Tag Archives: discipleship

Jesus in the Nitty Gritty

dirty handsThis has been a tiring, at times deeply frustrating week of moving, unpacking, cleaning, and adjusting to a whole new home, routine, and neighborhood. If you’ve made a recent move, you know the feeling all too well. I feel like I’ve been treading in a sea of bewilderment and disorientation, moving from pastoring a church to being “church-less” in a new position in which I’m resourcing lots of churches. And of course, switching from one set of comfortable digs to something altogether dissimilar shakes up all those subtle routines and environments I had come to unconsciously rely on.

It almost goes without saying that this has been a test on my walk with Christ and on my closest relationships. (I have to confess: poor Blairlee has at times been the undeserving victim of my tattered patience and sensitivity! Please forgive me, Sweetie…) Far from the mountaintop of mystical bliss with God, I’ve been in the trenches of sweat, boxes, dirt, and discombobulation.

But God is all about timeliness, God’s time, of course, and so– lo and behold!–  I found a daily devotional reading from my hero Brennan Manning, a man who knew all about God in the messiness of life. Here’s what he wrote. Read it carefully:

Am I unjustly criticized, rejected, betrayed by a friend? I can touch the life of Jesus who faced the same things and can will myself to respond as he did. The power of his Spirit passes into my spirit… Christ is formed within me not just in peak moments of transcendental bliss but in the nitty-gritty of daily life. I am confined to bed, sick, nauseous, racked with pain, utterly incapable of prayer. I have only to whisper, “It’s yours, my Friend,” and it is no longer I who lie there, it is Jesus Christ. And so it goes. Jesus slept. I can unite my sleep with his. I’m having a rollicking good time at a Cajun barbecue in New Orleans. I shout with them, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll), and connect with the Jesus who multiplied the wine at Cana to keep the party going.
-Brennan Manning, Reflections for Ragamuffins (HarperSanFransisco: 1998), 166 (bolded italics mine)

I love that. It’s another reminder of the truth that the Word of God (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus will not confine himself to church services within the walls of a beautiful sanctuary. Jesus moves with and pushes beyond my solitary moments of prayer and devotion. Jesus is truly with me and in me throughout the nitty-gritty toils of daily life. That’s a far cry from the way we are prone to compartmentalize faith and religion to one “holy” segment of our lives, relegating God to the diminishing vestiges of piety and religion. (Isn’t it true that we usually only talk to God during the day when we need something we can’t handle on our own? See what I mean??)

Why can’t there be something tremendously holy to the menial things of unpacking boxes, throwing out the trash, the rigors and struggles of family life, the daily grind of work and study, as well as our times of leisure and rest? If Jesus is real and is truly with me, then it follows that I can find him, obey him, and experience his Spirit within my spirit, even in the throws of the most exhausting, frustrating things of dirt, grime, sweat, and tears.

So you can bet that I’ll be pausing to remember and follow Jesus in the moments of nitty-gritty living. I think it’s there that we can truly experience the powerful presence of the Holy. If not there, where else?

3 Comments

Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice

The Ragamuffin Gospel– An Online Journaling Project

Well friends, it’s been far too long since I’ve posted on my blog, but part of that could be explained by the contents of this post. Basically, I’ve allowed layer upon layer of stress, obligation, and conflict to shroud my soul. Of course, that leads to a withered self-esteem and the frightening realization that I find myself distant from God, even though nothing about God’s proximity to me or his love has changed one bit. Keep in mind, I’m not crumbling apart or in the funk of depression; thank God for that, at least.

Much of what I’ve been enduring lately is seasonal in nature, and like all things, it will pass. But, the difference is that I want to come out stronger on the other side of this nasty season. In other words, I don’t want to simply survive this season. I desperately desire to thrive because of it. There’s a world of difference between the two– the numb complacency of mere survival or the joyful triumph of thriving in abundant life. You take your pick!

