How Most Churches Seem to View Discipleship

Okay: I know I’m dating myself here, but Steve Martin used to have this bit in his standup called, “How to Be a Millionaire and Never Pay Taxes.” He used it in his opening monologue 1977 when he hosted Saturday Night Live. The transcript reads like this:

 

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. “Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?” First.. get a million dollars. Now.. you say, “Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, ‘You.. have never paid taxes’?” Two simple words. Two simple words in the English language: “I forgot!” How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don’t say “I forgot”? Let’s say you’re on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, “I forgot armed robbery was illegal.” Let’s suppose he says back to you, “You have committed a foul crime. you have stolen hundreds and thousands of dollars from people at random, and you say, ‘I forgot’?” Two simple words: Excuuuuuse me!!

 

Sometimes I think the church views discipleship in a similar way. In a variety of different ways we proclaim, “You can be like Jesus!” (Well, at least I hope we proclaim that. A lot of churches still focus on proclaiming, ‘You can avoid hell and go to a weightless, disembodied heaven!’ This, um, was not Jesus’ message. But that’s for another time.)

Then we roll out our “plan”, which essentially sounds like this:

“You can be like Jesus!”

“Pastor, how can I be like Jesus?”

“First, be like Jesus. Now…”

Um, what?

Most of church “discipleship programs” essentially tell people to be like Jesus without ever examining how transformation actually happens. 

We do well, and quote Paul about training versus trying, but then we never seem to actually do anything about the training! Which really amounts to us actually advocating trying versus training!

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s happening in more places than I see (I know my church is doing its best at a multifaceted plan for discipleship).

But if we were doing our job, it seems like we’d be producing more transformed people according to Galatians 5:

  • more loving people, who fight against the divisive and often hateful speech of our country (particularly in the political realm)
  • more peaceful people, who are willing to entertain the fact that violence and war are often not God’s will
  • more self-controlled people, who are willing to recognize and separate themselves from all entanglements and addictions, whether they be from alcohol and drugs or food and shopping
  • more kind people, who are willing to stop blaming the poor and powerless for being, well, poor and powerless

As I said, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the North American church really is aligned with God on the subject of spiritual transformation (or as C.S. Lewis put it, “Producing ‘Little Christs’”. But I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it.

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I Know I Am (But What Am I?)… 

I like personality and gift tests: Myers/Briggs; Strengthsfinder; Enneagram; so on and so forth. Enjoy finding out how I (and others as well) am wired, and why I think the way I think. Overall, it’s really helpful. In fact, a lot of organizations (including churches) take great stock in how these gifts are allocated and mixed through staff members. All of these tests help us identify how to interact with each other, and where the pitfalls may be in our common life.

However, the last time I was a part of a round of these tests, I found myself thinking, “How many times do I need to be told what or who I am?” Furthermore, I found myself thinking a lot of how I’d used my personality type as an excuse for some issues in my life that I actually needed to address. Rather than thinking about my behavior or thoughts as issues that needed to be addressed or changed—as sin or brokenness—I thought about them as “this is the way I am.”

But is that all there is to life?

Lately, I’ve stopped being so interested what/how/who I am now, and I’ve become much more interested what/how/who I can be. 

I love all of these tests, but I know for me that I am very adept at hiding inside these labels and avoiding the call to grow, to change. I’m afraid that it’s all too easy to use these labels and titles to simply reinforce my “false self”—the part of me that is so good at hiding from God and others—and ignore the possibility that all of these “strengths” and “gifts” may actually inhibit my growth if all I ever do is focus on them and remain content.

Which is ultimately what we are called to: I wholeheartedly believe that the point of the life that Jesus offers us is to change and to become increasingly more like him. Our personalities, or strengths, or gifts are tools that we can use to grow and change, but there’s also a limiting side of those gifts. I’ve come to believe that every part of our personality has a shadow side; a broken part that can keep me from growing and being shaped into a “little Christ” (as C.S. Lewis would put it).

For instance, I know that I’m an introvert, but I also know that I have a tendency to use my quietness as an excuse to hold back from people, from actively welcoming the stranger, from being a voice of invitation.

I know that I tend to look at the world from a “strategic” perspective, and this has been very helpful to my church. However, I also know that this perspective sometimes keeps me from getting in and just “doing the work” to ideas and initiatives that I don’t always understand. It can also keep me from supporting ideas that I don’t agree with.

The point is not to reject my gifts and personality; it’s to think about the idea of change and growth as an imperative. It’s about refusing to be content with what the assessments say that I am, and writing off my behavior as, “Well this is just as good as it gets, because I’m an INTJ (or whatever).”

