Monday, December 05, 2016

Healed Again

One of the stranger, lesser talked about miracles is when Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Described only in Mark 8, Jesus spat in the man's eyes and asked, "Do you see anything?" The man replied, "I see men, but they look like trees, walking." It was after Jesus laid his hands on the man's eyes again that his sight was fully restored, and he saw clearly. He had to be healed twice.

This, to me, adds a feel of realism to the stories of Jesus' miracles. I like the idea of the personal interaction with people, and the concern that they really were well. But for some, it adds a layer of discomfort. Did the Great Physician really botch a healing?

This is a case where context is important. Mark has chosen to sandwich this story in between two other stories, and all of them shine different angles of light on a common struggle. Preceding it is the lesser discussed feeding of the 4,000 and a discussion with his disciples. He was warning them against the Pharisees' "leaven" but they were thinking he was talking about physical bread, since they didn't have any with them. The discussion ends with Jesus' words, "Do you not yet understand?"

Caesarea Philippi was several days' journey
from where they had been. The large rock
formation had a cave in front of it with a
pagan temple to Pan built onto it. The natural
stream of water from the cave was like a gate
to the underworld.  It provided a meaningful
location for Jesus to talk about building
his church on "rock" and how the "gates of
Hell" would not prevail against it.
Following the healing story is the journey to beautiful Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus had a conversation with them about his true identity. Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, but as Jesus began to explain the need for his betrayal and suffering, Peter protested, and Jesus offered the famous rebuke to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men."

In all of these scenarios, you have the issue of people who have a glimpse of God, but one that remains obscured. The disciples had learned something about God's provision, but couldn't seem to quit worrying about what's for dinner. The blind man could see something, but not clearly. The disciples could understand Jesus was the Messiah, but couldn't get comfortable with a Messiah who would be both a King and a suffering Servant.

Despite our best intentions, we all struggle sometimes to see clearly. Some have been glad to receive the Gospel, but manage to see only more Law where God has given Grace. Some have been glad to receive freedom in Christ, but apply it in a way that is destructive and negligent. Others have settled for a culturally appropriated version of Christ that fails to embody the courage and boldness of the Savior we meet in Scripture.

It's nice to know that for all of us recovering blind people, Jesus is still with us, wanting to know what we can see so that he can help us see more. What truth we've grasped has come by his mercy, and sometimes we'll need more mercy so that we can experience more growth. The good news is that he is patient, and quite willing to help us a second time to see better. Our challenge is to extend to each other the same patience.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Type of Thrones


Martin's mental image of the Iron Throne
is that it sits asymmetrically, and that the
one seated on it is at least ten feet high. 
Thrones mean power and position. In contemporary culture, there is no throne more recognizable than the Iron Throne from George R.R. Martin's book series A Song of Fire and Ice, popularized by HBO's televised adaptation, Game of Thrones. (Though I'm a huge fan of good fictional fantasy, I decided not to watch the show due to the kinds content they've chosen to include.) In fact, it's clear that the typical representation of the Iron Throne is actually much smaller than what Martin had envisioned in his head. The idea is that the Throne was made by a conquering king, created with a thousand swords surrendered by his enemies. Here is how one character describes the throne in A Storm of Swords:
Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Ofttimes I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.
This particular throne is a symbol of conquest, cruelty, and dominance. The one who occupies it has obtained it by ugly displays of power and treachery.

There is an uncomfortably easy connection between power and brutality, and this connection is not limited to fiction. When Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq in July 1979, within one week, he called out an assembly of the Ba'ath Party, his political enemies. In the meeting, a list of 68 names were read aloud, and all of them were arrested and removed from the room. All 68 were found guilty of treason, and 22 were sentenced to death. By August 1979, hundreds of his political foes had been executed. Whatever type of throne he sat upon, his power represented brutality, bloodshed, and ruthlessness.

In any tension between people and the one who rules them, the question often arises about the source of a person's power. "Who put you in charge?" It isn't uncommon for people to mutter under their breath about their superiors' use and misuse of rank and position. We speak this way frequently about our politicians, our police officers, and even about a wide array of people who are gatekeepers to whatever thing that we happen to want right now. 

It is our typical hangups about power and abuse that made a verse in Psalm 22 catch my attention:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. (Proverbs 22:3-5)
Granted, there is plenty of language in Scripture about God conquering his enemies, but it is God's throne here that I find captivating: God sits enthroned on the praises of his people. There is an extent to which people can say, "Well, it's God, and if God says he's the King, there's nothing you can do to stop him." But God does not sit on a throne of swords or in a position that he has created through terror and treachery.

As the psalmist alludes to, God's people praise him because of the ways he's taken care of us. We've relied on God and found him to be trustworthy. We've been in situations too dense for us to navigate, and he has rescued us and blessed us. The end result of following God is that we've been honored, and not put to shame. The throne God occupies is made of the great praises we can offer because of what he's done for us. It is a reign of peace, blessing, and compassion. God will sit on a throne of well-deserved praise, and it his intention to earn it--not to force it--through the way he cares for us.

