Paths Through the Desert

In Job we get to see something interesting about how God uses suffering to reveal what is in the hearts of humans. Job, a righteous man, suffers immense tragedy at the hands of Satan. While God ultimately restores Job, his “friends” keep coming around telling him he must have done something. His friends are saying God is not protecting Job because he must have messed something up in his relationship with God. “You got your troubles by your own mistakes Job, because God would have protected you if you were really righteous,” they argue.

A while back we went through 1st Peter, another book that reveals how God uses suffering to refine us, to identify us with the sufferings of Christ. God sometimes uses fiery trials to re-form us closer to the image of Christ, the God who suffered for us and suffers with us. This book was written for an audience who was experiencing intense persecution and yet, it kept pointing them back to the example Christ. This experience was not lifted up as something God would protect them from and help them escape, it was seen as an opportunity to be refined.

The fact is God can use suffering, and does use suffering. He uses it to refine us, and every now and then it’s actually good for us. It can shake us out of our complacency and turn us back to God. It can purify our motives. Suffering can draw us closer to God in ways that comfort can actually get in the way of. As John of the Cross reminds us, when we are comfortable, often the first thing to suffer is our relationship to God because we begin to forget how much we really need Him.

The truth is, God seems more likely to use suffering to refine us than we are comfortable with. God is not in the business of handing out golden parachutes, but in raising up true disciples who like Job can weather even the biggest storm this life can throw at us and have our relationship with God remain intact. We might freak out a little bit, but the center holds. God holds us together though the mess. Sometimes God draws us to a desert experience so that we would thirst for Him…to show us we have been drinking from other places than the water of life. Like Jesus in the wilderness God sometimes calls us to travel the way of the desert: The way of trusting God on an unfamiliar path.

God’s grace sustaining us on the desert way—puts us in a place to see things as they really are: We see ourselves, and our relationship with God with new eyes. We see the end of ourselves. We see our dependence on God. We see our utter need, but we also see God sustaining us in ways we never believed were possible. God doesn’t just give us new eyes to see ourselves, He gives us eyes to see our tethers (the things William Penn called cumber). We see the things that control us for what they are…and as they are unmasked we learn to be free of them once again.

Like the children of Israel before the exile, we can limit God. We can mentally trap Him inside a building on Sunday morning, we can even trap Him inside the Bible, if we read it in unbelief that the Spirit is still moving and still leading us today. The children of Israel had a way of seeing God that was bound to the land. It was bound to the Temple, the monarchy. It was bound to the shadow of mount Zion. They would point to the promises of God, but their actions were no longer rooted in the character and nature of God. They no longer depended on God, but on external things. They pointed to the blessing God promised them, but they ignored the warnings about their own part of the covenant. All their encounters with God were past encounters, because they had long since gotten comfortable with their sin separating them from God.

So God called them to Babylon. He would no longer protect them from themselves. He would strip it all away to show them something new. He would show them how as Creator, He was unfettered and free. He would keep His promises on His own terms, not on their terms. He would show them that outside the protections of their armies. Outside the protections of the Promised Land. Outside the elaborate Temple system and blessings of the priests. God was there, even in Babylon. God was not limited by the limitations they tried to put on Him…

God is still trustworthy to sustain us. The same God who parted the Red Sea would also make a way through the exile. After all these things were stripped away, the one thing they would know they could count on would be the promises of God. They would one day get back these blessings they were about to lose. They would one day return to the land they knew, but first a lot of chaff would be stripped away. God had to make them thirsty for the right things once again…

Isaiah writes:

“Look, I am about to do something new. Now it begins to happen! Do you not recognize it? Yes, I will make a road in the desert and paths in the wilderness.  The wild animals of the desert honor me, the jackals and ostriches, because I put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness, to quench the thirst of my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, so they might praise me.” (Isa. 43:19-21)

After a long experience of God stripping me down, revealing the good and the bad motivations for ministry still kicking around within me, revealing the parts of my mind still needing to be held captive by Christ. I went through a long process of letting go all control, and trusting God to lead me once again. It was a process that brought me here, and a process still at work within me in some new ways. Maybe you’re in that place. It is messy to watch something we love fade. To mourn it. And to wake back up to the hope of God resurrecting something new in its place…

We have been through quite a time of testing these last few months at College Avenue. It has been hard to lose so many people we love and walk with them through various trials. These last few months I feel as I have come to the end of myself, and yet broken through to that place where God’s presence floods back in, bringing beauty to the brokenness. God’s Spirit has sustained me recently in ways I could never begin to describe. And as Isaiah reminds us, we can come out the other side of a desert experience with hearts filled with praise. I long for that, for me and for you. I long for God to bring about something new and wonderful, bearing fruits only He can bear in us. We bear these fruits only through being connected to the Vine. Sometimes nothing reveals that like the desert. May our many trials make us thirsty for God, and help us trust Him to satisfy our thirst as only He can. May we learn to trust Him in these uncertain times. May we be grateful for His streams in the desert, filling our hearts with hope and even wonder at the journey. God wants his people to be freed from slavery, and sometimes that means trusting God through the desert, and then finally to the Promised Land beyond it. Let us keep walking, keep hoping, and keep dreaming for the new things God wants to do among us.

