Tag Archives: Quaker spirituality

Some Thinking on Thankfulness

While not a very religious holiday, Thanksgiving is still my favorite one to celebrate. This has to do with my love of gathering loved ones around a table in fellowship. It truly is the great American love-feast, and often comes the closest many of us ever experience in our culture to the table fellowship of the early church (or for that matter the holy feasts of the Old Testament). There is something holy in the love that our green bean casseroles were made with. There something holy (and wholesome) about dedicating a day to spend together with family thanking God for His providence.

Thanksgiving seems to break through our individualistic culture and provide a sorely needed excuse for togetherness. In our fragmented and disconnected world, there is something that food and fellowship around a table provide, that I believe, is sorely needed. It gives us an opportunity to invite in that weird uncle or aunt or neighbor who sees the world so differently than we do, and to love them where they are (not as we want them to be). As Quakers, we believe that everyone is imbued with the image of God; that all people have value. At Thanksgiving, many of us put that commitment to love our neighbor to the test! We need this grace to us more than most of us are willing to admit.

As an Osky transplant, I am blessed with a newcomer’s perspective. I see the many things about this community that are amazing. For me, it has been kind of like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, in a very good way. I think as a community we have a lot of things to be thankful to God for, and that joining together in worship to celebrate God’s rich bounty is something that is worthwhile. While there may be theological differences and a variety of ways people experience God in worship in this community, I bet one thing we could all agree on is God’s goodness to us. This one brute fact should inspire us to live out our love modeling Christ’s example. If God truly loves us–US–warts and all…that should fill us with excitement.

In my Quaker values class I teach regularly about simplicity, something I like to define for a largely secular audience as “saying no to some things in order to say yes to the right things.” I regularly do an exercise where I have the students physically stand in the left, middle, or right side of the classroom to show their response (agree, unsure, or disagree) to an intentionally vague statement. This really gets people talking because they have already made a statement in their walking. For the week on simplicity I pose the statement “having lots of money will automatically make a person grateful, happy, and enjoy a meaningful life.” I am always surprised with how this exercise reveals. Some, see money as giving a person the freedom to pursue a life of meaning unhindered. Others, resonate with money’s power to magnify good or problematic areas of a person’s life. They acknowledge statistics about high levels of suicide among lotto winners, and recognize that in many ways, massive wealth could undermine the things in life they value the most.

This is a crucial step in the class’ journey of exploring the intersection between simplicity and gratitude, something few of us wrestle with openly. To get the class moving in this direction, I read a quote from Robert Fryling’s book The Leadership Ellipse that asks such an important question:

“…Gratitude is the involuntary response of the heart to all aspects of life and ultimately to God. It is not based primarily on circumstance. Some of the most grateful people in the world are the poorest, while many that are rich often are characterized by their lack of gratitude as they seek to acquire more money or fame. If this is the case, what then makes us grateful, or how can we be more grateful people?”

I think how we answer that question powerfully shapes the direction of our lives.

It is easy for many of us to always focus on what we have not attained, to be driven (consciously or not) by our fears or pride, or other people’s expectations. Few of us ever stop and be grateful.

One girl, who warned me on the first day of class that she struggled immensely in all of her attempts at religion classes, ended the course having a spiritual awakening and getting involved in a local church. As she presented her journey of exploring simplicity, she found such freedom that as a part of her relationship with God, she had someone to be grateful TO for her many blessings and the beauty of creation. This, among many other extravagant luxuries, are easily taken for granted by us Christians. But at the end of the day–each day–so much of how we see the world is shaped by where our focus lies. We daily have a choice of what we choose to focus on–the blessings we haven’t yet received, or the ones we have. We can allow gratitude to fill our hearts…or jealousy. The only one who chooses this, is you or me.

How DO we become more grateful people? I think grateful people focus less on the negative aspects of their current circumstances, and more on their many blessings. It is easy to fall into the same trap as the nightly news which is basically to focus only on the terrible or controversial things that happen in the world, and to do so until we find ourselves ever torn between reeling in fear and addicted to outrage. There is a story of three couples–freshly moved to town–who encounter an old man on a bench. In separate encounters, he asks each of them, “What was it like where you came from?” One couple said everyone was always gossipping and backbiting, another that people were always looking down their nose at others as they kept up with the Jones’, and the last said that there were many wonderful people with friendships that had deepened over dozens of years. The man on the bench responded to each couple with the exact same answer, “You are going to find a lot of that here too.”

