Archive for July 2016

Will the Real Church of Jesus Please Stand Up?

Will the Real Church of Jesus Please Stand Up?
What does it mean to be the church? Is it about an organization with staff and buildings? Is it about a set of traditions handed down by our ancestors, a denominational brand? Are these the things that make us the body of Christ?

When I read the New Testament, I see something different. During Jesus’ years of ministry, he demonstrated a relationship of a teacher and students. The disciple community held together because each one was committed to following Jesus, learning from and imitating him.

After the resurrection, the form of the community expanded. We came to know Jesus as an ever-present teacher through the Holy Spirit. The power of his presence released unique gifts in each individual. Some were called to be apostles, some prophets, others evangelists, pastoral caregivers, and teachers. Together, the early church discovered itself as a community gathered by Jesus. We fit together as an organic unity in him.

In this dynamic, Spirit-directed community, there was structure. The Twelve Apostles served as leaders of the movement in Jerusalem. Others were appointed to care for the material needs of the community. Still others – like Paul and Barnabas – were sent by the Spirit to share the good news in cities throughout the Roman Empire. There was a role for everyone in this new community, according to the gifts that God bestowed.

The whole ethos of the early church was one of movement. The life of the church was catalyzed by prophetic action, works of mercy, risky cross-cultural mission, and passionate teaching. They thrived without buildings of their own. They met in homes to share meals, and they worshiped together in public spaces like the Temple and synagogues. This was a church without popes or priests or officers, without creeds or books of discipline.

Times have changed. Throughout the western world today, the church has become more about maintaining a business model than seeking the surprising way of Jesus. Whether you’re at a triumphalist mega-congregation or a dwindling mainline church, the focus of modern Christianity has shifted dramatically to institutional maintenance and the idols of comfort and respectability. In much of the church today, there’s very little room for the radical message of Jesus.

We have become burdened by our heritage in so many ways. Financially, with our endowments and buildings and legacy institutions – we’re so afraid to lose these things that we often allow them to hold us back from real discipleship to Jesus. Same goes for our ideological heritage. Many of us are so sure that our denominational orthodoxy is more important than healing divisions with our brothers and sisters in other Christian groups. Rather than consolidating our efforts and resources, we huddle in empty church buildings, waiting for a miracle that will likely never come.

What’s the alternative? Can we reform our Christian institutions? What would it mean to release the stored up potential of centuries, allowing the living Spirit of Jesus to gather us once more as his body? One thing is for sure: It won’t happen unless we are willing to abandon the comfort of being right in favor of being united in one Spirit, one mission.

What’s holding you back from being part of a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit in our generation? What are the denominational, institutional, financial, ideological, and relational barriers that hold you back from the life of the kingdom? What does it look like to be part of a community that is more about following Jesus than avoiding pain, loss, and death? How can we get there, together?

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How We Can Wage Peace Amid the Chaos

How We Can Wage Peace Amid the Chaos
We’re living in a time when it feels like everything is ready to fly apart. Our political process is bursting at the seams. There’s violence in our streets, and fear in our living rooms. As if all this weren’t enough, we are faced with an ecological crisis beyond any human experience. The challenges of our age are at least as great as those of any other generation – and that’s saying a lot.

In the midst of all this tumult, it’s hard not to get swept up in reflex and reaction. We see problems and want to fix them. We see injustice and want to denounce it. Yet it seems that the increasing volume of our bitter arguments is only leading us on a path to greater destruction. We watch the dismemberment of our civil society, the arena in which we had hoped for cooperative solutions. Our emotional temperature is so high, it’s hard to imagine finding any unity.

Make no mistake, there are battles worth fighting. But as followers of the risen Jesus, the weapons of our warfare are different from those of the world. Our armor is the humble-yet-confident poise that comes from walking in intimacy with God. Our armaments are love unfeigned, a genuine concern for the well-being of even our enemies. This is no abstraction; it’s very a concrete, ethical concern that moves us to take great risks for the sake of love. Despite the cost, we are commissioned to answer the witness of God in those who seek to destroy us.

In these days of hatred and violence, the Holy Spirit invites us into a new, creative path. It’s a path that goes toe to toe with the powers of selfishness and fear that reign so openly in our society today. It’s a path that penetrates the lies and confusion. It’s the way of Jesus, who confronted the rulers and authorities once and for all, giving us power to become children of light.

