Discipleship

Transcending the Places that Hold You

12 December 2014

Aragorn: What do you fear, my lady?
Eowyn: A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.

“It is very important to transcend the places that hold you.” – Rubin Carter, in The Hurricane

There are only a few things that have ever really scared me.

  • The selfishness of my heart.
  • That I might not be worth loving.
  • That my love for others was fraudulent.
  • That I might disappoint God.
  • Injustice towards my children.

These have each taken turns possessing my attention, consuming my spirit. I have been, and though my spiritual muscle has been beefed up through use, continue to be vulnerable to them.

They come and go, in decreasing intensity, as my days go by. I hate them, but they have also become my friends, my most faithful allies in ushering me to my place, on my knees, before God.

But there is one fear that is ever-present. It eats at me consistently, and it is my best of friends, my most loyal ally in keeping the fire of love burning between me and my Maker. It stirs me to belief and action when I look it in the eyes, and it stares at me awaiting my attention when I momentarily ignore it to settle in and watch TV.

It is my fear of contentment.

There is a good kind of contentment. It is other-worldly, and captured by a verse in a book that chose me long ago, written by a man who has been dead over 2000 years, but is still teaching me: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” – Paul, in Philippians 4:13

That contentment does not scare me. That is the kind I crave. A capacity to be and live the same wherever I am, with whoever I am with, in whatever circumstance, doing everything that I should do, no matter what, because of His strength.

It is the bad kind of contentment that I fear. It is captured by another verse in that book: “We do not want you to become lazy , but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. We want you to show diligence to the very end.” – Heb 6:11-12

I can see it so clearly, even as I sense most others around can’t, or won’t, mostly because they don’t have or make the time to acknowledge it. I feels a bit like Neo and his crew in the Matrix, surrounded by people living busy, hurried, even good lives, but oblivious that they are mindlessly subscribing to a system that is designed to keep them asleep… or content.

I fear being content with that system. The system woos me. It courts me. It invites me to submit, to comply, even offering to slap some Christian labels on me that I might enjoy, and just enough difficulty to feel like I’m a martyr for Christ, without really being one. It’s like it knows me.

But my fear of contentment keeps me going. It keeps me believing. It keeps me dreaming. It keeps me rebelling, creating, insisting, and moving. It keeps me loving.

I do NOT want to lose that fear, and I am in more danger of it than I have ever been, because I have the choice to make my current spot very comfortable, and that is seductive. But if I drop nicely into this system, and I allow use or old age to make me accept them, I would be dead already without even knowing it.

And ignorance would be “bliss”. That is why it is tempting.

But it would not be life. That is why I’m grateful for my friend… my fear of it.

It is very important to transcend the places that hold you. The only perk that I can think of that an actual prison has is that it is clearly visible, and its dangers overt and obvious. The invisible one that all of us live in, not so much.

I have no bow to tie this piece up with, even though it is Christmas. I write it as a warning, and it is not for you.

It is for me.

The Life of a “Believer”

3 December 2014

“Whether you were born within the trappings of a world system with all of its assumptions, or within the trappings of a religious system with all of its self-declared other-worldliness, the life and message of Jesus is your salvation. He is the way out for your soul, the truth that will free your mind, and the life that your heart is longing for.” – Yours Truly

If you can look at the world and religion and see the the beauty and fraud in them both…

If you can look at the atheist and theist and see their common plight…

If you can see the good in the bad…

If you can look for truth to live by, rather than error to point out, ridicule, or criticize…

If you can offer your heart vulnerably, be hurt, attacked, accused, betrayed, or abused, and then offer it once again…

If you can have faith when no circumstance in sight justifies it…

If you can maintain hope with none agree there is any…

If you can persistently love those who will never return it to you…

If you can rid yourself of all sarcasm…

If you can trust because you  value your practice of it more than the reliability of its object…

If you can bear with the ones who will never overcome their struggles…

If you can see all women as mothers, sisters, and daughters…

If you can see all men as fathers, brothers, and sons…

If you can see yourself in every sinner and in every saint…

If you can face your fears when you have the option not to…

If you can choose suffering to relieve others, and boldly ask others to do the same…

If you can see both extravagant praise and malicious ridicule as poison for your soul…

If you can see the most vile and the most noble of people as equals…

If you can exhaust yourself in loving without losing your peace,  joy, and rest,

And if you can hear the still, small voice of God within you and heed it each time, regardless of where it leads or what it costs…

…then eternity has filled your heart, dear one,

Spirit has swallowed up Law,

the Kingdom has come for you,

and you have entered the life that Christ purchased for you,

the life Christ lived, and now lives in you,

and you, only you, can rightly be called a Believer.

It is a life of tears, but not despair.

It is a life of sacrifice, but also abundance.

It is a life of pain, but with unspeakable joy attached to it.

In this life, the life of a believer,

All things work for good and therefore are good.

All things are redeemed, and therefore valuable and sacred.

So in this life, the life of a believer,

The whole world is their inheritance,

They walk it humbly, but as kings, co-heirs with Christ.

The Great Invitation – Being vs. Doing

19 November 2014

“When I was focused on doing God’s work, I was fast-paced and exasperated, accomplishing much. When I focused on being God’s man, I became peacefully and refreshingly busy.” – Yours Truly

We in Christian circles are familiar with what we call the Great Commission of Christ in Matthew 28 that exhorts us to go and make disciples of Jesus. We are equally familiar with what we call the Great Commandment of Christ in Matthew 22, which exalts love for God and neighbor above all else.

