Posts Tagged 'discipleship'

Damn Christians Part II

“Because I’m a [damn] Christian.”—Will Campbell

Orlando clubI’d scarcely clicked “Publish” on my last post “Needed-Damn Christians”—when I realized I needed to say more. I’d told the story of the late Will Campbell and his unique ministry to folks on all sides of political and religious divides. I described his presence at the long-delayed murder trial of Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers. Bowers had allegedly ordered the killing of a number of civil rights activists, most notably Vernon Dahmer—in the mid-1960’s! In 1998, thirty-twoyears after the fact, Bowers stood trial again in Mississippi, this time with new evidence and a realistic chance of being convicted. Campbell spent some of the time at the trial sitting with Dahmer’s large family on one side of the courtroom–and about the same amount sitting with Sam Bowers, who sat all alone on the other side. When a reporter asked why he did this, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a damn Christian.”  I concluded that our fragmented society needs more “damn Christians” who will share the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) modeled by Jesus and pursued by Campbell, Martin Luther King, and countless others. I said, “I believe the church’s place relative to the red and blue faultline running through American society is standing tall with our feet planted firmly on both sides… with neighbors who are easy to love and with those we struggle to love.”

But I hadn’t said much about how we arrive at that conviction, or what equips us for that uncomfortable and challenging stance. Then the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened early Sunday morning. It brought folks together. It also re-opened some old wounds and re-started some old arguments:

  • Omar Mateen’s anti-gay feelings clearly informed his choice of target. Those feelings still live in many hearts and minds.
  • He was an admirer or supporter of Isis. That’s enough to reanimate both rational concern over terror and misinformed or simply mean-spirited anti-Muslim prejudice. The ongoing investigation seeks to determine the exact nature and strength of that connection in this incident.
  • His primary weapon was an assault rifle like the ones banned from sale in this country until 2004. We’re having that yelling match again.

Thirty or so hours after the shooting, before all the dead are identified and their loved ones notified, the noise around these divisive issues grows ever louder. Politicians speak out, seeking every advantage. Activists on both sides strain to shout down the opposition. But if we’re simply yelling past each other, once again we’ll generate plenty of heat but precious little light.

What if some “damn Christians” dare to love our neighbors more than our ideology? Something could change. If we behave differently, the future would play out differently. Don’t misunderstand me. I have very strong convictions about these issues. But beyond the issues are our relationships with our neighbors. “If it is possible,” Paul urges us, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18 NRSV)

So I offer here a framework within which we who follow Jesus might find ways to “live peaceably” with “all sorts and conditions of persons” while still maintaining the integrity of our convictions.

  1. We see and honor the image of God in every person.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27 CEB)

Every human being bears the divine image. No exceptions. No exclusions. No weasel words. No fudge factor. Sharing this divine DNA makes all seven billion of us family–for better or worse! That includes all those folks who post their ridiculous nonsense online (and who feel the same way about our brilliant, witty, profound posts); folks from places whose names we can’t possibly twist our tongues around; folks with whom we fit perfectly and folks with whom we clash catastrophically; folks who energize us and folks who drain us; folks with whom we feel welcome and folks who just give us the creeps. All of us, in all our glory and uniqueness, created alike bearing the divine image. All means all. “Damn Christians” practice the spiritual discipline of looking for the divine image, no matter how hidden, marred, or disfigured, in every human being.

  1. We recognize every person as someone for whom Christ died.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his…one and only Son…so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” John 3:16 MSG

Still no exclusionary clause. “…whole and lasting life” is God’s will for each of us and all our divine kin on this planet. Not exactly the message we get from our “I’ve got mine and I’ll take yours if I want it” culture. Claiming God’s gift doesn’t require a dazzling resume or a twenty-page application. It requires only “believing”–trusting with our whole being– that the way of life we see in Jesus leads away from destruction toward more and better life than we’d dared to imagine.

Easy to say, but very hard to accept. Abundant negative evidence exists, much provided by so-called “Christians” in the form of both actions and deadly silence. Our not-yet-believing neighbors want to be told less and shown more. “Believing” takes what God always knew it would take—incarnational evidence.

Orlando hug

  1. We will embody Christ for others through everything we do and are.

 “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what…When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” Philippians 2:5-7 MSG

 That’s all it takes. Just turn my back on this 21st-century  privileged, entitled, “I want it all” culture. Climb down the ladder I’ve worked so hard climbing up. Invest myself in folks from whom I thought I’d managed to insulate and isolate myself. Give up my self-important illusions and just be my created-in-the-divine-image self. All that takes is someone who …didn’t think so much of himself…” “didn’t …cling to…status…” “…set aside…privileges…took on the status of a slave, became human.” It takes some “damn Christian” foolish enough to follow Jesus to places and people most folks say aren’t worth the effort; foolish enough to believe “God loved the world…” means the whole creation and everyone who’s ever been or ever would be a part of it. Some damn Christian like Miss Velma Westbury. According to Will Campbell, Miss Velma often said, ‘”If you just love the folks what’s easy to love,that really ain’t no love at all…If you love one, you have to love’em all.”

“Of course,” Campbell points out, “some folks said Miss Velma was crazy.”

Transformed NonConformists, the Creative Maladjusted, and the Spirit

For the secomakingdisciplestransformationnd year in a row I’m helping teach our church’s Confirmation class. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church (and some others) invites students in middle-school and above to take a deeper look at Christian faith. Ideally these young men and women will  “confirm” as their own the Christian faith they’ve learned from their families and their church. We’re about a month away from our church’s Confirmation celebration. On that great day, these youth will join twelve million other United Methodists in our mission “… to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “ (2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, Par. 120). They’ll share our mutual promise to support this mission with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness”. While this generation’s discipleship will reflect their God-given uniqueness and the times in which they live, they’ll also show a strong “family resemblance” to previous generations of the Christian community.

