For the name

ghandrung-village-and-annapurna-south-nepal-himalaya.jpgIn Acts 5, Peter and some of the apostles had been arrested for teaching about Jesus.  It’s a bizarre story, where they had been arrested, and then suddenly they were outside the prison again, having resumed their teaching.  The religious leaders brought them in once again, and questioned what had happened.

Of course, these councilmen were much more consumed with trying to enforce their rules, than they were with inquiring about the miracle that just happened.  How they didn’t lean in to that, is beyond me.

So they instructed the apostles to cease and desist, but Peter and the gang kindly rejected their proposal saying, “We much obey God, rather than men”.

One of the pharisees, Gamaliel then talked the rest of the council out of killing the apostles for their disobedience, and agreed instead to give them a good beating and send the apostles on their way.

Finally, in verse 41, “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (my emphasis added).

Isn’t is true, fast forwarding to our life today, that this is the opposite of how we think?  We associate worthiness with an absence of suffering, and we rejoice in that.  When we do suffer, we seek comfort, not in the Lord himself, but in his ability to end our suffering and bring us back into “greener pastures”.

This is at least true for me.  Maybe the difference is the desire of, “for the name“?  Maybe these guys just wanted, to a greater degree, the name of Jesus to be rejoiced over, than I do.  Maybe I’m more devoted to my name, than his name.

May I put myself aside, and place everything on the line for the name.

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Beyond Bandaids: Hope + Help

A foundational belief that I have which informs every facet of the ministry God has called me to is that the gospel transforms people and places, for the fame of Jesus and the benefit of the city.  Throughout the last 16 years or so, for me, this has included the gospel expressed through both word and deed, sometimes with an emphasis on one or the other, sometimes with an attempt at simultaneous duality.

When the rubber meets the road, the question seemingly keeps coming back to, “What does transformation look like?”  What does it do for people in both physical and spiritual ways?  I think the spiritual in this case is actually easier, as the bible tends to spell it out with more detail.  The old becomes new, and the new isn’t a better version of the old, but an entirely new creation; one with a new identity, a new ministry and a new message (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).  The complication then, lends itself to the physical.  In other words, what does transformation of the heart, flesh itself out as, in the person and in the place in which the person exists? 

Even if not an answer, I may have found some insight.  The little drawing above (credited to Noel Castellanos, President of Christian Community Development Association, @NoelCCDA) has given me, at least some insight to the equation.  While it might not have provided a slew of really good answers, it feels like it’s moved me toward the right questions.  That’s a start.  Let me see if I can explain it a little, and start to digest some of its implications.

Incarnation – The gospel, of course, starts with incarnation – God coming to dwell with us, in our mess, in our brokenness.  We, in turn, express the same ministry that Jesus has given us in incarnational ways.  Once we “incarnate” ourselves within a particular community, or industry, or whatever, it should reverberate out in at least 4 distinct areas which lead to transformation, not only of the person (spiritual), but also of the place (physical).

First is in Proclaimation and Formation.  No transformative movement can take place without the simultaneous proclaimation of the gospel (word and deed) and formation of the disciple (through training and life-on-life discipleship).  The local church is okay at this; but most of us stop here, assuming some sort of trickle-down-transformation.

Second is in Compassion.  This is where the gospel itself meets real needs.  If the gospel can redeem people through heart regeneration, then it can also redeem places through city and/or community transformation.  The emphasis here is transformation.  That’s the old becoming new.  It’s the old way and reality dying, and the new one coming to life.  The really tough part here is figuring out how to not get stuck on our work with the poor, for instance, taking place in such a way that they always remain recipients.  That is, true gospel-oriented Compassion ministry should be transformative, not transactional.  This is a difficult code to crack, and takes an emence amount of dedication on the part of those participating in Compassion ministry.  To be transparent, my brain has taken up residence here and is trying to figure out what this looks like for the particular place I’m in at the moment.  I’m losing sleep trying to figure out this secquence of moving the state of Compassion from band-aids to “unleashing the power of the poor”.  Giving credit to Claude Alexander, you can see a glimpse of this sequence in a story found in Acts 3:5-8.  They Proclaimed the gospel, they Reclaimed the man from his afflication, and they Incorporated him into the process.  He became a part of the team.  All three of these steps are profoundly important.

