Anticipating Advent

I’ll admit it.  In the past I have been somewhat of a scrooge when it comes to Christmas.  My scroogeness was born out of all the trendy things to dislike Christmas for: over-commerclization, consumerism, Christmas cards, untangling lights to put on a tree, and mall parking lots.  I was a part of the crowd shouting to focus on ourselves on the meaning of Christmas.  Not the FoxNews crowd, but the cool – but not hipster cool – Christians who wanted nothing but Jesus and the incarnation at Christmas.

And then I had a child.

It is hard to be a scrooge when your two and a half year old is enamored by the entire season.  Luke, in a way that is capturing my imagination, is eagerly anticipating Christmas morning.  But not for the reasons most would expect.  At the beginning of Advent we gave Luke a nativity scene he could play with.  And play he has!  It is almost a daily activity to have conversations with the different figures.  I am usually the angel and he is Mary and I have to tell her she will have a child.

After explaining all the different figures, we took the baby and wrapped him in a present and placed him under the tree.  If you ask Luke if he excited for Christmas he will tell you he is.  And the reason?

“We get to unwrap baby Jesus!”

I dare you to be a scrooge in the face of that.

But it has me wondering, “Do we all anticipate Christmas morning with that level of expectation?”  The mystery of the incarnation of the Word should stir our hearts and minds.  The Christ child changes everything.  In putting on flesh and dwelling among us, God affirms his declaration that the creation is “very good.”  If the creation is very good, then that means eating is good, drinking is good, hugging is good, laughter is good, singing songs is good, giving gifts out of love is good…Christmas is very good.

But I wonder, have we been caught focusing on the past?  Has our celebration of the incarnation taken away from our anticipation for the future?

Reading the Old Testament prophets reveals an expectation that the Messiah would usher in the Kingdom of God.  They used pictures like beating swords into plowshares and everyone resting in the shade of their own fig tree (Isaiah 2 and Micah 4).  Redemption and restoration were common themes in their hope for the future.  Paul picked up on this in Philippians 3 when he anticipates the day in which are lowly bodies are transformed into a body like the glorious resurrected body of Jesus.  John shared the hope of the Old Testament prophets and Paul in his Revelation when he envisions the new heaven and new earth, where “there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”  This is the anticipated coming Kingdom of God.

In Acts 1 the disciples were wondering if Jesus would finally restore the kingdom to Israel.  Jesus proceeded to tell them that the kingdom of coming, but it wouldn’t come like the thought or when they thought, but it was coming.  After he ascended, the angels told the disciples that Jesus would one day return and at that time the kingdom would be established.  Many debate when that will be and what it will look like, but that is a secondary point.  The main point is simple: Jesus is coming back!

There was a first advent, Christmas.  As good as that advent was, there is better, fuller, richer advent, Jesus coming back.

So this Christmas, embrace everything.  Eat good food.  Have deep conversations.  Drink deeply of moments with friends and family.  Give good gifts.  Decorate the house.  Laugh together.  Take pictures.  Celebrate well.  Anticipate goodness.

Because Christ came.

And he is coming.

Can God really be kept out?

Recently I have noticed many who profess to be Christians crying out that God has been, or is being, removed from the public square.  From the comments of Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, or the Facebook posts stating that God would love to stop school violence but, unfortunately, he’s not allowed in school (never mind the fallacy of that statement) I fear we have substituted the Lion of Judah for a house cat who needs to be given permission to get on the kitchen counter.  And the one who gives permission seems to be the government.  Tell me, on whose shoulders does the government rest (Isaiah 9:6)?  And who gives the government its authority (Romans 13:1)?

A god who has to be given permission by the government is not a god over the government, but under the government.  And a god under the government isn’t a god whom the government serves, but rather a god who serves the government.  I’m sorry, but the God of the Bible is not a God who serves the government.  He is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the Prince of Peace.

So why would God be unable to enter the school?

Does God only go where we ask him to?  