These are defining words out of the mouth of Jesus for anyone who would claim to follow Him. At least they should be. And they should become noticeably defining characteristics in those same people, or it would be right to question their stated association to the name of Christ.

Okay, so there is that.

But there are some other words, recorded in another verse, that I believe are equally worthy of our attention. Worthy of our lives. Vital, even, should we desire to live anywhere close to the Great Commission and Great Commandment lifestyle. As a matter of fact, it is the ignorance of these words that may explain how it is that many professed Christ followers fail to the live a life that is marked by a Great Commandment loving demeanor or a Great Commission disciple-making fruitfulness.

I realize I may not be the first to do so, but I don’t know anyone who has, so I’d like to call it the Great Invitation. And it is found in Matthew 11, and like the Commandment and the Commission, is spoken by Jesus himself.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Notice that just as there are two commands in the Great Commandment, there are two (maybe even three) invitations in the Great Invitation, both of which promise rest. It is Andrew Murray who pointed out to me that the first invitation is to come to Jesus, and that by doing so, there is an immediate gift of rest for the weary. There is an initial burden lifted. It could be argued that the very meaning of “coming to Jesus” in an initial way is to receive his offer to unburden yourself of responsibility for the heavy weight of sin and put it on his shoulders (The relief I feel just by typing it is palpable!).

Invitation #2, Murray taught me, is to take the “yoke” of Jesus, and to learn from him. Jesus is inviting us to become his students, his scholars. He is inviting us to apply our attention to who he is, how he is, and what he says, and not merely for education’s sake. He is literally promising a transformation into a life of even deeper rest (“for your souls,” he says this time). But only if we become master students of his. And just in case someone wants to disqualify themselves as not good “mastery” material, Jesus ends the invitation by saying that his “yoke” is easy, and his burden is something that the most feeble of people can carry.

The order of these Great Things matters. The Great Invitation is listed by Matthew long before the Great Commandment, which is likewise listed long before the the Great Commission. Don’t think it matters? Well, just try to go and make disciples of Jesus without first developing a deep heart of love for God and others and see how long you last. Or just try to develop that deep heart of love without giving the burden of your sins to Jesus, or without becoming his pupil, and see how long you last. Yes, the order matters. Way too much damage has been done to the name of Jesus by churches that try to make disciples from something other than a heart of love. And way too much weariness, discouragement, and despair has come to individuals who try to maintain authentic love for God and people when they have not yoked themselves up with Jesus, abiding with and in him, and (most importantly) he in them.

The order matters, but the order of these “Greats” is not the headline for me in this post, it is the number of them. The proclamation I’m making today, is that I have been guilty of promoting the Great Commission/Great Commandment lifestyle without properly elevating the enabler of them both – the Great Invitation. Not consciously, of course, and perhaps many of my hearers have assumed the Invitation when I’ve spoken of the Commandment and the Commission. But no more will I fail to elevate Matthew 11 to the status of Matthew 22 and 28.

Why? I don’t want to “make” a bunch of exasperated “doers.” I want to co-create with Christ the making of disciples. When someone is focused on “being” a disciple, they will “do” plenty, but without the burden of feeling like they are the savior, and it all rides on them.

May we who follow Christ life the Great Invitation, Great Commandment, Great Commission life. And may those of us who play any part in leading church families lead them into being Great Invitation, Great Commandment, Great Commission churches.

God help us.

My Plan for 2013

3 January 2013

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life ? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” – James, the brother of Jesus

My plan for ending 2012 and launching 2013 is pretty comical in light of how I actually spent them.

December 30 and 31 I spent with a 17 year old girl and her 21 year old brother. These two lost their dad to cancer on Christmas Day, and they “needed a preacher” to do his funeral on New Years Eve day.

January 1 and 2 I spent in my bed. I was coughing, and sneezing, and blowing, and aching, pouring all kinds of fluids and pills into my body to try to stop it all.

It’s not my plan was bad. My plan was to spend the last two days very intentionally with my family (some of which I still got to do), and the first two days planning my year (none of which I got to do). It was good and God-centered plan, I thought. With good and God-centered intentions.

But it wasn’t God’s plan. And there is a difference.

Now I’m not knocking God-centered planning. This was just my crystal-clear reminder that I shouldn’t ever get so committed to my God-centered plans that they take the place of my commitment to God’s plans.

I woke up this morning, the 3rd day of the New Year, already completely behind is my plans are the benchmarks. But if I’m dying daily, listening for God daily, hearing Him and simply obeying, I’m right on time.

I ended up on the phone with a friend over my lunch hour, sharing my deepest thoughts and heart, and from within this trusted friendship, this space-making listening, and Christ-centered brotherhood – I heard God’s plan for me for this year quite clearly.

He said, “Spend more time with Me. More time listening. Then do what I say.”

What a beautiful way to end 2012, loving on and serving two newly orphaned “kids” who don’t have a “minister”. And what a beautiful way to begin 2013, flat on back helpless to do anything but submit to the healing that my body was so desperately dependent on God for.

May my whole year go so well. And yours, too.

The Bible before the Bible

19 December 2012

“Our diligent study of the Bible comes from our belief that it was delivered and orchestrated by God to tell us about God. By that reasoning, creation should be diligently studied first, because God saw best to deliver and orchestrate it first.” – Yours Truly

“The ‘Bible’ of nature and creation reveals God and who God is.” – Richard Rohr

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” – Paul, in Romans 1:20

“Through Jesus all things were made; without Jesus nothing was made that has been made.” – John, in John 1:3

It’s too late for most of us.