Third is Development.  The example to look at here is found in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.  Nehemiah, and the work that he mobilized people into, didn’t just ignite a people in their awareness and understanding of God; it renewed a city, making the city a better place to live.  Again, the gospel doesn’t stop at renewing people, it moves forward to renew places.

Last is the Confrontation of Injustice.  Ah, here is where it goes next level.  Confrontation of Injustice means a concerted effort, not just to relieve the effects of poverty, but includes clear action against its cause.  In this context, emergency assistance can’t end with food and clothing.  It has to start there, and move towards alleviating the need for assistance with food and clothing, through education, job training, skills development and a host of other emphases.  How can the church address the effects of need, and not go after the cause itself?  I don’t believe a holistic application of the gospel, in people and in places, would allow this.  For this to work, we have to think beyond programs and toward relationships.

Within each of these categories must be movement toward the others.  Proclamation and formation can’t end with benching players in the church, but must move them towards Compassion.  Compassion for the person must also involve Compassion for the place, in the form of Development.  And Development cannot stop there, but must press into a Confrontation of Injustice that focuses not only on the effects, but also the causes of poverty.  Then the cycle continues on towards more Proclaimation, Formation and so on.

As usual, I propose more questions than answers.  Much prayer and thought are needed, along with the churches in a city to band together as a united front and express the gospel throughout the entire body; from the mouthpiece all the way  down to the hands and the feet that care for and walk alongside her city.

A moment in the Psalms

You could spend days, weeks, or even years in the Psalms and find things of pure gold there. The beauty and bewilderment of the book is that you can find near the same in just a moment. Whether taken as an entire work of emotionally charged prayers and blessings to the Lord, or single moments, captured for the perfect timing of God’s working in the heart and mind of those He loves, there is rich mystery waiting to be unveiled.  

One such moment for me was found in Psalm 135:18, where it says – “Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.” The reference here is to verse 15: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.” The distinctifying mark of these idols, which their servants begin to resemble are that, “They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths” (verses 16-17).This is who we become like, when our lives are fashioned after them.

The implication, of course, is not the physical idols of silver and gold that we form in our basements, then spend our waking hours bowing down to, but the treasures we fashion in our hearts, which every moment is structured and designed to seek after, find and hold so close as to not allow it to slip away, and protect at all costs. It’s the same relentless pursuit the Psalmist speaks of in chapter 132, where he says, “I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord,” (verse 4), even if this sleepless pursuit of our own heart-fashioned idols is on lesser things.

You’ve heard it said, “You are what you eat”. God might agree, but he takes it even further for us to say, we become like what we worship.

So we become, according to Psalm 135, either mute, blind, deaf and suffocated, or we resemble goodness, pleasantness, like fruitful works, and are enduring and generous.  

This is, at least in part, what God means when he says that he will form in us a new heart of flesh that replaces our heart of stone (Ezekiel 36:26) and again that he will breathe into our lifeless, non-fruit-bearing bodies, to awaken us as a great movement of God’s spirit making its way through the world declaring his glory and greatness (Ezekiel 37).

In reflection, I can easily see what it is that my heart is longing for and making much of, as I begin to look a lot like that to which it ascribes. Gratefully, God’s “redemption is plentiful” (Psalm 130:7) and he beacons us back to his value and nature time and again. In each and every moment, God wants me to return to his life-giving beauty, and away from that which provides myself and those around me no benefit at all. I sure am glad he’s like that.

God with us (John 1:1-18)

As disconnected and disjointed as many people are, our culture certainly seems to place a pretty high value on presence.  It might not be something we specifically talk about or think about in daily conversation, but the void of it seems to permeate everything around us.

Politicians are criticized for being present during elections, but distant throughout their terms.  We have rising virtual connections through the use of various social media outlets, yet research shows “social isolation” is simultaneously on the rise.