Agape,

James

 


God and Country

scalesAs a Christian leader in a time of great division, I recognize the dangers of being too specific about the things that are going on in the world. But I believe in truth, and I believe that the church should be a place where God’s people do not settle for the superficial, a place where deep questions of meaning and purpose are pursued, and where how faithfulness in our world might take shape is held loosely. I believe in the truth, and that our relationship with God is a journey toward not only knowing the truth of God, but truth about ourselves, and our world.

While there is great division and a great need for healing in our world, true peace can never be found in sweeping problems under the rug or walking on eggshells. As people seeking to know and show the love of Jesus with the world, we cannot let fear have the final say. While the church of Jesus Christ shouldn’t simply go around grinding a political axe or adding “public policy” to the gospel, we also cannot ignore the truth. I believe in humility and grace, that the church should be one place where the world can see how people who love Jesus are truly transformed and can “disagree agreeably” and speak the truth in love to one another. Unity is not uniformity, but where people of all stripes join together around Jesus.

But I think we should be able to be specific at times, and despite its controversial nature, I believe there is a movement among the people of God to consider how to lovingly engage the issue of immigration and how we as believers seek justice for the “stranger and foreigner” in our midst and in our world. One of the clearest themes of scripture is caring for the marginalized. Countless scriptures show us God’s heart for the liberation of people who are being oppressed and mistreated, and how God’s righteousness calls us to treat “sojourners” seeking refuge among us (Lev 19:33 among others).

As we explore this issue of immigration together, I want to express first off that I have no intention of using the trust and influence of my position merely to further any kind of earthly agenda or cause. I also want to express that while some may write my concerns off as naive, that I am on an earnest quest to seek the truth with God, and am open to your wrestling with me in that. If you disagree, please help me understand where and why. That being said, I do especially have a concern for the needs of two groups of people in our world today, refugees from Syria and Iraq, and DREAMers.

First, refugees from Syria: I want to begin by acknowledging that though the lines of Syria were redrawn in their final form after WWI, Syria is an ancient place with a rich biblical history. It was Antioch of Syria that followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:25). This ancient hub of Christianity is home to many Christians to this day, who are now desperately facing some of the worst persecution of our time, fleeing terror and tyranny in a refugee crisis at a scale that the world has never seen. In scripture we see it is in fact the church of Syria–who in the face of a famine that spanned the Roman Empire–exemplified extravagant generosity by sending all the money they could muster to help their struggling brothers and sisters facing starvation back in Judea (Acts 11:28-30). Right or wrong, it is our government that destabilized Irag and Syria, and that put our current Christian brothers and sisters in their desperate situation. I understand deeply held concerns about our own security, and have my own, but my greater concern is that if fear of terrorism justifies a refusal to help those fleeing ISIS, have we not let the terrorists win? Are we not, as Christians, obligated to refuse to let fear tell us what is right and what is wrong?

Secondly, the DREAMers: While many people have broken our countries laws and entered illegally, and it is easy to find justification that they should be deported, DREAMers are different. These are people who were brought across the border as children by their parents. Many of them have no connection with their former country, and have only known America as their homeland. Under DACA, these immigrants made a deal to register themselves with the government and even paid their own money to balance out the cost of processing their applications for this low risk status. Now they are quite understandably fearful that they will be the easiest targets for deportation, because of their attempts to seek official status and come out of the shadows.

It is my understanding that Quakers in Iowa long ago found themselves in a similar situation with the hot button issue of slavery: people–who were trapped in a vulnerable position not by their own choice–and who because of the letter of the law, were not accepted as people of value. It was many Quakers who, at great personal risk, stood up to these unjust laws by harboring slaves on their way to Canada, our forebears civil disobedience answered to Christ’s law of love and not popular opinion.