There is a quiet voice in our hearts that says, “another way is possible.” Despite all the horror that this young century has offered us, there is a presence deep within us that cries out, “even so, come Lord Jesus!” It’s a fearsome voice, one that calls us into the midst of danger with no protection but the power of love.

Are you and I ready to respond to this invitation? What does it mean to participate in Jesus’ way of love, which overcomes hatred and division through the blood of his cross? How can we prepare ourselves to return good for evil – to speak the truth, even if our voice shakes?

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You Can’t Escape What You Were Made For

You Can't Escape What You Were Made For
Sometimes I wonder: Would I have chosen to follow Jesus if I really understood what it would mean? When I experienced the call to become disciple, I was eager. I quickly said, “Here I am, Lord, take me!” It’s fair to ask whether my enthusiasm was more a product of ignorance than piety.

Following Jesus is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Of course, it’s also been the most joyful, invigorating, and life-giving experience. But the raw, furious challenge of this path cannot be downplayed. If I could have seen how this was all going to play out, I’m not sure I would have been so gung-ho about giving my life to God. At the very least, I would have asked a few more questions!

It’s terrifying to think about how little I know of what lies ahead of me, and what this path of discipleship might cost me. In my experience, walking with Jesus is like taking steps out into the darkness, with nothing to lean on except faith that there will be solid ground where my foot lands.

Over the last decade that I’ve been following him, Jesus has led me to places I never imagined. I’ve been challenged beyond my limits, and I’ve found a whole host of ways to stumble. Yet somehow, against all odds, I’m still here. Despite everything I know about how challenging this path is, I keep returning to the way of Jesus. I can’t resist the call of my heart.

That’s not to say I don’t try. Sometimes there’s nothing I wouldn’t like more than to give up. It feels like it would be a relief to try to salvage an “ordinary” life out of this hot mess we call “ministry.” But in spite of all the pain and disorientation, I resonate with the experience of the apostle Paul, who said, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!”

There’s no escaping what you were made for. God has called you for important, challenging work. Even if it costs you everything in the eyes of the world. What’s the dream that God has planted in your life? Somewhere deep inside, you already know the answer.

What will it mean for you to live in hope, even as you step out into the dark?

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Discovering the Hidden Power of Slow Time

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Discovering the Hidden Power of Slow Time

Discovering the Hidden Power of Slow Time
I was recently looking through some old papers when I came across a note to my parents, from one of my elementary school counselors. Among other things, she remarked that I had a “low tolerance for frustration.” I had to laugh: to this day, learning to deal constructively with frustration remains one of my key growth areas. 

All my life, I’ve been an activator. I’m someone who starts new projects, blazes new trails, and asks disruptive questions. This personality is great when things need to change, but it can be a challenge when the status quo is actually working pretty well. When all the system needs is a few tweaks, it’s easy for me to get stir-crazy. My innate sense of urgency, my desire for sweeping improvements, can often be a recipe for frustration.

I’ve burnt myself out more than a few times. I’ve had a vision and pursued it with confidence, only to find that the world doesn’t change as quickly as I want it to. Like many young people, I’ve overestimated the impact I can have in months while underestimating what can be accomplished over the course of years. 

My twenties were a deeply educational decade for me. I’ve learned that human communities are complex systems that require care, nurture, and consistency over time. Sudden revolution is rare. When it does occur, it often ends badly. The safer, more loving, and more effective course of action often involves long periods when – at least superficially – it appears that nothing is happening.

For me, real wisdom lies in being able to tell the difference between living and dead silence. There are times of stagnation, when there really is very little going on behind the scenes. In times like these, the status quo needs to be shaken up. But there are also times of dynamic tension, periods when real growth is taking place behind a façade of normalcy. In moments like these, the challenge is to accompany the community through this slow, subtle transformation. It’s time to water the seeds, not dig up the ground to re-plant.

These “slow times” are where we live most of our lives. These are the long stretches between revolutions, when we watch a new paradigm emerge and grow to fruition. They’re times that call for what John of Patmos referred to as “the patient endurance of the saints.”

What does it mean for me to live in slow time (or, perhaps, “ordinary time,” as our liturgical brothers and sisters might put it)? How does my attitude and posture need to change in order to patiently endure the long stretches between revolutions?

