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.

Following Jesus means giving up EVERYTHING

Luke 5 records Jesus calling his first disciples. In both instances, in the calling of Simon Peter and Levi the tax collector, Luke notes they “left everything and followed him.” That jumped off the page when I read it. Jesus extends them an invitation to follow him, and they drop everything and follow. Right there, on the spot. It is recorded in another place in Luke’s gospel that others wanted to take care of their affairs before they followed Jesus and Jesus basically told them they could take care of those things or follow him. But they couldn’t do both. And they weren’t insignificant things. It wasn’t like they wanted to go check Facebook one last time. No, one person wanted to bury their father, and the other wanted to say good-bye to their family.

But Simon Peter and Levi dropped everything.

Everything.

Most of the time when we read that they dropped everything to follow Jesus we picture them leaving their boats, their nets, their tax collector booth, and their other possessions. And that’s all true. But they also left their families, their houses, and their careers. That doesn’t mean they never saw their families again. We know they stayed at Simon’s house as Jesus healed his mother-in-law. But they were willing to. Those who followed Jesus turned their lives upside down for three years to be near him and learn from him.

Those who followed Jesus gave up everything.

Everything.

They gave up their expectations, understanding, and hopes about what the Messiah would do. We see them struggle with this even after the death and resurrection. In Acts 1, after spending time with the resurrected Jesus they ask, “Are you now going to establish your kingdom?” They still believed Jesus was going to build an earthly kingdom like they had grown up believing. But they had to give this up to really follow Jesus. In order to live into the mandate they were given to make disciples, they needed to give up trying to build an earthly kingdom.

The disciples had to give up their desires for success. We see an argument between James and John about who is greater and who will sit at the right hand of Jesus. When Jesus confronts them about this conversation, he turns their understanding of recognition and privilege upside down by saying the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Over and over again the disciples had to give up their prejudices. Prejudices against the poor, the righteous, the Samaritans, children, prostitutes, religious leaders and themselves. When we follow Jesus we are called to give up everything.

Following Jesus is one of the most difficult things I have done with my life. And the reason it is so difficult is precisely this idea of giving up everything. It is one thing to give up possessions, but giving up the prominence my family gets in my life is difficult. Many in ministry make a commitment, and rightly so, to not sacrifice their families on the altar of ministry. Far too many families have suffered from being treated as second fiddle to a pastor’s ministry. But at the same time, to follow Jesus, and to be willing to leave family means that one cannot sacrifice following Jesus on the altar of family. Personally, I find this a difficult, but good, tension to live in.

Many of us have worldviews that are based more on political ideologies than the teachings of Jesus. Many of us live our of our self-protections rather than our trust in a sovereign God. Too many decisions are made because of idols we cling tightly to rather than making decisions out of a decision to follow Jesus with everything. But following Jesus means we give up everything. It means we give up our world views, our ideologies, our desires, our idols, our insecurities, and whatever else we give authority to in our life. If we are to become like Jesus, which is what following Jesus is all about, then we must give up everything.

Everything.

So what are you holding on to?

What have you not given up to follow Jesus more closely?

Content

I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing. I’ve got a perfectly brewed cup of coffee to my right. A beautiful balance of earthy aroma dancing with a sweet acidity that makes me relish the warmth hitting my stomach. I’ve got music playing in my earphones, but not loud enough to drown out the ambient noise of conversations and the coffee machine. I just turned on my phone to check the time and saw the picture of my family on the home screen. God, their beautiful.

I’m feeling one thing…

Gratitude.

Gratitude for the life I live. Gratitude for the family I have. Gratitude I have for the comforts I am afforded. Gratitude for the abilities I have. Gratitude for the work I am called to. Gratitude for the grace extended me to experience all this right now.

Gratitude.

We move fast. Furiously fast. Fast enough to never be content. As I slow myself down a bit today, I can’t help but wonder, “Does contentment escape our grasp because we move too fast to catch it? Can contentment only be obtained when one slows down enough to grab hold of it?”

