Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Disciple Making and Me

I believe that I have an obligation to make disciples for Jesus.  The Great Commission instructed Jesus' disciples to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey everything He commanded (which included disciple making.)  Those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus are called to help others become followers as well.  As the Apostle Paul would say, "Follow me like I follow Jesus."

In a small group this past week, we had a great discussion about our part in this process.  A common thread of concern over "our" qualifications to disciple came up.  A few weeks ago I spoke with a lady who felt she was not a good enough example.  This past week I heard from a gentleman that he didn't want to mess somebody else up.  This was not just an excuse.  He meant it.

Disciple making is, at its heart, introducing other people to Jesus and demonstrating what it means to follow Him.  If we are followers, we have enough experience and expertise to show someone else how to do that.  None of us are "perfect" followers, but frankly I don't know what that would look like anyway.

When I was a youth minister, we used to carpool our kids everywhere.  The youth group was fairly large so we needed multiple vehicles.  It was very common that we would lose a van or two occasionally.  Even while the vehicles were lost, they were still trying to follow the lead car.  Following is a process.  We always wound up in the same place in the end whether the followers followed well or the leaders led poorly.  In my 10 years of youth ministry, we always arrived at our destination.  That is our goal in discipleship.

Perfection is not the standard for the leader of followers.  Following is.  As long as we are following Jesus, we can demonstrate what that looks like.  In our good times and our bad, we show others what it is like to follow Jesus.  He is the model of perfection; we are not and never will be.

I am sure that Peter told his story of following Jesus.  I doubt that he left out the denials, ear cutting, drowning moments.  All of our following is vitale information for those who follow behind us.  They are living life just as we are, and chances are they will face the same struggles we do.  They need our example (good and bad).

Finally, I realized as I was prepping for this weeks message that we are called to make followers not fully mature Christians.  Making disciples entails helping others find their way in Jesus.  The maturity process happens within community for sure, but that is not left solely to us.  It happens with the help of God's Spirit living within us.  When we make disciples, we are just pointing other searchers toward the one who can make their life complete.  He will fill them with living water.  He will make them like Himself.  He will . . .

We just need to point the way. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Mentor I Only Met Once

It was in Nashville about 20 years ago that I met Brennan Manning for the first and only time.  An honest, broken, addicted man.  He was a grace-loving, grace-needing, grace-sharing preacher for the ages.  He changed my life with a brief message that started a seismic shift within the mantle of my faith.

Brennan and I are very different people.  He grew up Catholic, and I grew up Protestant.  He was an alcoholic, and I have chosen to not drink alcohol.  He is an established writer with best selling books, and I have a blog that no one reads.  He has shared the gospel with hundreds of thousands of people, and I have shared the gospel with many fewer.  But, we are just alike in that we are both sinners with the hope of God's grace as our only real plan to deal with this fact. 

I have no desire to turn this blog into a confessional exercise, but suffice it to say that I have no delusion of grandeur in my personal or public life.  I am a frail, sinful, imperfect, petty, scared man who needs a redeemer.  Just like Brennan.

I mentioned to my wife, Paula, that Brennan reminded me of someone who knew all the answers to a test but couldn't pass the exam.  Then, as I was haunted by what I said, I realized that perhaps Brennan knew a deeper truth-"There is no spoon."  I mean "exam."  If you know the answer (Jesus), you have passed the test.  The rest of life falls into the "unimportant" category.

I remember taking a test from a professor that challenged my need to succeed.  It was that old "read the whole test before you answer any questions" trick where the last question instructs you to not answer any of the questions and simply write your name on the test and turn it in for an A.  Just maybe Brennan followed the instructions better than the rest of us. 

We want to do well on the test to prove something, and we are going to answer those questions even if we have been told that we should not even go there.  We want to demonstrate that we deserve His attention and his devotion.  We are worthy.  We are pathetic.  The words of the Pharisee from Luke 18, "I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else" (NLT) are ringing in my ears.

Brennan never pretended to have it all together.  In fact, I have never known of anyone so transparent.  He struggled, but we all struggle.  He failed, but we all failed.  He is free; I pray that we will all find freedom.

"O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner."  Luke 18:13

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Called Out and the Called

The Church is a collection of individuals who have been called.  Individuals are called.  The Church is a collection of the individual callings of those who have been called.  Still, individuals are called; churches are collections of those who are called.

During my lifetime, the work of the Church has been placed upon the backs of the collective body of those called instead of on the individuals that make up the church.  The congregation is responsible for worship, discipleship, encouragement, outreach, service, etc.  The individual's responsibility within this framework is to accomplish the work of the Church.  The responsibility of the individual has been replaced by the responsibility of the collective.  The body of Christ image has been distorted to refer to the function of the whole without the required function of the individual.  We speak about 80/20 rules and the like.