Most of us who call ourselves Christians are too late to take in and study the revelations of God in the order he revealed them.

Creation first. Bible second.

So we can’t know what the experience would have been like.

What would it have been like to look around at creation and “read it” for what it tells us about God? What would we have learned from the elements, the weather, the different landscapes, the different seasons, the different life forms, the interplay of darkness and light, and the consistent rhythm that the Sun provides? What would we have “read” in our own bodies about God when we found ourselves bursting with energy in one moment, and then helplessly lost in a state of unconsciousness in the next, only to awake with a new burst of energy, only to fall out of consciousness once again?

And once we learned all that we could from creation (the chief lesson being that we will never exhaust the lessons), what would it have been like to then crack open scripture?

We may never know, because most of us were born into, and continue to live in, an environment designed specifically to keep us untouched by nature. Goodness, if nature has lessons on “God’s invisible qualities” that can be “clearly seen”, then I have no chance to see them from where I sit right now. I’m in a nice, quiet, contained area that doesn’t even have a window out to God’s creation. I’m staring at at window, of sorts, called a computer screen, but it is a window created by man looking “out” at a bunch more creations of man. Just last week, a powerful storm that blew down trees and made the day look like night hit my homeland that lasted about 20 minutes, and I would have never known had I not had to move for the bathroom. Even then, nature only got a momentary pause out of me before I went about my business. And that business was in a room that man designed inside this fortress I work in to keep me from having to experience nature even when nature calls!

From within this fabricated, man-orchestrated, climate-controlled mansion, a big box that keeps the first revelation of God at bay, you know what I spend my time doing? Reading and studying God’s second revelation – scripture.

It is great, and I am blessed. But I wonder how much I get wrong in my interpretation of it because of this?

After all, a baby is born incapable of experiencing the study of the Bible, and only capable of experiencing the things around her. As that baby grows, it doesn’t jump right to the ability to read or study or imagine ideas, but instead moves slowly through a process of observing, experiencing, and “reading” the environment she is in. It seems to me that the order of our naturally developed abilities observed in our growth as human beings supports this idea that we should study God first in nature, and then in scripture.

So maybe we are all late, but it’s not too late. Maybe we have done it out of order, but there is still an order to be had and known and experienced in the first revelation, even if it is the second one we are studying.

Get outside. If you can burst out of the physical matrix we’ve all been conditioned to breath in with a revolutionary charge and zealous yell of “freedom!!!” then do it. But start small if you need to.

Just get outside.

And not just when it is comfortable (comfort is why we created the boxes we live in), and not just when it is convenient (convenience keeps us in the boxes, it does not move us out of them, ever).

You are missing out on getting to know God through His first revelation.

 

Harding University’s New President

26 November 2012

When I was at Harding, I was a member of a social club that could sing. And boy did they sing. I sang, too, but not as well as those in the chorus of folks that surrounded me. While my voice didn’t add much to the quality of what was being sung, I did feel as though I belonged, and that my voice was welcomed and perhaps even useful, and that I was a small part of something that mattered, and that in the end I did contribute something unique.

On Rich Little’s blog, a few folks (including friends of mine that I really respect, like Mark Moore, Dusty Rush, Sara Barton, and Mary Beth Picker) have expressed some concern about the appointment of Dr. Bruce McLarty as our new president. The concern is not with Dr. McLarty, mind you, but with the priorities used by the majority of Harding’s Board of Trustees to make the appointment. As I’ve read all of these very powerful (and equally gracious and hope-filled) posts that have articulated so well some of the thoughts and feelings that I have about Harding (and the Church of Christ in general), the thought that I should add my small voice to this chorus of very strong ones has lingered. Perhaps I’m still looking for my place to belong at my beloved alma mater, longing for my voice to be both welcomed and useful, desiring to be a part of something that matters, and that in the end, perhaps I do have something to contribute that is unique.

So here I put on a robe and join this chorus of great singers on the risers, hopefully harmonizing with them, and perhaps with one small solo – that is, one more angle on this that has yet to be presented, and one that I feel uniquely positioned to give a voice. photo

I write as a proud Harding Alumni, like all of these others. I cherish my experience there, for how it grew me up in Christ, gave me a spiritual family, and launched me into a life of Kingdom impact and ministry. They were simply the greatest four (and a half – I’m slow, and didn’t want to leave) greatest years of my life.

I write as a parent of three kids who already want to go there, following in the footsteps of their dad, their grandmother, and their preacher great-grandfather. So my hopes are significantly invested in Harding’s near-future, since the most important people to me and my wife will be saturated in the environment that Harding creates.

I write as a former youth minister. I spent 14 years with “the next generation” and have not had one year where students that I have been blessed to call friends haven’t been at Harding, most of them now alumni themselves.

I write as a minister of a “mainstream Church of Christ.” At least I think I am after reading the Christian Chronicle’s interview with Dr. McLarty. Our church family practices what he lists there as “the distinctive convictions of baptism for the remission of sins, acapella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in the congregation,” making us the very kind of church that Harding specifically says it wants to show solidarity with, as stated in their “Expanded Mission Statement,” that he quotes. Further, our church family has Harding alumni on staff, in our eldership, and in our membership. We have students that have returned from Harding, are currently at Harding, are about to attend Harding, and our youth group is taking a trip to visit there this coming weekend. We are a real life, living and breathing brochure of what Harding wants to produce, complete with an atmosphere that promotes and ensures Harding’s continuation into its bright future.