The world in which we live and serve as “disciples of Jesus Christ” hasn’t stood still during our four-month journey. It’s continued to change at a pace somewhere between breathless and chaotic. Much of that change runs counter to our vision of “the transformation of the world”. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our students for their/our transforming mission. Doing church “the way we’ve always done it” won’t work any better than it has for the last few decades. Our class is learning the Church’s traditions. One we often fail to teach is that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and invites us to partner in that continuing process of God’s Spirit uses God’s people to tell the Christian story in new ways that touch peoples’ hearts and “make new” our ever-changing world.

Jim Wallis wrote recently about an inter-racial, ecumenical gathering on the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 5, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church both Dr. King and his father served for many years. Wallis’ closing remarks that evening included some of Dr. King’s own words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” (Strength to Love)Transformed NonconformistDr. King described the post-Easter church perfectly! Jesus’ first followers formed a community of radical sharing. They welcomed the poor, the crippled, everyone their Jewish religious leaders had labeled “unclean”. Then Peter and Paul threw open the doors of the church to Gentiles—the most unclean of all! And that was just the beginning. These “transformed nonconformists” were out to change everything!  I would argue that the Spirit moves more often through out-liers than through the Establishment:

  • In 5th-Century Ireland pirates captured a Christian named Patrick. This “nonconforming minority” of one got to know his captors so well that he translated the story of Jesus into their own cultural expressions and eventually baptized many of them.
  • In Germany in 1517 a “creatively maladjusted” young monk challenged the massive Christian monopoly known as the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s boldness ignited a revolutionary transformation in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • In early 18th-century England two seminarians invited fellow students to form an intentional community. These “Methodists”, as their critics called them, set out to live a more disciplined Christian life together. They embraced their new name. John Wesley wrote the words for the new movement, and his brother Charles wrote the music. John struggled for a while, but eventually experienced a personal transformation that focused and energized his ministry. The “nonconforming minority” called Methodists grew into today’s global Methodist movement that is millions strong.

The history of the Church is full of “nonconforming minorities” and “creatively maladjusted” communities like the Desert Fathers, the Mennonites, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Howard Thurman and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Henri Nouwen and L’Arche Daybreak, Sojourners Community, Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church. Beyond these headliners, millions of very ordinary followers of Jesus share God’s transforming love in Christ each day in countless ways all over our planet.

Last fall I wrote about “Doing Jesus’ Laundry”.  Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan needed a community service project to complete requirements for a Girl Scout award. Caroline and her mother regularly made their own laundry detergent, and donated some to their church’s food  pantry. Clients welcomed it because it saved them some money, but they still spent up to $20-30 every time they went to a laundromat. Caroline thought, prayed, studied—and formed a plan. She arranged to use a local laundromat one afternoon a month. She enlisted her church’s help with donations of money, supplies, and volunteers. She spread the word as widely as she knew how. Last June “Loads of Love” began washing clothes and sharing God’s love in Bonaire, GA. They come in with dirty laundry,” Caroline says, “and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

A few daysJesus Laundry ago I heard from Caroline’s mother! She’d seen my post. Caroline had received her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Loads of Love” continues “doing Jesus’ laundry” in Bonaire, GA and many other communities. Last Friday,” Michelle said, “27 volunteers from her family joined [Caroline] to serve the people in this community in honor of our grandmother and her legacy of service. Cousins came from all over the state and we had a family reunion at the laundromat. We began the night with $250 in quarters and when we left, we had done dozens of loads and had $315 in the box. There is no way to explain it other than ‘loaves and fishes math’. One thing she knows; God wants her to continue this ministry”. 

Thank God for “transformed nonconformists” like Paul, Peter, Patrick, Caroline Gowan, and all the rest! Thousands of youth are in Confirmation classes like ours this Spring. May the Spirit form them into “transformed nonconformists” serving our God who “makes all things new”!

The Donkey-Rider’s Very Different Way

thetriumphalentryLast Sunday Christians celebrated King Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem. We remembered how he came “triumphant and victorious…humble and riding on a donkey…” (Zechariah 9:9 NRSV) We waved palm branches, the way those first-century folks generally welcomed a conquering hero. With that ancient crowd we shouted and sang “Hosanna!”, “Save us!” Jesus’ choice of transportation was a message that Jewish crowd couldn’t have missed. Conquering heroes didn’t ride dumpy little donkeys. They rode magnificent white stallions. Jesus’ alternative transportation recalled Zechariah’s prophecy. Speaking through the prophet, God  continues (this part we rarely hear):

” I’ve had it with war—no more chariots in Ephraim,

no more war horses in Jerusalem,

no more swords and spears, bows and arrows.

He [the donkey-riding king] will offer peace to the nations,

a peaceful rule worldwide,

from the four winds to the seven seas.” (Zechariah 9:10 MSG)

Hopefully last Sunday our pastors taught us the radically different nature of this king and Kingdom. Perhaps he/she chose another direction. Perhaps it was one of those services where other concerns intruded and the message got lost in the shuffle. Some of us may have gone home wondering why Jesus’ friends didn’t insist on getting him a more impressive ride for his grand entry. Some of us wondered (with desperate hope) how that donkey-riding king could make a transforming, life-and-death difference in our angry, violent world.

Monday morning the bombs exploded in Brussels. Monday morning we cried “Save us!” to our guns, our armies, our security and surveillance systems, our present and would-be future leaders—and yes, to the God whose offer of “peace to the nations” still falls on deaf ears and hardened hearts. Monday morning we were brutally reminded–again–of the climate of inescapable anger and violence in which we live. We felt the devastating grief of the victims and all who were connected to them—which is all of us. We felt the fear that mistrusts all that is unknown and unfamiliar. This fear builds walls of exclusion and prejudice against all who are “different”, especially those who bear any resemblance to the “enemy”. Those walls go up instantly. But when we realize we’ve overbuilt, or that we’ve walled out the wrong people, those walls come down only with the greatest difficulty–or not at all. Monday morning politicians and others began proposing various ways to strengthen our security. Some offer reasonable and effective steps. Others offer fear-based proposals that will intensify the hate and fear rather than leading toward healing.

