how to navigate the river of life. Consider the people Paul first wrote--the church in Corinth was a confused mess of relationships and envy, debauchery and religion. Yet Paul said, “I will show you the way. You can learn how to love like this.” If the people of Corinth could learn the ways of God’s love, why can’t I?

Tongues, prophecy and knowledge amount to nothing apart from love. How many of us mistake personal spirituality, anointing or intelligence as the things that remain? No. In order to learn a life of love, we must first recognize what will last and what will not. Ministry is for this present age; love is forever. Ask any pastor, social worker or physician--you can minister to anyone without actually loving them. Yet when ministry is infused with love there is eternal effect. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

Love never fails. These three words reveal the way things really are. “To align yourself with love is to align yourself with God,” songwriter Adam Russell observed, “because God is love.” To align yourself with love is to align yourself with victory, because love never fails. Was the Apostle Paul writing a Hallmark card or trying to explain the reality of God’s Kingdom? Are these words true, or just beautiful sentimentality? Do we sit in the wedding ceremony and hear these words as God’s promise to the bride and groom, or do we quietly think, “they will find out what life is really like soon enough”? Does our failure have the authority to nullify the truth? Here’s a meditation: what if it’s really true that love never fails?

Who can show us the way? Hidden within the crazy letter to the Corinthians is a deep truth of the Kingdom of God: there are some who have broken through the spirit of this age, and they can show us how it’s done. There are some who have learned a new way to live. “Be imitators of me,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “just as I also am of Christ.” We can learn God’s ways--including the way of love. Nor is it merely book learning. God’s wisdom may be found in the scripture, but it blossoms into life when we find mentors in the Kingdom. The Lord never intended us to go it alone: “Here’s the Bible. Good luck.” That just isn’t how he does things. Whatever demands the scripture may place on us are met with possibility there is someone who can help us make things real in everyday life. Ask God to show you the trail guide for your life. It’s called discipleship, and it’s the way of the Kingdom.

Perhaps these ideas are the reasons no one ventured a simple yes or no answer to whether we can attain the love in 1 Corinthians 13. We instinctively know it is true, while we instinctively know we cannot do it alone. We were never meant to: love isn’t meant to alone.

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