I think of all things I am trying to grab hold of. Some of them are honorable, others, not so much. I’m not sure the couch that makes bacon at the press of a button is an honorable desire, but it would be awesome. But all of the things I chase after are things I believe will bring me contentment. If I just get this….If I just obtain this….If I just get to this point…. The reality is grasping for another thing will not bring me contentment. To grasp contentment I need to grasp for contentment. Not another thing. Not another recognition. Contentment.

Which means looking at what I have to drink deep of those things now. My life is filled with good things and, unfortunately, I do a half-assed job of enjoying them. No wonder I am not content! I don’t even fully enjoy the things I have!

But here’s the insidious thing. To not be content is to not live in the present. Presently there are beautiful things in front me. And I could miss out on this, not even noticing the beautiful taste of this cup of coffee I am drinking, if I am thinking about what is next. Discontentment is simply a sign that we are not fully present to what is in front of us right now. In this moment.

This song.

This cup of coffee.

This conversation.

This person.

This grace.

Fully present, deeply enjoying these things, I am grateful.

And content.

Hide and Seek me and you will find me

The other day I was playing with my almost two-year old son Luke when he informed me we would be engaging in an rousing game of hide and seek.  Now, in our house, under Luke’s rule (and yes I meant “rule” not “rules”), playing hide and seek means he tells us where to hide.  He will then go wait for us to hide, and then we yell for him to come and find us.  It’s a rather short game.

This time Luke told me to hide in a little nook created by the wall, chair, and couch in our living room.  I hid, he found me.  He then told me to hide there I again.  I hid, he found me.  Again he told me to hide there.  I hid, he found me.  Once more he told me to hide there.  But this time I wasn’t going to play along.  My competitiveness (yes with my 2 year-old.  Don’t judge me) and my desire to teach him the world doesn’t work that way (yes with my 2 year-old.  Don’t judge me) kicked in and I hid behind the couch.  I didn’t move far, just far enough that he wouldn’t be able to see when he looked to where he thought I was going to be.

I called for him to come find daddy.  He looked.  I wasn’t there.

“Where’s daddy?”

“Daddy?”

Luke began to wander around the living room asking where I was.  He wasn’t anxious or worried, just confused.  And he really wasn’t looking hard.  He just sort of stood in the middle of room where he could see where I should have been.  Even though he knew I wasn’t in the previous spot he continued to stand and look at that one spot saying, “Where’s daddy?”

As I hid and listened to him these verses popped in my head.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” -Jeremiah 29:13

 

“Seek and you will find.” -Matthew 7:7

How often do we really seek God out?  With all our heart?

Or do we tell God where he should go hide so we can find him?  And then when he isn’t where he supposed to be we begin to wander aimlessly, casually calling to see if he will answer, but we don’t really look.

Not really.

We just continue to do what we have always have done hoping that God will show up where he has in the past.

How many times have we experienced God in a moment of worship, or on a mission trip, or reading a book, or by some routine only to find those things are later ineffective?  So we experienced God during a time of worship with a particular song, and now that song becomes the go-to song to find God, but after a while its ability to bring a transcendent experience dries up.  But yet we continue to go back to it.  In our minds, this is how you experience God.  Or it’s this book,  this preacher,  this type of mission work, this routine or whatever.  And what used to work, no longer does.  But we don’t try something new.  We don’t look harder, we begin to blame the thing.  The book isn’t deep enough.  The song is too poppy (which is probably true).  This preacher isn’t as good as that preacher.  Now the thing that was the vehicle ushering us to the presence of God becomes the thing we go to in order to experience God rather than going to God to experience God.

God isn’t in the book or the song or the sermon, he is in you.  And that isn’t some New Age bull, that’s the Bible.  Paul said, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”  In Colossians Paul says the mystery of the faith is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

The questions is, if that is true, what does it mean to seek God with all your heart?

I don’t think it means finding your true self.  That’s hogwash.  Your true self is found when you find Christ.  Your true self isn’t rooted in you, but it is rooted in your heavenly Father who calls you son or daughter.