Each of us occupies some type of position in life that we have created for ourselves. Some do obtain their statuses in life through shrewdness and manipulation, but these positions have limited staying power. The kind of position we should desire in this life comes from what we sow in the lives of others, and it is not a respect that can be demanded. Precisely the opposite. To be known as a person of integrity. To be trusted as a person of character. To be remembered as a person of kindness and courage. These are powerful positions to occupy, yet they come through the path of service and humility. We shouldn't do good only when we believe we are likely to receive praise, but this should not hinder us from always striving to do things that are praiseworthy.

When it's all said and done, a throne of praise is better than a throne of iron any day.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Prayer for the Season

Our Loving Father in Heaven,

Before we awoke this morning, you were already blessing us. By your help we slept safely through the night, and because of your grace we can rise this day. We can open our eyes, stand, walk, talk, laugh, cry, hurt, and heal because you have given us the gifts of life, health, and a passionate, meaningful existence in this world. Our food, clothing, and shelter all come from things you yourself created and provided. We experience the joy of having them because of the talents and opportunities you've given us to prosper. When we look at our family and our friends, we know that these are all your children whom you've decided to share with us for a while. Help us to value the people around us who enrich our life and make it worth living. In fact, apart from your goodness and your generosity, we would have nothing and no one. All good things come from you. 

Thank you, Lord, for the joyful memories, the victories, and the successes, because these remind us that you hear our prayers and that you love us. Thank you also for the painful experiences, the failures, and the defeats, because they remind us how much we need you. Help us to make the most of this busy season, with the opportunities it provides to create memories with the people we love. Be especially near to our friends whose hearts are heavy right now because of those no longer among us, or those who may soon be departing. 

Lord, please work on the hearts of those who make themselves your enemies. Give them what experience they need to awaken them and to help them come to their senses. Work through us so that by the power of the Gospel, our enemies can become your friends. Reclaim and redeem them for more noble purposes. When a lost child wants to return to you, may they find us to be a welcoming family and a warm place to call home.  

We see, Lord, but please give us better vision. We love, Lord, but please give us deeper compassion. We speak, Lord, but please give us greater courage. We believe, Lord, but please help our unbelief. May our own joy be wrapped up in the things that bring your heart joy.

We approach you, Father, with the help of the Spirit, and through the power of Jesus' name. Amen.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Few Predictions

This is a post for my fellow Christians. I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I'd like to make a few predictions. I don't know about for you, but for me, social media has been nearly unbearable for the last couple of weeks. There are lots of people talking, but so few who are listening, and even fewer who seem interested in the credibility of what they are sharing. I try to remind myself that all complaining about social media is ridiculous, because participating in these platforms is a completely optional thing to do. But the truth is, we speak, post, and tweet from the overflow of our hearts (Luke 6:45). If social media is any indication, there are a lot of strong emotions, both positive and negative, which people have been feeling. 

So whether you are elated or horrified by current events, here are a few predictions I would like to make:

1. The world we live in will continue to be a messed up place.
Even when there are fixes for some of society's problems, other areas will be neglected, and still others may be over-corrected. People who've grown up one way in one place will continue having difficulty in understanding people who've grown up in another. No administration is ever going to relieve us of all problems. Our best case scenario for government is that it will make things better than they are for as many people as possible, and certainly, we hope and pray for this. But any government run by people will have all the flaws that its people do. This shouldn't surprise us. Only in the coming Kingdom of Christ can we know that all things will truly be as they should (Revelation 7:17). 

2. God will continue to do amazing things in the world, even through us.
It has never been our goal as people of faith to live in a problemless society. If we are willing to be taught, our problems can even be sources of tremendous personal growth for us when we persevere and endure. Life in this world will give us trouble, but Jesus has already overcome the world, and for this reason we should be encouraged (John 16:33). In fact, regardless of what happens with our nation or our culture, God is going to continue to work all things together for our good because we love him and he loves us (Romans 8:28). God has used good kings like David to bless nations (Acts 13:22), but he has also used terrible tyrants to serve his larger plan (Habakkuk 1:5-6). God is not limited by who is ruling over us. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will continue to witness God doing amazing things in our lives and around the world, no matter who sits on any throne or in any office. God is still with us, and God is at work. 

3. Your happiness will be affected much more by your choice to walk with God than by any other external factor.
The only thing in your life that is truly unchanging is the love of God. When you make your choices based on financial prospects, threats, relationships, or peer pressure, some decisions turn out well and others turn out poorly. But you will never regret any action you take that comes from a pure place in your heart, driven by compassion and faith. God's love stays with you, no matter what, and nothing can take it away from you (Romans 8:38-39). Every extra prayer you offer, every extra bit of encouragement you give, and every time you do something difficult because you've been motivated to do so by your love of Christ, these are things that go with us into eternity, enduring longer than the earth itself (1 Peter 1:7). 

I encourage you to do all the good that you can and give the best parts of yourself to what matters most, then let God worry about the rest.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What Makes a Healthy Church?

Last week I had the honor of speaking at the North Bay Church of Christ in Portland, Texas. The topic they asked me to speak on was "What Makes a Healthy Church?" Here are a few of my musings on the subject.

