Friday, April 18, 2014

Going All In

An odd thing about Jesus is that, every time he seems to be faced with temptation to give up on the Father’s plan that has him dying for the world’s sins, Jesus then overcomes the temptation with extra resolve. We’ve seen this throughout Lent. Right at the beginning of his ministry, he goes into the wilderness for the sole purpose of subjecting himself to temptation by no less than Satan himself. He comes out toughened and confirmed and ready for work. 

Later, when Jesus begins to share with his disciples that he is going to have to die, Peter tempts Jesus by telling him that this isn’t the Father’s will. This really gets to Jesus, and Jesus responds by rebuking Peter (and Satan, who seems to be behind it all). Then, for good measure, Jesus says, “In fact, not only do I have to die, but anyone who wants to walk with me has to take up their cross and get in line!” Resolve! 

Where will this resolve take Jesus...and us? Read the rest at

Thursday, April 3, 2014

...Having Made Disciples

Dorothy Parker articulated the sentiment of many writers when she said, “I hate writing; I love having written.” This is probably the case for practitioners of many disciplines, loving the end result if not so much the process. The problem, however, is when that perspective keeps us from ever really beginning. This, tragically, is the case for far too many. They live with the idea of having done something, but never gain enough self-discipline, know-how, creativity, or whatever, to ever get to the finished product and, thus, fuel the next.

I think this is the case for many church leaders and Christians when it comes to making other disciples. They love the idea of Jesus’ Great Commission (Mt. 28:16-20), but lack the discipline, know-how, creativity, or whatever, to actually engage in intentional disciple-making. It’s a cliché to point to consumerism as the culprit, but it seems there is something of a consumerist current underlying this lack of perpetuating disciple-makers.

Consuming Discipleship

Most folks who are really hungry to learn about life as a disciple just move from study to study, program to program, even mission project to mission project—all good things—without ever getting to the “go and do likewise” phase. (By which I mean go and gather a new group of people and lead them in study and mission, but also in starting their own group, etc., etc.)

One typically unspoken aspect of this consumerism is the leaders’ desire always to have these hungry people under their leadership. If we teach them to leave our teaching and to go and lead others, will we ever get another good group of eager students or team members? We want our “favorites” there for our next study or project. Who wouldn’t!

But the other, more obvious, side is that we just leave out the instruction and facilitation for the next, crucial step—gathering and leading a new team, for the sake of releasing most of them eventually to gather and lead and release, etc.  We go from Point A (get disciples together) to Point B (teach/lead them) and then back to Point A, almost always with the same group. We never get to Point C (teach them to teach and lead) and Point D (release them to their own Point A and facilitate as needed).

Two things seem especially needful here: 1) Cultivate a culture, not just of discipleship, but of disciple-making. It could also be stated that we just need a more accurate definition of discipleship that includes perpetuation. And, 2) Instruction for Points C and D. This order is likely reversed, so that as disciples go through studies and projects and also instruction for gathering and leading others, as well as the blessing and support of their leadership, then the culture (#1) gets created.

In the end, whether someone actually likes the process of making another disciple, or they just like the end result (though there never really is an end) of having made another disciple-making disciple, they never have to settle for merely liking the idea of making disciples. Their life, their church, and their little corner of the world begins to become a library, with one living book after another that they are helping to write.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spirits In the Material World?

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience. 

This oft-misused and misunderstood quote from Catholic mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man is, I believe, a perfect example of a mistake we Christians, and spiritual seekers of most stripes, make in our quest for transcendence. It certainly isn't wrong (a truth we cling to as we watch our bodies waste away), but it is misappropriated.

Sting did something similar with The Police’s “Spirits In the Material World”:

Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it’s something we can’t buy
There must be another way.
We are spirits in the material world…

An escapist mentality (which, again, is not necessarily that of Teilhard…or maybe even Sting) is especially prevalent during Lent. We think we’re entering into a period of fasting and austerity for the sake of transcending the flesh. We believe that if we can subdue our bodies, then maybe we can start living as those “spiritual beings having a human experience,” those “spirits in the material world.”

Living from this place, things of the flesh will no longer have any appeal for us. We will no longer feel anger or lust or envy or pride…and we may even lose a few pounds because we don’t even want those greasy cheeseburgers anymore. We will be the masters of our domain!