In times like these, I find myself coming back to the words of a man who has been my soul’s companion during times of darkness. The writings of Brennan Manning have been a blessing to me in every sense of the word. His writing is far more than just comfort or encouragement. (One can always turn to Hallmark or the latest 2-dollar “Words of Daily Encouragement” book for that.) Brennan’s writing launches a radical readjustment of my life back to the unconditional love and grace of God.
I first encountered Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel when a church member, a dear, dear lady who had an uncanny love for God, gave it to me. She said, “You will love this book. It changed my life.” Well, whenever someone hands me a book she claims changed her life, I’m hard pressed not to read it. From the first words of the book’s introduction to the final chapter, I could not put this book down. Never before had I read someone so passionately articulate the love and grace of God for me in such an honest, often gritty, earthy way. I mean, at times, Brennan Manning’s pronouncement of grace got close to scandalous, challenging me to ask, “Does God’s grace really go that far?”

And just as I asked, he would provide a Scripture and a story to answer my question with a resounding YES.

Brennan Manning is an interesting guy. He’s a former Franciscan priest whose work took him all over the world, often to the poorest of places. In the 1970’s he left the priesthood to confront his raging alcoholism. That began a season of writing and teaching which lasts to this day, although he’s slowed down quite a bit in recent years. What most captivates me about Brennan is that he is the botched, highly flawed, at times unlovable ragamuffin he writes about. There’s an honesty and sincerity about his own brokenness that makes his description of God’s grace that much more compelling. In other words, he’s not sharing theory, but reality— both his reality and our reality, if we choose to trust the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

But my story with Brennan Manning didn’t stop there. Several months later in March of 2004 , I went with my church’s youth group to Ocean City, MD for a youth conference. This conference also provides a speaker for adults. It so happened that the adult speaker for that year was none other than Brennan Manning. Talk about perfect timing! His public teaching was just as mesmerizing as his writing. I clung to every word he spoke to us. Clutched in my arm was my copy of Ragamuffin Gospel, and I had hoped meet Brennan to share my appreciation and to have him sign my book.

Chris and Brennan- March 2004

Brennan is a very quiet, humble, non-assuming person when he’s not on stage. I approached him, spoke with him, and he graciously signed my book. He then told me that if I liked Ragamuffin Gospel I ought to also purchase his Abba’s Child, which I did. He signed both of these books to me, and posed with me for a picture.

The night I got home from that youth conference, the storm of my life began. My former wife informed me of her intent to separate. Three days later when I came home from the office for lunch, I discovered that she had left me, taking Grace with her, which began the long, excruciating season of separation and divorce. For anyone who’s ever been through this, you know that the first thing to get flushed down the toilet is your self-esteem. Depression, self-loathing, anger, sorrow, desperation, and fear come right along with it.

To this day, I thank my Lord for the safety net of family and friends he placed around me during those perilous years. And also, right there in those quiet, lonely times were the writings of Brennan Manning, particularly his Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child, both beautiful pieces of writing that poured grace and love into my emaciated soul. Today, I find myself coming back to Brennan when I need a lift. Recently, it began when Blairlee bought me a copy of Brennan’s latest book Patched Together: A Story of My Story.

If you’re looking for tightly constructed, even-keeled writing, you won’t find any of that in Brennan’s work. Reading Brennan Manning is like walking along a thick garden path that takes you into unexpected landscapes of wild colors and contours. You have no idea what to anticipate next, some of the sights more beautiful and desirable than others, but nonetheless a sincere work of art. Brennan weaves his own reflections, stories, and Scripture together to immerse the reader into a world of God’s grace. Sometimes he whispers followed by a shout. At times I find myself laughing, crying, cringing, and soothed. It’s funny… All this describes the nature of a life in Christ, doesn’t it?