My guess is the Ninevites weren’t begging God to show up and let them repent.  Nor were the money changes asking Jesus to come into the Temple courtyard.  Or the Pharisees and religious leaders for that matter.  Reading the Bible we see God continually show up where he was not asked to.  The incarnation of the Word of God boldly proclaims that we can’t keep God from showing up.  He will come to where we are, like it or not.  To find us.  To rescue us.  To offer us life.  To redeem and restore us.

The obvious objection to this line of thinking is, “Where was he at Sandy Hook or any of the other tragedies that occur?”

I don’t know.  And that is what makes faith in the face of tragedy difficult.  Faith, in those moments, becomes a choice.  A choice to chose life over death.  A choice to work for justice and beauty.  A choice to look for the good gifts in the midst of hard circumstances.

Faith is a constant choice to believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

And I wonder, maybe it isn’t that God didn’t show up.  Maybe it is that we, the people of God, didn’t.  You know, those in whom the Spirit of God dwells.  Those who are called sons and daughters of God.  Those who are heirs to the same power that resurrected Jesus from the dead.  Maybe we sat idly by, distancing ourselves from any responsibility for the condition of the land by bemoaning and pointing fingers at those who want God removed from the various public squares all the while ignoring the fact that they can’t keep us out.  

It may seem like a small thing.  Me showing up.  I’m not God.  But it is no small thing for the people of God to show up as the people of God.  Jesus said, “And lo, I am with you to the end of the age.”  If we believe that then guess what?

If we go to the school, then Jesus is there with us.

If we sit with the homeless, then Jesus is there with us.

If we listen to the mentally ill, then Jesus is there with us.

If we go where God is not wanted, then Jesus is there with us.

And not just with us in a feel-good sort of way, but he is with us as we bring his shalom (peace, harmony, justice) to this place or to this person.  What if we believed that?  What if we didn’t just cognitively understand that, but what if we believed it to the degree that we lived that?  How might the world be different?

Might we experience the shalom of God more?

Maybe people would stop wondering where God was because they would know where he was.

He was the one looking them in the eye, holding their hand…the one with them.

Reframing our stories

 

Note:  This is adapted from a sermon I preached titled Reframed.

I am more convinced than ever that my life is to be about making disciples.  I believe all of us who say we follow Jesus are not just meant to be church attendees, but we are called to be people who follow so closely to Jesus that we are covered in the dust kicked up by his feet.  We are to be disciples.

As disciples, we are to make disciples.  It is the last command we were given by Jesus.  Go and make disciples.

That’s where it gets a bit hairy.  Just for fun, try this experiment.  Go into your church and start asking people how you make a disciple.  And don’t ask the pastor or a staff person.  Ask someone sitting next to you.  “How do you make a disciple?”  For even more fun, make sure you them how they specifically are making disciples.

Make sure to pass the peace after that.  They will probably need it.

For most of us the idea of making a disciple is daunting for two reasons: 1) We have never been truly discipled and so we don’t have a clue as to what it looks like and 2) We think we are disqualified.

Being disqualified could mean two things.  First, it could mean that we believe we don’t have the right certification to make disciples.  Each of us probably have some mental model about what that certification is.  It might be a seminary degree, or a Bible college degree, or at bare minimum a certification from an eight week Wednesday night class we took at church.  Whatever it might be, in order to make disciples you need this.

Or being disqualified may mean there is something in our past we believe disqualifies us from being a person who can disciple others.  I believe many of us have this belief.

In Philippians 3:13 Paul says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  On the outset, this doesn’t seem like such a difficult passage.  In fact, if we have spent anytime in church or in the Christian subculture, we have probably won a prize playing Bibleopoly with this verse stenciled on it…or at least heard this verse dozens of times.

That doesn’t mean it is easy or simple.

After all, do you have things in your past you regret?  And when I say regret, I am not talking about the unadvised late night trip to Taco Bell that you regretted the whole next day.  I’m talking about something your truly regret.  Something you wished wasn’t there.