I write as a follower of Christ. While this is the most important identity marker for me in my life, and in this list, it is not the last one I’ll mention, because this next one (which is the natural result of this and the previous one) is more to the point of what I’m compelled to contribute to this conversation.

I write as a minister trying to serve the Church of Christ in a way that is faithful to both the Church of Christ and to Jesus Christ. And it is from this experience that I offer one more verse to this chorus that has been present in many of these posts, but not stated explicitly, and it is this:

When our loyalty to a Church of Christ value and our loyalty to a Jesus Christ value collide, it is the Church of Christ value that should give way.

Ironically, I learned this from my Church of Christ heritage. I grew up being taught to be wise concerning any religious belief suggested, to never blindly put the weight of my salvation upon other people’s convictions without weighing them against scripture. I, and a vast army of my peers, took this to heart. But when we applied this Church of Christ teaching to all Church of Christ teachings, we found that some of our teachings were only “distinctive convictions of the Church of Christ” (who we rightly love, appreciate, and want to be faithful to), but they were not Biblically-unquestionable distinctive convictions of Jesus Christ (whom we rightly love, appreciate, and want to be faithful to even more).

Since Bible demands this, it should surprise no one that the mainstream Church of Christ has begun to demand this, because we are above all else, people of the Book. It is our continued study of and persistent faithfulness to the living and active contents of this Book that keeps our movement faithful to its heritage. This and only this will help us to remain faithful to our name, that is to remain a church that is “of Christ.” 

Dr. McLarty, in the Christian Chronicle piece, makes this powerful observation and corresponding commitment: “As part of my doctoral work, I studied the tendency of faith-founded colleges to drift away from their founding church, to abandon their core mission, and often, to become enemies of the ideas and principles on which they were started. This solidified my resolve to do all I could do to see that this does not happen to Harding.”

I love our new president’s resolve to not allow Harding to drift away from the Church of Christ. Let’s stay a family, and keep Harding in the family. We can remain open to all without having to drift away from the Church of Christ. And let’s certainly not throw this association to the wind in order to attract more students or become more academically or athletically prestigious. Amen! While I appreciate his concern, I don’t sense Dr. McLarty will have to fight as hard as he is preparing to protect this. I’ve not heard any among our Harding family that wants to go the way of Duke, or Yale, or Harvard, each of whom did lose their attachment to their founding church affiliation, and then eventually lost their attachment to Christ and the Bible. If a call that threatens this comes from some segment among us in the future, I will gladly be counted among the folks who will ensure that he does not stand alone in his resolve. But I haven’t heard anyone call for or even have a desire for this. I know that I and those like me do not. All we are asking for is that Harding would (officially) agree that when loyalty to a Church of Christ value and our loyalty to a Jesus Christ value collide, it is the Church of Christ value that should give way.

What is the “core mission” he doesn’t want abandoned? Is it the mission to exalt Jesus Christ? Or is it the mission to exalt some distinctive doctrines of the Church of Christ?

What are the “ideas and principles” he is resolved to keep Harding from becoming an enemy? Are the person of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom, and the Gospel message the ideas and principles upon which Harding started? Or, are a distinctive set of Church of Christ doctrines and worship practices the ideas and principles upon which Harding started?

This really matters.

The mainstream Churches of Christ, many of which are full of Harding students – past, present, and future – has necessarily learned from the Bible that it must distinguish between these things. Only the “rigid legalism on the Right” in our fellowship would assert, for example, that there is no difference between the Gospel message and our historically distinctive Church of Christ worship practices. One is centered on Christ; the other is centered on Sunday morning gatherings. One is worth dying for; the other is an edifying practice that our churches utilize to worship God. One saves souls, the other does not.

Dr. McLarty continues by saying: “In the reflection chapter at the end of my dissertation, I wrote that my research had crystallized within my thinking the following goal: ‘To prepare Harding University to remain Christian in our core identity until Jesus returns.’”

There is none of us in any Church of Christ, even those who are extremely “Right” or “Left,” that would disagree with this crystallized goal as it is written. Further, this is not even a uniquely Church of Christ statement.

Why is this important to note?

Because, another historical heritage marker of our fellowship is the taking of universal, Biblical, and Christian words and packing them with uniquely Church of Christ meanings. If his phrase “remain Christian” means “remaining faithful to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,” then great. But if he intends the phrase to actually mean, “remaining faithful to the distinctive doctrines and worship practices of the historical Church of Christ,” then many of us in the mainstream Church of Christ cringe, concerned that Harding is not being faithful to a Word of God that is still living and active, and to a scripture that is still useful to teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us to a fuller and truer righteousness as a fellowship.

In the article, Dr. McLarty quotes the 2008 Expanded Mission Statement (proving, I guess, that we can expand our mission statement should our followership of Christ call for it) when it says: “Though we live in a time of significant confusion over our brotherhood’s identity, we are determined that Harding University will become captive to neither a rigid legalism on the Right nor a formless liberalism on the Left. ‘With gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:16, NIV) we continue to affirm such distinctive convictions of the mainstream Churches of Christ as baptism for the remission of sins, a cappella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in congregations.”