So, every few days, I’ll journal on a portion of each chapter from Ragamuffin Gospel, finding something that speaks to me while briefly reflecting on it. I’m doing this for my own sake, but I also truly hope that it would be a blessing to you, too, especially since you’re kind enough to read these ramblings of mine! I look forward to some conversation together.

These posts may not be as earth-shattering as others I’ve done, but I think they may prove to be some of the most important ones I write, at least for the time being. If for nothing else, we’ll learn more about each other and how we each experience the love and grace of God.

11 Comments

Filed under Spiritual Growth and Practice

Working through Anger

anger-management-posterI’ve been contemplating a series of Sunday messages that talk about anger issues. How do we follow the Holy Spirit’s direction in identifying anger, processing it, and using it constructively to bring about positive change?

When I observe other people, circumstances, and even myself, I see too much unchecked, unacknowledged anger, and that’s not only unhealthy, but dangerous. I’m convinced that much of the “acting out” we hear about in news stories and the destructive life decisions people make have their roots in anger and resentment.

Living in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, I live in a high-stress area, and so I see visible signs of anger mismanagement on a daily basis. It’s a growing, congested, fast-paced, politically and economically powerful, expensive, transient area where many people work in high-stress professional jobs they attempt to balance with family and personal life.

Many of us live in constant tension. In a post-9/11 world filled much political and economic turbulence, all these factors only seem to intensify. I’ve often said that it’s no wonder we have two world-class cardiac hospitals and the best cancer treatment facilities money can buy. It’s a taxing area to live, work, and play.

So, put all of that together, and we’ve got the perfect fiery cauldron for anger leading to often severe mental and physical health issues. No matter our economic class or race, I see many of the same health issues: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, domestic violence, addiction, insomnia, sexual issues, hypertension, heart issues, obesity, cancer, and so much more. So much of this, I believe, finds its roots in thorny depths of unchecked, unresolved stress-induced resentment and anger.

Of course, people bring what they’re feeling and experiencing into the Church. Therefore, a much-needed aspect of our discipleship must include learning how Jesus navigates us through the stormy waters of high-stress induced anger, not just for our sakes, but to be a light to the world around us, modeling peace and wholeness through the indwelling love and peace of Jesus Christ within us.

To engage my congregation in anger issues, I’m piecing together a 4-part sermon series. Here’s a rough outline:
1) Part 1: Working through Anger with Ourselves
2) Part 2: Working through Anger with Others
3) Part 3: Working through Anger with God
4) Part 4: Working through Anger with Uncontrollable Circumstances

Right now, I’m researching possible Scriptures to guide the conversation each week. I’m also looking for resources and perspectives. I’d truly appreciate any thoughts and feedback from any of you as well as your prayers. I’m not naive enough to think that I’ll solve all the world’s anger problems with a sermon series, but perhaps addressing these issues head-on will serve as a catalyst to acknowledge our anger and discover a path to healing.

6 Comments

Filed under Mental Health, Spiritual Growth and Practice

The Cycle of Death and Resurrection in the Church

We disciples of Jesus Christ hinge the epicenter of our lives on Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s more than just a doctrine to be preached (what we call kerygma) or something for individuals to believe and trust for their salvation. The more I live as a disciple and serve as a shepherd of Christ’s Church, the more I see that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a massive force that shapes the movement of all things. In the turn of the seasons or in the life cycle of butterflies and flowers, we see universal images of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, all of creation sings in celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So how might it change the way we understand Church if we look at its life through the lens of Christ’s resurrection? To get to the point, might the decline of most mainline Protestant churches be a sign of death with a doorway into resurrection? Instead of consternating over the state of things, can we re-imagine the church we’ve inherited by allowing things to die in order to release new, unfettered life?jr_sunrise
To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at Jesus’ own life and ministry. Born in a manger stall, his life began in small, lowly, lonely circumstances. By the height of his public ministry, Jesus was surrounded by thousands of people. Then from there, the crowds got smaller and his miracles became fewer and fewer. On the last night of his life, Jesus went from twelve companions, to eleven, to three, and then to no one as he was arrested and taken away to be judged by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Jesus, the one who captivated throngs of people, died an embarrasingly ugly death on a cross, scorned and rejected by the whole world. The Son of God, Son of David, the one whom people called Lord and Messiah, died.