Do you have something in your past that you would even say was disastrous?

Ever done anything destructive in a relationship?

If your human, you should have answered yes.  We all do.  Some of us have more regrets.  But we all have them.  Now do this.  Those things you regret, those things you see as disastrous, just forget them.  Forget them and press on.  Get on with your life and leave it behind.  It’s a new day!  Get out and live with no more regrets!

How’s that working out for you?

Do you think Paul is really telling us to forget what is behind us?  Let me ask you this, do you think Paul forgot what was behind him?  Paul, who used to be Saul, was an early persecutor of the church.  His life mission was to find people who followed Jesus and put them in prison or kill them.  He oversaw the stoning of Stephen.  He went to the high priest and asked him to enact a law that allowed him to go into Damascus and bring back refugees who were fleeing his persecution.  He literally hunted men and women down because they believed in the Gospel of Jesus.

Do you think Paul forgot all that?

Of course not!  So how could he say what he said?  I believe Paul could say that he was forgetting what was behind him, not because of anything Paul had mastered or some self-disciplining technique he learned, but because Paul deeply believed the Gospel.

In 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace was not without effect.”  When Paul says this he is seeing his story, which includes all of his past, through the frame of the gospel.  If it wasn’t for the regrets, the horrendous, destructive things he had done then God’s grace on his life would not have been as profound.  For Paul, the things he hates about his past are the same things that make the gospel so sweet.

The gospel screams to the ends of the universe that your past does not define you, but the cross of Christ and the words, “You are my son.  You are my daughter,” define you.

So many of us have heard the words, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” but yet continually feel condemned.  Maybe the reason is we have never let our pasts be reframed by the gospel and so, every time we think of our past we heap condemnation on ourselves.  The gospel frees us of that.  Because if God can extend grace to a murderous, hateful man like Paul, he can extend grace to anyone.

This is the gospel.  It is the power to reframe our stories.  We, then, need to allow grace to reframe our regrets, foibles, disasters and screw-ups.  When we allow our stories to be reframed by the gospel is tells the world a very important message:

God is still working.

How has/is God reframing your story?  Please share, and let’s tell the world God is still working.

Living by Difficult Words

I’ve just had my first viral post. Well, it wasn’t really viral, but when you normally get 30-40 hits per post and you suddenly get 3000+, it feels viral. Admittedly, watching the numbers creep and trying to track where all the people came from has been fun. It has also been quite humbling. But what has been really fun and interesting is finally getting comments on a post. Not that I haven’t gotten them before, but the quantity and range of these comments was much greater. This is what I have wanted for this blog.

I started the blog to continue my learning. I have been learning, for a long time but especially recently, that as I follow Jesus I have more questions and more of a need for a place to sort out my thoughts. My thought in starting the blog was to create space for me, and hopefully others, to do just that.

As I have read the comments and interacted with people on this blog and other social networking sites I have become painfully aware of how intimate American Christianity has become with civil religion.

This isn’t new information. For a long time I have seen churches decide to make good, moral citizens over and above disciples of Jesus. Yes, at times those things are the colored middle portion of the Venn diagram. But at other times they are extremely different. When we say God is the God of the nations, when we say that there is neither Jew, nor Greek, barbican or Scythian, we are saying God is bigger than the nation-state. I have heard many Christians say, “Our citizenship is heaven,” but their actions have betrayed them.

During the events of the last couple of weeks, I wish I would have seen Christians await their “Savior from there” as much as they waited for a chicken sandwich.

I wish we would fight for the kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven as much as we fight for our rights to free speech.

I can’t get away from the difficult words Jesus taught us to live by. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” These words, along with the Golden Rule found in Matthew 7:12, seriously make me wonder, “What does it look like for us as Christians to stand up for our rights?

And even more thought provoking, “Should we?”