The mainstream Church of Christ that I serve has not changed these distinctive practices, but we have prayerfully and necessarily moved with regard to our distinctive convictions. With gentleness and respect, we affirm such distinctive convictions as Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, Christ-honoring music in worship, and Christ-centered spiritual leadership in congregations. This shift has come, not from some slippery slope caused by a move away from scripture’s authority, but by a slow, methodical, and diligent study of scripture and a stricter adherence to it. As a result, our traditional tight grip on baptism has become tighter, but with a focus on Christ rather than on baptism. Our traditional practice of acapella music has not been replaced, but moved from being a Biblical requirement for salvation (demanding our judgment of those who practice differently) to a beautiful and chosen preference, allowing us to better follow the Biblical requirement of not passing judgment on disputable matters, which has kept lessor issues from hijacking our soul-saving focus Christ who saves. Our tradition of male spiritual leadership in the congregations is still practiced organizationally and positionally, but we are learning how to not hinder the powerful exertion of spiritual giftedness that is so obviously placed in both men and women by Christ, who’s Kingdom seems to operate in a way where it doesn’t distinguish between male and female (Galatians 3:28), and seems to teach and promote the priesthood of all believers, not just male believers.

These are examples of the tension that is currently present in the mainstream Churches of Christ.

It is our faithfulness to scriptural authority, the most important and cherished value of the Church of Christ, and the one upon which all others are measured by, that has moved us here. If Harding wants to stay connected to the mainstream Church of Christ, well, this is what we are doing and learning and struggling with.

As a child of this movement, a son of Harding, and a minister out here working to be faithful to both the Church of Christ and Jesus Christ, I really need Harding to help me. I don’t need it to be super sure of itself regarding where our constant Bible study will lead us in practice, nor do I need or want it to be hasty about dismissing our conclusions or practices from the past. What would be useful is for Harding to use its talented resources and faculty, its momentum in successfully ministering to our kids, and its powerful Kingdom influence to lead and provoke these hard introspective conversations that our brotherhood’s constant Bible study demands. It is exhilarating to experience Harding when it is the instigator of such honest, probing, and integrity-filled faithfulness to Bible study. But it is disheartening and discouraging to experience Harding as the entrenched guardian of the honest conclusions of our father’s and grandfather’s Bible study.

It is important to note that among almost all Christian movements, a commitment to an external religion, with all of its forms and rituals, attempts to replace that movement’s commitment to Jesus Christ alone. While I am somehow encouraged that we in the Church of Christ do not have a monopoly on this problem, I have been discouraged by our movement thinking that its commitment to scripture made us immune to it. This is hard for all of us to swallow, but humble Bible study demands it, and humble Bible study is doing so in the mainstream Church of Christ, to the praise and glory of God.

Some of the comments on Rich’s blog are asking why so many students, including those who’ve posted concern on his blog, are leaving Harding so spiritually successful, and why enrollment continues to grow, if this commitment to traditional Church of Christ doctrine and worship practices are so desperately needing to be revisited. They suggest that Harding “must be doing something right” or this kind of fruit could not be produced. Let me conclude my thoughts by offering another possible explanation.

When I was at Harding, there was a distance between the Board (and the values that they voted to have officially sanctioned by Harding) and the students (with our need to have the space to safely question everything if we were, in fact, to be “educated for eternity”). It was this distance, not Harding’s stance, that allowed me and my peers to find our own faith in Jesus Christ. So instead of Harding’s officially stated core convictions being the proactive, involved, and fully alive instigators of my spiritual growth, they served instead as representative of a static, entrenched, and superficial set of church practices that I was actively searching for a God to save me and the world from. Much like Christ, who chose to use the Pharisee’s Bible-justified, but non-life-giving, non-soul-saving, missing-the-point religious convictions as a backdrop for his disciples to learn about the real and vibrant Kingdom of God, I suggest that Christ had created space on campus for students to use Harding’s Bible-justified, but non-life-giving, non-soul-saving religious convictions as a backdrop to teach me about the real and vibrant Kingdom of God, too.

So I’m in a dilemma, because I agree with the observation that there are many alumni who went through Harding’s environment (that at least half of the Board has now voted to maintain) and have come out the other side very convicted, Christ-centered, Kingdom-promoting, Gospel-sharing citizens (as opposed to very convicted, CofC-centered, CofC-doctrine promoting, CofC-worship-practice-sharing ones). Something about this environment works to produce people committed to creating truer environments.

So the dilemma: do I want to change this backdrop that Harding’s official positions provide to create this faith-forming space between the Board and the students? Might this be a developmentally appropriate environment for the 18-22 year old to be in? Do our sons and daughters, like the disciples, need a somewhat rigid-Right institutional position to use for their own spiritual “teething,” providing a useful, off-the-mark ecclesiology upon which to discover a truer, more scriptural one? I must admit, nothing drove me into the scripture more than when my honest questions about deeply entrenched Church of Christ doctrines were met with pushback from some of the powers that be at Harding. It was perfect timing for me, and a perfect environment for me to zealously find my own faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t need an answer to this dilemma. I’m grateful for it, because it makes me both unafraid of and hopeful about, and finally, trusting God for where this all goes.

I can disagree with some convictions of some of the Board and still trust them as powerful and loving and Godly contributors to our student’s spiritual growth. One thing is for sure, and I want to be absolutely clear about this, I believe the motives behind their convictions are the exact same as mine. A desire to love God and be faithful to scripture.

That said, I would much rather Harding be a place that has stated core convictions, a Board, and a president that teaches our students, in institutional word and institutional deed, that the mainstream Church of Christ is all about faithfulness to Jesus Christ, no matter what. And this, even when that means that the Church of Christ must itself be transformed by the renewing of its corporate mind, because our movement-long commitment to being people of the Book will not be abandoned, even if that Book requires that we abandon other, lesser, movement-long commitments once seen as requirements of that Book.