But before Jesus died, he said a few things about the nature of his death. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it does, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).  Later in John, Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of his imminent death. In one instance he said, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, TNIV). How is that possible? God would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus then said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17a).

Right after the close of John, we read in the book of Acts that after the resurrected Jesus ascended, the disciples were filled by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From there, the mission and work of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout the entire known world. Just as Jesus had promised, the disciples, living and working in his resurrection power of God’s Holy Spirit, accomplished far more than Jesus ever did in his earthly ministry. His death opened the way to his resurrection, which in turn infused his ever-present life into the lives of his followers. One single seed died and erupted into bountiful fruit.

Could it be that the current mainline church finds itself in the waning hours of its life, much like Jesus’ last week? If we choose to see our decline that way, it would free us to imagine what resurrection might look like. We could allow the seeds of our tradition to bloom into new, unimaginably powerful life.

But instead, the mainline church has been looking for resuscitation.  We’ve been looking to pump new life into a dying body. Or as Jesus put it, we’ve been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. The old wineskins are bursting and the new wine gets wasted. This simply doesn’t work.
John Wesley learned this lesson. The 18th Century Anglican church was a dead, corrputed shell of an institution. Instead of trying to challenge and change the internal structures of the church– for which he often got the boot!– he preached outdoors to masses of people, created small-groups of believers which he called classes, arranged them into regionally based societies, and called and equipped preachers and leaders. By doing all of this, Wesley ushered in sweeping revival, not only to the Anglican Church, but also in England the American colonies through this movement better known as Methodism.

I’m an inheritor of Methodism. But I’m seeing that the formalized version of Methodism which began in 1784 has run its course in America and is quickly heading to its death. Other forms of mainline church could share that assessment. Does that mean Methodism has failed? Not at all, no more than we could assert that Jesus failed when he died! But we must stop our attempts at resuscitation and instead make way for resurrection.

Resurrected church in America will in many ways resemble the pre-resurrection mainline church, but much like the resurrected Jesus, it will look, feel, and act very, very differently. Let me imagine what this might look like in decades ahead. As Sophia from the Golden Girls says, “Picture this…” In the resurrected church, disciples of Jesus will gather for worship, learn and study together, and engage in the missional work of serving and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But long gone will be the old systems of mainline church structures and traditionalism. Congregational styles of church life may cease to exist or be radically reshaped into networks of disciples worshipping, learning, and ministering in small groups.

Denominational structures will become less centralized to be simultaneously globalized and localized to support these networks of disciples. Pastors like myself may have to radically alter the way we live, work and support so that we’re acting more like apostles, building, equipping and shaping these small group networks.

Those are just a few ideas, but in each congregation, including my own, we’ve got to get on with readying our churches for a season of resurrection. We must allow failing, ineffective means, methods, and priorities to die.

Then, we must allow the best remnants to grow up into a newly resurrected church.

I’d love to read your ideas and insights about resurrection, too. Let’s get the conversation going!!

5 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

Being Led to Stir up the Pot

Maybe it’s the summertime lull, which always proves to be a difficult time for churches and church leaders, but I’ve been feeling led to shake things up, stir the pot, wake the angry bull, or whatever other cliche you’d prefer to insert. Maybe it’s the strains and pressures of being a pastor, but I tend to shake off the malaise by shaking up my environment. Out of the remnants of what’s left are always the seeds of new life.

stirring the potI’m also entering my third year of ministry here at First UMC. Third year is notoriously tough. Pastors spend the first two years getting to know their new congregation and community. It’s a time for honoring, educating, and building trust, so they are criticially important years. But usually by now, it’s time to step up, stir the pot, and set a direction that will take a congregation into its next chapter. Of course, anytime a leader dares to mess around with the good ol’ status quo, things get rough very quickly. I’m already absorbing hits from deviating off the norm.