But while there are glimmers of truth and value in all of this—spiritual beings, subduing the flesh, overcoming sin, etc.—the end result of this line of thinking is almost always perceived failure and frustration. The grace of Good Friday—what Christ did for us on the cross—means next to nothing. And Easter’s resurrection means even less because: 1) we drag it into our agenda of overcoming the flesh by reducing Easter to merely some sort of proof of an afterlife; and 2) we “failed” Lent anyway, so what’s the use! Here we remain, fleshly sinners waiting till next Lent to become “spirits in the material world.”

So where are we getting off track?

For one thing, it’s important to differentiate between sin and temptation. Sin is the possible fruit of temptation, but it need not be realized fruit that buds and is born. Whether it becomes sin or not, temptation is there regardless. Temptation can also give birth to holiness, opening us to more of the life of God in us (there’s some of the true “spiritual beings” stuff). Despite our discomfort with the idea of Jesus actually being tempted with the same vile things that tempt us, it is the truth of the Incarnation. But it's vital to understand that temptation is not sin. So we needn't waste our time thinking temptation is the enemy.

But, to borrow from Sting, “there must be another way.”

The truth is that we never really escape the flesh (until we go to be with the Lord, awaiting a newly-quickened flesh in resurrection; so, again, we never really escape the flesh). Hopes of never again being mindful of pain, lust, hunger, anger, etc., are largely futile. These are parts of our own incarnation, just as they were part of Jesus’ incarnation. And the temptation to indulge or satisfy the dictates of the flesh in ungodly and sinful ways is part of our experience, just as it was part of Jesus’ experience.

St. Paul wrote that, despite his pleas, he was never physically delivered from his “thorn in the flesh” but that, instead, God used it as an opportunity to direct him to God’s power working in his life (2 Cor. 12:9). God’s instruction is that his strength/power is made perfect in the midst of our weakness—or, in a sense, through our weakness. “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me… For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Is he saying that he indulges his weakness so he can experience Christ’s power? Certainly not! But he is saying that he has left behind notions of fasting his way out of the body and, instead, uses his own incarnated temptations as opportunities to indulge Christ’s power…in his flesh. (“The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” – Gal. 2:20).

So, contrary to popular belief, our perfection does not entail some deliverance from the flesh, its dictates, and temptations. We never gain power enough or discipline enough to become some purely spiritual beings, oblivious to the flesh…nor are we meant to. God forbid! It is God’s power that perfects us by giving us another way of being incarnated.

The dead Christ on the cross kills the power of sin in our lives. And the risen Christ outside the tomb—still incarnated, mind you!—heralds and holds our new life in him. God’s grace is the sufficient deliverance for our flesh, empowering us to resist temptation and forgiving us when we don’t. Visions of rapture direct our souls heavenward while the pain of thorns brings us crashing into our incarnate lives. In the midst of both, God’s grace and power lead us deeper into his kingdom, coming from heaven yet fully, bodily alive in us...“in the material world.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Church's Glorious Goal

Imagine football with no end-zones. Imagine baseball with no home-plate. Imagine basketball with no goals or golf with no holes. You’re left with people just moving around, individually or in groups, passing or hitting or dribbling a ball with no aim or purpose. They might have some fun. They might even put on a good enough show to draw a crowd. But what they don’t have is a clearly-defined goal. And, as a result, the fun and the show and the crowd become the goal.

Such absurd scenes painfully resemble the life of many churches. We move around, individually or in groups, carrying one program or another up and down the field, without any real idea of our God-given goal. Tragically, in this void, we have turned to putting on a show and drawing a crowd as our purpose. It’s easy just to blame the egos and worldliness of leaders and the consumerism of parishioners. And I believe these have much to do with it.

But I also think a major reason for the church’s aimless wandering is a lack of pastoral theology and ecclesiology. We don’t really get what pastors and churches are supposed to be about. What is this Body of which nothing less than the Son of God is the Head? The answers are astounding and daunting and the quest is mysterious and difficult, so much so that we shrink and turn away. Instead, for a couple of generations we have turned to the business and entertainment worlds to try to find some answers. Bad idea. Utterly irrelevant, actually. I propose we set out on that daunting quest again, that we begin seeking God more earnestly regarding our purpose. What does God say is our end-zone, our home-plate, our goal?

Living the Hidden Life
“Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up” (Heb. 8:1-2).