It’s about seriously accepting the call to grow, and never stop growing until I can say that I have truly adopted the “mind of Christ” that Saint Paul says I’m supposed to have.

No I’m not there yet. But I am increasingly knowing who I am, and hungry for who I’ll be next.

Does this make sense?

 

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That Time When Jesus Kicked Us Out of the House

When Jesus begins his ministry, one of the realities that he stepped into was one of “exile.”

To make a very long story very short, between 580-595 BC, the nation of Israel experiences two devastating events. First, the Temple—the very center of God’s activity in the world—is destroyed. Second, the core population is sent into exile in Babylon. It’s virtually impossible to understand how dis-concerting this was to God’s people.

They were without the sense of God’s presence in the world…

They were without a home…

Psalm 137 records just a little of what this felt like to the community:

“Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said.
But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?”

 

Eventually, the Jews returned to the Land, but significantly the presence of the Lord never returned to the Temple. It was rebuilt, but God had not returned. In a sense, they were still in exile.

Furthermore, over time more nations and empires showed up. In particular, Rome came knocking, and easily occupied the land and subjugated God’s people. Now, they were still “in the land,” but they were no longer in control; the Romans were. 

They might as well have been still in Babylon, and again, it’s as if they were still in exile.

God hadn’t come back to the Temple, and they were not in control of the “Promised Land.”

When Jesus shows, up, much of his activity centers around demonstrating that exile is over: God has returned to the Land (through his ministry), and will now “do battle” with Israel’s enemies (who are not the Babylonians, or the Romans for that matter).

At the cross, Jesus defeats the “true enemy” of Israel (evil) by dying. Three days later he rises from the dead and ushers in a new way of living.

But he’s not done yet.

In Matthew 28, he commissions his disciples, telling them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (CEB)

In short, he sends them out, away from their homes, away from what they know and find comforting.

Kinda sounds like exile…

As one of my professors says, “Jesus announces (through is life, death and resurrection, ‘Exile is over; now go be exiles!’” 

However this time not only has God returned to the Land (in/through Jesus), but now Jesus promises to be “be with” his disciples.

So the bad news is that when we “sign on” to this Jesus movement, we don’t get to come into the house and kick our feet up. Rather, Jesus kicks us out of the house to go be exiles in our world: go out where you aren’t comfortable, where you don’t know all the rules, where things may seem strange and alien to you.

But the good news is that exile no longer has to feel empty, or pointless, or like punishment. God’s presence is with his people, even where things are strange and “different.”

We may be in exile, but we are not alone.

 

 

 

 

Is “Religion” REALLY Opposed to “Relationship”

I’m tired of playing off “religion” against “relationship.”

The notion (as defined by my tribe) is that Jesus came to save us from “religion” and invite us into a “relationship” with God.

This is a false dichotomy for a few different reasons.

First of all, it’s generally understood by Biblical scholars that the Jewish faith of Jesus’ era was immersed in “relationship”. The Jews (probably even moreso than most modern, western Christians) were intensely aware of the all-encompassing nature of God. They lived in a God-soaked, God-bathed world. God pervaded their politics, their art, their social structure.

They did not compartmentalize.

This God that was everywhere lived in a vital and dynamic relationship with them through a Covenant relationship that looked something like this: God committed Himself to Israel in a binding relationship; Israel would wander away, and God would pursue, invite and even “woo” Israel back like a lover who had betrayed her true love and left.

This God—YHWH, or even “The Name”—acted time and again to bring back and restore Israel, not because they kept the Law or were perfect, but simply because He loves them. (Read the Exodus: when does God rescue? before Israel has a chance to even hear the Law, much less obey it. God acts while His people are helpless and enslaved. For those of you keeping score at home, this is what grace looks like.)

Now, had some people in Jesus’ time forgot about this? Had some of them turned the vital faith of Abraham and Isaac into rote performance and rule keeping?

Sure. But look around us: we are just as adept at doing that in the 21st century as they were in the 1st.

What Jesus was up to was (among other things):

… showing what an “eternal life now” could look like
… welcoming in the outsiders to the Kingdom
… conquering evil through suffering love
… providing a ransom for our sin

It’s simply too narrow of a statement to say that Jesus saved us from religion.

Furthermore, by playing this “binary” game (black and white, on or off, etc), we are missing a vital part of what “religion” actually means.

Though the etymology is slightly unclear, the root of religion could be understood as a coming out of the Latin root legare, which means to “connect or bind” (it’s where our word for “ligament” comes from as well). In other words, “religion” at its best re-connects us. It should literally “knit us together”; it should connect us with ourselves, the world around us, and with God.