When I watch the coverage from Brussels and the response around the world, I sometimes see a lonely figure moving across the screen. The man on the donkey rides past the wreckage, the hospital scenes, families coping with tragedy or celebrating reunion, stunned men and women trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, politicians and others seeking a way to use this disaster to enhance their standing. The donkey-riding king moves silently through our world. His very presence judges our fear-full and faith-full responses. His presence proclaims anew the impossible promise of “peace to the nations…from the four winds to the seven seas”. He is in our midst as we work through our shock, our fear, our outrage, our grief. He is alongside us and all his followers as we live out his way of strong gentle humility and unconditional love.

Some of our United Methodist leaders remind us what following Jesus looks like in a time like this:

  • “We are praying for all who lost loved ones and for those who are wounded. And we pray and work that we overcome fear and do not answer evil with evil…”—Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, Germany
  • “As those who follow Jesus, the crucified and resurrected One, we need to continue in doing good as much as we can, in building respectful community, in working for peace and justice, in being agents of reconciliation and never give up despite blind violence, hatred or paralyzing fear, wherever we live,”—Bishop Patrick Streiff, Central and Southern Europe
  • “[news of this attack] comes on the heels of violence in other parts of the world, including Cote d’Ivoire earlier this month and more than a hundred incidents in various parts of the world just this year…I am touched by this pain to the fabric of humanity. It’s a pain we must face and seek to heal with love and justice, but we recognize that controlling or preventing these kinds of tragedies is beyond our power alone. We turn to our God who creates justice and loves and embraces us all.”—Bishop Warner Brown, San Francisco, President of the Council of Bishops.

Our donkey-riding King invites us to share his journey as he moves through our world. He brings peace, love, healing, a sense of community that unites those who never thought it possible. He leads us into a way of self-emptying love that is incredibly fulfilling. His very different way gently and powerfully refuses to give in to anger, fear, and violence. Our crucified and risen Lord leads us toward the kind of world I want to live in; the kind of world I want my children and grandchildren, and all the children of the world, to live in. Will you help build that new world? The world where “We overcome fear and do not answer evil for evil;” where we “Continue in doing good as much as we can…; where we “…never give up despite blind violence, hatred, or paralyzing fear;” where “We turn to our God who creates justice and loves and embraces us all.”

Telling the Truth, Being the Truth

Before the truth can set you freeYou are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”–Jesus, John 8:31-32 CEB

I tried to start this piece by being cool, calm, objective, even-handed. That approach generated only multiple “deletes” and an annoyingly blank screen. So I’ll just say it:

Donald Trump’s rise is a nightmare perilously close to coming true. The super-slick salesman, self-proclaimed consummate deal-maker, and reality-TV star has insulted, bullied, and bigoted his way to the inside track for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s skillfully amplified popular frustration, anger, and prejudice to unprecedented intensity. He might actually become the forty-fifth President of the United States!

I’ve watched what I knew could never happen, and increasingly asked God and myself, “How shall we who follow Jesus respond? What’s our place in this struggle?” We could get down in the mud with him the way Mr. Trump’s opponents have following last week’s debate. We could proclaim, “Trump’s not a [real] Christian.” When Pope Francis tried that, folks told him to mind his own business. We could engage in endless nitpicking and Bible-quoting to make our case, at least to ourselves. But we’d likely also confirm in many minds the popular stereotype of Christians as narrow, judgmental, unloving grinches. So let’s not wade into the muddy morass where Mr. Trump and his opponents have chosen to wallow. Let’s not attack or “go negative”. Let’s focus on issues and substance rather than insults and half-truths.

I believe the distinctive contribution followers of Jesus can make is simply  to tell the truth about the transforming impact of faith in Christ. I suggest that our witness [telling the truth we have seen, heard, and experienced] embrace the strategy popularly attributed to St. Francis—“Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary.” [While scholars now doubt that those are Francis’ words, that doesn’t diminish their wisdom. ] Let us simply “tell the truth and be the truth” that is Christ.   

The following biblical passages sketch the shape that message takes in our lives:

  • Jesus describes the upside-down blessedness of living his way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope…when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you…when you’re content with just who you are…when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God…when you care…when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right…when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight…when your commitment to God provokes persecution” (Matthew 5:1-12 MSG)
  • A scholar asks Jesus which one of the 613 commandments in Hebrew scripture matters most: “Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.’” (Mark 12:28-34 CEB))
  • Jesus redefines greatness when his disciples argue among themselves: “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It’s not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant. Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27 MSG)
  • “…the fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NRSV)
  • Paul tells Christians seeking to be faithful in the midst of a pagan culture: “I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse”. (Philippians 4:8 MSG)
  • “…religion does make your life rich, by making you content with what you have. We didn’t bring anything into this world, and we won’t take anything with us when we leave. So we should be satisfied just to have food and clothes. People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10 CEV)
  • “If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister…he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” (1 John 4:20-21 MSG)
  • Jesus tells a story about the Last Judgment. People are evaluated according to how they’ve treated their neighbors in desperate need—poor, sick, homeless, prisoners, etc. “Whenever you did [or failed to do] one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46 MSG)

Wow! Who set the bar so high? Not me. Jesus and his early followers knew that’s how much God loved them and wanted to do in and through them–and every one of his precious children. Our most compelling witness among our neighbors is just being ourselves in Christ–“co-operating, not competing or fighting”; caring for the “overlooked or ignored”; focusing on “the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly”; cultivating a bumper crop of “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control “. The Truth that is Christ sets us free from living life against one another as our hyper-polarized society insists we must. The Truth sets us free to live life with and for others so that all God’s children may know the “abundant life” God wills for all of us.

The truth that is Christ is the ultimate antidote to toxic hate-and fear-based politics. Incarnation continues to be the most effective way to communicate transforming, liberating Truth. The best vehicles available for this mission are–you and me. Our neighbors get the message through the lives we live with them day by day. Let’s try something together. Pick one of the Bible passages above. Try to embody it in your life each day. Be sure to fasten your seat belt. God’s Spirit will grow us into people who tell Truth by being Truth–not perfectly, of course, but far better than we imagined on good days. Our incarnational witness will reach and change more people and   situations than we dare to dream–even in this bizarre and sometimes scary political climate.