While these thoughts and feelings are addressing issues that pre-date my knowing Dr. McLarty’s name, since I have mentioned him and his words in this piece, I wanted everyone to know that I am sending him these thoughts in letter form, addressed to him for his consideration. I don’t know Dr. McLarty personally, but people that I respect, respect him greatly, and I intend to continue to support Harding and him during his tenure there, which I know, one way or another, will exalt Christ and advance the Kingdom. I will be forever grateful to him for being willing to serve the Kingdom in this way.

May God bless us all, and may His grace fall over us, and may love abound even in our disagreements.

Tired of Hearing Myself Talk

27 August 2012

“When you begin to feel like you know nothing, you may finally be learning something.” – Yours Truly

“I am unworthy-how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer- twice, but I will say no more.” – Job, after saying far too much, when he found himself before God

What is a preacher to do when he is tired of hearing himself talk?

Lately, I’ve felt a desire to not speak in situations where I usually must (and willingly do). It has been refreshingly good.

I’m not sure where this is coming from. But I’m not panicked about it. I’m actually excited. It feels like a transition is happening inside of me. Some more growing up that has been a long time coming. More revolution. More transformation.

While excited, I am a bit nervous. It seems when I get a feeling like this, no matter what the subject is and where it comes from, it is always followed by a tsunami of conviction into a new landscape of truth that I have no choice but to redesign my life around. I never know how small or large the implications may end up being, so… I am a bit nervous.

But still, excited. I have found my life to be much more abundant, clear, peaceful, prioritized, and impactful when I willingly submit to the tsunami as it comes exploding from the invisible depths and into the surface of my life, obliterating and then washing away all the well established routines of my life that I’ve created, killing them (hear: killing me), and then requiring a massive rebuilding effort in the sunshine of the aftermath of the storm (hear: resurrecting me with new life).

What does it mean? Well, I could guess, and throw out several predictions based on my experiences from the past, or based on the trajectory of my life, or based on the deepest desires of my heart…

…but I’m tired of hearing myself talk. I’m tired of being like Job, who though he is in the midst of a powerful drama involving himself, his family, his God, and his friends – a drama that truly does matter to him and to those around him – I’m tired of being like him, who “opens his mouth with empty talk; without knowledge he multiplies words.” (Job 35:16)

So I’ll just wait and see.

Moving in to Elderhood

22 May 2012

I’m making up a word for this piece. My automatic spellcheck has it underlined in red each time I type it, but I need it.

One of the tragedies of youth is that we receive truckloads and truckloads of good advice, truth, and wisdom that never makes it into our character. It seems that in our energetic youthfulness (most of which has come to us naturally) and our lack of attentiveness (most of which has been developed in us culturally), much of it is lost.

But more tragic is when these youthful qualities are never overcome, unlearned, and transcended as we age. I know far too many grown men and women who move far too frantically, ever-running after that elusive ‘something’ that is considered worthwhile, absolutely necessary, or required.

Now I admit that a big part (the biggest, I think) of growing up from childhood to adulthood is learning how to ‘take responsibility,’ and this quite rightly leads us in pursuits that are genuinely worthwhile, necessary, or required.

But should there not be another growing up? Should there not be a move from adulthood to, let’s say, elderhood?

In our culture these days, there seems to be a powerful lack of adulthood. Oh, there are plenty of folks who have passed their teenage years chronologically, but not socially or personally. I know plenty of chronological adults who have lived off their parents well into their 30s and only stopped once they could move on to living of their spouses, or their government, or the charity of good people.

But worse still, and I think far more problematic, is the powerful lack of elderhood. True elders seem to move more slowly, speak less often, control fewer things, and instead, contemplate more, notice people more deeply, and only walk into things if invited (and are not shy about letting others know that they are willing to be invited).

This lack of elderhood may actually be the real problem behind the lack of adulthood. Adults aren’t really that focused on the patient and painstaking formation of children into adults, and simply can not be in the business of forming adults into elders. It takes a unique depth of character, deliberation of thought, and real experiences of transitioning from “hood” to “hood” to focus on any kind of people development. And these skills and abilities are earned, and uniquely present in true elders. 

And there just are not that many. And the ones there are, we adults don’t have or make time to access, and we children don’t even know that we need to.

I was late to the game, but sometime in my 20s I think I finally made the full move, taking my child hood off and putting on my adult hood. I can look back and see clearly this lack of mentors. I remember as a youth minister in Houston, sitting in the shade at Astroworld between rides with a student that I was mentoring and pouring into, sharing about and eventually tearing up at my own lack of mentors pouring into me.

But looking back, I can also see clearly how God fathered me through all this, filling the gaps in my life with multitudes of unfinished men and women, all with different pieces of the puzzle, offered to me by God without most of them even knowing it.

But now I’m eager and hungry to fully and definitely, even if fearfully, lay down my adult hood and pick up the hood of an elder.

I mean nothing magnificent or honor-bringing about this. As a matter of fact, by all the worlds standards, this seems to be a “step down” in the social and institutional hierarchy of who we deem important these days. Less (but more powerfully) seen, fewer (but more intimate) relationships, smaller (but more impactful) work.

I want to move into a reality where I know the peaceful depths of what Jesus called the Gospel, living within what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and proclaim it all to those who invite me into their lives as the Truth that will set them free.