I want to conclude with this: I do not have the answers to these big questions. But I do know that Jesus cares for “foreigners and aliens” and that according to Mt 25, if the Lord blesses us with a tangible way to serve them, it is actually a way we serve Him. The examples of the Syrian church and of the early Iowa Quakers give me great hope that God may once again awaken and “unleash” the church to meet big needs in our day. But if the Lord is awakening His people to meet these needs–and I believe He is–instead of thinking “politically,” let us seek the truth prayerfully. Let us trust that God will present His will, if we have the courage to seek it faithfully together.
Agape,
James Tower


Sacrifice Made Alive

turkey-sacrifice-feastI once heard a friend describe how his experience following Jesus seemed to require two conversions, in one Jesus became his savior and in another, Jesus became his Lord. I had never heard it described that way before, but it fits with my experience too. I came to Jesus on my own terms, and despite knowing I needed salvation, I was not in any big hurry to give Jesus all the keys to all the doors of my life. I still had some skeletons out there. I still had some places where my prayers, though unspoken, were like that of St Augustine who famously described the misery of an inappropriate relationship and his wrestling with God’s call in his prayer, “Lord deliver me, but not yet!”
For me, accepting Jesus as Lord was a call to obedience, to integrity. It called me to look at my actions, and look at what I said I believe—what I wanted to believe—and the reality of my falling short. The reality of where there was a disconnection between what I said and what my life had to say I really believed. The Apostle Paul in Romans 12 puts this kind of spiritual growth where we step out into faith and learn to walk in the ways of God like this:
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I may have come to God on my own terms, but eventually I began to grasp his mercy. I started to see my story in light of God’s gospel story, and the Holy Spirit frustrated me with a kind of Holy frustration. I came to God on my own terms, in a way, but faith started to get a hold of me and meddle with my life. I knew I needed a Savior, that was the easy part. The hard part was dying to my rebelliousness and submitting to Jesus as my Lord.
I think a lot of us like the gray area. We like to have Jesus be our Savior, but we hold back. We do not want to submit. Instead of letting God get a hold of us and have His way in us, we approach life through the lens of what I like to call Jesus+. Jesus + what I was already going to do anyway. Jesus + the career I had already chosen… Jesus + a wife and 2.3 kids, and a comfortable life in the suburbs somewhere. I will follow Jesus, but only if it leads me to where I already want to go. Instead of letting our minds be transformed, we try to transform the things we give God permission to tell us. We want to have it both ways, Jesus as Savior…but not really Lord.

But Jesus+ doesn’t cut it; we need to live a God first life. There is no real growth until we give God all of us. Paul describes it in the form of offering our bodies. It is not how much money you put in the offering plate; it is whether your life is in the offering plate. It is whether your hopes, your dreams, your actual body, are completely in the tank for Jesus. Someone once said God gives where He sees open hands. I think that is true. At the end of the day, God gives us what we really want, not what we say we want… but what we really want. If we want to serve Him, we will find our lives reflecting that. If we want to put on a mask and have a faith that is only skin deep—and not much use for God, we will find that too.

And there is no growth without sacrifice. Jesus calls us to put on his easy yoke, but he also calls us to daily take up our cross and follow him. In the Old Testament, a sacrifice was meant to represent your very best. Not the animal that was going blind, the animal in its prime. It was costly. There are all kinds of stories that show us this, Eli’s sons offering strange fire… Malachi rejecting the people giving sick and lame animals as sacrifices, Ananias and Sapphira wanting the glory of giving it all while lying about holding back… God doesn’t want our leftovers, our leftovers are not worthy of God, He is worthy of our very best. He gave his very best for us. He gave us blessings to his dying breath, and beyond. He offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that paid the ultimate price… and in response to that we are to set our lives apart for him as a living sacrifice. We may die for Jesus…but he asks that we live for him instead.

I know some of you may feel differently than I about prosperity. I believe there are many benefits to righteous living, but there are also dangers. Jesus calls some of the righteous to suffer persecution in his name. I think a lot of people think being a Christian means God will be on your side and give you everything you want. That following God is nothing but rainbows and lollipops, if you just put God first in your life. I believe that is only half true. My experience felt more like Jesus wrecking my life until I understood what God was trying to do!

I think the closer we walk with God the more he changes us to want what he wants, to care about what he cares about. I think when we give our lives to God he takes it and gives our lives back. He takes our plans and then shows us his plan. Our lives become more about sacrifice and service, than about bucket lists and our already decided Jesus+ plans.

This is what worship was always meant to be, not just going through the motions in empty ritual or kept in the box of what happens on a Sunday morning. Worship takes your whole life, not just a few hours one day a week. We have to worship God with everything, our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength.
Only when we put some skin in God’s game do we begin to know the heart of God and his desires for us and our world. Only when we hold our plans loosely, and submit to God’s will… do we truly become a living sacrifice. Sacrifice has to be made alive in how we live our lives.

There are a lot of people who live as though their bodies are their own, as if there can be a disconnect between their behavior and their beliefs. I know it because I did it myself. Sometimes we want a savior, but still want to be masters of their own destiny. We would rather “reign” in hell, so to speak, than “serve” in heaven. But there is a part of faith that is more than simply knowing the right answers; it is about living into the truth. There is a part of growing deeper in God where we have to say, like Isaiah in response to God’s call, “Here I am Lord, send me.” Where we let God renew our minds… where our every action can be an acceptance of Jesus or a rejection of Jesus… where we come to the end of ourselves and humbly come before God as an empty vessel asking to be filled.