Truth will set you free

Our Lenten Journey–Who’s Walking with Whom?

“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” is a tune we’re hearing each Sunday in Lent where I worship. It’s part of a “Centering Time” at the beginning of the service, in a different instrumental arrangement. The spiritual certainly sounds “Lenten”—“I want Jesus to walk with me…In my trials, Lord, walk with me…When my heart is almost breaking…When I’m troubled, Lord, walk with me…When my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” Of course we welcome Jesus’ presence with us on this difficult and demanding annual road trip. Calvin Earl writes of this song and others like it: “…the spirituals were a path to freedom for the slaves…as they sung to God through a moan and groan, the cry was so deep God heard, and His comfort gave the slaves strength, courage and the grace to go on in the fight to free the label of slaves for themselves and generations of their children not yet born.”  Perhaps not to the extent of those African-American slaves, but we’ve been through our own trials, heartbreak, and troubles that leave our “…heart …almost breaking…our head…bowed in sorrow…” Of course “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”.

Walking together

This past Sunday another “walking with Jesus” song started playing inside my head: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus…” It’s hardly a slave’s “moan and groan” toward freedom.It’s a joyful song written by a well-off young white woman musician on the staff of a large, affluent church. It’s in the Advent section of our United Methodist Hymnal. Its rich use of light imagery also fits the Epiphany season.

But I hear it helping us along our Lenten journey with Jesus. You see, “I want Jesus to walk with ME” can become a slippery slope before we know it. We start at “I want Jesus to walk with me because I’m overwhelmed by life and I can’t do this by myself.” Sometimes we get too comfortable. We like it here. We’re moving in for the duration. The next verse becomes “I want Jesus to accompany me on my stroll through life so he’ll insulate me from all the bumps and smooth out all the rough spots.” When I ask Jesus to walk with me, I get to decide where we’ll go, how fast or how slow, who we’ll stop and talk to along the way, and when we’ll cross the street to avoid “those people”. Suddenly we’ve asserted our will over God’s and life’s dangerously out of balance. Hardly the first time that’s happened. Way back at our very beginning (Genesis 2-3) God welcomed Adam and Eve to enjoy the fruit of every tree in his garden—except one. Naturally, on that one off-limits tree hung the fruit they couldn’t live without. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Lent is a season of reflection and repentance (re-direction) in which we may refocus our lives and refresh our relationship with God. That process may include clarifying just  who’s walking with whom on this Lenten journey: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.”  We’re with him. We go where Jesus goes, sleep where Jesus sleeps, eat where, when, what, and with whom Jesus chooses, meet, greet, serve, and love the people to whom Jesus leads us along the way. Our annual “Lenten journey” invites us to reaffirm and deepen our response to Jesus’ simple life-changing invitation: “Follow me.” We join him on his journey as we say, sing, pray, and live, “I want to follow Jesus.”

Each of the four gospels tells its own story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Many congregations re-live that journey in their worship during the weeks leading up to Easter. You can follow Jesus’ journey on your own through a daily Bible reading plan. This one covers all four gospels. If you’re starting now (almost two week into Lent), feel free to adjust and adapt. Pay close attention to the places Jesus goes, the people he meets, and how he treats them. “Following Jesus” in daily life means at least going where he’d go, helping the people he’d help, caring most about what he cares most about, doing what he’d do if he were living among us today. And remember–WE NEVER HAVE TO FOLLOW JESUS BY OURSELVES! Discipleship is a team sport. The moment I say “I want to follow Jesus” I am linked to every other person now and throughout history who has made that same transforming choice. If following Jesus is new territory for you, or if you just want some companions to walk along with you with Jesus,  invite a friend or a few to share the journey.

Who’s walking with whom? Am I walking with Jesus, or is Jesus walking with me? Sometimes life gets hard. We’re pushed beyond our limit. We just need Jesus to walk with us through a dark valley or a difficult time. In the midst of those situations we often discover that he was closer than we knew sooner than we knew. When “I want/need Jesus to walk with me”, he does—as long, as far, as closely as necessary. Many people testify that they have come through such an experience stronger, more able to endure hard times, and more focused and willing to follow Jesus’ lead step by step. And the closer we follow, the more we discover his presence in all of life, especially those places we thought he’d never  go or could never reach us.

Let’s walk on together. At any given moment some of us are strong and confident, ready to move forward. Others are going through trials, heartbreak, our heads bowed in sorrow. The more we focus on following Jesus, the more we’ll discover how closely and surely he’s walking with us. In those times when we just need to lean on him (and our brothers and sisters) for strength and comfort, his strong constant presence brings us through and empowers us anew to follow wherever he leads us.

The road leads through Lent and Holy Week to Easter and God’s New World. The refrain of “I Want to Walk” keeps before us God’s ultimate dream for all He has created and loves: “In him [Christ] there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” [cf. Revelation 21:23, 22:5]

 

 

 

 

 

New Life Ain’t Easy–Flood Journal 3

About four months ago a hard freeze combined with preventable human error (mine) to cause a pipe in our attic to burst. The Flood ruined most of the inside of our home. Since then we have lived in a rented house  about three miles away.Thank God for homeowners’ insurance that pays the rent and related expenses! We’ve made the best of life in “The Cabin”, as we’ve come to call our temporary quarters. Even our dog has adapted enough to call the place “Home—for now”. But he still has days like today when we went to our home (now known as “The Jobsite”) and he didn’t want to get back in the car and go  back to “The Cabin”. He knew where home was.

It’s taken longer than we expected to put together the pieces to start reconstruction. The biggest, hardest piece has been coming to a meeting of the dollars (and minds) between ourselves, our contractor, and the insurance adjuster. But a few days ago the meeting happened! We signed the contract to proceed with the reconstruction. Checks are in the mail from the insurance company. We can see an end to our stay in “The Cabin” and a new beginning in our renewed home. It hasn’t been easy getting to this point, and we expect the rest of the journey to be equally challenging.