Fundamentally, I believe the church should be a community of people in whom the Spirit of Christ is alive and well. Where the Spirit of Christ is present, certain things should start to occur. There are some general guiding ideas here in Scripture. For example, Paul says:
"For God gave us a spirit, not of fear, but of power and love and self-control." - 2 Timothy 1:7
And:
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; against such things there is no law." - Galatians 5:22-23
John says:
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." - I John 4:18
Jesus says:
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." - John 14:25-26
Many churches get their minds too caught up in the world's methods and options, and will live out of fear, rather than faith. Contrary to this, strong churches will act from the hope and courage that result where the Spirit of Christ is present. In light of these and other concepts, here are some ways I would imagine the contrasts between a fearful church and a healthy church. 
  • Fearful churches feel threatened by people who ask questions, and will look to silence them. Healthy churches welcome honest questions, and aren't afraid to patiently examine and re-examine their beliefs and practices in light of Scripture, especially with those who are young in the faith. Those who are really on the side of truth don't have to be afraid of questions, because the truth should withstand hard questions.
  • Fearful churches use Scripture mostly as a weapon, and as a method for fault-finding. Healthy churches turn to Scripture as a source of life, allowing it to spark their imaginations for what sort of world God imagines. If we were to really trust that these words are from God, what is God calling us to do more? What does God invite us to see differently?
  • Fearful churches focus on institutional survival. They don't take risks, don't rock the boat, and don't try anything that could possibly result in failure. As a result, they do very little other than fret about declining numbers. Healthy churches focus on God's mission; to seek and save the lost, redeeming all that is broken within the world. They are willing to experience occasional failure in the pursuit of faithfulness and carrying out the great commission. They don't seek conflict or frustrations, but accept them as a necessary part of growing, because growth can't occur without change. Likewise, while numbers are a part of a church's life and health, they understand that numbers don't tell the whole story about what God might be doing. 
  • Fearful churches stay divided into interest groups; all of whom are suspicious of each other. Most people barely know each other. They may even turn people away if they aren't "our type." Healthy churches promote friendship between groups and between generations, acknowledging that we all need each other, and are better off for the perspectives we gain from those different from ourselves. They know each other well enough, both to mourn and to celebrate as life unfolds together. 
  • Fearful churches have a large distance between those with power and those without. Those with power cling to it tightly. Healthy churches use power to empower. Those with power use it primarily to create space and opportunities for others to use their gifts for honoring God in a variety of ways. They are always looking to create new leaders, open to creative ministries, and inviting ownership in the life and future of the church.
  • Fearful churches are irrelevant to their community. They spend most of their time thinking and talking about themselves, and seldom think outside of the brick box in which they meet. Healthy churches are a blessing to their community. Were they to suddenly go away, the community would lament their loss, because they had been like salt and light, making the community better and brighter.
  • Fearful churches chase after trends. When they hear rumor of a big church's technique, they uncritically try to force that mold on their own situation, hoping it will provide a magic solution to church growth. Healthy churches are interested and aware of how God is at work in a variety of other Christian communities, but are not afraid to grow in ways specific to their own setting. Rather than chasing trends, they build on their strengths, taking the time to know what it is that they as a community love to do and share. 
No church is perfect, but when we seek God diligently and serve God joyfully, there will be evidence of Who lives among us and works through us.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

35 Things I've Learned

Today is my 35th birthday. I think it's important to reflect on your life experiences, so here are 35 things I've learned along the way.