It should not fragment us, or make us small-minded.

With these thoughts in mind, what I’d actually say that Jesus (and the Prophets, and Paul, and the church fathers and mothers, and the great saints as well) was not trying to save us from religion as much as he was trying (still is trying, actually) to save us from bad religion, that fragments, fractures, and reduces our world.

So I’ll take both. I like my relationship (with the Triune God, with the world), but I can only have that relationship through my religion (my efforts to re-connect with God through His Holy Spirit).

Here Be Dragons

On some ancient maps, unknown territories were marked by the phrase, “Here Be Dragons” (or as on this map, they Psalter_World_Map,_c.1265were simply drawn in). It was a way to alert people to the fact that beyond the pale, there was no way of knowing what you might encounter.

Silence and meditation—or mindfulness, ̛as it’s becoming known—is becoming popular spirituality, and its qualities are becoming widely known (I wrote it about a few months back). However, part of my experience with the practice of silence has definitely been along the lines of “Here Be Dragons.”

One of the first lessons I learned when I began to practice silence was that I was really good at covering stuff up. The noise in my life serves as anesthesia to the uglier parts of my soul. The more distracted I am, the less I need to look at the brokenness that flows through my life like a stagnant and rank river. Who wants to smell that? So I add more and more to my life, in the form of iPods, movies, television shows, Netflix, radio, iPhones, constant connectivity, and more and more meetings, people, and parties, all so I can ignore the junk. 

All so I can pretend the dragons don’t exist.

Silence and contemplation aren’t all peaceful, comfortable minutes of bliss.

For me, when I begin to quiet my spirit, my vision inevitably drifts beyond the known borders of my life, into the unknown.

Where the dragons are.

Does this sound overly scary or melodramatic? Maybe. I don’t know.

But I know that when you stop being distracted, stop numbing yourself, there’s nothing to take your gaze away from the stuff that lurks inside you.

Now here’s the good news.

When contemplation and silence is done right, you know you’re not alone. It’s tough sure, because lets face it, dragons are just scary (even when voiced by the oh-so-dreamy Benedict Cumberbatch), but we know that we don’t have to fear being crushed or destroyed, because … and this is amazing… 

God dwells beyond the borderlands as well.

Scripture tells us repeatedly that God is entirely at home silence, darkness, and wilderness. The monastics unabashedly declare, “Silence is God’s first language.”

All this adds up to the idea that, true, we may be strolling into Smaug’s lair, but we don’t walk alone.

It’s our job to sit,to quiet the distractions, and to find the scary parts of our souls.

But ultimately it’s God’s job to slay the dragons.

 

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Seth Godin and Spiritual Transformation

I read this from Seth Godin in one of my favorite books, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind

Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.

  • Substitute the word spiritual for the word creative, 
  • substitute the phrase truly transform for become a professional, and
  • substitute the word life for work… 

… and you have the secret to spiritual transformation:

Lots and lots of people are spiritual when they feel like it, but you are only going to truly transform if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your life and not your hobby. 

That’s why I believe that the best thing we can do as spiritual people is choose to become “professional Christians“, and do the work, day in and day out.

 

Two Questions That Have Governed My Spiritual Life

I am 45 now. Wow. Somehow, I am still coming to terms with that fact. Believe it or not, I am getting to the point where, every once in a while, I can claim to have a little wisdom. A few years of reflective, thoughtful living will do that to you.

Anyway, as I was reflecting on some current reading, I got to thinking about how you could divide my life, spiritually-speaking, into two phases. Each of these phases were marked by one governing question, and furthermore I think in my case they were influenced by age (or lack thereof).

Overall, I have a tension with sweeping generalizations: on the one hand they eliminate and minimize subtlety and detail; on the other hand they are remarkably useful in saying an awful lot with a few number of words.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up the two questions that the spiritual/Christian life asks. They are not necessarily age-bound, but I believe they tend to be, because they simply require different modes of thinking that aren’t always available at certain ages. When we are young, we can afford to think dualistically or in black and white; the consequences just aren’t that great (I once quit a band because they wouldn’t go to the chord I wanted), and we can afford to have our world be as simplistic as we’d like.

As we get older, and (ideally) encounter more and more of the world in all of its diversity and complexity, most of us learn that binary, dualistic thinking just won’t explain what we are seeing. We see marriages fall apart, and though black and white thinking would have us blame “one or the other”, in truth we know that most of the time both parties have contributed to the hurt and pain that kills a relationship. We need a better explanation for how the world works (and one that fits with our Christian worldview, I might add).