As Christians we are going to find a lot of what we are “looking for” as well. We may see slights or grace, good or evil, the fallenness of people or the faithfulness of God. Whatever we want to see more of we will find. But we seem to need extra grace to do as Paul exhorts in Phil 4:8,

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Scott Mcknight once said “Tables build societies.” How might Thanksgiving be an opportunity to see God’s value in all people? How might some food, fellowship, or even board games around a table be an opportunity to share God’s love? That table of old where Jesus sat with his rag-tag disciples transcended the differences between a radical zealot and his nemesis a tax collector. It brought together rough and tumble fishermen, and even had room for a traitor like Judas. There is something about Thanksgiving that connects us to the table Jesus shared long ago, and reminds us of the Great Wedding Supper of the Lamb to come. I believe it is there to find for us, if we are willing to let God give us the eyes to see it.

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Stay Hungry

Have you ever trained for something? Whether its music or sports or preparing for a final exam, training takes a lot out of you. It can be exhausting. But some of us, who have had our passion inflamed, who have felt a clarity of our callings, find a love that sustains us even as we train. Training takes a certain kind of obsession to be effective, because training is work and work takes energy and time.

I think in our day people value talent, but loath training. Talent is valuable, but the truth is, it can get in the way of training because people feel like they have arrived. Raw talent is an inspiring thing, but it is just that: raw. And some people who already have it feel like they have nothing left to learn, no new heights to obtain, and as the old saying goes the good can be the enemy of the best.

Paul writes in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” One of the blinders that needs to come off in the spiritual life is the blinder that tells us, “We have arrived. We have attained. We have taken ahold of what Christ has for us and now we can stop training and get comfortable. We can cash in our chips and punch out for the day.”

But as the Body of Christ we are a Body in training. We have not arrived, we still have a lot of work to do. The question before us isn’t simply whether we will do this work or not. The question before us is, have we lost our passion? Our focus? Are we missing the fuel that will sustain us? The clarity of calling? The hope of arriving someday? Paul points this out in his words: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Renowned scholar N.T. Wright translates this: “No, I am hurrying on eager to overtake it, because King Jesus has overtaken me!” I like his translation because it fits better with the theme of racing, a theme Paul is really emphasizing here.

Paul had Olympic running in his day, and like the Olympics of our day it was a worldwide competition. Not every country got to compete, but you can bet the Jews of Paul’s day followed the Olympics and knew the outcome. I love his illustration of running because running is all about forward progression. In the spiritual life, we cannot keep looking back, we must look forward for what God has for us next. We must keep an eye on the prize, but with the other eye we have to keep watch on the road before us. We can’t look back, or we could wander off course, or hit a pothole. We could miss the next obstacle and get hurt and have to quit the race.

I love the Friends church. I love our history and heritage. I love our stories of dauntless missionaries and saints. But perhaps the biggest problem with our denomination is that we have such a wonderful heritage we can end up making that the focus. But we can’t be effective runners if our heads are spun around the wrong way. We have to keep one eye on the prize. One eye on chasing Jesus sure, but we have to keep the other eye looking down where our next step is about to land.

We cannot be distracted by side issues. We cannot always be people who look back. We should keep our eye on the prize of reaching out and raising up disciples. That is the main thing and the real reason the church exists. It is the work each of us, in our own way, is called to.

We have a wonderful building. We have a beautiful church family. But we can’t, like a runner who finds himself in 1st place, stop straining on. A race isn’t over until it is finished. We have to work hard not only to keep what we have gained, but gain even more.

We can’t get comfortable, but should live into our vision and values statement that says: “College Avenue Friends exists not only for its own sake but also for the sake of those outside our walls that Christ calls us to love and serve. We are committed to pushing beyond the status quo and being a light to others in our daily walks of faith.”

The real treasure we seek in the Christian life is Jesus. It is not even the reward of heaven, but of being with Jesus. Heaven is not the goal, He is the goal. God calls us heavenward, but He calls us not only to heaven, but to Himself. And He calls us to be with Him on a journey, a heavenward journey. And Paul goes even further, from preaching to meddling as it were, as he challenges us in verse 15 “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you… Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”

We might not always agree about what the next steps will be, but we need to take them together, trusting that God will make it clear for us as we walk together. As we cling to the truth that we have so far… as we cling to that bit of gold we have that God is still refining in us, God will reveal even more to us.