This whole process reminds me of the challenges of living the new life God gives us in Christ. For example, our insurance, like most homeowners’ policies, pays to restore the house to its immediate pre-Flood condition. We certainly won’t do that. We’ll do better. We won’t put 15-year-worn carpet back in the house. We’ll correct electrical issues uncovered during “de-construction”. We’ll buy new furniture rather than items as well-used as what we lost. We’ve already decided we can live without some of those things the water ruined.

In the same way, new life in Christ isn’t more of the same. It’s new. It’s not the life we’ve been living, only with a confirmed reservation at the Heavenly Hilton in our back pocket. New life means new priorities and new values. It means taking up some new habits and attitudes and letting go of some old ones. New life in Christ is guided and shaped by our growing experience of Jesus’ life, teachings, and constant presence.

New life requires many choices. All those choices come with costs. We chose to upgrade flooring. We chose to make good (finally!) on our six-year-old threat to remove a wall. We chose to replace the aging original water heater rather than risk FLOOD 2—THE SEQUEL when it dies sooner rather than later. We struggled to balance personal preferences in style and color, finances, stewardship, and boring stuff like functionality, practicality, durability, and energy consumption as we chose cabinets, countertops, paint colors, and all the other elements that go into a home.

One key factor in our choices has been how much of our own money we will invest in this rebuilding process. The answer is turning out to be “enough to do it the way that’s right for us”. It’s not like taking the insurance money, paying your deductible, and being done with it. Having some skin (and dollars) in the game means we’ve “counted the cost” as Jesus advises us to do at the outset of any building project (Luke 14:28). We understand the cost and we’ve chosen the cost in order to achieve the results.

New life in Christ requires many choices. All those choices come with costs. As we said earlier, Jesus shapes the priorities and values that guide our choices in this new life. Following Jesus leads us daily to choices that go against the dominant culture. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43) “Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the merciful…the peacemakers…” (excerpted from Matthew 5:3-11) “ “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). “…just as you did it to one of the least of these…, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) You get the idea. Following Jesus faithfully confronts us with difficult, costly, countercultural choices. Grace isn’t cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote honestly and powerfully about “The Cost of Discipleship”.   

We want to leave a legacy for those who follow. With our home, that means making choices that lead to a desirable and salable property when the time comes. No, we don’t expect the next six generations tolive on “the old home place”. Yes, we do anticipate a day when choice and/or necessity lead to selling  this house and living somewhere else. Beyond practical and material considerations, this home has hosted some great family moments. We expect the renewed home to host many more. We’re trying to rebuild it in ways that will enhance its warmth and welcome.

Our new life in Christ is never solely about me and my “highway to heaven”. It’s about the difference I make within my reach. Who and what is better off because I chose to step up? How has my presence and involvement in others’ lives helped them see Christ? How have I been an instrument of building God’s New Creation? The answers will be different for each of us. The answers will be surprising, exciting, and life-changing as we invest ourselves fully in living the new life of those who follow Jesus together. New life ain’t easy by any means. But it’s the best life ever.

Let’s Not Fix Our Church

In this Lenten season of giving-things-up, I want to suggest something that we United Methodists and other mainline Christians could give up for Lent—in fact, for good. Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s give up trying to save/renew/bail out failing, floundering, foundering institutions that are at best resistant to change and at worst incapable of the “adaptive change” that some would make our new United Methodist buzzword. (When I told my wife what I was writing about, she said, “So you want to let the church go to hell?” Of course not. Stay with me as we move toward a transforming alternative.)

I’ve been reading the latest round of “how-to-fix-the UMC” blogs, articles, and ponderous pronouncements. This excruciating experience has driven me to offer this drastic strategy. Let’s give up trying to fix/revive/bail-out/prop up our church. Let us embrace anew our stated mission: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. Let us dare to make our stated mission our actual mission by aligning the expenditure of our money, time, energy, prayer, and attention. Let us begin with ourselves and the brothers and sisters in Christ within our reach on any given Sunday.

One obvious question arises. “What is a disciple?” We could spend endless time and energy pharisaically debating the issue. Some (including myself) would say that our penchant for endless debate and insufficient action has gotten us exactly the results we should have expected. We’d also point out that our planet already has a climate-change crisis. The last thing we need is more hot air!

My working definition of “disciple” comes from Dallas Willard:

“A disciple or apprentice…is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is…as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God…I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.”

Nearly every church has at least a few people who embody this vision of discipleship. Nearly every church also includes others whose growth has been severely stunted. Sometimes  these are long-time church members, but “developmentally delayed” immature disciples. (DISCLAIMER—All of us have periodic relapses into immaturity—especially when we judge and point fingers at someone else’s “immaturity”.) With that in mind, consider Johnny, the clearly-out-of-place student in this video, “Faith in Kindergarten”. [For those unable to view the video, “Johnny” is a 40-ish man enjoying his “career” in kindergarten. He embraces his success and steadfastly refuses to leave his comfort zone to face the challenges of first grade and beyond. If you can’t see the video, I urge you to get some technical support—perhaps your child or grandchild! It’s really a must-see.]

Who’s responsible for our collective spiritual immaturity? I am—along with my clergy colleagues, laypeople in every church I know, and conference and denominational leaders. We have settled for mediocrity in ourselves and others. We have accepted and even cultivated spiritual immaturity. Granted, we have seen notable individual and institutional exceptions. But they have been just that—exceptions. Our growing desperation to reverse decades of decline points like garishly flashing neon to our collective immaturity. Mature discipleship focuses minimally on ourselves and mainly on God and our neighbor. But we care more about ourselves, about “my church” “my needs”, and “being fed”. We care more about not rocking the boat and maintaining the institution than about embracing and immersing ourselves in God’s mission where we live life.

Bishop Robert Hoshibata, the recently-appointed leader of the Phoenix Area, wrote recently in his column “Living the Connection, Renewed by the Spirit” about getting acquainted with the congregations he now serves. He says that he’s heard inspiring stories of sacrifice, dedication, and accomplishment in his visits with churches. But so many of those have been “good old days” stories. Now those same congregations struggle with decline. A few, not nearly  enough, are finding a way forward. He identifies three questions that seem to shape that way forward:  “‘Who is my neighbor?’…‘What are the… physical…AND spiritual needs of the people who live around the church who are not yet part of the church?’…‘What can I or we offer them if we really want to reach out and touch their lives with the love of Jesus Christ?”’ 