So with that in mind, here are the two questions that I have heard from life:

1. How do I get to heaven? 

I grew up in the church, so it wasn’t a huge reach for me to start thinking about “heaven” and some kind of after life. As I’ve told a lot of friends, I prayed “the sinner’s prayer” at least a half dozen before I was 21; as I figured it, if there was a heaven (or hell), it sure couldn’t hurt to be sure I had that taken care of.

“How do I get to heaven?” definitely helped me ask some of the right questions, and it guided me to certain churches and individuals over time that helped me answer it.

However, there is a definite “on or off” nature to this question: you get to heaven by doing/believing X and Y.

It’s almost like a math equation, and to my mind at the time, a math equation was actually pretty comforting (as my wife likes to point out, one of the ways to calm yourself during an anxiety attack is to, ahem, do math problems). 

But I have to be honest: math gets old after a while. 

Furthermore, as I got older, life stopped asking me the “heaven question” over and over.

Things got complicated: marriages ended; children struggled; addictions reared their head; friends died unexpectedly; people lost faith (and in some cases found it again).

These things were all happening people who were indeed “going to heaven”—they’d got the answer to the question right—but the math equation was no longer relevant.

For a while, this caused a lot of despair: Was Jesus not enough to explain these very complicated, messy situations? 

We all needed a different question.

2. How am I supposed to live? 

Over time, the “heaven” question receded, and a new question took its place. This new question was not nearly as concerned with the math equation. In fact, the equation wouldn’t even line up behind this question, almost as if was a different discipline altogether:

“6-4 = the color blue”

This question has nothing to do with binary thinking; it embraces the complexity of life, without giving easy answers.

It’s content is qualitative, rather than quantitative.

It is not black and white.

Essentially, this question started to come up after I’d answer the first one fairly certainly: I knew I was going to heaven, that Jesus would embrace me when my time had come. However, what was really vexing me was trying to figure out why, given that truth, my life was still such a mess. 

Why was I still struggling with repetitive sin? Why was I still given to bitterness, cynicism, arrogance and a radical self-centeredness that threatened to consume everything I held dear?

I knew I was “saved,” but somehow that question no longer seemed relevant, and as I began to ask the second, some amazing things began to happen, first and foremost that I realized (at least for me) that answering the first question left me “in heaven” but really a passive actor in my own spiritual life. After all, I was in heaven now—why bother about “the rest of the stuff”.

To put it another way, I was a “good Christian”, but my heart (and certain parts of my life) was really a mess.

I was going to heaven, but I was taking a hell of a lot of baggage with me.

Maybe it’s normal, but I began to be less concerned with the first question, and really embraced the second. I wasn’t nearly as concerned with “doctrine” as I used to be, but much more focused on does this work? Does it transform me into someone who looks JUST A LITTLE MORE like Jesus than before? 

These are not black and white math problems.

These answers involve silence, meditation, focus, prayer, and embracing ambiguity (I am simultaneously a “sinner and a saint”).

Slowly but surely, I think it’s working.

Finally, there was something ultimately profound in wrestling with these two questions.

Focusing on the first question, doesn’t necessarily lead to the second. But when you focus on the second, most of the time you will get the answer to the first thrown in. 

You may get to heaven, but your life may never change or evolve.

If you focus on transforming your life, with partnering with God for your spiritual growth, you will most likely find yourself fit for “eternal life” (and what’s more, for the “eternal life now” that Jesus talks about in the gospels.

Our spirituality should always ask us the deepest questions; what is your spirituality or faith asking you?

 

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Easter 2014

Hey all… I thought I’d … um… resurrect a 2013 post about the significance of the resurrection.  The original post was here, but enjoy…

What the resurrection means (at the very least)…

  1. That Jesus was/is the Christ, the Messiah
  2. That love really does win
  3. (Relatedly) That evil, death, and violence do not have the last word
  4. That doubt on Saturday is a part of life, but can give way to faith on Sunday
  5. That God is almost always unexpected
  6. That life with God is not just a resuscitated life, but a resurrected life—simultaneously a part of our current existence but radically reordered
  7. That wide-eyed wonder—and even a mild freak out—is a perfectly acceptable reaction to God’s work
  8. That I’m not “stuck” where I’m at; I can grow and change
  9. That God hasn’t abandoned humanity or this world
  10. Consequently, there is work to be done. Redemptive, resurrection work.
  11. That whenever I—or you—think “this is really all there is”, I’m wrong; that life and possibility can spring up in the deepest darkness

He’s alive, folks. Let’s dig in, drink up, and roll up our sleeves.