  1. There is no more important set of skills you can possess than people skills. Likability opens doors and builds bridges. Many a career has been built on a person’s ability to get along with others. You’ll be your future’s worst enemy if you don’t learn to value people, and to make them feel valued. 
  2. Every person is in some way superior to you. If you approach every person in terms of how you could be blessed by their skills and understanding, you’ll find it easier to care for them genuinely, and to overlook their shortcomings.
  3. Never stop cultivating yourself as a person. Try new things, especially when they are hard. Spend your life preparing yourself so that some of the best things you’ll ever do will be when you’re in your 60s and 70s as culminations of the person you have spent your life becoming. People who reach for superstardom in their 20s and 30s can easily exhaust their wells of wisdom and experience.
  4. Remember that you’re going to die. Don’t be found anywhere doing anything that you wouldn’t want to be remembered for, in case you make an earlier-than-expected departure.
  5. There is no greater peace you can leave behind to your loved ones than their ability to genuinely say of you, “They loved God with all of their heart, and it really showed in the way they lived."
  6. Everyone understands that change is necessary, but almost no one enjoys it. If you are the one implementing a change, don’t take it personally at first when people react. Much of what they’re doing is just acknowledging that a difference exists. If you’ve been patient with them, have listened to them, and are clear in your reasons and your motives, a lot of them will extend to you the same courtesy. Of course, this won’t always be the case; particularly if you haven’t put effort into #1 on this list.
  7. In dealing with people whose age or health has largely confined them to their home, never make an off-handed promise about something you intend to do for them unless you are absolutely going to follow through quickly. They often have nothing better to do than to sit around remembering what you said you were going to do, and they’ll think less of you for failing to follow through.
  8. The best question for getting to know a new person is: “How do you like to spend your time?” To ask a person about their job or career can make a stay-at-home parent feel you are belittling them, an unemployed person feel embarrassed, or an independently wealthy person feel awkward for having to explain why it isn’t necessary for them to work. Asking how they like to spend their time allows them to tell you what they care about most, or at least what they are comfortable revealing about themselves.
  9. Being fluent in sarcasm is not something you should value. Having a refined ability to cut people with your words does not make you a wise person, and it seldom makes any situation better.
  10. If you are making a speech, it is better to say a bit less than you know, making people wish that you would have spoken longer, rather than to say all that you know, making people hope they will never have to hear another word on your subject; especially from you.
  11. As you get to know someone, there will be scripts that show up in their conversations. Especially when seeking a spouse, pay attention to how they talk to people behind counters and serving at tables. Pay even more attention how they speak to their family. Eventually, every way they speak to other people, they’ll speak to you once they feel like you aren’t going to go away. Everyone can put a good foot forward when they want to make an impression, but what’s more important is that a person you’re committed to shows genuine kindness and patience with everyone, because they’ll be more likely to show it to you. 
  12. Telling someone the truth with a spirit of love and gentleness might not always be received well, but it is never the wrong thing to do.
  13. Don’t allow your critics to take away your joy or your resolve to work with excellence. At the same time, there is usually some grain of truth to what your critics say. If you know someone to be your critic, make a deliberate effort to get to know them better, not for a counter-attack, but to learn what’s driving their concern. They might be giving you a valuable gift, just presented in ugly packaging. Former critics can make some of the best allies if you are able to win them over.
  14. When a person is tense about their life and they come to you as someone to talk to, the best thing you can give them is your non-anxious presence. Take slow breaths, look them in the eye, listen to them without reacting strongly to the things they’re worried about expressing and without interrupting with quick solutions. Just look at them, listen, and be truly present. A person can solve a majority of their own problems when they have a safe space to verbalize and process what they are experiencing.
  15. If you are married, make it your daily goal to invest in your relationship with your spouse. They’ve given up a lot to dedicate themselves exclusively to you and deserve your best efforts to know and love them. One day your children will move on, and one day your career will end. But aside from unfortunate circumstances, as long as you’re both living, your spouse will be with you. No investment will pay you greater dividends than the efforts you make to build your marriage.
  16. Most of the best ideas you’ll encounter in life won’t come from your head. Make wise and talented companions, and form a habit of asking questions and listening well. 
  17. If you desire to strengthen your moral character, it is better to attempt a difficult path than to walk without a path. If you buy into the belief that morality is always subjective, you undermine the possibility of moral growth. Growth requires a steady target toward which you are moving. This is a harder way to live, but choosing to submit yourself to time-tested moral standards will guide you to a much better life than just doing what feels good, or trimming your conscience down to whatever is currently fashionable. 
  18. Greatness and fame can overlap, but are not the same thing. If you have to pick one, strive for greatness. Striving for popularity will always leave you raw and hungry, dependent on people’s approval to have personal validity. 
  19. Everyone is a jerk some of the time, including you. Fortunately, God still loves and accomplishes great things through people who have acted like jerks. If God can value and work through me in spite of myself, I should extend the same grace to others. 
  20. You’ll solve most arguments in life by taking time to understand what people mean by how they use the terminology involved in the discussion. If you don’t mean the same things with the same words, this clarification might reveal that you don’t actually have a disagreement to begin with.
  21. Pain is a powerful teacher if we have a mindset to learn from it. Don’t assume everything that’s unpleasant is bad for you. When difficulties come, the right question to ask is, “How might God be trying to shape me through allowing me to experience this?"
  22. Be sure that when you praise people, what you are praising is what you are actually wanting to see them value. Telling a young person they are pretty or handsome or smart is a nice thought, but when you see an opportunity, a better compliment is, “I’m really proud of you because I saw you make an effort to do this when you could have done that instead. It’s great that you’re trying to be this kind of person, and I hope you’ll keep trying."
  23. You can’t really know that you love a person until they’ve wounded or disappointed you, and you’ve chosen to work things out with them. The same seems to be true of how you relate to God, who doesn’t always give you what you want. Genuine love and trust has to be built on the cooperative overcoming of shared difficulties. 
  24. You can’t do more for a person than they are willing to do for themselves. Even though it hurts to see them make poor decisions, until their desire or pain is great enough that they’re willing to change, you can’t change them against their will. 
  25. The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is apathy.
  26. When making a major life transition or significant move, it’s a good idea to pretend you are preparing for your own funeral. Say all the things to as many people as possible that you’d want them to know. Express as much love and gratitude as you can find time to express. Err on the side of generosity and appreciation.
  27. You don’t control your circumstances or what you’ve been given to work with. You can’t control what others do or how they respond to you. The only thing you fully control is your own actions. Make choices that you can feel peace about, regardless of how people respond to you. 
  28. In trying to sort out major life decisions, assuming that you live to see your 70s or 80s, ask yourself, “Which of these things would I be most proud to tell people that I tried to do with my life?” “If I were to develop scars or to wear out my body in some task, what would really be worth the sacrifice?"
  29. We naturally care more about things into which we have poured energy, time, sweat, and blood. If you find yourself apathetic about things which you believe should seem important, examine how much of yourself you’re really investing in these things.
  30. Make sure you are always doing some good things that can’t possibly be traced back to you. It's especially rewarding to do this for your  enemies, because it means at some level they are wrong about you, and it helps you to practice loving them anyway. 
  31. In a difference of views, it is likely that you misunderstand your opponents as least as much as they misunderstand you. Never portray another person’s position for the purpose of critiquing it until you have first listened to them well enough that you could describe their position and concerns in such a way that they would hear you and say, “Yes, you get where I’m coming from, what I care about, and how I’m understanding this.” Only at the point that you’ve listened sincerely can you really have a productive conversation about your differences.
  32. If you want to become more like Jesus, try treating every person you encounter as if they are Jesus. 
  33. Churches spend much time in tension about the value of following rules and principles in opposition to the practice of extending grace and freedom, often using one as an intended antidote for the other. The solution to legalism is not lawlessness, and the solution to lawlessness is not legalism. God has given us both: solid principles upon which to build a meaningful life, and the experience of grace for when we have shortcomings. Both law and grace are gifts to help us grow into the likeness of Christ, and neither should be neglected or devalued. The solution to either lawlessness or legalism is fundamentally a need to know God more deeply, and to become more like Christ.
  34. It is a mistake to assume whatever is new is intrinsically better than what has already been. Likewise, just became an idea has come into popularity does not make it automatically superior to less popular ways of thinking. Chronology and popularity do not always determine value. Things that are true, beautiful, and loving have always been significant, regardless of when or where they have occurred. There is value in knowing about new things, but make time in your life to focus on truly good things. This is part of why God gave us the church; that together we can learn to see what good things transcend time and culture and therefore not waste our lives on lesser things.
  35. Show mercy and forgiveness to people in your life, not only because they need it, but because you need the experience of giving it. Life is too hard to continue shoving stones in your bag of bitterness. Forgiveness must work as a process, acknowledging the painful realities of your experiences while simultaneously reaching for peace and healing. Commit yourself to the process, because in trying to forgive, you become more like God, and it will lighten your soul. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Millennials and Mission: A Moratorium

