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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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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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Do We Need Bigger Engines, or Better Wings?

Do We Need Bigger Engines, or Better Wings?
Flying makes me a little bit nervous. I know it’s irrational. I know you’re more likely to die on the drive to the airport than you are on the flight itself. Still, there’s something about the feeling of takeoff and landing that puts me in an especially prayerful state. The roar of the engines, the awareness of tons of steel and jet fuel surrounding me – it can all be a little much.

On one flight that I took some years ago, a fellow passenger shared a reassuring thought with me. He told me that even if all the engines were to cut out, our airplane wouldn’t just fall out of the sky. Even without functional engines, the aircraft would glide for a long time. We’d have a good chance of making a safe landing. “The airplane wants to stay in the air.”

It was comforting to realize that not everything depended on the perfect functioning of the aircraft. A lot of things could go very wrong, and we’d still have a chance to survive. In the years since I received this little bit of wisdom, I’ve realized that I can survive – and even thrive – despite the reality that things fall apart.

I think especially about the church, the fellowship of modern-day disciples who are trying to find. I consider the fact that the great engines of 20th-century American Christianity are sputtering and dying. So many of the supports that the church has relied on for generations to keep us flying have been stripped away. The money, social prestige, political influence, and a whole set of cultural assumptions that once reinforced Christianity’s predominance in Western society – all those engines are burning out.

Without a doubt, there are millions of Christians who are scrambling to preserve what’s left of those old engines. In the face of this profound crisis of values and institutions that is transforming our world, there are many whose imagination only extends to seeking more horsepower for the dying motors of 1950’s Christianity.

But what gets me excited is to think about all the possibilities waiting for us in the wings of this ancient-yet-awakening community. Can we feel the presence in the air that is just waiting to buoy us, carrying us to destinations that our man-made engines could never have reached? What if this airplane of faith wants to stay in the air? Are we ready to fly?

I am convinced that the future of our fellowship, of our movement as friends of Jesus, will not rely on the false security that for so long has smothered western Christianity. There is a life and power at work in our time and place, one that flies on the winds of the Spirit rather than the jet fuel of human ambition and egotism. Despite all appearances, there is a hope and future for the church in the developing world. This plane wants to stay in the air, if we’re willing to allow ourselves to be guided wherever the Wind takes us.

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Who Are the Heroes of Faith?

Who Are the Heroes of Faith?
Today is Memorial Day, a holiday of rest and celebration. It’s a day when we in the United States remember those who have suffered and sacrificed so that we might enjoy freedom and wholeness. Memorial Day is often given over to displays of nationalism and militarism, but for those following in the way of The Lamb Who Was Slain, there is another story to tell.

This Memorial Day, I’m calling to remembrance that faithful cloud of witnesses whom the author of Hebrews points me to. I’m giving thanks for the women and men who provide me with examples of courage and faith. I’m honoring those who have shown me how to walk in the challenging and beautiful way of Jesus.

Today I’m invited to examine my own life. Do I have the courage to follow the example of those heroes of faith who have passed before me on this journey? Everything I have that is of any value, I’ve received it from the hands of these faithful witnesses of the Lamb. Am I willing to pay it forward? Am I prepared to take up the cross of Jesus, to bless the lives of others just as his love has transformed my own?

This holiday presents an opportunity to pay special attention to the trail that has been blazed by our mothers and fathers in the faith. We remember their lives, their deeds, their love – not for the purpose of deadening nostalgia, but as an invitation into bold action. Participating in the life they have shown us, we find a faith that transforms us into the image of Jesus.

How are you celebrating this Memorial Day? Who are you remembering? How will those you remember shape your life in the days to come?

Thank God for the lives of the faithful and true witnesses, who have inspired and nurtured us thus far. Let’s re-commit ourselves to embodying the love, power, and compassion that God has already poured out on us through his saints. In the name of Jesus. Amen!