NOW, AS PROMISED, A TRANSFORMING ALTERNATIVE— Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to heal the brokenness of our “developmentally-delayed” discipleship. Let’s stop living out of fear and start living by faith. Let’s decide to be who we say we are. Let’s intentionally focus all available resources on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

It doesn’t take years of political maneuvering. It doesn’t require mountains of legislation. It begins with a critical mass here and there. The size of a “critical mass” varies according to our context. Jesus did a lot with twelve people. He told those twelve that “two or three” plus his presence could form that critical mass (Matthew 18:20).

Talk to folks who might join you in becoming a “critical mass”. Share your hope and dreams. Pray together deeply and frequently. Keep your pastor in the loop. Work with him/her, not against. Don’t be secretive. Do be humble and open. Find people who are serious about apprenticing themselves to Jesus. Explore together what that means for you separately and as a community. Your “critical mass” may well include formerly-churched, differently-churched, de-churched, even unchurched people.

Bishop Bob offers us one model for living out our mission. It’s hardly the only one. But it’s a great starting point. It’s simple, Biblical, and comprehensive. PLEASE—Let’s not engage in endless debate like good Methodists. Let’s be good Nike-ists. “JUST DO IT!” Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s take up following Jesus as faithful apprentices wherever he leads us.

Remember Your Baptism AND GROW UP!

 

(NOTE: I began writing this post on Jan. 13, the Sunday referenced below. But once again Life superseded my carefully-crafted schedule and imposed its own timing.)

Last Sunday the Christian liturgical calendar led many churches to focus on the Baptism of the Lord. We heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and were reminded of our own baptism. Many United Methodists shared a ritual in which we reaffirm the promises we made, or that our parents or other sponsors made on our behalf, at our baptism. Finally the liturgy challenges us to “Remember your baptism and be thankful”.

This ritual,“Renewing Our Baptismal Covenant”, always involves water. Sometimes the water is only symbolic. Nobody gets wet.  Other times all who choose to do so are invited to touch and experience the Water of Life. Many find this service a powerful moment of renewal. It’s been a high moment in my ministry to lead these services and say to each worshiper who comes to the water, “Remember your baptism and be thankful”.

But sometimes I’ve wished I could ad lib. I would rather have said, “Remember your baptism—and GROW UP!” I would have said that to men and women who’ve been Christians their whole lives, yet still behave and/or believe immaturely; to folks who cling fearfully (faithlessly) to “the way we’ve always done it”; to those who stubbornly resist inconvenient and sometimes risky change in the form of new ministries designed to reach new people. I would have said, “Grow up!” to those who treat the church as their private club rather than God’s precious gift to be shared extravagantly with all in reach of our influence; and to those enslaved to the idols our culture worships—money, sex, power, success, celebrity; nationalism, consumerism, racism, me-ism, and all the rest. (NOTE—All of these apply to both laity and clergy, including myself.) Finally, I would have said “Grow up!'” to youth who feel they’ve outgrown church. While most are experiencing normal growing pains,some have in fact outgrown what their local church is able or willing to offer them and think that’s all the church they need. Most have outgrown well-meaning adults’ patronizing “you’re the church of the future”. These youth are ready, willing, and able to take an active role in leadership and service today. Yet they often meet stiff resistance from adult church leaders who block their participation, yet wonder “why we have no youth”.

“Remember your baptism and grow up”—into our God-given identity as persons created and claimed by God’s love to follow Jesus together. At his baptism Jesus heard God’s Spirit declare him “…my own dear Son…I am pleased with you”. (Luke 3:22 CEV) On this side of Easter that gracious affirmation extends to all who follow Jesus. It references two different understandings of the expected Messiah. “…My own dear Son…,” from Psalms 2:7, refers to the kingly Messiah. The second half, “…I am pleased with you…,” from Isaiah 42:1, introduces a character commonly called “The (Suffering) Servant”. The Servant speaks God’s word to Israel and to the nations. A series of four poems describes the Servant’s s gentle faithfulness in the face of growing opposition that ends with his humiliation and death (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).

So who are you, Jesus? King or suffering servant? The gospel writers would answer, “All of the above.” They claim that these two streams flow together in Jesus. They claim further that he called all who follow him to follow his way of representing the God of the Universe with gentleness and self-emptying love. We work with our Risen Lord and all his disciples in God’s mission of healing this broken world and building a new one. We do so not with aggressive win-at-any-cost secular power plays, but with self-emptying servant love.

“Remember your baptism and grow up” into those who embody God’s love for the world as we see it in Jesus. I believe strongly that Christianity’s decline is due largely to our corporate spiritual immaturity. Does our memory fail us when we get involved in the daily-ness of life in our clearly less-than-Christian culture? Or we were never adequately taught the fullness of what it means to be “God’s own [child] with whom God is pleased”?

A few months ago I was privileged to help baptize our granddaughter Amelia Rose, and to preach at that service. (CLICK HERE to read the message) I asked that congregation to help her parents teach her grow into her baptism. I reminded them of an early Christian hymn which describes the life to which Amelia and all of us are called:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what… he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave…an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges…he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Philippians 2:5-8 (MSG)

With help from Time Magazine religion writer Jon Meacham, I pinpointed four marks of that cross-shaped life: 1)“To reach out when our instinct is to pull inward;” 2) ”To give when we want to take;”3)“To love when we are inclined to hate;” 4)“To include when we are tempted to exclude.”

Brothers and sisters, Remember your baptism into the cross-shaped life of a follower of Jesus, along with countless brothers and sisters from every time and place. Remember your baptism and grow up into its fullness. Grow up into God’s dream for you. Grow up together into the Body of Christ that can help heal our broken world. Remember your baptism and grow up—and be joyfully thankful every moment along the way.