I'm ready to stop talking about Millennials. I couldn't even tell you how long it's lasted, but for years now, every week, I see at least one blog post with "6 Reasons The Young People Are Leaving Your Church" or something like that. Everyone shares it, and we ministers read it and wonder whether we need to start scrambling to adjust our church culture/worship style/social media strategy to the winning approach that is supposedly going to fix this problem, and get younger people filling our buildings.

I'm beginning to wonder if the the big problem with Millennials is not that they haven't accepted our values, but precisely that they have. At least, they've accepted the implicit ones. With our words we said God is important, while our actions often taught otherwise. The message has come through loud and clear that when it comes to personal fulfillment/success/achievement/acceptance, these are essentials without which your life won't mean anything. God is good, but God can wait. In walking away from church, the next generation has simply done what many of the previous generation implied they ought to. But enough about Millennials. Really.

I want us to think about the actual directions these conversations have tended to move churches. When we are in a constant state of pandering to any people group, we are operating from a position of scarcity, and our primary goal is the survival of our institutions. We talk about gloom and doom. We despair over how the church can survive at all if it isn't the majority, controlling the economy and politics of our nation, and we forget Jesus' own language about the church being a narrow path that only a few would find. When churches are caught up in a panic about institutional survival, they hoard money and resources, they make desperate pleas for people to stick around (though they are unable to verbalize why anyone ought to), and above all, they don't take risks. The focus turns totally inward, and it can easily become a hotbed for accusations and tensions, because it eases our consciences if we can find someone to be at fault for what threatens us. We have far too many conversations about who we are trying to attract and hang on to, and far too few conversations about why it is we need them in the first place.

Let's remember the kind of God we serve. Our God was, is, and will always be a God of hope and action. God delights in releasing people from what enslaves them, and healing the wounded. Jesus explained the focus of his ministry by referring to Isaiah 61, that captives would be set free, that the poor would receive good news, and that a time of the Lord's favor would be proclaimed. As Jesus ascended to the Father's right hand, having risen from the dead, he established a mission, that good news would be proclaimed to the ends of the earth, that people aren't stuck in their plight, and that God is at work in redeeming people's lives, even now. We participate in this mission by leading people to faith and baptism, sharing with them the teachings of Jesus, and teaching them how to walk in his footsteps as disciples.

In general, I think we would do well to get away from using language about God "establishing the church." Before the church, there first came the mission, and the commissioning of the church was to fulfill that mission. Wherever the people of God are, because of their willingness to be available to God and God's purposes, good things should start to happen. In the way that salt seasons and preserves, Christians enhance and solidify the best parts of a community. In a way that light shines in the darkness, Christians live so passionately into God's mission that their loving presence is conspicuous. Christ's promise was that we would have abundant life, and the scope of that promise is as much about the present as it is about the future. We are in the work of saving souls, but we are just as interested in redeeming lives. In fact, the two concepts are really inseparable. We prepare best for the next life when we embody in this life the values and ideals by which we intend to live in the presence of God. In other words, "On earth as it is in heaven."