I find this to be hauntingly true in my own life.  I’ve always been the guy who hangs out around 30,000 ft.  Life to me is nearly all about strategy, concepts and ideas.  The way I process data or information is to evaluate whether or not it makes sense, the likelihood that it will work in the real world, and how possible it is to prove if this information is true.  I rarely consider how said information might make someone feel.  To do that, I would need to descend the metaphorical atmosphere and come down to street level.  The trouble with living at 30,000 ft, is that you end up convincing yourself you don’t really need anyone.  If you had a need for other people, it would only be to strategically accomplish something, much like moves on a chess board.  People like me are great at manipulating people, and we use others to accomplish our own self-involved agenda, even if that agenda is to get people to like us, which is strange because we think we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t need them.

I’m a lot like the Heissman Trophy.  Not because of my athletic prowess, but because of my skill at the emotional and relational stiff-arm.  The closer I should be with a person, the more they are likely to feel the thrust of my forearm in their chest in an effort to keep them away.

In the opening part of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus shows himself to be something completely different.  Different than our culture, different than personified concepts, and different than people like myself who keep others at a safe distance.  The Christmas-term Emmanuel, means “God with us”.  That’s who Jesus is.  That’s what he did.  Even if I have a good grasp on this theological concept at 30,000 ft, I still suck at imitating Jesus in this area in my day-to-day life. 

God-with-us is a gospel concept, and the gospel goes much deeper than rescuing eternity for individuals.  It’s so much bigger and deeper than eternal security and salvation, although eternity is admittedly so much bigger and deeper than our time here in this life.  But from this life stretching forward throughout all eternity, what we have in Jesus is a God who is present.  He is in every space, and in every moment.  The ability to see Him in these spaces and moments doesn’t involve a change in proximity for him, but a change in perspective for me.  For you.

For those of us who have spent considerable time in the church, this might be a concept that loses it’s intensity with us.  We can tend to get use to it.  But our complacency with God-with-us as a concept, has left the people around us feeling lonely and perhaps it even feeds the loneliness in our own souls. 

In a culture that lacks presence, Jesus exhibits exactly what the people around us are looking for, and he’s succeeding where many of his followers like myself are failing.

Thank God for grace.

Fortunately, this post isn’t about me.  It’s not about distant people, and really, it’s not even about our culture or what it needs.  Although what it is about has a profound and transcendent effect on all of that.  It’s about Jesus; God with us.  The word that became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).  The one who wants to shine light on the good and bad things about you, so that ultimately, you would see not your shine or your stain, but Him.  That’s it.  That’s what his presence does.  Perhaps that’s what he wants you to see today.  Will you – will I – look?

Transformation

In many cases there’s a remarkable difference between terms and concepts.  Take, for example, the term and the conceptual understanding of “Transformation”.  The term means “a complete or dramatic change in form, appearance or function”. Pretty straight forward.  The concept becomes a little more complicated.  We know that transformation means that something changes into something else.  It becomes completely new.  Conceptually though, what does this look like in the context of the city?  

Working for a city transformation organization, the hope and desire for the outcome of your work is always more than mere band-aids. Making people feel better about their plight isn’t nearly as, well, transformative as seeing them rise out of it. It’s not quite enough until “the old is gone, and behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). 

Even though it may be a bit more abstract in our particular context, which deals with the physical and the spiritual, the organization and the individual, the macro and micro; scripture does give us a fascinating picture of what our work could be about. Take a look:

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need”  Ephesians 4:28. 

I’m sure you saw what happened. Without that last part of the sentence, we would have been left with a nice change, but no transformation. It’s not that the thief merely stopped stealing. But he actually became a contributor.  This is transformation. 

It’s a two part process.  When someone stops stealing, that’s a single step. It’s good, and a step in the right direction, but it’s not transformation. However, when that person not only stops stealing, but then starts giving, that’s a two step process, and it’s the picture of transformation that we’re looking for.  It’s a full circle change that only God could accomplish. 

Taking a community from having certain needs to having fewer of those needs is not quite the assignment given to the church. It’s more than that. It goes the full two steps.  It goes from identifying needs to identifying solutions. The community doesn’t necessarily become void of needs. It becomes a community that provides for needs, rather than a community that merely contains needs. I’ve seen most churches be pretty good at this, within their own walls.  In that smaller, micro-community, they give and share “as any had need” (Acts 2:45).  But what about the community outside?  How do you address the macro-community that God places churches within, so that the kingdom can come now (Matthew 6:10)?