Would it not be great if you were as surrounded by these interested and wise “elders” as you are by older people? Wouldn’t it be neat if, whenever you see anyone older than you, could could assume that they are more mature than you in every human way? Would it not be cool to have these kinds of sage-like “elders” to choose between for President and other offices?

I think that this “elderhood” is such a lost art, and goes so unacknowledged by our culture, that those few among us who find themselves in it don’t even know that they are. And don’t know how to enjoy it, let alone share it with others.

We need childhood. And we need adulthood. But, God please, bring to us elderhood.

Consuming Christ

9 March 2012

“When you are hungry, do you want to eat and drink the meal, or the vessels used to bring you the meal.” – Yours Truly

I love Jesus Christ.

And while I love the stories about Jesus Christ, the book that contains those stories, the writings in that book written by others that loved him, the literature in that book that set the stage for those stories, the histories in that book that record how those who first loved him went about showing that, the letters in that book between folks who loved him, and all the religious practices and sacraments and people that have pointed me to him, I would trade them all in for Jesus Christ himself.

This may sound odd to you at first. It did to me when I first found myself saying it. But two things opened me up to the idea:

  1. My longing for a real relationship with Jesus and the God he spoke of.
  2. What Jesus, as I read about him in the Bible, said was possible in that regard.

These two things combined like water on a seed in perfect conditions, and a whole new landscape of Christianity came bursting from the depths and into view. It changed my life forever.

Better said, he changed my life forever. I started reading things, seeing things, practicing things, and experiencing things that, even though they had the Bible as their source, the Christianity I grew up with never taught me.

The Christianity of my youth taught me to be baptized, take the Lord’s Supper, and go to church services that practiced worship in a certain prescribed way. All of this, I was told, was “Biblical” – which everyone around me seemed to agree was a weighty and important word – and so I did it all. And I can even deem these teachings as “good” and better yet, “useful” in my journey with and towards Christ.

But let me tell ya (and try not to panic)…

…for one authentically spoken word from Christ to my soul securing its place with him in his Kingdom forever, I would trade my water baptism.

…for one moment of spirit-on-spirit communion with the living Christ, I would trade a lifetime of practicing the Lord’s Supper.

…for the the thick and real presence of Christ with me and on me, I would trade every single religious practice that I hold to, utilize, and teach.

How can this be, you may ask? Do you not need your baptism in order to get your Kingdom securing word from Christ, your supper in order to have actual communion with Christ, your religious practices in order to experience and enjoy Christ’s presence?

Allow me to attempt an explanation of why my integrity demands that I say no. And allow me to utilize Jesus’ words as a guide. (primarily from John 6)  

Many have participated in religious, Biblical things, and even though they were gifts from God, they still were caught in their sin, shame, guilt, and insecurity. This is because what really matters is the Person behind these things, the true treasure from heaven to which they point and lead: Jesus Christ. (Jn 6:49-50)

Jesus Christ alone saves from death. He alone allows you eternity. His giving himself, not his gifts, is what gives life to anyone in the world. If you do not have spiritual (comm-)union with him, have his spiritual presence with and on you, or receive in your spirit his personal word guaranteeing your Kingdom identity, then is it a surprise that you have no life in you, even if you practice Bible-based and truth-connected, but external, things? With a real and personal connection, resurrection is not only believable, but natural, and easy to live in confidence about. But without it (him), you will not be raised to life in the last day, no matter what you did Biblically right externally, because the power of life is not in you, because he is not in you, and you aren’t in him. (Jn 6:51; 53-56)

Jesus is a weighty and personal reality that is to be experienced, not merely an academic and doctrinal reality that is to be believed in and argued for. The intimate relationship that we witness Jesus having with the Father is supposed to be our model for what Jesus is saying we get to be experiencing with him. Tell me, what external practice can deliver on this? (Jn 6:57-58)

This is a hard teaching, you may note. Hard enough that you may not accept it. (Jn 6:52; 60)

And unacceptable enough, that it may offend you. But this is because of some predetermined and well-rehearsed ideas that you carry, not because it can’t or doesn’t fit with what God has done and told you. And this is tragic, because while you sit around being offended, there is so much more to come in this life with Christ that your limiting beliefs do not allow you a category with which to interpret! And getting past your “offendability,” and opening up to a deeper understanding, well, it is required work in order for you to appreciate it. (Jn 6:61-62)

So let me put it as simply and concisely as I can: The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. (Jn 6:63a)

I wish I could make it simpler than that (but Jesus couldn’t either, I guess, so I don’t feel so bad), because even these nine words that explain what I’m talking about require that you open up to the truth they carry for you to understand, accept, and then experience them as the reality that they are. The irony is that this news is the best yet, and what every human is longing for. (Jn 6:63b)

Yet, surprisingly, I know there are many who haven’t the depth of belief to allow for this. For this, you have to be spiritual. You have to allow God to be inclusive of, but more real, vital and necessary than what you can do and experience in the body and with the physical senses and faculties. As someone said to me when I struggled with this, I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. And that is because this stuff is truly the stuff that can only be worked out between a man and God in dedicated, faith-fueled, practical experience. (Jn 6:64-65)

But many will leave this highest of all gifts, that of Christ himself, and instead will try to find their belief, hope, and eternal life elsewhere. (Jn 6:66; 68-69)

Many will, in direct opposition to Christ’s teaching, insist that the flesh counts for something, which contains just enough truth (when properly understood) that some will attach their hope for life in this world and resurrection in the next to earth-bound, history-based, temporal and physical actions and things. They will take what were meant to be powerful and useful from within the life-giving relationship with Jesus and pretend that they are mandatory and required in order to academically believe that you have the life-giving relationship with Jesus. Without intending to, and with some of the best motives available to man, and denying it all the way, they will look right at Jesus and ask for him to give them some external works to do that will save them. (Jn 6:28)

He won’t do it, mind you. He won’t. He will just constantly, faithfully, and creatively keep on offering them the very treasure that they are looking to gain from those works. He will offer himself. (Jn 6:29)

I love Jesus Christ.