There are a few implications that concern me.  (1) The locus of individual response to the call of God is now primarily understood in congregational terms [i.e. an individual serves on a mission board of the local church].  (2) Calling is seen as a function of the Church and not an individual response to the call of God.  (3) Calling as the central characteristic of the assembly has been replaced by membership or identification.  (4) Accomplishment of the work of the Church is now defined by "our" work instead of "my" work.  (5) The missional understanding of calling diminishes when we generalize the Christian life in terms of our collective life.  (6) The valuation of ones calling becomes a reflection of the shared ideals of the group rather than the innate working of God within you [i.e. variety is undervalued while homogenous coersion is the natural outcome].

I love the Church.  As a pastor whose calling is to care for God's flock, God's people are my life.  While we must accomplish what God has called us to do, that will never happen without you doing what God has called you to do.  I see the individual calling as having primacy over the actions of the group.  Both are essential and in some ways the same, but we should never look so intently at the church that we stop seeing the individuals (and callings) that make up that church.  Individuals should not have to fit into the church's mold; individuals should mold our image of the church.

Monday, April 8, 2013

C & E Attenders

Early in my ministerial career, which has now spanned almost 24 years, there was a level of disdain amongst the clergy for those who would only darken the door of the church twice a year (Christmas and Easter).  The sentiment seemed to convey a certain condemning attitude toward those who merely attending out of reverence for the high seasons of our American Christianity.  Needless to say, "those" people were seen as somehow less spiritual because of their infrequent stops to the cathedral or temple.  An animus existed that was palpable.

It is good to see that we have evolved and moved on from that archaic position.  We now can celebrate the fact that so many of our people only visit on the high holy days.  Joyous shrieks could be heard around the nation this past week as the numbers were being counted for our multiple extra services offered to handle the overflow.  Our past sadness over families visiting only out of tradition and semianual guilt has been traded for the exultation of record numbers and souls engaged.  We can now lift up the C & E attender as a new target audience.  We sure have matured over the years.

I must admit that I am not so evolved.  I weep the week after Easter when a third of the crowd is missing.  It pains me to realize there are many I will not see until Christmas rolls around.  I hurt, not because I have disdain or contempt for these people, but because I know the truth.  What truth?

I know that being God's people is something that happens within the context of a shared life.  With church families living miles apart instead of next door, a sporadic attendance leaves many of our people disconnected and isolated.  The joy and strength that come in the common life are difficult to harness within the framework of 3 hours per year split between two events 4 or 5 months apart.  I know that the best part of us is us.  Not just us.  It's God in us, but you will not get to see very much of that with a quick drivethru approach.  We are best known over short conversations, regular times of sharing and connection, intense times of prayer, soul stirring worship, and moments of shared joy and grief.  Most of us require multiple encounters before we are really ever willing to let someone else through our rough exterior.  We need time.  Certainly more than 3 hours a year.  (By the way, if our gatherings are shows that people come to watch, they might not even get 3 hours per year of koinonia.  I'm just sayin'.)

Two years ago we finally doubled our annual attendance average on Easter Sunday.  Should I celebrate that fact or mourn the fact that a large percentage of that crowd would not be seen for another 8 month?  Joy or sadness, which side are you on?

[DISCLAIMER: While I would like to spend more than 3 hours per year worshipping with my church family, I do prefer that to nothing.  Family is family no matter how often we see each other.  This post is not about judgment, just lament.]

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jelly Beans and Other Modern Choices

I have always loved candy.  I can remember walking with my brother up to the little restaurant up the street in IL and buying a sack full of penny candies.  I just purchased my favorite candy bar, a British Mars bar, yesterday at 50% off and it still cost me 90 cents.  My wife told me I would have spent $2.50 on it.  I said she was wrong, but she was really probably right.  They are very hard to find in the U.S.  Anyway . . .

Jelly beans were always a big Easter hit with my brother and me.  I can remember the egg shaped things that were hard on the outside with a marshmallow-like inside, milk flavored bunnies, and Cadbury creme eggs.  Back to jelly beans.  As I recall, there were only a few flavors (or colors): white, pink, black, green, purple, and sometimes orange.  Life was simple back then.  Only so many options, and you could tell what you were getting when you picked one.