Rather than get caught up in counting our attendance, or fretting so much about what is going to "get more young people in here," what if we started making note of places within our communities, schools, and occupations where there is brokenness, hopelessness, or injustice? Who near your church building is working a dead-end, minimum-wage job, with no options? What if you got to know them, and tried to really understand what life is like for them? What if we committed ourselves to serious efforts to help the lost find hope and better life, regardless of whether they gave us some sort of allegiance in return? What if we undertook such large efforts to partner with God in redeeming what is broken in our world that the only way we could fulfill this mission would be to invite others to help us in the endeavor? What if we started including people to help us in our efforts who don't even know the Lord yet, so that they can learn through their experiences along side us what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Would they finally start to think about eternity when they can see it living within our hearts and overflowing into our actions?

I don't doubt I'll continue to be mindful of how churches can best connect with Millennials, or whatever generation it is that we are supposed to panic about next. I don't pretend that I'll quit noticing things like attendance and contribution at church. But I really hope that first and foremost, we will get completely caught up in the things that God can do if we make ourselves available for his use. If that results in new Christians--and I know it can--then terrific! But let's stop doing things simply because of a desire to placate a certain type of person or to save our institutions. God isn't going away, nor is the mission for which he created his church. God will finish what he has started, and we glorify him best when we do our part to help bring his work into fruition. If we're going to attract anyone to our churches, let's let it be because we have such a large vision for the good of the people around us that we need the extra help. Let's let it be that God's love in our lives is too evident to ignore, and they can't help but wonder what's making us the way that we are. Let's be so committed to the mission that we continue to pursue it, whether or not they show up. We love people because God has loved us, and not because of what we hope to get in return from them.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Review of From Cloisters to Cubicles: Spiritual Disciplines for the Not-So-Monastic Life by David Srygley


My friend David Srygley has a new book out on spiritual disciplines. As one committed to the importance of these practices, I was excited to read it, and I'd like to review it here.

Srygley, David. From Cloisters to Cubicles: Spiritual Disciplines for the No-So-Monastic Life. Bloomington, Indiana: Westbow Press, 2014. 161 pages.



Dr. David Srygley is the pulpit minister for the Arlington Heights Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas. His book, From Cloisters to Cubicles (hereafter CtoC) developed as a result of his doctoral research for his Doctor of Educational Ministry at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Some doctoral dissertations, when developed into books, can be too technical for an average reader to be able to read with much benefit. I was pleased that Srygley avoided this pitfall. He has included two appendices at the end of the book that contain more of the theological and pedagogical paradigms he is trying to underscore in his project. So for leaders and thinkers, the brainier stuff is still there, but he made a good decision by putting these resources in the back, rather than making them the introduction.

CtoC contains a helpful introduction to the study, and is followed by thirteen chapters that describe different spiritual disciplines. With each chapter, his goal is to bring a practice from merely an activity in isolation--as if within a monastic cloister--to the regular, daily activities of the person implementing the practice--more like a workplace cubicle. The disciplines he covers are: prayer, study, meditation, fasting, simplicity, solitude and silence, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.

What makes Srygley's approach unique is that he takes a decidedly missional slant on the role and purpose of the spiritual disciplines. He states in his first chapter, "Spiritual disciplines are not for escaping the world; they are for engaging it!" (emphasis his.) I was pleased that Srygley never steps outside of this framework from chapter to chapter, consistently urging the practice of the disciplines in ways that can be integrated into one's daily routines, balancing internal and external focuses.

Srygley's material draws from a series of classes he presented at Arlington Heights as part of his research, and is written in a way that is intended to be used by the average church member. All chapters end with both discussion questions and journaling suggestions, which is an interesting way to integrate the ideas. Srygley acknowledges his indebtedness to Foster and Willard in particular for the "toolbox" and "textbook" on spiritual disciplines from which he draws. He engages their ideas, but CtoC is not merely a regurgitation of what Foster, Willard, and others have already done. Srygley makes a valuable contribution by encouraging a holistic use of the disciplines that, while interested in helping Christians connect with the divine, does not lose sight of our engagement with the world around us.

The book has few shortcomings, but there are a couple of areas I would humbly suggest. The chapters are all well-written, but fairly brief, and some leave the reader wishing for a bit more. Having said that, because his goal is to engage people who are new to the disciplines, it was important to keep things simple and digestible, even if a bit too brief at points. The book will make a fine starting point, but someone wanting to go further will need to continue seeking more resources. Also, one small point on style: Srygley is an enthusiastic public presenter. Sometimes for energetic speakers, in their effort to write enthusiastically they overuse exclamation points, which I felt occurred a few times. (My own tendency to do this makes me aware of it.) Happily, neither of these things is significant enough to diminish the book's usefulness.

In the future, I would like to see Srygley share more about his experiences in trying to help his congregation implement these practices. He has a passion for the importance of living an intentionally Christ-centered life, with a heart both for bringing the lost into the fold, and helping Christians to mature. I'm excited about what he's already done, and I believe he will continue contributing to this valuable conversation.