As the earthly tabernacle was thought of as a model of the cosmos, with the Holy Place modeling heaven, Jesus has now ascended to the true Holy Place, occupying the true temple and not an inferior earthly copy. He is in the place of power and authority…now.

Indeed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…,” immersing those disciples in the reality of the Triune God, teaching them to obey all that Jesus has commanded—to be fully-devoted apprentices learning the way of the always-present Master (Mt. 28:18-20). It truly makes the mind boggle, but, "At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ's body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence" (Eph. 1:20-23, MSG). Now we're getting somewhere!

For it is not Christ alone who dwells in the Holy Place but, “Since, then, y’all have been raised with Christ, set your hearts [wills] on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For y’all died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).

Our lives are also in that inner sanctuary--hidden with Christ in God--yet we live here and now. We aren’t phantoms or figments. We live real, corporeal lives. But we live them from the place of Christ’s authority, from the place of sacrifice and worship, from the Trinity’s reality…bringing all of that to bear not only on our lives, but on the church; and not only on the church, but in the larger world. This is the kingdom of heaven coming to earth.

But it starts in my heart and mind being set in that Holy Place—not day-dreaming about some other place, but actually setting the will and the thoughts and, thus, the life and actions of the body, in and from that reality. For it isn’t some other place. It is as close as the Holy Spirit is—the Breath of the new creation, the Agent of our living that life, the life that is “in Christ.” It truly is, not just our getting into heaven, but God’s getting heaven into us, that we are about.

Being the Temple
And the church, far more powerful than the individual’s experience, is all of this happening corporately. As we come together, sharing in the divine life, submitting to one another under Christ’s loving, very-present authority, we bring that life “in Christ” to bear ever more strongly in our willing and thinking and acting—not just individually but en masse. And as this happens, our worship in the shadow temple becomes our worship in the inner Holy Place, God’s heavenly temple. For, indeed, the church is the temple of God. Our lives hidden in Christ are revealed to each other, and then to the groaning world, to the glory of God alone!

What does this look like? In a word: Jesus. We start by putting down that latest "leadership" book, tearing down the tyranny of metrics, and immersing ourselves in the Gospels. Pastors should do this individually, of course. But it should also be done with boards/committees/teams. Take a year, meet monthly, and spend a good chunk of the meeting time praying and studying the Gospel of Mark together. Don’t get caught up in drama and letting ten minutes worth of business take an hour. Learn the way of the Master…together! That's what we are about and what the world needs to see in us.

The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and wisdom. Jesus is the Light, the bright revelation of our Father-God in whom we are constantly born anew. This is the goal of our formation, the goal of the church, the goal of communities and humanity, and ultimately the goal of all creation: to be so immersed in the life and reality of the Trinity that all that’s left is face-to-face. Oh glorious Day! But until then, Oh glorious goal!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Church: Blockbuster or Indie?

Masterpiece (1962) by Roy Lichtenstein
Hollywood serves up one blockbuster after another—usually a sequel to a previous blockbuster. A common element of these blockbusters is that you leave it in the theater. What I mean is, such movies might be a fun ride, but when it’s over, you get off and move on. This, for me, is a characteristic of bad art.

I might do better to say this is a characteristic of much pop art, which is not by definition bad, but is typically mass-producible and disposable. But the best art—the film or painting or story or music that really takes hold of you—is not so easily consumed and tossed aside. You finish the viewing/reading/listening experience but are still thinking about it, maybe days or weeks (or years) later.

A chief reason for this is that the artist/s didn’t do all the work for you. The art requires something of you. And so, as you keep working out what it all might mean, it becomes part of you. Subjective as it is, that—for me—is a sign of good art.

Blockbuster Church?
For a while now we have treated the church like a blockbuster. We have dumbed things down, blown things up, conformed things to proven templates, and marketed for mass consumption, all in a desperate attempt to produce a blockbuster. Tragically, many have succeeded.

But we have been given the makings of good art! We have been entrusted with “the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:9ff). Whoa! Maybe read that again. THAT will stick with a person.

This “wisdom of God” and “plan of the mystery” are the cross-shaped reconciliation of all to God and to each other. The “eternal purpose” of the darkness of the Father’s depths has come to light in Christ, who now gives us access to the Father—gives all of us access. His is the name given to every family in heaven and on earth (v. 14). This is the DNA of the church: the Father’s love.