We find more of God in our lives when we begin to live more of God’s life in our life.  The reality is most of us know everything we need to know about being disciples of Jesus.  We know.  We don’t do.  Therein lies the secret.  If you want to experience more of God, if you want to seek him with all your heart, if you want to find him, then do what he says.

Jesus says, “If you hold to my teachings (read, if you obey my teachings) then you will really be my disciples, and you will know the truth; and the truth will set you free.”  Experiencing more of God does not come through more songs, more worship services attended, more sermons listened to, or more books read.  Experiencing God comes from living more of God’s life.

And the only way you will do that is if you, truly with all your heart, want to find Him.

 

What we do

This past weekend I spent a lot of time playing with my son.  Sarah had to work, met with some friends and took sometime to herself (which mother’s deserve!) and that meant I got to spend time with my son.  Let’s be clear, in no way am I complaining.  I thoroughly love spending time with Luke.  We play with tractors, we (he) goes down the slide we brought in the house during the winter months, we listen to a lot of music, we dance (in case your wondering he inherited my Dutch dancing ability), we wrestle and read books.  As his ability to learn has begun to match his curiosity the world, for both he and I, has become a lot of fun to explore.  I relish these times because I know this season will lead to another season.  That season will be good and full of joy, but it won’t be this season again.  So I will drink deep of this one now.

But that’s not what I want to write about.

As I was reflecting on my time with Luke I was struck with this thought.  For all the activity we did this week, none of it made me a father.  Playing tractors with Luke, hiding under the covers of the bed with a flashlight, reading books and changing diapers; none of it made me Luke’s father.  A babysitter could have done all that just as well.  And they would have been a babysitter, not a father or mother.  I am Luke’s father, not because of what I do, but because God saw it fitting that we should be blessed with Luke.

In the same way, I am not a Christian by what I do.  I am a Christian, a Christ follower, a disciple, because of God’s divine love towards me and the Spirit’s softening of my heart to be stirred with affection for Christ.  And that shapes what I do to be the things a Christ follower does.

This seems so straightforward, and yet, for all it’s simpleness we continue to return to the idea that what we do determines who we are.  If I stay away from rated-R movies, don’t drink beer, don’t cuss, don’t cheat on my spouse, don’t listen to certain music then I am a Christian.  Or maybe we should say it in the positive.  If I do go to church most Sundays, if I do volunteer and serve at church, if I do give some money to church, if I do go on a missions trip then I am a Christian.  But what we do (or don’t do) doesn’t determine what we are.

This isn’t to say that what we do is of no importance.  The reality is that if I am a follower of Christ, then I am going to do and not do a lot of those things.  But outward actions are not determinative of my heart’s affections for Christ.  Rather it is reverse.  My heart’s affections for Christ are determinative of my outward actions.  This is what James was getting at when he says, “I will show you my faith by what I do”  (James 2:18).  So the truth is that what we do is of extreme importance as it is evidence of our saving faith.

For some, this means they need to stop trying to become something by what they do.  Still for others it means they need to start doing.  And then for many it means we need to stop trying to judge who is in and who is out.  Because here’s the thing, I can’t see the heart.  Which means the only thing I can see regarding someone’s faith is their outward actions.  And sometimes those actions are done because of the heart’s desire for Jesus.  And sometimes those actions are done because they are trying to earn approval from Jesus.  But I cannot tell the difference.

I can only give grace.

Which is exactly what has been given to me.

 

Imitation as discipleship

In my last post I made mention of how the scriptures show discipleship happening in the midst of relationships. More specifically we see discipleship happening when one person is called to imitate the life of another as they imitate Christ.

See these scriptures.

You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia–your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.
​​​​​​​​​1 Thessalonians 1:6-9

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.

​​​​​​​​​Philippians 3:17

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me– put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
​​​​​​​​​Philippians 4:9

We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.
​​​​​​​​​2 Thessalonians 3:9

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1

I wonder, how many of us would be comfortable calling someone to imitate us? Maybe we should be.