 

 

FREEDOM OF RELIGION, FAITHFUL DISCIPLES, AND THE 113TH CONGRESS

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is one of 81 women in the new 113th Congress. She followed the custom of taking the oath of office with her hand on a sacred book. But in her case that book was not a Bible. It was her personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita. Tulsi  Gabbard is the first Hindu member of Congress. The Iraq war veteran explained, (LINK) “I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country. My Gita has been a tremendous source of inner peace and strength through many tough challenges in life, including being in the midst of death and turmoil while serving our country in the Middle East.”

In addition to Rep. Gabbard, the 113th Congress also includes Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Buddhist  Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI)., and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), the first legislator whose officially-stated religious preference is “None”. A recent Pew Forum report informs us that the first Jew was elected to Congress in 1845, the first Mormon in in 1851 (from Utah, of course), and the first Sikh in 1957. For all these faithful servants let us thank our nation’s founders who declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

I doubt that the framers of the Constitution envisioned today’s religious and spiritual climate. They stretched their imaginations to include assorted Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Deists. But I’m confident our nation’s founders would look at this very diverse 113th Congress and say, “Yes! It’s working. Everybody has a place at the table. Everybody has freedom to practice his or her religion, even if it’s ‘none’.” They’d also recognize that making space for all interested parties is a constant balancing act, but one well worth the effort.

But not all our fellow citizens celebrate our nation’s spiritual/religious diversity. You may share my observation that some of our Christian brothers and sisters are among the least happy. They insist that this country was founded as a “Christian nation” and we’d better always do it that way—or else! This view seeks (futilely in my opinion) to portray our founding fathers as contemporary evangelicals. (Deists among our founding fathers included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and George Washington.) While we do have prominent Judeo-Christian elements in our national background, that doesn’t make us “a Christian nation” by definition. [Detailed treatment of this issue requires another whole post—more likely a book!] The “Christian nation” myth conveniently ignores the religious diversity present at our nation’s beginning and ever since. It equates late 18th-century Christianity with late-20th-century conservative Christianity. Above all, it views today’s diverse spiritual/religious climate with a mix of denial, condemnation, contempt, and fear. Fear of the unknown future; fear of losing control; fear of opening the door even a crack to ideas that (in this view) are contrary to scripture or that “Christian nation” foundation on which our security supposedly rests.

By contrast, the Bible repeatedly has God telling us, “Do not be afraid.” The wonderful, fearful truth is that the USA in 2013 is a dynamic, rapidly-changing society. The First Amendment provides room for all of us. We can change or not, as we choose. But we must balance our own freedom of religion (and speech and assembly) with our neighbor’s freedom to think and act very differently. Christians no longer have a privileged place in the national religious landscape. The causes include social and cultural forces beyond our control; the church’s willful insistence on “doing it the way we’ve always done it”; refusing/failing to reframe our message and our practice in contemporary terms; and our laziness and carelessness in discipling ourselves, our children, and one another. Disciples don’t just happen. We learn to follow Jesus by watching and imitating other disciples in the family and the wider church community. Disciples grow best in small face-to-face groups. Acts 2- 6, the early Methodist movement, and the best of contemporary Christian small groups are among numerous examples in the history of the church.

“Do not be afraid” of our nation’s broad diversity reflected in the 113th Congress. Diversity is a source of strength in nature and in most social organizations. 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 (about spiritual gifts) suggest it’s also a source of strength for the church. The First Amendment suggests it was viewed as a source of strength for our infant nation. It invites all of every persuasion to express themselves, allowing room for others to do the same. So let us who follow Jesus cultivate and express our discipleship as fully and faithfully as possible. Historically, that’s the course Christians in the minority have typically followed. More often than not, we’ve had an impact far beyond our numbers. Let’s be the most authentic, devoted Christ-followers and Body of Christ we can be in this diverse new world—and leave the rest to our God who is bigger than any idea or ideology.

 

Teach the Children–a Baptismal Message

[Recently I had the privilege of baptizing our youngest granddaughter. I was also invited to preach at all three services that day. Some people (even some unrelated to Amelia and me) thought the message worth sharing with a wider audience. It’s longer than my typical post. It is in two parts, as you’ll see. The first part is based on 2 Timothy 1:1-7 (The Message).] 

Today we become partners in a life-shaping adventure. Amelia Rose Salzman, our youngest granddaughter, will be baptized this morning. Family and godparents will gather around her.  Those of us in this service will promise, on behalf of the entire congregation, to partner with Amelia’s family to help her grow to maturity in Christ. What better way to fulfill our mission to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ…”?  Church and families partner together to help children catch the contagious joy of following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Discipleship is “caught” far more than it is “taught”.  Of course we’ll teach Amelia and all the children “Jesus Loves Me”, John 3:16, and the Apostles’ Creed. We’ll teach them who John Wesley is, what it means to be a “connectional church”, and much more about our distinctive Methodist style. But most important, we will immerse them in a loving, Spirit-filled, faithfully adventurous Christian community.

A community like that nurtured Timothy’s growth into Christ. We heard Paul praise his “honest faith…handed down from your grandmother Lois to your mother Eunice, and now to you!” Mom and grandma taught him the story of Jesus. They also immersed him in a vital Christian community. Timothy first “caught” faith in Christ from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. But he also learned to follow Jesus from the living example of dozens of older brothers and sisters in Christ.

Amelia’s parents will do their part. Her five living grandparents, all present today, will see to it! But it takes a faith community to grow a disciple. I am a prenatal Methodist. From my beginning Maynard Memorial Methodist Church in Los Angeles partnered with my parents. Glenn and Darlene McMurry, Fred and Irene Hillman, Dale and Flo Conrad, and many others offered living examples of life lived Jesus’ way. That rich environment helped me discover and claim “that special gift of ministry” God had given me.

Many of you can tell similar stories. The names and places will be different. Your story may have more twists and turns than mine. But our stories have this much in common: Disciples grow best in community. Today Amelia’s biological family asks you, her spiritual family, to partner with us in helping her grow up into Christ. We look forward to the day she claims the community’s faith as her own. We look forward to sharing her journey as she discovers and shares with the world her “special gift of ministry.”