Grace is a wonderful thing, and God’s grace abounds, but that doesn’t mean we can have a faith that asks nothing of us. I think it is easy to make fun of people from bible times that worshipped statues made of rocks or sticks. To wonder, why would anyone ever do that? I will tell you why. Rocks and sticks ask nothing of us. It is easy for us to fall into a kind of empty Christianity, where we go through the motions… show up and listen to preaching or hear the songs, or just sleep in… expecting that we can come to the living God, and yet hold back—to be warmed by the fire of his holiness and yet not let ourselves be fully consumed. To pray that prayer of Augustine, “Deliver me Lord, but not yet.” I will follow you later Jesus, after I have made my life everything I want it, and all the big decisions have already been settled. Like the rich young ruler, our comforts sometimes are too heavy to drag with us after Jesus…

But let’s get real, where do you hear God asking for sacrifice? Where is God getting your best? Are you holding anything back, and if so… what is that anchor, what is that chain God wants to break you free from? There can be no real growth without all of you on the altar, your whole life in the offering plate. There can be no real growth if your faith has no room for sacrifice.
Agape,
James


Resolving for More

newyearseve1

It has become traditional for many of us to reflect on our lives in the twilight of one year fading and the next approaching. Often most of what guides that thinking is regrets we want to learn from, or goals we want to strive for. Unfortunately for many who have reflected on their lives, despite the best of intentions, New Years resolutions often burn out before winter even begins to thaw. The Quaker view of simplicity as I understand it has a lot to say about how one might approach this time of reflection. At its core it is about evaluating what produces addiction in us; what controls us. Often we find that we can bend who we are around how we want others to see us, or what pleasures we might lose ourselves in. But the goal of simplicity is not merely sin management, pleasure seeking, or knocking things off our “bucket list,” in short it is more about getting in touch with our truest convictions, and living from them, than it is about “resolving” to add something new to our lives.

One of my growing convictions is that I was made to tinker and create. This does not mean I am not called to be a pastor, but it does profoundly shape how I approach serving as a pastor and how I spend healthy time at play. When I say creativity is one of my convictions, I am not saying creativity is something I value as much as I am saying that I “cannot not” create. The way my mind works and my passions are orientated necessitates I do the life giving work of creating, whether than means writing, building a project in the garage, or developing new skills that help me grow to my potential. Lately I have been playing with metal casting, building a forge, designing an anvil, and learning French. But none of these endeavors have anything to do with resolutions for a new year. They each in their own way, fit into my convictions about living a simple life, as surprising as that might be to hear.

My hope and prayer is that each of you makes space in your life for your convictions to thrive. So much of our lives can easily become more like slavery to a multitude of obligations than growing into who God is calling us to be. As Christians, we have a robust theological understanding of being the body of Christ, and this understanding means our strengths come from our unity and diversity. Indeed we were created to be different on purpose, and yet were each made to work in unison to the glory of God. As our lives lose touch with the wisdom of simplicity, instead of saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things, we often say yes to too many things and only say no when we are drowning. Yet God has a much saner and life giving way for those who would take on the yoke of Christ. If we are hoping to attract others to the way of Jesus we must first demonstrate that the way of Jesus has something more to offer than the hurry and stress of a secular life! As Jesus said, we must examine the plank in our own eye….

While I find myself disagreeing with John Piper about a great number of things, he has an interesting understanding of doing what we were made for he confusingly calls “Christian Hedonism.” Piper defines that as briefly in his statement “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” What Piper means is that as we grow into who God is calling us to be and take on the mind of Christ we will naturally enjoy good Christian things. These things are not limited to prayer and bible study or regularly attending worship, though those are all good things. What I mean is that God will create in us desires for good things, and also a deep satisfaction in doing the things we were made to do. At its core, I think this speaks to the heart of simplicity.

As we approach a new year, let us do more than settle for fleeting convictions fast forgotten. Let us go deeper into the lessons this last year has been trying to teach us about how to be satisfied, not as an end to itself, but as a byproduct of living out our calling and finding the freedom of desiring the will of God to reign in our hearts and minds. A simple life is a life seeking righteousness, earnest faithfulness, and the Holy Spirit convicting us not only of our sins, but of about righteousness (John 16:8). While it may not be the soundest argument about the overall thrust of that verse, I do believe God brings convictions into our lives about how we are to live free from sin, but also how we are to let the righteousness of Christ shape how we live our lives. Paul describes his way of living out the gospel among the Thessalonians as one stemming not “simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). May we strive to live out our faith to those around us in touch with God’s leadings, and in touch with the truest things God is creating in our hearts.

Agape,
James


True Life

good-samaritanIn Luke 10:25-37, an interesting exchange takes place: An expert came to test Jesus, asking what do I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answers him with some questions, “What is in the law? How do you read it?” This of course leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that breathes some fresh life into how God calls us to love one another.

