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.

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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.”

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?

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.

 

Leading the weak: It’s not about leadership

Edwin Friedman, in his book A Failure of Nerve, makes this observation regarding a pervasive problem in contemporary American institutional leadership.

There is a regressive, counter-evolutionary trend in which the most dependent members of any organization set the agenda and where adaptation is constantly toward weakness rather than strength, thus leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution rather than toward the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated.

When I first read this quote by Friedman I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. It makes great sense if you are leading a company or organization, but I lead a church. To me, it didn’t seem like this idea had any place within congregational leadership. After all, Jesus described what he came to do by telling the story of the shepherd who left the 99 sheep to go after the one. Or there is Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 that we should be mindful of the weaker brother or sister and not do anything that would cause them to stumble. With this in mind, I assumed it unloving (and therefore poor leadership) to do something that would leave a brother or sister behind.

For example, I have been pushing our congregation to become more involved in discipleship and mission. Becoming involved with these things requires a lot of change, commitment and sacrifice. At one point a member of the congregation came up to me and said, “What you say, and what you are asking of us, makes me uncomfortable. I don’t believe God wants me to be uncomfortable.” Everything in me disagrees with their idea that God doesn’t want us to be uncomfortable, at least in how they were defining comfort. If God didn’t want us to be uncomfortable he wouldn’t have had Moses go stand before Pharaoh, or the Israelite’s wander in the desert for forty years, or make the disciples take the lunch of a small boy to feed five thousand people. I think God is less interested in our comfort and more interested in our continued growth into the image of his son, Jesus Christ.

But I didn’t say this to the person standing in front of me.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but what I said was in effort to make them feel better and to calm their fears about the church moving in a direction that would make them uncomfortable. Why did do this? Because, in my mind, this was a more loving thing to do.

Friedman states I am not alone here. The trend he noticed in American leadership is leaders won’t move or make decisions unless the most anxious, the most unwilling to move, are willing to go with them. In an institution that values consensus, like a church, this sounds like good leadership. The problem in catering to the demands and fears of the least motivated is that the most motivated individuals are demotivated. In the long wrong, the institution suffers, movement/change is minimal, and the potential impact of the leader is sabotaged.

So what do we do with the idea that Jesus goes out of his way for the one, and instructs us to look out for the weak?

First, I think having concern for the weaker brother or sister in light of Romans 14 as a basis for institutional leadership is bad exegesis. But I won’t get into that here.

Second, and more importantly, God doesn’t want the weak to stay weak. Together Psalm 139 and Ephesians 2:10 tell us God uniquely wired us and gifted us according to his plan, to do good works which he prepared for us to do in advance. That doesn’t sound like a God who wants the weak to stay weak.

Nor is it loving to let the weak stay weak. What parent doesn’t want their child to grow in independence and confidence and ability and courage? Is it not loving for a parent to give their children opportunities to grow? Is it not loving for a parent to call those traits out of their children? Of course it is. So why don’t we do this for children of our heavenly Father?

This isn’t just about leadership in the church. This is about discipleship. Leadership in the church is simply disciples making disciples. In the church, leadership isn’t about learning a new technique to cast vision. It isn’t about learning how to gain consensus for a new program. It isn’t about learning new language for conflict resolution. It is about discipleship. And discipleship is about teaching people to live like Jesus. Discipleship isn’t about teaching people more information about Jesus (although that’s part of it). It isn’t about teaching people new behaviors (although that’s part of it). Discipleship is about calling people to live bigger than they currently are. Think of it, who were Jesus disciples? Fisherman. Fisherman who changed the world. That sounds like a bigger life than most would have guessed out of fisherman.

Leadership in the church isn’t about letting the weak stay weak, it is about giving grace to the weak so that, through discipleship, they can be strong.

Which means they aren’t catered to, but they are called.

And often uncomfortable.

Would you follow you?