[Here we performed the actual baptism. Those at the earlier services were invited to imagine the baptism taking place–the family gathered, questions being asked and answered, Amelia behaving–however she chose!]

PART II

Now what? We’ve done the ceremony. We’ve celebrated God’s love for this child. We’ve affirmed God’s claim on her life. We’ve sealed our partnership. Amelia’s on the church’s books. Now what exactly will we teach her—and all the other growing disciples within our reach? Listen to Paul’s words to one early church (Philippians 2:5-11) No, I’m not suggesting you prepare all the children in this church to be crucified—at least not literally. I do challenge you to teach them to be disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”.  “He emptied himself,“ Paul says.“He humbled himself by becoming obedient…Therefore God highly honored him…”

Teach Amelia—and all the growing disciples within your reach—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” Teach them this radical countercultural lifestyle of self-emptying obedience. This church has some saints whose very presence teaches humility and self-emptying. You know who they are. Their lives embody “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.”    

Make these saints lead teachers for Amelia and all the children. You don’t have to put them in the Sunday School classroom every week. But expose the children to them frequently. Let them see and experience the “attitude” of these grownup disciples. Don’t worry about how many bible verses the kids learn or how many perfect attendance ribbons they take home. The Holy Spirit will help the details fall into place. Just do everything in your power to grow a generation of disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”.

Now I know some of you are still stuck on Paul’s graphic language: “…He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” That’s a real baptism bummer! So here’s another version of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”. It comes from Time religion writer Jon Meacham. “The central tenet of Christianity”, Jon writes, “…is that we are to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward, to give when we want to take, to love when we are inclined to hate, to include when we are tempted to exclude.”–Jon Meacham, “Of God and Gays and Humility” in Time Magazine 7/30/12

Disciples “reach out when our instinct is to pull inward.” The Old Testament tells the story of God reaching out to humanity. Every time God reached out we acted like jerks. We were ungrateful. We willfully disobeyed the rules. We insisted on living life our way instead of God’s way. We fought to grab all the goodies for ourselves. We refused to share. Time after time we bit the hand of God that reached out to feed and care for us.

When someone treats me that way I don’t put up with it very long. It doesn’t take long until I’m done reaching out. But God’s relentless love wouldn’t quit. Finally Love wrapped itself in human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We killed the messenger. But some of us got the message—especially when we saw on Easter morning that Love was stronger than death. God began drawing Jesus’ followers beyond their comfort zone. He sent Jewish Christians to tell the hated Samaritans about Jesus. He sent Paul, and later Peter, to the Gentiles. Everybody knew God didn’t like Gentiles—except God! Over the centuries our reaching-out God sent missionaries to all the peoples nobody but God could love. Our reaching-out God continues to push us beyond our comfort zones to the people and places we’ve written off.

Disciples also “give when we want to take”. Amelia’s brother Lucas has begun learning this discipleship lesson. He’s learning to share his toys with friends who come over to play. He’s learning to share Mom and Dad with his sister. Sometimes, he thinks, she can be pretty high-maintenance. Sometimes Lucas’s and Amelia’s  high-maintenance moments occur simultaneously! If Lucas learns to share as quickly as the rest of us, he’ll be a very generous person in just a few more decades.

I just finished reading a book called Love Without Walls. It describes the ministry of Mariners Church in Southern California. A new senior pastor came into a very bleak situation. After nearly two years of hard prayer and hard work by everyone, the church’s budget deficit had become a modest surplus. The board wanted to take most of it and put it in the bank. They needed reserves. They could earn some interest. This was back when you didn’t need a microscope to find your interest. The pastor said, “It’s God’s money, not ours. Let’s use it for God’s purposes. Let’s give it away.” So they didn’t take God’s money and put it away for their own needs. They started giving it away. An amazing thing happened. The more people they helped, the more pressing needs they uncovered. The more needs they addressed, the more people wanted to help and the more people gave to meet those needs. The more they gave, the more opportunities they had to give and make a difference.

Disciples “love when we’re inclined to hate”. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” knows that “an eye for an eye” soon leaves everyone blind. We will love our enemies as Jesus taught us. We will return good for evil. We will treat others with respect and dignity regardless of how they treat us. We will break the death spiral of name-calling, retribution, and escalating violence. Disciples with attitude model an alternative way to live in families, in politics, in business, in traffic, in every part of life–even in intense church conflict.

In 1942 Clarence Jordan and a few other Christians formed an inter-racial community called Koinonia Farms near Americus, Georgia. They wanted to model the way they believed followers of Jesus were called to live together. The neighbors weren’t impressed. They were outraged. They brought housewarming gifts of isolation, harassment, religious persecution, and violence. Clarence Jordan and his friends just kept on living their lives and loving their neighbors. Their consistent practice of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” helped prepare the way for the Civil Rights movement.

Disciples “include when we’re tempted to exclude”. Our natural human tendency is to associate with others like ourselves. At its best that helps us build strong, stable communities. At its worst it means we aggressively exclude those who don’t fit for whatever reason. Our society today is just doing what comes naturally. We are intensely polarized around intense social, political, cultural, religious, and economic issues.  We’re happy to be on ‘our” side of the chasm—and equally happy to have “them” far away on the opposite side. We gather in our “us” groups—sometimes even in the church–and give thanks that we’re not like “them”.

Folks living with “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” won’t stand for that. We know God doesn’t see “us” and “them”. God sees persons created in God’s image who are tragically separated from each other and from him. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants to help Jesus tear down the walls that separate us from each other and from God. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants to help Jesus build bridges of healing and reconciliation where we’ve dug Grand Canyons of separation. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants every one of God’s children to know the joy of being included in God’s family. We want to nurture Amelia and the children in this church to discover their “special gift of ministry”. But we won’t stop until that’s true for every child of God of every age and situation within our reach. Incidentally, you’ve taught me this morning that this church’s “reach” extends at least as far as Africa. So we have a lot to do together before we’re done!

So, partners, teach the children well. Teach them to be disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”. Teach them—and one another—“to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward, to give when we want to take, to love when we are inclined to hate, to include when we are tempted to exclude.”


Categories