One thing about this story that is often overlooked is Jesus’ response to the man who parrots so well his teachings about the most important parts of God’s instructions, or Torah. The man gives the perfect answer–quoting Jesus verbatim–and in the lull before the man pressed Jesus further, we find these words of Jesus in response, “do this and you will live.” Often, we like to make this text a text about salvation, but I would argue that this Jewish man assumes his own salvation. He would see himself as a son of Abraham, a person already to receive a share of Abraham’s rewards for his faithfulness. His question was not about how to get to heaven or find certainty in his salvation, it was about how to walk closer to God.

If this text is not really about salvation, then what is it really about then as far as we are concerned? In my reading it not about salvation as much as it is about our response to salvation. How does one live into this covenant/law relationship with faithfulness? How does one know they are interpreting the specifics of Torah in the way that God intended and desires? Jesus’ answer is: to Love God and others above ourselves. And to do this full tilt, with our whole selves, our whole lives. If we do this, Jesus says, we will live.

Often I think we embrace the opposite view, that the way to live is to embrace epicurean-ism, to put one’s self at the center of one’s life and seeking to specifically curate our every experience as to have the most amount of fun while experiencing the least amount of pain. The world tells us to loosen up and live in the moment, to be spontaneous and flexible. I think to some extent that is a healthy thing. But character qualities like discipline, commitment, and service are not the logical fruits of majoring in the moment and being enslaved by the pursuit of the relevant. If one would truly seek after the fullness of life with God it will take sacrifice… in fact it will take all you have—your full self. It will take ALL your mind, all your soul, all your strength… it will take the outworking of God’s love in a way that connects with one’s neighbor, that prioritizes others at least as much as one’s self.

If you are up to the challenge, consider taking 20 minutes or so to spend in solitude and reflection. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil, marker, or crayons. Read John 15:17, Jesus’ statement about being the vine that connects us and our fruit to himself. Spend your time reflecting on some of the hard won fruits of your relationship with God, and your relationship with God as expressed through your relationship to others. Fruits are not things you do, those are deeds. Fruits are things that only God can do–blessings beyond ourselves we experience because we are conduits of God’s blessings. Discipline is the soul nurturing soil of the fruit, but God is the only one who makes the fruit grow.

Like the man in the story who tested Jesus, it is easy to know the right answer in our heads. Information is important, but God is just as interested in transformation. God wants to have the truth of His word settle down into our hearts and flow outward into the world. Sometimes it is good to stop, take a breath, and take a fresh look at where we are at and how we are connecting with God, and examine the ways that love shines through to our neighbor. Often we find places in our lives that are on the right track, and some that need a little pruning. May God bring a bountiful harvest as we seek to keep our connection to Him strong, and as we let God’s Spirit lead us into new ways of letting God’s love do its work in us.


Failing Forward

potters-handsJesus said to the church, as he left this world, to “go and make disciples.” He said more than that, but for a second I want to wrestle with a little of what that means. A few quick points up front though: ancient people often gave more weight to what was said at the end of a person’s life. This means there is good reason to think this should be taken as the most important thing Jesus wanted to impress upon us. Next point, though it is often called the Great Commission, in the original Greek this is clearly a command. It is not a suggestion, it is not to be seen as one option among many. This is something God has not only revealed from His will, but something He expects our wills to conform to. And the last thing to get out up front, is that the word for disciple, mathetes, has at its root the idea of being a learner. Being a disciple at its core has to do with learning the way of Jesus, literally doing the things Jesus would do. This requires the heart, a deep commitment and passion for growing in the way of Jesus and being led by God’s Spirit. It requires the mind, an openness to taking the word of God into ourselves and letting it change us. And it requires our strength, there is work to be done. It requires us to live differently, to grow some spiritual muscles and respond with spiritual reflexes. It takes all of us. God will settle for nothing less.  

I have spent a lot of time reaching out this year. I really appreciate the Quaker understanding of “released” ministry, which often has released being used in a financial sense, but I also truly believe a pastor should not be “chained to a desk,” but should be out where the people are. I know that reaching out is a crucial thing, something that is a part of the calling of every person in any every church. It keeps us sharp. It helps us see where God is at work. As clear as the importance is of reaching out is, discipleship is more concerned with what to do when that reaching out actually grabs someone.

God has revealed to us that He is seeking disciples. This is not the same as converts. It is not the same thing even as church attendance. Jesus is offering far more than a regular opportunity for weekly worship. We, of course, DO want people to come and be a part of our fellowship. We do want people to worship with us and be a part of our Sunday morning community. Church attendance alone, however, is not the only metric of discipleship. It probably isn’t even the best metric. It is completely fair to ask the question, if not that, then what is?