This is a dramatic invitation into the Trinity-life (vv. 14-21): As we bow our knees to our Father, we are strengthened in our depths with power (a word rooted in “dynamite, dynamism”) through his Spirit. And we are indwelt by Christ, who roots and grounds us in love.

We join all the saints—the Father’s family—in living in awe of his incomprehensible love, surpassing all knowledge, as we are filled with nothing less than “all the fullness of God” (v. 19). About this fullness, John Wesley noted in his Notes on the New Testament that we are filled “…with all [God’s] light, love, wisdom, holiness, power, and glory. A perfection far beyond bare freedom from sin.”

This is the life of the church…or it should be. This is the power—the explosive, dynamic presence of God—“at work within us, able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” His glory comes “from the church and from Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” What a picture: The church connected to Christ Jesus, glorifying God to all generations, forever and ever. The possibilities are limited only by our desire just to churn out another blockbuster sequel, rather than do the real work of living into the grand expanse of God’s mystery.

Indie Church
I propose that, from this passage (Eph. 3), church leaders can draw something of a broader and deeper checklist, a checklist for “doing church” that really requires something of leaders and of the church--moving from blockbuster church to more of an art-house or indie way of thinking about church. So, here are some things to consider:

  • Is the church characterized as making known the wisdom of God in its rich variety?

  • Is the church carrying out God’s mysterious plan, revealed in Christ, to reconcile the world to God and to each other?

  • Does the church bear the Father’s DNA of love and unity?

  • Is the church experiencing the explosive, dynamic power of the Spirit?

  • Is the church rooted and grounded in Christ’s love?

  • Is the church filled with all the fullness of God (“…with all God’s light, love, wisdom, holiness, power, and glory. A perfection far beyond bare freedom from sin”)?

  • In short and in summary: Does the church glorify God as part of the glory that characterizes Christ Jesus?

What does each of these look like? Indeed, what do God’s wisdom, mystery, glory, power, love, etc., look like when active in the daily life of the church? This checklist is challenging, one might say abstract. In fact, we might disregard such concepts as too abstract. We disregard these concepts to our peril as leaders and to the gashing detriment of the church.

We must move beyond the leadership concepts from the business world and from get-big-fast consultants. We might find helpful instruction on management and marketing here, but nothing of mystery. Take the lessons on structure and organization and move on! And don’t move on to another business book—move on to the “wisdom of God” and “the plan of the mystery.”

It’s scary, I know. It takes creativity. It takes working it out in community. It takes faith…BIG faith. You can’t just watch another seminar online or take your staff to another leadership conference. You actually have to learn to seek God together. Then you have to figure out how to share the God you find…in tangible, meaningful, sometimes messy and meddlesome, ways.

It’s easier to let someone else do the work—a leadership guru, a marketing expert, a church-growth wizard. These folks have their place, but it is only as an early step or an occasional corrective on the way to something deeper. It is certainly not THE means or, God forbid, THE end.

No, it’s time to move past the mediocre-to-bad art we’ve made. It’s time to draw from God’s wisdom and mystery, from God’s fullness. It’s time to create something worthy of the sprawling glory of the Trinity. It’s time to be conformed, not to some generic church template or best-selling model, but to the DNA of God’s love and reconciliation and unity. It’s time for a new definition of church health and success, for a new checklist.

It will not look like a blockbuster. It will not look like a sequel. It will challenge, take hold, and stick with us. And that's what it comes to: Do we want church to become part of us? Or do we just want to fill the theater?

Monday, September 30, 2013

I Own You

There comes that moment when the villain says those chilling words. Characters have either fallen under the spell of a charismatic tyrant or simply been enslaved by a horrific evil-doer. It has taken place gradually through a slow, unwitting letting go of control, or freedom has been violently stolen away. Whatever the case, there comes that moment of shocking revelation when what the characters have suspected is true is actually uttered out loud by the villain: I own you.