Even my gut wants to smack me up side the head and yell, “Do you know what you are saying?!” I do. Honestly I do. And it scares me. But when I read the words of Paul when he says the he counts it all joy to lose everything for Christ and that he wants to share in the sufferings of Christ to become like him I just have to ask myself, “Do I?”

Do we?

I don’t know.

What do you think? What does it look like for Christians to stand up for our rights? Should we? Let’s talk.

Have you ever been truly understood?

Check out my guest post at the Faithwalking blog HERE.
I’m also beginning to see how much I assume as a listener.  I assume I understand what the person is trying to communicate.  So I don’t ask follow up questions.  I assume they know that I know what they are talking about and therefore feel heard.  But that assumption is pretty arrogant.  It is pretty arrogant to think that I understand what they are trying to communicate without being clear about it.  And even if I am right about what they are trying to communicate, it is pretty unkind if I don’t show them that I hear them.  This is an area that I have been working on.  I have really been trying to understand people.  My need for ongoing growth really shows up when I vibrate (get anxious).  In one of the spontaneous conversations I had this week I vibrated and went right back to old habits.  I got competitive which means that I listened to attack and defend.
Even in all that, I can honestly say that I am a better listener.  Just a couple weeks ago my wife and I had a couple over to our house.  They had a matter they needed help sorting out and my wife and I were helping them through it.  After the couple left, my wife and I sat in our living room and “debriefed” the conversation.  At the end of our conversation I asked her, “What did you notice about how you and I worked together?”  Her response is still something I am proud of.  She said, “I notice that you ask more questions than before.”

Sustaining Tension

This week the new RCA Today magazine came out.  In it is a short article I wrote about generating and sustaining creative tension.  All of this comes from the Ridder Transformational Process that I have been a part of for the last three and half years.

This takes courage. It takes courage to purposefully create tension. It takes courage to intentionally rock the boat. It takes courage to accurately and truthfully reflect current reality to people who may not want to see it. For me personally, it takes courage because I have to face into my fears of failing, not being competent, and wanting to be liked. If I don’t face these fears, they will dominate what I do or don’t do. My actions will be driven not by my pursuit of Christ, but by my pursuit of protecting myself. I’m serving me.

No longer interested in church growth

I am no longer interested in growing the church.

For one, I don’t think that is my responsibility. I think it’s God’s. But theological perspectives aside, I am not sure how helpful the language of “growing the church” is, and frankly, I am not that interested in it.

I find myself in a wonderful, confusing, exciting, and anxiety producing situation. I pastor a numerically growing church. We are approaching a couple of different growth barriers regarding size and pastoral capacity. All this means we have to do something different. We have to expand seating capacity in the sanctuary, hire additional staff, and possibly go to a second service. In reality, we probably need to do a combination, if not all of, these three things.

As we consider the options and the practical aspects of these changes I have read countless articles and books on church growth. Many cups of coffee with those who have “grown” the church have been had trying to pick their brain and learn from their successes and mistakes. It is all good stuff, it is exciting to be in this situation, but early in the morning over a cup of coffee I have this nagging thought…

I’m not really interested in growing the church.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to see people come to Christ and I understand people coming to Christ means there will numerically be growth. I want to see the church impact the community to such a degree that it is seen as a resource and refuge to those in local proximity. I want the church to have, not just a local impact, but a global one as well. So please don’t hear me say I don’t want these things to increase or grow. I do.

Church growth, or “growing the church”, conjures up an image of people concerned solely with numerical growth. While there are instances where this is true, in my experience I have found this to be mostly a stereotype. There are many people who pursue church growth with very kingdom minded concerns who are not egotistical or just concerned with building a kingdom to themselves. But because the language of church growth has become associated with strict numerical growth I find myself having to constantly explain what I mean by church growth. So I think I will abandon it altogether.

Here is where I find myself. I am interested in strengthening the church.

Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep.” In other words, “Keep the sheep healthy. Keep them strong.” To be a shepherd and to be successful is to work for the strengthening of the flock. Yes, that includes growing it numerically, but it is so much more. It is increasing the unity of the church so that manifold wisdom of God is proclaimed to the universe (Ephesians 3:10). It is discipleship, which moves people towards deeper obedience so that by the work of the Spirit they are transformed from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is the equipping of the people to live into the purpose God created them for from the beginning of time (Ephesians 2:10).

Which, as pastors – better yet as Christ followers, is what our work as the church should be about.

So what do you think, is the language of church growth helpful? Is there a better way to describe this work?

Being (or not being) Moses

I don’t know if I could have been Moses.

Not because I don’t think I could go and talk to Pharaoh, or because I am afraid of a staff turning into a snake, or because I don’t think I could lead a group of people who grumble all the time. I don’t think I could be Moses, not because of the typical stories we associate with Moses, but because of a lesser known story; his interaction with Jethro.

If you don’t remember the story, let me take a minute to refresh you.

Moses had become the sole arbitrator of tension and conflict among the Israelites. Moses would wake everyday, take his seat as the judge and the arbitrate till evening. People would line up and mill around all day hoping Moses would get an opportunity to hear their case. When Jethro saw this he pulled Moses aside and said, “Your going to kill yourself! Pick out some people you trust to do what you are doing.” Jethro proceeded to outline a system for Moses to put in place so that he could serve solely as the judge between God and the people.

No longer would Moses be the sole arbitrator of the people.  No longer would he be looked to for all the decisions.  No longer would he be seen as the guy with all the answers.

That’s where it would be hard for me to be Moses.

It would have been hard because the moment Jethro would have rolled out his idea I would have known he was right. I know it would have made complete sense and it should be done.

And that’s when the voices would start.

“You idiot! Why didn’t you think of that?!?”

“How can you expect to lead the people if you couldn’t see that obvious solution?”

“Am I fooling myself in thinking I am the one God has chosen for this role?”

Much of my identity has been rooted in how well I perform. It isn’t just about performing well, but it also about being better than others. I have to be honest and say there is an inherent competitiveness to much of what drives me. The competitiveness naturally leads to a winner and loser. And if I am not the smartest, if I don’t come up with the solution, if I am not the strongest chain in the link then I am the loser. My identity then is based on how well or how poorly I perform.

This has devastating consequences on leadership. I have always been told that the best leaders surround themselves with the best people possible. But if you are going to do that, then you better be secure in who you are. Because if your identity is based upon being the best, then you aren’t going to put the best people around you lest they outshine you and dethrone you as the best.  Our anxiety has a profound impact on how we operate in the world.  More acutely, our anxiety can influence us to not make decisions that should be made because of our need to preserve a false identity we believe about ourselves.

I have yet to meet the person who is not allowing themselves to be defined by a false identity.  What do I mean by “false identity”?  As I noted above, my identity was often based on how well I performed.  But that’s not who I am.  I am not how I perform.  That is a false identity.  I am an adopted son of the most high God.  I am the brother of Jesus.  I am someone who was created for a unique purpose in the world.  That’s the identity that should shape me.  That’s the identity that should dictate and drive my actions in the world.  Far too often I forsake my true identity for the false identity, and when I do, my leadership becomes as effective as a flashlight against the sun.

The only way I could be Moses and accept Jethro’s advice without hearing those demeaning and demoralizing voices is if my identity is found solely in Christ.  Only then can I be who God has created me to be.  Only then will I lead out of who I am rather than out of fear or anxiety.

And here’s my guess, the effectiveness of leadership laws or tactics or steps will pale in comparison to leading out of who God has made me to be.

Dream life of Angels

Sometimes poetry allows you to say things more clearly by giving the reader more space. My feeble attempt in describing faith-driven growth.

I want to get up and move                                                                                                more.  The comfort of this                                                                                               couch seems to have shackled                                                                                           me down, not allowing me

to go where I want.                                                                                                                   I struggle against these                                                                                               shackles not for first time,                                                                                                    not for the last, but every day.