Fueling my conviction to stir up the pot are some books that God has literally dumped into my lap in the last three days, one from my wife and several others from a church friend who happened to be cleaning out his library. Here are some of the titles:

Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009)

Brian Sanders, Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007)

Julia Duin, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008)

Vince Antonucci, I Became a Christian and All I Got Was this Lousy T-shirt: Replacing Souvenir Religion with Authentic Spiritual Passion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008)

and possibly,

Kenneth C. Haugk, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988)

From the titles, maybe you can piece together what theme I’m centering on. In stirring the pot, I’m challenging current assumptions about church, unnailing them, and throwing them out in order to build a more authentic, Christ-centered, missional Body of Christ. That will undoubtedly be unsettling for some, but by keeping the conversations going between God, these books, my blogging community, and my church family, I’m convinced we’ll discern God’s will together.

As I read, I’ll post some new ideas and invite your reflection, too. I really look forward to that! So, fellow pot-stirrers, let the fun begin!!

1 Comment

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

More Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers: The Dying Prayer of Polycarp

PolycarpI’m still reading through some of the writings from our early Church Fathers, the ones known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who wrote before the Nicene Council of 324 AD.) To make a long story short, these writers were among the second generation of the Church, mentored by Apostles like Paul, Peter, and John. They provide a rare glimpse of what church life was like in the years immediately after the biblical records. They also show the tremendous perils the early Church faced, everything from dangerously divisive heresies to life-threatening persecution.

Polycarp, mentored by the Apostle John, was the leader of the church in Smyrna, a town located in modern day Turkey. He was eighty-six years old when he was captured, arrested, and publicly executed by the Roman authorities, and after his death, Polycarp became a widely celebrated hero of the Church throughout the Roman Empire. We still have some of his writings and the detailed description of his arrest and death called “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”

Persecution and execution of Christians during this period of time was no rarity. The Roman Empire regarded Christians as “atheists” and “heretics”, atheists because they did not worship Roman idols and heretics for not acknowledging Caesar as a god. Christians were rounded up, coerced, tortured, and threatened with death to offer incense to idols and to say, “Caesar is Lord.” In response, most of these Christians refused and replied, “Christ is Lord.”

In the famous “Martyrdom of Polycarp” we have a story told by eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Polycarp’s arrest, trial, and death. There are a lot of obvious allusions to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death, specifically Polycarp riding into Smyrna on a donkey, his silence before the questions and accusations hurled against him by the governor of the city, and the roar of the crowd demanding his death. One memorable scene occurs in Chapter 9 when the Governor of Smyrna demanded Polycarp to denounce his faith:

The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. “Take the oath, and I will let you go,” he told him. “Revile your Christ.” Polycarp’s reply was, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

But my favorite, most moving scene from the entire account is Polycarp’s final prayer before the Roman authorities attempted to burn him alive. (I say “attempted” for a reason. You’ll have to read the account for yourself to find out what happened!) Here is what he prayed, rendered into current English:

O Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have been given knowledge of yourself; you are the God of angels and powers, of the whole creation, and of all generations of the righteous who live in your sight. I bless you for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered among the martyrs, to share in the cup of your Anointed and to rise again to everlasting life, both in body and in soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them this day in your presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, even as you appoint and foreshadow, and now bring to pass, for you are the God of truth in whom there is no falsehood. For this, and for all else, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you; through our eternal High Priest in heaven, your beloved Son Jesus Christ, by whom and through whom be glory to you and the Holy Spirit, now and for all ages to come. Amen.