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HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “Please”

phonto-4

In Luke 22, night is beginning to descend: one of Jesus’ closest friends has deserted him, and the authorities are coming to arrest him. As I wrote before, in a way this is no surprise to Jesus. I believe he’s been able to see this coming for a while.

But in another way, I believe this is a terrifying moment for Jesus.

And so he prays.

“‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However not my will but your will be done.” Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (22:42-44).

Jesus says, Please. 

It’s easy—even tempting—to think of Jesus as this stoic, forgiveness-dispensing robot who has no fear or hesitation about what he has to do. But if Jesus was as fully man as he was fully God (which orthodox belief would say), then being fully man would mean that he would encounter fear and need, because we do. 

Jesus has to say, “Please take this from me.”

Would he have actually turned away from his arrest if he would’ve had the chance? I don’t know. I doubt it. I think he would have pushed the issue like a true prophet of Israel, until he had made enough people angry.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t without emotion.

That doesn’t mean that on that evening in the Garden he didn’t ask. 

And when he asked, God said, “No.” 

I suppose it’s often the same way with us…

… We ask.

… We say please.

… Sometimes we even beg.

But sometimes God says, “No.”

But just like with Jesus, it’s not so much God’s answer that is telling, but it’s our response to the answer that is critical.

What do you do when God says, “No”? Particularly when we are facing challenges or hard times? Do you rationalize? Well, I know it seemed like that was a clear “No”, but I’m sure that God wouldn’t want me to suffer, so maybe I’ll just act on this anyway. 

Do you rebel? I’ll show God; if I don’t get my way I’ll just take my toys (ministry, gifts, tithes, support, etc.) and go home. 

Any number of responses are possible.

But Jesus doesn’t do any of these, because he knows a secret. In fact, it’s the same secret he’s been talking about for a long time:

The point of life is not to avoid pain; the point is to ask, “How can I grow through this?” 

After all, Jesus has been telling his disciples for a long time: you may not be able to “avoid temptation”, but you can stand through it.

But standing through pain and heartache and hurt and fear takes the one thing that we all need as humans: faith. 

If Jesus was only God, only divine, he wouldn’t need faith. He would be able to make reality simply conform to his wishes, and then there would be no doubt, no fear.

No please. 

But significantly, he says Take this away. 

Which means he can understand us when we have fears, doubts, anxiety; when we face the unknown.

So when Jesus says, “Please,”

… And God says, “No,”

… Jesus says, “Not Your will, but mine.”

And Jesus carries on in faith, that the One who calls his name will stand with him and not desert him, even as he walks, quite literally, through the valley of the shadow of death. 

Next Up: Forsaken and Defiant.

Is Easter REALLY Our “Super Bowl”?

Is Easter Sunday REALLY the Super-Bowl?

Growing up in my faith tradition, it was common to hear Easter Sunday referred to as “The Super Bowl”. Since it is (was?) traditionally one of the most heavily attended Sundays of the year, there is always a tremendous amount of time and energy put into making an amazing Sunday experience—both for guests and for God.

We put together the best musicians we can find, we purchase thousands of dollars in Easter lillies, we polish the pews and the doors and we make extra room for people who will “check out faith” for perhaps the only time that year.

In short, we put our best foot forward.

Part of this effort is in recognition of the celebration of the resurrection: Easter really IS a special day in our faith, and we do our best to make our worship reflect the glory and joy of Jesus’ resurrection.

However, is calling it “The Super Bowl” really the best metaphor? I’m not sure.

(For starters, soccer is a much better metaphor for the spiritual life.)

The reason I’m rather uncomfortable with the Super Bowl image is that, well, it just puts too much of me in it. The Super Bowl depends on the players playing in it.

Christ’s resurrection does not.

Our best efforts on Easter are not so much to “make it happen” but to respond to something that has already happened.

Our Super Bowl really happened already. We are just basking in the victory now.

Furthermore, the Super Bowl metaphor (and yeah, I know: all metaphors break down eventually, but this is my rant, not yours) doesn’t really play out theologically: We play the Super Bowl; you (Who: guests? The Church?) watch us. 

I wonder if a different image might be a Feast: We are inviting people to “our house” where a great celebration is going to happen. We didn’t even cook the meal, but it’s going to be a night of rich food and deep celebration. We want you to come, but the success of the feast doesn’t really depend on our greatness, or the 6 (8? 10? 15?) hours of rehearsal…

It depends on the presence of the One whom we are celebrating.

We are participants, with you—the guests, the Church… everyone. 

We have come to the feast just like you. We are not separate.

So what if instead of “Playing the Super Bowl” this year, we “Went to the Feast” (and invited others to come as well)?