There is a maturity in knowing not only what we already know, but what we don’t know. It was said of Socrates that he was the wisest person in Athens, not because of how much he knew, but because he knew how much he had left to learn. Those of us with real maturity have a humble maturity, one that comes not only in acknowledging our strengths and successes and our victories in the spiritual life, but also in acknowledging our fumbles and foibles and failures.

A maturity that comes in the form of recognizing how far we have yet to go in becoming like Jesus, but seeking it together anyway. So, we live the Christian life as I have said so far, with one eye on Jesus. One eye off in the distance, filled with hope and keeping our eye on the prize. But we also keep one eye down at our feet, looking to overcome the next hurdle. Looking to keep what we have already attained.

Eric Liddell, the Olympian who inspired the movie Chariots of Fire, was a man of intense discipline used mightily by God. As a runner, he refused to run on Sundays, even when it cost him greatly. May we live purposeful lives willing to risk for God. Liddell once said, “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.” It is my belief that the glory he was talking about was God’s glory not Eric’s glory, the glory revealed in us as God’s creatures, as we run the race He has before us. There are limits God gives us, limits like sabbath rest. And we do God’s kingdom little good if we work ourselves to death. But for some of us the greater danger is in letting our training regimen go… neglecting our prayer and bible reading and fellowship together. Sunday morning service was never meant to be the beginning and end of our spiritual nourishment, but the overflow of what God has been doing in our lives all week. Let us bring our best even there.

For those who want to win, there can be no looking back. There can be no pining for days gone by. There is only striving, a striving that melts away all our complacency. Where we want to be where Jesus is more than anything else. We are not looking at the distractions around us, the fool’s gold in our midst. We are not settling for our past successes… we are striving. Striving for even more growth on our journey with Jesus. There will be a time beyond the striving, a time victory is complete. But this is not yet that time. For now, the race is on.

Agape,

James


Loving Local

One social justice issue that College Avenue Friends Church cares about especially deeply is hunger. You can see this in the many among us who volunteer at the local ecumenical food cupboard, in Jan Palmer’s Take Along Lunch program that helps hungry kids get through the weekend, and the Oskaloosa Summer Lunch Program that I especially want to highlight here. The Summer Lunch program was pioneered by a wonderfully Christ-like woman named Martha Comfort, who launched and directed the program on a volunteer basis for its first three years. It became a non-profit under the umbrella of the United Way of Oskaloosa and because of the high poverty levels in our community it is both fully reimbursed for every meal by the USDA, as well as is not required by them to ask the children for proof of their neediness. It now has twelve sites in the Oskaloosa area. Martha recently stepped down from the program as she graduated from a graduate program in social work and plans to pursue further ministry in the new doors God has opened to her in a slightly different direction.

At a Golden Circle program (a monthly small group for senior members) the winter before last, Martha came and told us about her program, and immediately I wanted to learn more about what it would take to become a site. College Avenue sits of course right next to the Friends Park, the shadiest park in Oskaloosa on a hot summer day, and its recently updated play structures and sand pit are the perfect place for large groups of kids to play. Historically CAF had its Jack and Jill preschool whose legacy is readily seen in our facility’s ample kitchen and nursery, which is a wonderful plan B location in the case of rain or bad weather.

After finding out all that was needed was a small about of food safety training and a few volunteers, and all we really had to do was show up and love on the kids and serve them, we started last year out as a smashing success. Lunches were served MWF from noon till 12:45 with a fifteen minute craft or game following. Martha brought a bunch of donated sand buckets to give the kids at our first launch last summer and the first day we had around thirty kinds having a blast in the sand box! I mostly did the activities and picked up the food, and got a chance to meet many of the kids in the neighborhood and minister to them. One child known by many of the neighborhood kids had died tragically from an allergic reaction to the anesthetic from a simple tonsil removal, and though I was not technically allowed to proselytize because of federal funding, the kids knew I was a pastor and I was of course free to respond to their questions.