I think a person who has embraced becoming a “learner” of the way of Jesus, is primarily concerned with relationships. Relationship with Jesus is first and foremost, but this can’t just be a “God and me only” thing, growth in Jesus happens personally, but also corporately. It is a corporate, not private, faith to which we are called.

Three kinds of corporate relationships are commonly emphasized in discipleship: First there are mentors. Who do I see as a mentor in my life? Thinking in terms of age may or may not be appropriate here. A person could be older and not spiritually mature. But a mentor is not necessarily older as much as more mature spiritually, but even that isn’t quite there yet. The person has to be growing and sharing the wealth of that experience. A mentor is someone who is actively investing in others, concerned about their development. Often this is a “Barnabas,” a person who encourages and challenges people to grow. So who is that person to you? Who is your Barnabas? If you don’t have one, who would make your list of people to ask? Often we have more to lose by not asking, than we do by asking. Who wouldn’t be flattered someone else saw maturity in you they wanted to seek out for themselves?

Next are peers. Peers are people actively growing but who are much closer to the same place of maturity. Small groups and accountability partners are intentional forms of peers, but there are unintentional peers as well. Peers are the easiest kind of relationships because we feel like equals. We often have the same affinities and interests. We feel the most comfortable around our peers, because they are the most like us. Peers walk with us. They are like a “guide alongside.” Perhaps the biggest problem with discipleship in the church is that we are content with surrounding ourselves with peers, but the truth is that God has more growth for us than we can get purely from people who are like us and we feel secure around. It is to “poke the bear” to say it that pointedly, but some things just need to be said.

Lastly is relationships with the people WE are mentoring, people we are actively investing in. To be a disciple is to embrace becoming a disciplemaker. Jesus had the three, the twelve, the seventy, and the multitudes. Imagine how much stronger the church might be if we each had even two mentees in our lives? Again, this does not have to be a physically young person, but a spiritually young person. It would go a long way toward making disciples if each of us could do a bit of soul searching about who we would choose to invest in.  Jesus had twelve he was actively investing in, people he took along with him. He chose them specifically for this purpose. This means choosing is a part of it. We can’t invest in all people equally, so we might consider striving for some old fashioned Quaker simplicity. We have to learn to say no to the right things, in order to say yes to the right things that God is calling us to do. Sometimes that is people in our own families. Sometimes it might be someone with similar interests, or similar spiritual gifts, or just people we see potential in. Sometimes we might need to prioritize “chemistry,” people we find a kindred spirit in. Sometimes it might be simply a burden we have for another person. Sometimes it might be the person to whom we feel a call to simply try and do the most good we can.

Discipleship is not a formula, some kind of “one size fits all” kind of deal. Human relationships are messy things. I do want to offer some wisdom that has stuck with me about the changing roles involved in discipleship:

1) I do, you watch

2) I do, you help

3) You do, I help

4) You do, I watch

There are various things this process could be applied to, but at its core it is about empowering others by passing on opportunities for growth in the way of Jesus. It could be used just as easily in a bible study setting as in a stand alone project together. Too often we just throw people in the deep end and see if they drown. We ask someone to take over a responsibility and we step back, but we offer very little of the middle two roles. The trick is in letting go of control. We want to short circuit the whole process by stepping out too quickly. This is, whether we realize it or not, just throwing people in the deep end of the pool. They need to be guided through this entire process. They need to be invited along and empowered. We have to be very intentional and put the time in in each of these roles, or we will never get to see the torch actually get passed. It might just be a fumble that burns both the parties involved.

I know many people in the church are diehards who would “go down with the ship” if need be. They have served faithfully for years, shouldering many burdens and responsibilities. Out of love for the church they have kept tight control—quality control—over the work of ministry. We justify this with a lot of fears, perfectionism, and talk of the Lord’s desire for us to strive for excellence. But let’s get real, the work of discipleship is intentionally “working ourselves out of a job.” Quality control, at many points, prevents discipleship. It is disempowering, because we are not raising up disciples and passing on experiences that help others grow. We are hogging them to ourselves because that way we don’t have to be afraid. That way we minimize risk. That way we can feel needed, important, busy, and indispensable.

But whether driven by fear or laziness, self serving motives or a sincere desire for excellence, if we do not share the power we have and give people room to fail, and help them pick up the pieces and learn, we are not only not being obedient to the very purpose of the church; we are ensuring a big storm will come that will bring the steeple down in a thunderclap. In not taking others along, and not doing the hard work of empowering others, we are setting up the generation after us to be “in over their heads” even more than we are. The way the world works today, young people are fragmented, disconnected, and unstable in many ways. There are few mentors, few mentees, and a whole lot of peers trying to pretend they have it all figured out. But young people today are not being taught things many older people take for granted, things as basic as how to manage a household, balance a checkbook, even cook a meal. No one has time for this, because it is easier to just do it ourselves so we know what we are getting, and it is faster to do it ourselves anyway.