If only you and I could faithfully pray with such passion and love! So often, though, our comfortable existence reduces our prayers to formalities and formulas. Maybe if were more like Polycarp and stood a little taller and bolder for Christ, we might be forced into learning how to pray something like this. And then we’d rediscover just how much God honors the prayers of the saints to reveal the fullness of God’s glory and power.

3 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Spiritual Growth and Practice

Everyday Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers

IgnatiusHave you ever noticed that in the large, lucrative frenzy of Christian media, we rarely if ever hear from ancient Christian voices? Yes, we read biblical texts from the Apostle Paul, John, Peter, James, and the gospel writers. But what about the writings of those whom they mentored– the writings of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th Century Christians? For the most part, they’ve been lost into obscurity, tucked away on the bookshelves of seminaries and church history professors.

Meanwhile, everyday Christians never get to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration that comes from the writings of our ancient Church Fathers. Foundational Church leaders like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Augustine, and many others have such wisdom and inspiration to share with us 21st Century disciples of Jesus, but so few of us ever get to hear from them.

So what awakened me to give them a second read?

I recently alluded to them in a sermon illustration by saying that we Christians often look to the saints of the past for direction and encouragement in the present. I then rattled off names of several prominent Christian saints, realizing right then that most of my congregation may never have heard a word from any of them or have easy access to their writings. To them, people like Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Francis of Assisi are just names and faces. What’s to learn from that?

Sensing a desire for their wisdom and inspiration, I felt drawn to hear from these saints again. Ministry can get downright draining and frustrating. Ancient brothers like Clement or Ignatius just might have something to say to me in my day to day struggles. I had studied a sampling of their writings while taking seminary church history courses, but since then, I haven’t  read those books again to read them just for myself, for my own benefit.
So today I dug up one of my seminary books: the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings. Not too long ago I finished reading Clement of Rome’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Clement was the presiding elder (traditionally “bishop”) of the church in Rome, writing out of concern for the divisions and factions he had heard about in the Corinthian church.

Apparently, some folks were trying to uproot and replace the leadership of their church. Clement wrote his letter to encourage humility, repentance, love, cooperation, and a respect for the authority which Paul himself probably appointed. His writings were laced with Old Testament scripture and allusions to numerous New Testament scriptures. Clement even referenced Paul’s first letter to them, what we now call First Corinthians, which had already become a widely circulated letter among the early church. (I thought that was way cool!) All in all, Clement was passionate, unquestionably thorough, sometimes less than perfect, but authentically sincere in encouraging this sister church of his to seek out Christ’s healing and reconciliation.

Here’s a sample from Clement’s letter:

If there is true Christian love in a man, let him carry out the precepts of Christ. Who can describe the constraining power of a love for God? It’s majesty and its beauty who can adequately express? No tongue can tell the heights to which love can uplift us. Love binds us fast to God. Love casts a veil over sins innumerable. There are no limits to love’s endurance, no ends to its patience. Love is without servility, as it is without arrogance. Love knows of no divisions, promotes no discord; all the works of love are done in perfect fellowship. It was in love that all God’s chosen saints were made perfect; for without love nothing is pleasing to Him. It was in love that the Lord drew us to Himself; because of the love He bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave blood for us– His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives. (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapter 49)

Did you hear echoes from 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter”? That was intentional on Clement’s part. He pulled his Corinthian listeners back to those all-too-familiar words of Paul in order to address their present crisis.

There’s also an allusion to 1 Peter 4:8.

Clement’s entire letter reads like this. It was really a joy to wipe the dust off this book and give it a fresh read. I can’t wait to dig into the letters of Ignatious and Polycarp, too!

One more thought: as I was reading, I kept thinking how fantastic it would be for an influential Christian publisher like Zondervan, Tyndale, or Thomas Nelson to re-translate and publish these ancient Christian writings into a book for contemporary Christians. It might create a new surge of interest in the early Church Fathers who would provide far more biblically based wisdom and inspiration than much of the popular tripe that passes for Christian teaching these days. Otherwise, these ancient writers will only stay buried on academic bookshelves while we miss the priceless treasure they offer us.