Living in the slow times is hard. Israel wandered in the wilderness with God for forty years, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert, and the early church spent centuries enduring persecution in the midst of a hostile and unsympathetic empire. All of these journeys involved suffering, doubt, and intense spiritual wrestling. Yet, it was in this slow-cooking environment that the full character of God came to be revealed in Israel, Jesus, and the early Christian fellowships. Through endurance in these slow times, they were equipped to shine brilliantly before the world when the kairos moments finally came along. 

As I explore what it means to live in the slow-cooker of patient endurance, I’m finding unexpected joy. Slow time is primarily about people, not ideas. It’s about friendship, family, and community. It’s about growing roots and branching out, finding myself in relationship with the people in my neighborhood. These slow times are an opportunity to witness what God is doing in the world, just beneath the surface, despite the fact that everything appears to be “stuck” and immobile. Even in these times, the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters.

Do you experience time this way? Can you sense the difference between fast and slow times? Which kind of time do you experience more frequently? What are the ways you can live more fully into God’s invitation for you in the midst of slowness, challenge, and stuckness? Where will you find joy?

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God’s Economy Turns Everything Upside Down!

God's Economy Turns Everything Upside Down!
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is that of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. After his baptism by John, he went out into the desert and spent forty days in fasting and prayer. In one of the biggest understatements ever, the Bible says that “he was hungry.” It’s at this point, when Jesus is at his lowest physically and spiritually, that the Devil makes an appearance, seeking to tempt Jesus to betray his God-given mission.

There are several temptations – religious authority, imperial power, and just simple materialism. Jesus answers each temptation with a quote from the Torah. One of the most memorable lines of the Bible (at least for me) is when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, saying that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

This passage comes from another desert time, a time when God led Israel through wilderness tracks for forty years, until the Hebrew people had been entirely purified and ready to enter the promised land. Deuteronomy reminds us that God humbled the Hebrews by letting them hunger. He fed Israel with manna from the sky – a strange substance they had never seen before. This was in order to help them understand that there are needs that run deeper than even food. God provides everything that we require when we hear and obey his word in our hearts. But the hearing and obeying must come first.

This runs entirely counter to a humanistic interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which would indicate that a basic physiological need – like eating – would supercede any higher-order needs like faithfulness to God’s will. Maslow’s model makes perfect rational sense. What good does it do to worry about the realm of meaning if the basics like food and shelter haven’t been addressed?

Yet Jesus affirms the Torah’s claim that faithful relationship with God precedes all other priorities. We find our deepest meaning first, and then God provides what we need – even if sometimes it comes in a really bizarre form, like manna.

This understanding of God’s economy fits very well with the “upside-down kingdom” that Jesus speaks of throughout his ministry. He tells us that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This great turning of the tables seems to apply to every kind of hierarchy that we experience – whether they be the social hierarchies that human beings set up amongst ourselves, or the hierarchy of needs that seems so basic to the human condition. In the kingdom of God – God’s economy – God will have the primacy in all things. Jesus will be both the starting place and the ending point.

For those of us who are seeking the reign of God, what does it mean to put this amazing relationship first – even before the needs that we consider most basic? What does it mean to abandon all and follow Jesus, as he repeatedly commands us to do?

The details probably vary for each person, but the underlying spiritual posture seems clear enough: God comes first. Not your house, job, family, or even food to eat. We are called to seek faithfulness to the Holy Spirit first, even if it threatens to cost us everything. Only then can we fully enter into the living presence of Jesus – the kingdom of God. Only then can we discover the manna that comes from heaven, the daily bread that Jesus promises to each of us if we will follow in his way.

This is a huge challenge – the greatest ever issued. How are you called to respond?

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Now is the Time to Say: Black Lives Matter

Am I Next?
I was shocked, along with the rest of the country, when I witnessed the video of white police officers gunning down a prone and defenseless black man – Alton Sterling –  in Baton Rouge. It’s one thing to be aware of police brutality, it’s quite another to witness a police officer pull out his pistol and kill an unarmed citizen, execution-style. 

It took my breath away when, almost immediately, the video of Philando Castile’s murder hit social media. For the second time in as many days, we were seeing the police assassinate a black man – this time, in front of his girlfriend and child. Again, I knew that these sorts of things happened. But two videos in one week was almost too much to bear.