Our society is very much a society where we throw people into the deep end. But Jesus is calling us to more than this. How can the church through God’s grace offer something better? Jesus invites us to a deep and abiding relationship, and he is inviting others through us to the same—and really, he has used others to bring us this far all along the way. How can our lives live into this reality? How can we be people who God uses to do for others what those who came before have done for us? How can we invite people into relationships where we can share Jesus? Where we can connect youthful, reckless passion and seasoned, hard-won wisdom? How can we let go of control, and use our power to bring others along, and bring them up in the wonderful things God is doing through a church at its best?

These are important questions, questions I will be wrestling with the rest of my life. But make no mistake, it is not about who shows up to worship as much as it is about God, and where God is at work. Weekly worship is a wonderful thing, but it can’t be the only thing. Jesus did not say, just before ascending to heaven, “Come ye into the sanctuary once a week, sing a few songs, listen to some preaching, and try to drag others along kicking and screaming if need be.” Jesus said “go and tell” not “come and see.” Jesus said make disciples—life-long learners of the way of Jesus, not converts—people who gather once a week to say hi to their peers.  Jesus does not ask us to squeeze a bit of God time into our overflowing lives, as they are bursting at the seams… he invites us to become like him. He wants us to grow in being responsive to the call of God. He wants us to be open to letting others speak into our lives. He wants us to play a part in investing in the spiritual lives of newcomers, novices, and even “nowhere to be seen’s” on a Sunday morning. Sometimes God is at work on the front porch, while we are inside biting our lip about the wrong slide popping up and wrecking our favorite worship jam.   

As a pastor, my job is not only to “go” myself, but to send others, and to take others along with me. To use my power to empower others, and share experiences that help each of you to grow. I admit, this is really, really hard and every fiber of my being fights against it. Like everyone else, it is all too easy to neglect the work of empowering others. It is all too easy to play to my strengths and keep control, and do what I can to avoid mistakes and keep everyone happy. But I can’t let you do that, and you can’t let me do that. The truth is, Jesus never intended that for us. To be disciples—learners—means to fail at times. It means “amateurism.” It means risk. It means letting go of control, even watching others fail to help them pick up the pieces and become learners. But this is what being the church really is. It is not a production. It is not what gets printed in the church bulletin. Jesus disrupted the expectations of people in worship one time and the congregation tried to throw him off a cliff. We too can put our expectations before what God might be trying to do, if we are not careful.

I am not asking you to find faults in me. I am not asking you to help me grow into some kind of super hero pastor with a cape on, who can do all things perfectly and never needs anyone else to lift a finger. Sure, I could improve on a lot of things, from preaching to time management to making sure my lawn gets mowed or my kids don’t destroy the house before you come over to visit the parsonage. But the look of squeaky-clean, polished perfection is actually a sign of death, not a sign of life. It is the pristine of the graveyard, not the messiness of a playground where life abounds and maturity is forming. Jesus calls us to the schoolhouse. Jesus calls us to fail at the small things, and to help others “safely fail” at the small things, that we might win at the big thing: making disciples. This is not checkers, this is chess. Jesus is the King, and as his pawns we need to make sure we are playing the King’s game. We each have our power, but not so we can cling to it. I have played chess with many people more concerned with losing their queen—the most powerful piece on the board—than with how the game will end. What is your endgame? To make disciples as Jesus commands us to, we must begin with the end in mind.

Agape,

James     


Mosaic of Love

heartOne of the ways historically that Quakers have attempted to demonstrate the gospel—to proclaim it with their lives—came to be called the testimony of community. Essentially we as a church were once rooted in a robust theology of lived faith, interdependence, and ‘accountability on a journey’ toward greater personal holiness. If a person felt a leading, and the community discerned that leading to be right, the community would back that leading up with tangible action. Traveling ministers like John Woolman and others could never have done the great things they did or touched the lives they touched without the support of the whole community back home that took care of their farms and families to “release” them to pursue the call God had placed on their hearts.

There are some wonderful examples of community lived out in Quaker history that are deeply inspiring. The thing about community though is that it is deeply personal, and requires great humility and vulnerability. To be the community God intended requires us to practice forgiveness and grace, take loving risks—and really—it requires a kind of covenantal model where we are truly committed to God and each other in ways that require service and sacrifice. The ties that bind us together in Christ, become far stronger than those forces that would tear us apart.

My Quaker Values students are often amazed when they first lay eyes on a Quaker Wedding Certificate and I tell them about the accountability involved…where when a couple sought a divorce they would seek out the people who signed it and tell them why; or when they hear about a young couple using a clearness community to invite the community into discernment around things like whether to get married, buy a house, or choose a major. I think this clearly evidences the reality of our American sense of “rugged individualism” and independence, and while I admit there are many good things that comes from growing in maturity and self reliance, community it seems is not one of them.