8 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Spiritual Growth and Practice

The Power and Passion of Simplicity

The more complex and scatterbrained our world gets, the more frequently I hear people voicing the need for simplicity. Simple offers a solace that resonates throughout the most iconic symbols of our day. For example, Macintosh found new life as a formidable challenge to the once-thought impervious Microsoft by offering a whole line of “simple” computers and MP3 players like the one button iPOD. The haircuts and fashions of our decade are more plain and simple (as opposed to the flashy, poofy styles of the 80’s.) Wal-Mart, capitalizing on our American love for bargains, has dominated the retail world with a rebirth of the general store, their simple one-stop shop appeal and their “Save money. Live better.” slogan. Even in a surging health craze, McDonalds thrives by their simple value meals and $1 menu. (By the way, each of these three companies has done more than survive in the current recession!)

simplicity + focused excellence = a new birth of passion and power

I’ve been reminded of this principle twice now in the last two weeks.
This past Christmas, my in-laws gave me a little known instrument called the Xaphoon. (My spell-checker doesn’t even like this word.) At first glance, the Xaphoon rarely makes a strong first impression. It’s a simple one-piece bamboo stick with burned in finger holes. But the difference lies in the mouthpiece. It is meticulously carved and sanded to hold a tenor sax reed and ligature. And the combination of that tenor sax reed with the warm resonance of bamboo offers an instrument with a complete 2-octave chromatic range capable of jazz, middle-eastern, Celtic, Gospel, or any other style of music one can imagine. The Xaphoon’s lilty, esoteric tone sounds oddly similar to a clarinet, soprano sax, or even an alto sax, depending on how it’s played.

The simplicity and soul-grabbing sway of this little instrument has created an indelible mark on me as a musician. How can this unpretentious instrument wield such an enormous diversity of musical voicing? The answer lies in two places: its careful craftsmanship and the humble demands it makes upon its player to focus upon drawing out its most expressive potential.

Then this morning, I heard U2‘s new song “Magnificent.” I was drawn into it almost right away and began to wonder, “How and why does this song live up to its title??”

On a surface appraisal, “Magnificent” is four or five chords continuously repeated with a handful of phrases for lyrics. But as always Bono‘s words are carefully chosen, balanced, and deeply personal thoughts that resonate universal themes of love, worship, relationships, healing, and life. Musically, The Edge accomplishes his usual masterful blends of stirring guitar arpeggios and tastefully layered keyboards. When Adam Clayon and Larry Mullen add their reliably standard drive of bass and rhythm, the total result is that unmistakable, virtually unchanged U2 sound that fills stadiums with fans no matter where they go.

How has U2 pulled off their enormous popularity and riveting sound for well over two decades? The answer, much like the story of the Xaphoon, is in combining painstaking excellence, sincerity, and authenticity into an uncomplicated form. This unleashes an unlimited freedom of expression, passion, and power. If there was ever any hope of Rock n’ Roll changing and uniting the world, U2 would be the only act to ever accomplish it.

simplicity + focused excellence = a continual surge of passion and power

As for me, I’m looking to redefine my life, ministry, and church with this same principle. You and I make life and faith far more complex and busy-bodied than it has to be. It’s simple to understand. When we take the energy and opportunity God has given us and disperse it among lots of things, the result is a lot of things done cheaply. But when we channel that same wellspring of energy and passion into no more than a few things with lots of excellence, the world benefits from an undeniably divine power and passion.

Take another look at Jesus- a poor, Jewish rabbi from Palestine. How did his short span of life on our planet forever alter the shape and direction of humankind? It’s simple. He surrendered himself to do one thing only:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself: he can do only what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19

In other words, he gave his all to mirror God the Father, and so though Jesus, God poured out the totality of his love, power, and authority. From himself, Jesus gave away this same kind of obedience to his disciples, who in turn have discipled others.

simple obedience + focused excellence = the outpouring of God through one human being creating a global movement

So, I only have one hope for each of us: that we will not allow our compulsion to be overly complex and multi-tasked get in the way of God unleashing his full potential through each of us. A divided world dying from its own separation from the purity of God’s love depends on it!