I want to get the key                                                                                                                to the shackles, I want                                                                                                      them removed, to get out                                                                                                    and live life, but I’m afraid

my legs will break when I stand                                                                                            for the weight they need to hold                                                                                              is heavy, not changing, constantly                                                                                  forced down by the pull

of an incessant force.                                                                                                        even if I could stand,                                                                                                                 I doubt I could move.                                                                                                            my legs may hold the

unbearable weight, but                                                                                                           to pick them up, balancing                                                                                                    for a brief moment on                                                                                                          just one of them, should surely

cause them to buckle.                                                                                                              I can’t face that, tears roll                                                                                                 down my face, running                                                                                                      from the thought of failure.  I want

that key.  I can see it,                                                                                                                I know what it looks like,                                                                                                      and in my mind,                                                                                                                        I know what it feels like.

I turn away, and look out                                                                                                          a window past myself, past                                                                                                  the consciousness of the shackles.

I am a bird.

I go where I want.                                                                                                             There is no doubt                                                                                                                    in my mind where I will go                                                                                                        I just don’t know where it is.

I don’t really care either                                                                                                             I just want freedom,                                                                                                          going from place to place                                                                                                  flying to get there, watching

the world move below                                                                                                         with nothing to hinder me                                                                                                  here.  I want to open the sky                                                                                               with a key that leads to an adventure                                                                                  and freedom.

I am music.

There are rules so I sound                                                                                                right, so that I resonate with                                                                                                 the one that plays my key.                                                                                                   We become the same and have a

synergy of all other strings played                                                                                          in our key.  I make up the sounds                                                                                          to the dream life of angels.

I am a business man.

The keys to my success are                                                                                               laid out in successive order.                                                                                      Following each one leads                                                                                                       to a satisfying life that doesn’t                                                                                        involve second hand clothing.

I am out of Eden,

shackled to my couch,

ready for life

holding the key.

Balance

This past week I engaged nine people in transformational coaching/discipleship. This is quickly becoming one of the my favorite things about being a pastor. I used to say preaching, which I love, but I am finding that preaching without the one-on-one discipleship is incomplete. This is not to say preaching has lost its place in the life of the church. To the contrary, I still believe the proclamation of the Gospel has a central role in the life of the church. Preaching, when done faithfully, holds the Gospel in front of people, calls them to continued fidelity, shapes the conversation of the church, and gives hope to the hurting. But, for far too long preaching has been overemphasized. Rather than being a component of discipleship (which is the mission of the church), it has become the sole means of discipleship. Of course we would never say that. But by and large, if you ask a pastor what receives the majority of his time during the week, most would respond with sermon preparation.

If we look at the life of Jesus we see him teaching the masses and proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God. But we also see him sitting at the well with the Samaritan women and making his way to Zacchaeus house for dinner. He stands on the mountain teaching thousands, then retreats to a solitude place with his three closest disciples. In the life of Jesus we see a balance of preaching and one-on-one discipleship.

This is also evident in the life of Paul. In 1 Thessalonians Paul writes, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” It is one thing to share the gospel. And that is right and good. But it is another thing to share your life as well.

The question is, “Do we?”

Do we intentionally love another and share our lives with them?

Do we intentionally love another allowing them to share their life with us?

I am convinced that preaching the gospel explicitly is absolutely necessary. I am convinced that, in the proclamation of the God who took on flesh and went to the cross and rose again, conversion can happen. But, I am also convinced that true discipleship happens in the context of relationship. Without the delicate balance of proclamation and relationship, deep, “from one degree of glory to the next,” transformation will not happen.

I am finding that balance. I’m not there yet, but I am finding it. And it gives so much more meaning to what I am doing. My preaching is better because of my relationships with those I am discipling. And my discipling is better because of my study and work in preaching.

And here is the dirty little secret…this balance is transforming me too.