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Matthew 28:19-20

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

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

It is evident from the scriptures that, as Christians, we are to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.  For most Christians this is a given.  What is not a given is how we are to fulfill that command.  It has been startling for me to read passages like 1 Corinthians 11:1 and Philippians 4:9 where Paul calls others to simply do what he does.  Paul is literally saying, “Do you want to follow Jesus?  Do you want to know him more?  To you want to experience more grace in your life?  Then do what I am doing.  Live like me.”

Which isn’t all that revolutionary.  It is exactly what Jesus told us to do in The Great Commission.  “Go and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  In John 14:12 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.”  For three years Jesus showed the disciples how to live and what it means to be human, and then he commissions them to go and teach others how to live.

Discipleship modeled for us by Jesus and Paul is simply calling others to follow what we are doing in our pursuit of Christ.

The question that looms is, “Would I follow me?”

I answer the question very tentatively at first.  The answer I give says a lot about how I view myself.  Answer “yes” and I look a little arrogant and probably disqualify myself from being someone worth following due to an under developed sense of humility.  Answer “no” and, outside of the obvious “you aren’t worth following because you don’t think your worthy to be followed, you might not be worth following because a lack of confidence and/or  false humility.  It is a tricky question.

So let me as honestly as I can answer the question.  Would I follow me?

No….

….but that’s a qualified ‘no’.

Here’s why I say it is qualified.  I don’t say ‘no’ because I think I lack character, or vision, or that I would be ashamed to have people see how I live.  The reason I would say ‘no’ is altogether different.  Looking at the lives of those who I wanted to follow and who have discipled me, I see a characteristic in them that is absent in me.  Those to whom I have sought to model my life after have been people who push me.  They ask me to do things I didn’t know I could do.  They ask me to examine myself and stretch myself.  At times in ways I don’t want to stretch.  And it is always hard to say ‘no’ to these people because I see them doing the same things of themselves.  They push.  The desire.  They ask for more.

The reason I say, “No, I would not follow me” isn’t because I don’t think I’m not a person worth following.  I say ‘no’ because I have not been a person who asks something of others.  And this isn’t just limited to asking things of those who have followed me, but asking in general.  I typically don’t ask for help.  A few months ago I wanted to ask someone to be a mentor to me, and it scared me to the core.  I had to be forced to ask for what I want.

As I reflect back on those relationships in which I was discipling someone, I have to regrettably admit that I didn’t ask well.  I didn’t ask them to push themselves.  I didn’t ask them to do more than they thought they could.  I didn’t ask them to make bigger steps in obedience to Christ.  I didn’t ask them to consider more of the Kingdom of God.  I didn’t ask them to follow me.  Consequently, their growth as followers of Jesus wasn’t what it could be.

Neither was mine.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  Okay, there is one reason expressed a lot of different ways:  fear.  I feared I would be seen as demanding asking people to push themselves.  I feared I would be seen as seen as arrogant because I “knew” what someone needed to do to step into the kingdom.  I feared the accountability that kind of relationship fosters.  I feared if I explicitly asked them to follow me, they would say no…

…so I didn’t ask.

One of the more paradigm shifting ideas I am learning is that it is okay to ask.  In fact, as a leader it is necessary to ask.  Learning how to ask someone to be better than they believe they can be is the essence of what being a good leader is all about.  It is the essence of making disciples.  Jesus asked fisherman to follow him so they could be more than they, or anyone else, imagined they could be.  Who thought a bunch of fisherman from a small village could change the world?  But he asked.  He asked Nicodemus to stop trying to wrap his mind around the idea of being born again and step out in faith.  He asked the rich young ruler to sell everything.  He asked Zacchaeus to lunch.  He asked a young boy for his lunch in order to feed five thousand people.  He asked John to care for his mother in his absence.  He asked the disciples to lose their life.  He asked.

If this is what Jesus has done, then this should be what I am doing.  So I am learning how to ask.

So for my first ask…

Would you follow you?