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We Don’t Have to be Afraid Anymore

I recently came across an article in The Atlantic, which examines why many Americans (particularly elite men) are so obsessed with wealth and work. The author speculates about the extent to which these obsessions are rooted in culture or biology. He notes how the wage gap between men and women is exacerbated by such obsession, and he laments the deep unhappiness of many elite men who work themselves to death for the mirage of achievement and wealth-accumulation.

This article points to a deep crisis of values in our culture. In a society that is so fixated on money and professional identity, how can we root our lives in something deeper? In a culture that worships wealth and exalts those who succeed in business, what does it mean for us to prioritize health, family, community, and our relationship with God?

Deep fear lies at the heart of this crisis. We’re terrified that we’re not doing enough, having enough, being enough. We have become a society that hides from the reality of our limitations, weaknesses, and even death. We long to be forever young, strong, and healthy. The fact that we know these dreams are an illusion provides all the more motivation to distance ourselves from reality. We flee into the endless chase for more money, higher status, greater achievement.

But, for those of us who have come to know Jesus, we are invited into a different reality altogether. We have begun down a path that acknowledges the reality of our own limitations, of struggle, and death. Accompanying him to the cross, Jesus shows us that we don’t need to be fixated on our own survival anymore. We can experience freedom to love others without holding anything back. Even if that means a loss of status or reduced income. For Jesus, this path led to arrest, torture, and a humiliating public execution. Compared to that, why should we concern ourselves with how big our paycheck or how important our job?

All this talk of the cross sounds really stark. It’s fair to ask, Why would anyone want to walk in the way of Jesus? Yet, as we embrace this way of surrender, we discover that the heart of the gospel is love. It is a release from the fear that has gripped us for so long, and in so many ways that we had almost stopped noticing. The way of the cross is freedom; its fruit is joy. Despite all of the darkness, uncertainty, and even suffering, the path of Jesus is marked by radiant joy and passionate love.

This kind of love drives out fear. Opening ourselves to a life beyond the grasping self-interest of the meritocracy, we can be filled with wholeness and peace, even in the midst of challenges. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.

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Blessed Are those with Nothing to Lose

There was a time when truly anything seemed possible. I was young and the world was laid out before me. I was sure that I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to. Imagination was the limit.

There was very little to hold me back. Most big life decisions were still in the future. I was free to make massive changes at the drop of a hat. I went to live abroad in Mexico, worked at a bank as a bilingual teller, and headed off to seminary – all based on little more than a hunch of what it might mean. My existence was flexible in ways that seem almost incredible now. Every few months brought a new revolution, a total re-working of my focus and direction. It was an exhausting, and exhilarating, way of life.

Over time, my choices added up. I made those big life decisions, committing myself to people, places, and work. Little by little, I found what all young people are looking for: An identity, purpose, and place to call my own. My dreams came true. I made it.

I lost something, too. Before, I enjoyed a flexibility and daring that comes with starting from zero; now, I have responsibilities. Taking off for foreign adventures, trying out a new job, pursuing more education, or making any other big life change isn’t as simple as it used to be. These days, I’ve got a lot to lose. My commitments constrain the choices I feel comfortable making.

That’s not so bad. I like my life, and I’m grateful for the gifts I’ve received. I don’t need a lot of choices and changes, as long as my life is on the right trajectory. If I’m generally headed in the direction that God has prepared for me, an occasional course correction will probably do the trick.

But what if the Spirit wants to do something truly new with my life? What if all the commitments and decisions that I’ve made so far are blinding me to the path where God is calling me? What if my comfort with the status quo is discouraging me from accepting the discomfort of revolutionary change?

The whole thrust of Jesus’ ministry is a call to lose everything, so that we can act decisively to usher in the reign of God. He tells us that if we are to follow him, we must abandon wealth, familyprofession, and comfort. The path of discipleship is one in which we are called to surrender everything for the sake of the new life and family we find in Jesus.