5 Comments

Filed under Cultural Quakes, Music, Spiritual Growth and Practice

The Unbridled Power of the Word

Hebrew BibleAs a pastor, I spend a lot of time each week studying the Scriptures for for the teaching and preaching I do. But I’m also a consummate student of the Bible. If somebody dropped a large wad of cash in my lap and I had my choice of PhD programs, I wouldn’t hesitate to pursue biblical studies. I love the discipline of studying the ancient languages that formed Bible’s original texts, while learning the historical, political, religious, and cultural backgrounds that shaped their composition. Drawing on all these skills along with my undergraduate background of literary analysis, it’s a thrill to unpack and explain the Bible’s meaning and its timely intersection with everyday life in the here and now.

However, there’s an inherent danger in my work. Dr. Craig Hill, my New Testament and Greek professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, pointed it out. He warned us that even in all our attempts to critique and examine the Bible, as Christians we must allow the Bible’s rightful place to examine and critique us. I understand his warning  to mean that we must develop a “second naivete” towards the Bible, free from critical and analytical thinking, that allows the Word of God to speak for itself, forming us into the image of Jesus.

This happened to me on Saturday as I was putting the finishing touches on Sunday’s message. As usual, I formed my sermon around a few passages of Scripture. In this case, one of them happened to be Ephesians 3:14-21, which reads:

…I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (NIV)

If you’ve ever read through the book of Ephesians, then you know how magnificently it reads. The author, in his attempt to describe the heavenly reality he sees, spills out his words to overflowing in long, breathtaking, ornate phrases. For him, our experience of Jesus Christ is so astounding that the words can’t flow fast enough from his mind to the page. From beginning to end, the whole book of Ephesians reads this way.

Now, I’ve just given you my brief analytical synopsis of the book of Ephesians’ style and tone. I was prepared to share something like this on Sunday morning. Yet as I was reading the above passage one more time in preparation, suddenly those thundering words showed themselves for what they really are: the unbridled, eternal, earth-shaking Word of God. No longer would this passage sit passively to be analyzed, parsed, and explained. The Word burst the bonds of my feeble thinking to resonate with a tremendous, holy power. I began to see a truth, which if heard and believed, could completely revolutionize my life and the life of my congregation.

I saw a Word which spoke of being strengthened by the Holy Spirit’s power. Then I remembered this same power raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:18-20). And not only is the power of the Holy Spirit in us, but the risen Christ dwells in us as well. This power gives us the strength to comprehend the vast, multidimensional, infinite love of God. God’s love is greater than any human knowledge to be had. I could Google anything I wanted for an eternity and come to know all things, but God’s love would far surpass any of it. Knowing this love fills us with everything that is of God. Wow! Did you hear that? The God who formed the universe fills us completely as we grasp the powerful presence of his love. This same love can accomplish anything beyond the outer limits of our wildest imaginations… Everything of this great love and power culminates in the glorification of God, for all time and in all people.

Whew… When I let go and allow myself to be raptured into the sweep of this Word, life is no longer the same. And what’s amazing still: this is just one small passage of Scripture. Could you fathom what would happen to us if we stopped to listen long enough to the rest of the Bible, to every word of it?

We would be unrecognizable!

Oh Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Humble us to the unbridled power of your Word that would blow through us, crush us, form us, and set us ablaze with your Holy Spirit. Make it so in my own life, God. Please do it… Amen.

7 Comments

Filed under Bible

Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1

Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?

What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.

So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.

Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?

There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy.  But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.

The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?

Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.

Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.

Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.

To be continued…

11 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, The United Methodist Church