I knew all of this work was worth it when I saw the kids enjoying hospitality together as equals free of the poor kid stigma I grew up with, as well as mothers enjoying each other’s company in a welcome break from the isolation that comes with small children. Also, many of these kids did come out in the fall for our movies in the park, and I remember one day walking over to the church when seven kids riding their bikes all greeted me gregariously shouting “Hi Pastor James!” when before, they might not have even realized a church met there for worship or recognized me at all. Seeds of love were scattered very thoroughly last summer, and I pray some of these relationships that started last year will continue to deepen and grow, and of course come to discover that Jesus is at work.

This year our Peace and Social Concerns committee at CAF is beginning to gear up for launch May 31st. This year, my wife Liz will be the head cook of the program, and we recently built a weatherized bulletin board in the park to help communicate to people in the park opportunities they will have to experience the love of Jesus at work among us. Liz is especially suited for this work and has been gifted to serve in the area of hospitality. Her degree from George Fox was focused on equipping her to start a restaurant, and she spent three years as the head cook of Barclay College. The amount of volunteers that showed up and worked hard to bless these children is truly inspiring and there are many ways to get involved for those who have interest.

God’s heart for justice is clear, but not all justice ministries need be perceived as overly political. I believe most what is needed is eyes to see those in need in our community and compassion to serve. There are many tangible ways of ministering to the hungry that are very practical and dead simple, and perhaps even fully funded in some cases. All that is sometimes needed is a space and a helping hand. Love has to be shared, and I believe, must be seen in the form of action. How might we as the church better share the love of Jesus with those who are hungry, and perhaps build relationships where their spiritual hunger may also be addressed? It is my conviction that the more one knows God, the more one recognizes His love for the least, the lost, and the last. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and it is the natural response to first loving God. When someone asked Jesus who was their neighbor, he told them the story of the Good Samaritan. Love is a verb, an action word. It is also a command straight from the mouth of Jesus. Let us pray for ears to hear and eyes to see what God might dream for our neighborhoods, and our world!

Agape,

James


Crash and Learn

Life goals and dreams of success might look different in different ages, but sometimes after we start our journey with Jesus we start to wonder, “What are you up to God? Am I missing out by being a Christian, and putting you first in my life?”

Peter was the bold disciple, the one who swore he would follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to the grave if need be. He was the one who kept stumbling onto the truth. He was the leader, when the group was talked about it was often talked about as “Peter and the 12.” This was the guy who walked on water with Jesus. The one Jesus called the Rock. And yet when the chips were down Peter had abandoned Jesus, he had denied him three times. And though Jesus had risen and Peter was overjoyed, his joy probably very quickly brought him full circle back to shame. Everyone knew his boldness had flickered. The group was in serious need of restoration, but Peter probably needed it more than anyone else. He had failed as a leader, and he had failed as a follower. It was probably pretty tempting to just go out on the water, turn off your mind, and return to the simple life of fishing. This is where we see Peter in John 21:1-19. After Jesus has died, Peter goes back to fishing… but Jesus was fishing for Peter’s restoration.

Jesus showed up again. He came once as a stranger, and pointed the way to the fish, the way to the catch of a lifetime; a catch so big the nets were breaking. And it is almost like Jesus and had Peter started over, full circle back at the beginning. All through the story Peter is called Simon Peter, or simply Peter, the name Jesus had given him, but now Jesus calls him by his former name, Simon son of John.

Jesus almost pretends he doesn’t know Peter anymore. Yet he brings Peter back to restoration! In almost a reversal of the three denials, Jesus asks, “do you love me?” and by the end of it Peter feels hurt. Jesus asks him to show his love for him, not by being a fisherman, but by serving as a shepherd. Scholars argue about what Jesus means by “these” when he asks Peter, do you love me more than “these.” Some think it is the boat and the life of fishing, but the best answer I could find is that Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the other disciples. Peter once had claimed boldly that even if the others would fall away from Jesus that he would not, but instead he had fled… along with the rest of them and after denying Jesus three times.

You have probably heard a sermon on this text that speaks about the different Greek words for love, and their basic differences. It is true that Jesus uses agape here, a word that is often used to describe the selfless love of God, and that when Peter answers back he is using phileo a different word for the love of a friend, or brotherly love. There is a difference in these words and John clearly means for us to notice the difference here, but the difference in the words is not as extreme as people used to think. Contrary to what you may have been taught, agape has been used in some ways that might seem surprising to us. It is at times used to speak of false love, or even the love of the world, and phileo has been used even to speak of Jesus’ love for the Father. These words are in many ways synonymous at times, and not as radically different as many people have often been told. Peter does respond in a slightly softer way than Jesus asks him to, but this is not Peter denying Jesus all over again. There is something specific here about the word choice, and I believe John uses this choice because Jesus and Peter are talking past one another, but this is kind of a subtle thing.