In summary, From Cloisters to Cubicles is a great first step for someone who (1) is completely new to spiritual disciplines and wants to have them explained in simple terms, (2) has some working knowledge of the disciplines and is looking for ways to integrate spiritual disciplines into daily routines, or (3) is looking for material to use about spiritual disciplines in a church class setting. I'm grateful to David both for his friendship, and for the good resource he has created in writing this book.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Contemplative Preacher: Forming a Rule of Life

Following up on my previous post about taking a personal inventory, the Rule of Life is a great tool for implementing healthy change in your life.


All important parts of life require planning. A lack of planning almost guarantees a lack of good development. This is true of sports, child development, education, and retirement. It is also true of our growth in Christ. Paul said as much in I Corinthians 9:27:
“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Rules of Life
The word rule derives from the Latin word regula, from which we get words like “regular” and “regulate.” Having a Rule of Life is a way to organize your life to ensure that you are doing what is necessary to keep your faith growing and your character strengthening. 

A Rule of Life really centers around two questions, which it combines into a third question:
1. Who do I want to be? 
2. How do I want to live? 
3. Put these together and you get: "How do I want to live so I can be who I want to be?"

Developing your own Rule of Life

Every person’s Rule of Life will be a bit different, as each of us have our own life situations, schedules, strengths, and weaknesses; all of which should be considered as we lay out a play for how we want to live. A good Rule of Life is thoughtful about life rhythms daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly. Here are some questions you should ponder in thinking about what elements you want to include and how often. 

1. When I want to be closer to God, what do I typically find most helpful?
I addressed this in my previous post. Every person has some ways that naturally help them feel closer to God. 

When you put a plant near a window, you have to rotate it fairly regularly to keep the plant from becoming lopsided. Why? Because plants grow towards what give them life. We are no different. 

Begin by thinking about what for you is life-giving
A typical list of personal spiritual disciplines would include: 
Solitude, silence, prayer, reading Scripture, examining your conscience, confession, honoring your physical body (health & exercise), sabbath, fasting, journaling, fellowship, and worship.  

2. What are problem areas in my life, and how can I change them or redeem them?
What is taking life from you? What is making you feel empty and discouraged? These things don't come from God. 

All of us struggle with sin, and with tendencies that make us weaker in our faith. Most of us are painfully aware of what sins we struggle with. In addition to allowing time to pray about and repent of our shortcomings, it can be helpful to search for disciplines that move us to do the opposite of what weakens us.

For example, if you struggle deeply with gossip, it would be worth having deliberate time set aside to be silent in God’s presence, practicing the virtue of holding your tongue. If you spend a great deal of time fretting over relationships and how other people bother you, it would be good to have time set aside for regular self-examination where you focus more on what needs to be kept in order within your own life, and how you might affect others.

Another approach is to think about how we can learn to harness what is affecting us negatively in a way that helps us to grow. For example, a young parent might have very little opportunity for solitude or silence. The constant activity of young children could be a hindrance to spiritual growth, if the parent is seeking to grow primarily through silence and solitude. But if instead, the parent re-imagines time spent with children, it can be a source of growth. “Children are close to the heart of God, and when I spend time paying attention to how my children’s hearts work, it helps me to understand God’s heart better.”

3. What activities will stretch me as a Christian?
This relates to question one. Most of us have areas toward which we naturally gravitate. Introverted people find the disciplines of silence, solitude, and reflection very appealing. Extroverted people find fellowship, worship, and acts of service more appealing.

In addition to making time for what you naturally like to do, it is helpful to think about what areas of spiritual growth come less naturally to you, and commit to regularly experimenting with one or two of them regularly, as a challenge to yourself. 

The introvert may need to have a time each month where he or she experiences deeper fellowship with other Christians, or is involved in acts of service that require being out and about. The extrovert may need to learn how to be alone with God, with times of deeper reflection on Scripture.

I was called out on this in a class a few years ago. Each of us had to develop a rule of life, then share it with two classmates who would give us feedback. I thought I had put together a perfect plan, but my classmate kindly pointed out to me that 100% of my plan I could accomplish by myself. As an introvert, I realized I needed to grow in the area of fellowship and service. This will likely never be the primary way I relate to God, but I know my commitment to participating in disciplines that are less natural to me will help me to be a more empathetic and well-rounded Christian. 

4. When in my life can I realistically make more space for God?
Think about what times of the day you can start living differently. Do you greet God when you wake up each morning, or do you head straight for Facebook? How about meal times? Bed time? 
What days of the week could be reclaimed as opportunities for growth? Are there other scheduled events in the year around which you should plan to spend more time?