Community requires quite a bit of vulnerability and trust, and these things seem to be in short supply in our often fragmented and disconnected world. Fear of legalism or abuse is very real, as many a personal experience of those who have left church behind could testify to… but I wonder at times how much greater the impact the church as a whole could have as salt and light to our society if we could reclaim a bit of our Quaker theology and heritage by embracing more of a corporate model of faith.

My theology is very much steeped in the idea that being created in the image of God means we were created for community. The Trinity itself shows us that God exists as a kind of community… a community early church fathers such as Basil described as existing in “perichoresis” a sort of inter-penetration, which some modern theologians have likened to a dance. We were never created to be alone, to feel isolated or to feel alienated. We were created to share love, and that seems to take more than one actor to be a lived reality. Love is a verb, an action word. Love, by its very nature, seems to require expression. It is a gift that cannot be kept under a basket, but must be shared.

Proverbs 27:6 says “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” And sometimes sharing love requires someone to love us enough to risk offering guidance and correction, not from a “holier than thou” place of judgment, but from a place of humility and love and freedom. I have recently had a few people show me this kind of love and for me, as awkward as it can be, it is also very freeing. It offers a place for the rubber to meet the road in my spiritual journey. It helps me to realize I have not “arrived” and still have a lot of room to grow along the path of Christ-likeness I am walking, but it also helps me see that I am not walking alone, that others care enough about our relationship and my growth to invest time in me.

In community, we all have our perspectives—perspectives that are very real. In fact for us, these perspectives are our reality. Somehow by God’s design, the human eye has a blind spot our brains tune out, right at the very center. We tune out that blind spot so well because we have two eyes, and many of us have long forgotten it exists and can’t even make themselves see it again. Community puts us in that place where inevitably we have to confront our blindness. It puts us in a place where we see the limits of ourselves and recognize that we need each other, that with more “eyes”—more spiritual gifts and talents—we better become the body of Christ alive and become alert to the needs of the world. We each have our perspectives, our piece of the puzzle that is our part of God’s tapestry-like story of the redemption of the world. In the spiritual community the voiceless is voiced, the blindness finds its sight as we find our place in the body, and we discover our calling and where we thrive in service to the kingdom of God.  

Something I have found useful though is a visual tool called Johari’s window: Here is what it looks like:Johari_Window

One of the things it offers me is the reminder that there are things about me known by others but unknown to me, and there are things about me known only to God I or others may never even discover. Many of us are so used to living on the left side, the known side, that we have forgotten that there is still some mystery, some blindness in our perspective for good or for bad. But the truth is there are things about us that will only come out in community as we share our love and lives with others, and there will also always be certain things only God will reveal to us… if and when He chooses to do so. There are dimensions of growth that we are so out of our depth we need nothing short of illumination from God and the worshipping community. It is a part of being human.

As I have said, I have been this last month or so, breaking free of some of these boxes. I have been encouraged by exhortation, as well as correction and admonition. I can also say that though this sort of growth is not easy, it is immensely valuable. I have for instance asked for some accountability in certain areas of my life, and because of the vulnerability and love involved, God has blessed me in ways that I cannot help but be grateful for. I am so grateful the “wounds of a friend can be trusted” and that I have room in my life for more than an echo chamber of my own making, my own agenda, or my own ego. Rather I have room in my life for God to use others to speak into my life and help me take the next step with a little less blindness. Sometimes He even uses me to do the same…

I know I am not perfect. I know I make mistakes. I know I need God’s grace. I know at times I need to stop and ask for forgiveness, or offer it to others. And I know I am not alone in this reality that others are struggling in their own ways. And also, that they are finding victory in their own ways. I want to encourage you, as we enter this Autumn season, to think about the role community plays in your life, and the role you play in our College Avenue Community. We all have our issues, our unique obstacles to overcome. We all have our unique mix of strengths, weaknesses… passions and drudgery. But to be the body of Christ, we need to learn to trust and rely on one another… we need to learn to work together as a team, and hold our pieces of the puzzle loosely in the face of God’s will being revealed to us.

Walking together means walking in vulnerability, humility, and ultimately freedom. But we can’t forget we make the path by walking together. In our holy nudgings toward discomfort and growth, we also gain a greater sense of God’s peace and a better understanding of ourselves. If I have learned anything as a disciple of Jesus it is that ignoring hard truths is a path leading only toward destruction and death, not the new life that God offers us.  But I have also learned that Jesus IS present and active in community—in his body—and that where all our blind spots converse honestly, with open mindedness and willingness in an earnest desire for God’s will to be done, God not only gives grace; He gives freedom. Those the Son sets free are free indeed, but we each make the decision of how free we will let ourselves become. Often our fear of vulnerability robs us of the blessings God wants to give us. It robs us of the body, functioning fully as a body. It robs us of perhaps our best way of seeking the future; by doing it together.

Agape,

James                                                                                                                        

 

 


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