As we come before God with our need for restoration, it is true that we can—even in our relationship with God—talk past one another. It is true that God asks for a deeper love than we are sometimes willing to give. Our priorities about the love of God can sometimes get confused. But I think most importantly what this story teaches us is not to be found in the difference in lexical meanings of Greek  words about love, but in the example of love Jesus shows us in how he approaches Peter’s restoration. Jesus makes them breakfast when they come in to the shore! Though he comes to them as a stranger… we see love shown in the hospitality of Jesus to make them something to eat right there on the shore. We see the patience of Jesus as he waits through all of Peter’s waffling… as his questions start to break Peter’s heart and get him to see his need for his savior. We see Jesus’ compassion in his seeking out Peter to take care of the unfinished business of Peter’s reconciliation and his restoration to his calling…

How many of us would do the same to someone who turned their back on us in betrayal, while we had suffered and died? No… the love of God is not about the definition of Greek words, it is about the love of God going all the way to the cross, and all the way back to the banks of the lake where Peter, James and John had started out at when Jesus first called them. Now they were all together again, to be called away from the water again, to be fishers of men and nothing else. They were once again presented with the decision to be committed to the cause of Christ.

When Peter said before he would not fall away even if the others did, that he would be willing to lay down his life with Jesus, he had not lived it out. He had run away from the questions of even a lowly servant girl. But now he was right back to square one, right back to where it all started, and he could have a second chance at radical obedience. He could chose again to follow Jesus, knowing exactly how much it could cost him.

At the end of the passage, when it talks about another dressing you and leading you where you are to go, the word for dressing really means girding. It is not the usual word for dressing, but the usual word for binding. On the cross, Jesus was pierced with nails, but nails alone would not be enough to hold a struggling crucifixion victim on the cross until their death. The arms and legs of people on crosses were also bound by cloth or ropes, they were girded. The death John points to that Peter would experience was not the death of an old man, in his senility and perhaps poor vision, being lead around and dressed by others.

According to early church tradition from ancient church historian Eusebius, Peter’s example of commitment and sacrifice did end up being radical. Peter would be martyred in a time of intense persecution under the oppressive emperor Nero. But according to Eusebius, Peter requested to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die in the exact same manner that Jesus did. Peter would be restored, he would live up to his name as a rock, he would follow Jesus in radical obedience, even knowing it would eventually cost him his life.

The question God has for us today is not what kind of witness we will bear in death, but what kind of witness we will bear in life. Where there is boldness and passion, people will follow. Steve Jobs, the innovator behind Apple, had tons of followers. He believed in himself and he believed in his product and his mission. Jack White might be the greatest Rock Star that ever lived, certainly the greatest of our time. People follow him because of his passion, a passion that matches his talent. Marshal Mathers believes he is the greatest rapper of all time, and because he believes, other people believe it, and follow him.

Peter was a passionate guy. Enough so he stripped his clothes off and swam to shore when he heard Jesus was there. His boldness was shown in many places like his sermon in Acts where he defied the religious leaders of his day saying, “We must serve God rather than men.” He was willing to face—like Jesus—death on a cross.

Are we inspired by Peter’s passion? Do we have the courage, the passion, to bear witness for Jesus,
not dramatically in our death but today in our life? People follow other people with passion… Do we have passion? Are we passionate about Jesus? Are people following us to Jesus? God may not ask us to die for Him, but he does ask us to live for him. He asks us to suffer for Him; to serve with Him. He promises we will reign with Him.

Some of us might be a bit gun shy. Some of us need some restoration. God knows what we need, whether that is hospitality and patience, or a swift kick in the pants to now and then to fire up our passion. But either way God is still searching us out, still trying to show us the depth of His love, still getting us to see we can trust God to provide for us as we walk with him. That he could fill our nets so full they might break, or call us to a cross, and that either way we can trust Him. Sometimes it takes a second chance to get things right, and God—in my experience—has always been faithful to provide one. But often we do not see that opportunity until we have come full circle and notice that Jesus is there, calling us once again to follow Him.

Agape,
James


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

 


Resolving for More

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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


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     


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