The new order of Jesus presents a radical challenge to the society we live in. To follow Jesus means questioning everything – the way we live our lives, do our jobs, govern our cities, and raise our families. This kind of fundamental upending of the powers and principalities is impossible for those of us who are still beholden to the world as it exists. It’s hard to abolish Wall Street when our money is still invested there. It’s tough to work for a new world of peace when our livelihoods are based in war. The truth is difficult to embrace when our daily lives are permeated with convenient lies.

The radical, world-changing activity of the Jesus community can only be carried out by those who have nothing to lose. The reign of God is for those who renounce the world as it is in favor of the world as it could be. For those of us who want to become followers of Jesus, we must be prepared to lose our lives – to surrender everything we think we have – in order to participate the new order that is being born.

This is a disturbing proposition for those, like me, who have begun to find our place in the world. As much as we may desire to see the reign of peace and justice that Jesus promises, it seems like an awfully big leap to renounce everything for the sake of a vision that seems impossible by the standards of the dominant culture.

Yet I am also reminded of how joyful it can be to live in that state of radical openness. Being young was painful in many ways, and I know that I scratched and clawed to find a place I could call my own. Yet there is beauty in such an exposed life of uncertainty. There is a fearlessness that comes when we have nothing to defend, only the promise of a more true and beautiful future together.

Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the reign of God. I think this probably applies to everyone, rich or not, who has found comfort and consolation in this broken and unjust order that we live in. It certainly applies to me. And yet he also says that all things are possible with God. It’s not too late for us to be roused from our self-satisfaction and rediscover the challenge and power of the gospel.

How would it feel to re-embrace the fire, joy, and uncertainty of your youth? What would it mean to start from zero again, this time as a grown adult who has chosen to surrender everything for the sake of a more beautiful, just world? At age 25, 45, or 95, what does it mean to live with nothing to lose?

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Life is Absurd. So is God.

When I was a kid, adults would sometimes seek to encourage my faith by telling me their own reasons for believing in God. They often told me that without God the universe would make no sense. “Look at a sunset! Listen to birdsong or running water. This world is so beautiful. How could there not be a Creator who made it?”

I never found these appeals compelling. I can see now that my elders were attempting to encourage a sense of awe in me. Yet at the time, I just heard adults attempting to make sense out of an utterly mysterious universe. It sounded more like wish-fulfillment than well-considered logic.

The more I thought about their answer, the deeper I was drawn into a sense of unfathomable mystery. “How could there be such a beautiful universe without a creator to design it?” they asked. But I wondered, Why would the existence of God make the universe any more explicable? If anything, it just added another layer of enigma to an already confusing world. After all, if God made the universe, who made God? If the answer was, “No one; he just exists”, is that any less crazy than saying the universe exists without a creator?

Faith in God isn’t a logical answer to a rational question. The kind of faith that I’ve discovered transcends normal human reason. It goes beyond the pat answers that settle questions as fact or fiction. This faith is a response to a powerful, loving, personal presence who can be neither proven nor explained.

Now I am one of those adults who sees God everywhere. I find him in sunsets and morning runs. He’s right there, staring out at me in all the beauty and tragedy of this world. I finally understand what those adults were trying to tell me: There is a life and power so deep and wide that the universe simply cannot cohere without it. 

And yet, I retain my sense of absurdity. I am still a tiny being in the midst of a vast, inexplicable universe. This world is profoundly, fundamentally bizarre. Faith in God doesn’t change that. God is absurd, too. 

The faith that I’ve discovered doesn’t make the cosmos any easier to understand. If anything, I’m more baffled than ever. But what my faith has given me is a place to stand despite the uncertainty. I’ve found a relationship to cling to in the midst of the unknowing. Thanks to this faith, I am free to trust the God of the mystery. He is the I AM beyond my comprehension. In him, I can rejoice in life’s beauty, mourn its agony, and live in hope of a yet-unseen cosmic redemption.

And so even in the midst of life’s confusion, there is a seed of hope.

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