I have a "Jelly Belly" dispenser on my desk filled with wonderfully delicious jelly beans.  The flavors range from peanut butter to lime to strawberry dacquiri to buttered popcorn.  You have to have a visual guide to help you find what you want.  Even then it is very easy to be mistaken about what you are about to eat.  Coffee and lime are just weird together.

While the ability to experience a peanut butter sandwich (1 grape and 1 peanut butter jelly bean) or caramel corn (1 buttered popcorn and 1 caramel jelly bean) is pretty amazing, most people just get frozen when it comes to making a choice.  The options are endless.  You can almost have any taste experience you would like.  No limitations here.  Try it all.

The expansion of the jelly bean universe offers some insight into our modern culture. 

While we may be able to find the perfect combination of beans to create our taste fantasy, we usually have to rummage through a whole dispenser worth of beans in order to get there.  This experience has also taught us that we should be able to do that in every arena of our lives.  More choices, good; fewer options, bad.

Choices aren't all they are cracked up to be.  At 46, I prefer fewer options and less mental anguish.  Do I really need thousands of options for my taste experience?  Am I less satisfied with a few colors in the Easter basket?  Is my life less fulfilled with less to decide?

When I was a youth minister and my kids had an event that needed pop, I would get two varieties, dark and clear.  That was it.  When we ordered pizza, it was either pepperoni or cheese.  Two options.  No more, no less.  Amazingly we all survived.  There was the occasional question about Mountain Dew or root beer, but honestly the limited choices made life simpler for everyone.  The focus was on what we had, not what we wanted.

Our culture has desire down pat.  We are taught from a young age to have discriminating tastes.  We are pressed to go for what we want.  We are told we can "have it your way."  Options are seen as a sign of blessing.  Does anyone remember when coffee came in more brands than flavors?  Do I need 262,144 choices of sauce and veggie combinations at Subway?  That doesn't include sandwich types, bread varieties, or getting it toasted.  Certainly the madness is obvious.

Why do we assume that more choices are a better way to do life?  Where does this assumption originate?  Is life less glorious with fewer choices?  Perhaps less is more.  Maybe I can survive on 5 types of jelly beans.

Simplicity Lost.  Maybe that will be the title of my next book. 

Where did I put that Mars bar?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Question about Gastronomic Choices

Long discussions can be had about favorite foods.  The Best Thing I Ever Ate is a great show on the Food Network that asks famous chefs, "What is the best thing you ever ate?"  The responses are interesting.  Occasionally, they answer with a famous, well-known high end restaurant, but at other times their answer reflects the wonder of the dish in a small, not-so-famous eatery. 

My favorite food has decidely little to do with the size 0r expense of the restaurant.  A little Italian place, Rocco's Ristaurante, in Ceredo, WV, has a great gnocci verde that I love.  I haven't had it for 20+ years, but it is one of my favorites.  A Smokey burger from Smokey Valley Truck Stop in Olive Hill, KY, is always at the top of my list.  The braised pork shank from Roast, Michael Symon's restaurant in downtown Detroit, MI, is the only dish from a high profile chef.

I would rather go to any of those restaurants instead of one of those bright-lights-cool-memorabilia-sports-bar places.  All the spectacle.  All the baubles.  All the hype.  For me, they just don't work.  I like great food.  I want to enjoy the meal where ever it might be.  Don't distract me with the other stuff.

If only I were so discriminating in my spiritual life.  My wife, Paula, and I have often talked about where we would worship if we weren't in the local ministry.  We like big, small, intimate, discipling, active, vibrant, serving.  We are entering a new phase of life as our son will be graduating from high school soon.  What would we do as empty-nesters in a few years? 

What if I chose a congregation like I now choose food?  No hype.  No sales slogans.  No mass of people crowding the room.  Just great food.  Where would I go if I were looking for The Best Place I Ever Worshipped or The Best Place I Ever Served God or The Best Place for My Spiritual Development? 

Restaurants are proof that just because a lot of people show up it doesn't mean that they have good food?  I'm just sayin'.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How do I love thee . . .

Is love measured best when it is expected?  For instance, is the annual tradition of Valentine's Day the optimum time to determine the depth of a partner's love?  Is a romantic evening the best measure of commitment? 

For many of us, Sunday morning is the romantic date with God.  Nice clothes, better than usual hygiene, tempered responses to stimuli, nicer than usual interaction with others, holier than thou righteousness, expected activities, etc.

Isn't the love I have for my wife better measured when we are alone and no one else sees us?  Aren't "normal" days a better measure of how I treat her?  Anyone can be nice a few hours a year. 

How often have we attempted to measure our love for God by using our Sunday as the ruler?  God, forgive me when I treat you like an appointment on my calendar.