He is the real food. He is the real drink. (Jn 6:55)

All the rest are serving utensils. Do I “need” them to partake of the meal? No. Do I “use” them to partake of the meal. Yes. Powerfully so. Beautifully so. Biblically so. But if I ever say “don’t forsake the assembly” or “take this cup in remembrance of Jesus,” or “this baptism saves you” – it should be taken in the same way as I would say, “you need this plate to eat dinner” or “here’s a cup to drink to some water,” or “this fork feeds you.”

The food and the drink are the point. They are what nourish. They are what sustain. They are what give life. All utensils that help me partake of the actual food and drink, I use faithfully, and I’m grateful for. But I don’t consume them. That would even be dangerous. I use them. I consume Christ.

He, and only he, is what gets me life now and forever. (Jn 14:6)

And life, the eternal kind, is, after all, best described as…him. (Jn 17:3) 

As Jesus often said, if you get it, you get it. (Mt 11:15)

The Blessing/Curse of a Christian Inner Life

8 February 2012

“We demolish arguments and every motive that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” –  Paul, in 2 Corinthians 10:5-6

To “be like Christ” is never to be mistaken as a strictly outward project. Decidedly choosing discipleship is to decidedly turn your attention inward. As one progresses, the simple focus on transforming outward actions and behaviors moves to include transforming every thought, every feeling, every judgment, every attitude, and every motive. introspection

No one argues that these are found inside of us, as is the Kingdom of God (Lk 17:21). So it is here, folks, that you must go – into the inner world of thoughts, feelings, motives, attitudes and beliefs – if the greatest Kingdom success is to be achieved in and through you.

It is effective, horrible work.

Effective because these inner inhabitants are the source of your outward behaviors that seemed before so hard to permanently change. As you advance in the skill of inward surrender to Christ (you could call this your own crucifixion), the Kingdom’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and motives crowd out your fallen ones, and you quite naturally begin to behave outwardly in alignment with Christ. So, this is effective.

Horrible because when you do exhibit an outward behavior that is not aligned with Christ, you are now quite sensitive to the fact that this superficial and relatively insignificant action is evidence of a much deeper and profound problem: there are still inward parts of you that have not been given over to God and to love.

Before, when you began your journey into Christlikeness, you explained your outward failures with the truth that your sins are forgiven, even when you “fall”. You learned to not feel guilt, receive God’s potent grace, and accept yourself as an imperfect sinner who will always fall in one manner or another. You learned that in terms of your eternal security, your imperfection is not a serious issue. This took time to grow into, partly because it is such good news that it is hard to believe, but partly because you also knew that your sinfulness is, in fact, a very serious issue. But if not because it threatens your eternal security, then why?

Your “falls” matter because you have grown to care about pleasing God.

See, when you advance, and you learn to spend time with Christ within yourself, where he resides and works powerfully (Col 1:27-29), you learn that his aim is nothing short of perfecting you, for your own good and God’s pleasure and glory. And as you are converted further, you begin to follow Christ not merely for the selfish desire of Heavenly security, but out of a selfless desire to love and please God.

As this conversion happens, you find yourself less and less able to remain in the theological hiding place that you fled to as a spiritual child (the one that says, “Don’t dare aim for or believe that you can be perfect, for you are merely human. You are not and never will be Jesus Christ”).

When this begins to happen, it is important for you to accept something and allow it to happen: Your reasonable side is being overcome by your belief.

This belief in your perfection comes not because of some high estimation of yourself or your ability, on the contrary, it comes from your high estimation of Christ and his ability. It is from humility, not arrogance, that you must come to believe in your own perfection. In other words, humility insists that your ability to sin is not more powerful than Christ’s ability to love and transform. When you are humble and lowly enough to admit this, you read the Bible differently, at face value, believing it rather than explaining it away with your earth-bound logic and reason.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Mt 5:48

“You have been given fullness in Christ.” – Col 2:10

“My power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Cor 12:9

“By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” – Heb 10:14

“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” – Jms 1:4

“Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” – 1 Jn 2:6

The blessing of the inner life is that we are free to believe, our frequent failures notwithstanding, that these things (perfection, fullness, holiness, maturity, completeness, Christlikeness) are indeed attainable. And we can do so without fear of thinking too highly of ourselves simply because we have finally allowed for the fact that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), and we have humbly admitted that “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

The curse of the inner life is that we can no longer console ourselves that it is insignificant when we behave or think wrongly, which is any action outside of the realm of love for God and neighbor. It is a tortuously narrow road you walk, but not because you must fear losing salvation (which is also an arrogant position, by the way, to think that your sin is more powerful than your Savior’s blood), but because you fear hurting people, and worse, you fear misrepresenting Christ – who is your life.

So here is to the blessing and curse of the inner life – the life of the Kingdom – the life of Christ – the Christ who lives in you.

May God help us all.

 


 

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