5. Who will hold me accountable for growing in Christ?
As you develop a plan for how you want to live, it is important to have a person or two to whom you will be accountable for living by this plan. In addition to planning times of prayer, journaling, reading, and personal retreats, I line up people who will be spiritual companions for me in the next year. I try to always find one person I want to mentor me, and another whom I desire to encourage. I arrange to meet with each of them on a monthly basis for the next year. Often, we agree to read a book or two together over the year to give us something to share about. It has produced some really meaningful friendships for me over the last few years, and deeply blessed my Christian walk. 
This is not to be a rigid, legalistic endeavor, but a flexible one, where you do the best you can, knowing that even if you miss some of your plan some of the time, you are still moving in a better direction because you have done so deliberately. Is there a person you could get with regularly for mutual friendship/sharing/mentoring as you both strive to be better Christians?

Forming a Personal Plan
The goal in this exercise is not to overburden yourself. The goal is to help you take some deliberate baby steps in implementing rhythms into your spiritual life that will help you grow towards your goal of being like Jesus.

The best Rule of Life is one that you will actually practice. Don't try to come up with a plan that Jesus himself couldn't live up to. Plan something that you really can do, and are willing to commit to. This Rule of Life practice is not for the purpose of creating a new Levitical code to provide you with a source of personal guilt. Sometimes you'll fail, and that's ok. Give yourself the grace of a new start and try again, and if you need to, revise the rule of life to work better for you.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” - Luke 6:40

Think about how your better life will look on a normal basis. Your personal Rule of Life should finally end up in a form like this (filled in, of course):

DAILY I will:
WEEKLY I will:
MONTHLY I will:
QUARTERLY I will:
YEARLY I will:

For me, I learned that the only way to make sure I'll follow my plan is to schedule it on a Google Calendar; the same way I schedule all other important life events. 

If we are going to live better, it won't happen on accident. Be responsible for your life, and commit your plans to the Lord.

Happy New Year!

Mark

The Contemplative Preacher: Taking A Personal Inventory

If as Christians we desire to grow, then growing requires changing. It is important that we give effort to the ways in which we want to change. Here on the last day of the year, it is a good time to take a personal inventory.

The simplest way to do that is to use an Ignatian-style question and ask yourself:
1. What for me has been life-giving?
2. What for me has been life-taking?

If, as James says, all good things come from God, then the things in our life that are from God will be helping us to live with purity, integrity, courage, peace, joy, mercy, and all other fruits of the Spirit. Things from our enemy will call us towards a life that is divided, secretive, selfish, frustrated, discouraged, and vengeful.

Part of making personal goals for a new year will necessarily involve removing from our life what is not from God and replacing it with the good things that do come from knowing God better.

Each person has their own characteristics that distinguish them from every other person.  Even twin children, raised by the same parents, in the same house, in the same town, at the same school, attending the same Church will be different people.  Without a doubt, our differences affect our congregations.  We’ve all seen contention where people of opposing preferences have a hard time reaching a middle ground.  Each of us has different ways that we prefer to respond to God, and we should be considerate of our fellow Christians’ needs.

Here are some of the ways that people feel close to God:

THINKERS
These get close to God by reading the Bible and other books.  They feel that they’ve heard a good sermon if they learned something interesting.  Some Biblical Thinkers would include Paul, Daniel, and Isaiah.

PRAISERS
These get close to God by worship.  They love to think of Heaven in terms of the awesome praise they’ll get to help offer up in the presence of God.  They feel it’s been a good worship service if people really got into the singing, and the prayers were meaningful.  Biblical Praisers might include David, Moses, and Mary the mother of Jesus.

CREATION-LOVERS
These really love beauty and aesthetic things.  They may struggle with the temptation to skip church and go camping instead, because for them, God is closest when they are in nature.  Why can’t we have worship outside more often?  They love to forward e-mails of pretty nature pictures, and to experience God’s majesty through His artistry.  Biblical Creation-Lovers might include Jesus, David, and several of the apostles who had been fishermen.

WITHDRAWERS
Some people feel like they can’t really be with God unless they have a quiet place.  They are naturally inclined towards contemplative prayer.  When they get “alone time,” they emerge feeling energized.  Biblical Withdrawers might include Jonah, Elijah, and Jesus.

FELLOWSHIPERS
No matter how much time you spend together, Fellowshipers wish you didn’t have to go your separate ways.  Being with other Christians energizes them.  They like attending worship services, but they live to talk to people before and afterwards.  They thrive on relationships.  Biblical examples of Fellowshipers might be Barnabas, Joseph, and Mary (Martha’s sister).

SERVERS
Some people need to be caring with their hands and to show compassion.  Ministries like Meals-on-Wheels are a perfect fit for them.  Biblical examples of Servers might include Tabitha (Dorcas), Abraham, and the Good Samaritan.  

All people are made in God's image, and can help us grow by learning different ways to feel connected to God. I'm sure most people would fit into more than one of these categories, as I know I do.

In my next post, I'll be talking about developing a Rule of Life, which is a plan for how you intend to live. For now, though, you might spend some time thinking about the ways you naturally do feel closer to God. It's important to allow space in your life to do what helps you to know God is near. Beyond this, I think it's equally important to find an area in which to push yourself that does not come easily to you.

I prepared this self-survey a few years ago to help people discern the areas they are most drawn to and the ones they are least drawn to. I'd encourage you to download it, print it, take it, and then see how the results sort out for you.

Spiritual Disciplines Preferences Survey

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Blessings,
Mark