Whether in fiction or real life, the realization that one has given away or lost freedom and control is indeed chilling. Tragically, though, this happens to us regularly. We give away slices of freedom and chunks of control with each mindless consumption, with the ebbing away of our time, with relentless indulgences and untreated addictions, with every comparison of our life to that of another. Every day we give away ownership of our lives to ideas and things and actions and people who have no business with such control. And this determines our becoming as we slouch toward monstrosity. But there is only one to whom we truly belong. Yet that belonging is not the source of enslavement but freedom, not “I own you” but “You are mine." There’s a huge, eternal difference.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.
--Isaiah 43:1

“You are mine.” This is God’s assertion many times in Scripture. In fact, it could be considered an overarching theme. A golden thread running through the fabric of God’s revelation is that we are his—his creation, his image, his chosen ones, his people, his children, his redeemed, his dwelling place, his beloved. The back-and-forth of our story, faithfulness pushing and being pushed by unfaithfulness, is largely the result of the unwillingness to commit, or sometimes the inability to see, that we are God’s. Two aspects of this revelation are key to having it take hold of us and free us:

1) We belong to God and, thus, our lives are as secure as the life of God. No one can take your life from you any more than they can take away God’s life, kill God. No professional failure or shortcoming, no personal disappointments or rejections, no worldly circumstances, not even death, can take away your life. You will go on forever.

2) We belong to God and, thus, to no one and nothing else. We preach and speak against divided loyalties, against distractions that lead us away from God, against living for anything other than God and God’s will. But let’s not be naïve: living such a fixed and devoted life is fraught with difficulty. The temptation is always present—sometimes overwhelmingly so—to seek the approval of others, to define success and failure externally in accord with others’ values and expectations, to give over control to something material or numbing. This must no longer be. For you will belong to God—no other idea or expectation or agenda or person—forever. And God is Love, characterized by grace and mercy. Even his judgment is for setting things right, for setting you right…because you’re his.

“You are mine." God doesn't own you. No one owns you (unless you let them). You and God are one--that's very different. No one can pull you from God’s caring, guiding embrace. No one can give you more or less worth. You will accomplish God’s will only by becoming who God is making you to be. Which is to say, by focusing your life on becoming this child of God’s, you will accomplish his plan for you. This is God’s will, the becoming. There is nothing else. Lives touched, missed opportunities, disciples made, stumbles, work produced, failures, dying—all part of the becoming. First things first. And first, “You are mine…and I am the First and the Last.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

(Be)Coming Home

Home is born within us. As a son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, sibling and cousin, as a friend, then as a spouse and parent, we come to know more and more what it is to have a home…not because of where we’ve lived, but because of who we’ve loved.

As time passes, seasons of life come and go, and lessons are learned, we come to know more and more what it is to move out of ourselves, to commit to others, to sacrifice, to trust, to embrace, to risk, to love. Such is the movement of home.

We carry it with us when we’re away, thinking of those who make our home, working for them, sacrificing, longing, and learning to trust that they will always be our home, and we theirs. We anticipate as the time draws near for us to return to them, even at the end of a workday as we drive to the house we share.

We rejoice to enter and find our family. We rejoice to remember all we have shared with our loved ones, those who have shown us and built with us the home that we know. Not physical, for that comes and goes from structure to structure. But love, love is home. All that goes into home is all that goes into love—other, sacrifice, work, longing, trusting, returning with anticipation. Home.

Such is God’s kingdom born within us. We learn of it as a child of God, a sibling of and joint-heir with Christ, a Spirit-filled lover of God, a family member in God’s household--bride, body, beloved...not because of where we've lived, but because of the One who loves us.

It draws nearer as time passes, through seasons of life and lessons learned. The kingdom draws nearer as we draw nearer to the King…as the earth receives the kingdom and anticipates the return of the King. The process of redemption--our redemption and the redemption of all creation--reveals what it is to live in the kingdom.

We carry it with us, this kingdom, and it fills us with purpose while we are away from the King (though, of course, we are not truly away, and that is the mystery and the message). The kingdom is inside us as home is inside us, driving us to work and to sacrifice and to long and to trust. The kingdom seems stronger—more present—as we anticipate and draw near to the King. He is there among two or three gathered, among the least, at the Table, within those who faithfully love. He comes—with the Father in the powerful love of the Spirit—and makes his dwelling, his kingdom, within the lover.

So, as we draw near in a daily life of worship, in service to another, in quiet moments of adoration, and finally in death, we anticipate the warming fires of home, the familiar voice calling us lovingly by name, love itself washing over us and holding us safe and assuring us.

The kingdom is where the King is. Home is where Love is. All are inside us and nothing can take them from us or stop their progress in enveloping us in the embrace of the One who is all—King, Home, Love—and whose likeness we bear more and more clearly and faithfully day after day, season after season, through life and lessons learned. And so, in the end, we find that we have somehow been home all along, and we have become home along the way.