The whole country was in shock. It felt like there was a real chance that we might wake up together. I believed that White America might finally be able to acknowledge the violence and oppression that black folk have been experiencing at the hands of police for generations. I felt hopeful that these tragic deaths might lead to a real change of heart for white people in my country – and an era of deepened justice and freedom for my black brothers and sisters.

Following the senseless murders of five police officers in Dallas, I don’t feel so sure anymore. The whole atmosphere has changed. Racist bullies of all stripes have found the opening they need to demonize the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The window of clarity and consciousness that was opening now seems to be crashing shut.

I don’t know how we move forward at this point. I can’t tell anyone how we clean up a mess this deadly, one that spans generations and continents. What I do know is that courageous black folk are going to continue to insist that black lives matter, too. The rest of us have a choice as to whether we are going to listen and respond in love.

White folk like me are being challenged to answer whether we will continue to lift our voices in support of full equality under the law for all black people – regardless of how the media portrays them as “deserving” or “undeserving” of freedom. Will we have the courage to embrace the discomfort that comes with the systemic change and spiritual transformation that this country so desperately needs?

This has been a devastating week. Our hearts are broken. It’s hard to know how to respond. But one thing we can say – which we must say –  is that we stand with our black brothers and sisters. We recognize their struggle in the face of terror and oppression. Even if we can’t fully understand it, we must acknowledge that the pain they’ve experienced all their lives is real. We must pledge ourselves to stand as repentant sinners, partners in the work of dismantling the legacy of white supremacy that distorts our collective spirit.

Now is the time for endurance. Now is the time for boldness. Now is the time to re-commit ourselves to the struggle for justice and peace in our streets – whatever may come.

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Is the Gospel Just a Fairy Tale?

Is the Gospel Just a Fairy Tale?
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of college students about the idea of Christian nonviolence – or as Quakers would call it, “the Peace Testimony.” I was encouraged by how receptive they were to the message that the heart of the gospel is peace. We talked about how Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate example of how God brings peace to earth – not through violent conquest, but in a humble life that surrenders itself in order to show unconditional love to others. We considered together what it means to live our lives in Jesus’ way of peace, and how that impacts all our other commitments.

Though I had been specifically invited to speak about the Christian peace witness from my own perspective as a Quaker, I was surprised by what a wide-ranging conversation we ended up having. As our discussion deepened, it became clear that the real question was not whether the gospel is nonviolent (clearly, it is – Jesus is our peace). The deeper, more urgent question was how we might live into the radical life of discipleship that we have read about in Scripture – particularly the Book of Acts. What would it mean to live like the New Testament church today, in 21st-century America? 

I was both excited and dismayed to hear this question. Excited, because this is exactly the question we should all be asking ourselves. Christianity isn’t meant to be a dull habit, but an acute fever. If we as the modern-day followers of Jesus aren’t on fire with the passion of the gospel, just as the first Christians were, something has gone wrong. I was happy to hear that these college students were asking some of the same questions that have been at the heart of my journey for the past decade.

So why was I dismayed? Simply put, I was convicted that I had nothing to offer or invite these passionate young disciples into. After years of seeking, praying, yearning to be part of a movement of “primitive Christianity revived,” I still haven’t found it. If anything, I feel farther than ever from the life of power and beauty in community that I see in the Book of Acts. In my years of ministry, I’ve seen glimpses of the kingdom; I’ve experienced moments of power and transformation in community. Yet I had no good answer to the question, “What should we do to experience the power of the New Testament church today?”

On a personal level, I’m convicted that my own life does not demonstrate the world-shocking presence of the living Christ. I’m a pale shadow of the Spirit-filled women and men I read about in Acts. I’m also convicted on behalf of the North American church as a whole. In my long search, I’ve rarely witnessed communities that are truly living into the full gospel that Jesus invites us into. At times, it’s tempting to wonder whether the whole story of the New Testament is just a fairy tale – a beautiful story, but not applicable to everyday life.

Where is the Spirit-filled, earth-shaking, radical church of Jesus Christ today? I want to see it. I want to participate in it. I want to point others to it. I want to sacrifice for it and be deeply challenged by it. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!

It breaks my heart how little I have to offer to the young disciples who are coming up today. Their passion and faith makes me want to be a more faithful disciple, someone who can point them to Jesus and invite them into a faithful community where they can be challenged in their discipleship. Where can I go to find this circle of disciples? What must I do to change my life so that I can be a more faithful brother to those who are coming along in the way of Jesus?

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