In physics, transformation is induced by a nuclear process.  According to Wikipedia a nuclear process is, “considered to be the process in which two nuclei, or else a nucleus of an atom and a subatomic particle (such as a proton, neutron, or high energy electron) from outside the atom, collide to produce one or more nuclides that are different from the nuclide(s) that began the process” (my emphasis added). Did you catch that?  Two elements collide, causing a multiplying effect which result in more elements. 

You see, in order for the church to grasp city transformation, they must get to the point where they see the process of transformation as one that involves multiple players. It’s not just about any one church. This is obvious. What might be less obvious is when we adjust this statement to read, it’s not just about any one organization. Transformation happens, when multiple churches collide (in a good way) with multiple other organizations within their community to multiply their efforts and involve more players. 

In other words, it happens when the church can facilitate a meal where everyone has a welcomed seat at the table. The more the merrier, and the more diverse the better. Especially when diversity deals with thought, belief and worldview. When we can align ourselves with and work alongside those that we don’t agree with, we begin to see the necessary ingredients to achieve city transformation. 

But I’m not just taking about unity here. Jesus prayed for unity, but not for unity’s sake. He prayed that we (the church) would be one, so that the world may know Him (John 17:26). Coming together as a community doesn’t equal transformation. It simply sets the stage.  From there, we simply do what the church does. We love, we commune and we listen. But we do so with patience and wisdom, not like bulls in a China shop.  We who were once thieves now become contributors to the city, so that other thieves can do the same. 

It’s time for the church to humbly lead from the second chair. It’s time we see that the world doesn’t revolve around us, and really, it was never meant to. It’s time to look forward to the world revolving around Jesus, and to work vigilantly until that day comes. 

Books

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My books are back. After three long years, they’re back.

Ever since we moved out of my office at Palm Harbor Church my books have resided in boxes, shifting from one storage space to the next. First in my garage and then in a storage container outside my office at 6 Stones, we’ve been separated for far too long.

I have a strange relationship with books. By that I mean I have an unreasonable love for my paper books, yet I prefer to actually read on my Kindle. The Kindle (or Kindle app on the ol’ iPad) simply allows me to carry around more books in my purposefully minimalistic backpack-slash-manbag. But the real reason is because it serves as a much more efficient sourcing tool for assessing past margin notes and highlights.

But I digress.

This past weekend my beautiful bride and I rummaged through 20+ boxes worth of books on topics such as theology, church-planting, leadership, pastoring, student ministry, mission, Christian Living, history, politics and culture (along with a few useless novels on baseball and psychopaths).  A few of them didn’t make the shelf, but the vast majority are once again receiving their due glory-of-display for all to see (or at least all who actually walk by my office – which by the way is populated by a steady flow of little old ladies that work in the New Hope Center and seem to be curiously interested in what this guy is doing in the low-lit room featuring the bizarre mixture of sounds of my eclectic Hillsong-Miles Davis-The Beatles-The Meters-Metallica-Johnny Cash-Taylor Swift playlist).

It’s like having old friends return home after a long journey away. Great men and women speaking to me once again such as Piper, Lewis, Platt, Spurgeon, Bonhoeffer, Schafer, Edwards, Hauerwas, Bosch, Wright, Packer and Hirsch – just to name a few. I suddenly want to re-read them all, but am forced to settle with the occasional flipping through to find past highlights and scribbles, pondering over old insights and inspirations.

It may be the first time I’ve really missed the old lifestyle of thinking and pontificating, one that I traded in for action and mobilizing.  Yet, all the millions of typed words that are now in my small, dark office, residing in their alphabetized order from floor to ceiling on new bookshelves, these are meant to propel me into the very work that consumes my days of late.

So while they wait patiently for short conversations whenever I can afford the time, they quietly cheer me on in my work of pressing and advancing into the darkness that surrounds me.  They infuse the dank air, speaking words of God’s glory and his design for his church to make Jesus famous and benefit the city where we exist as strangers.

So if you’re ever in the neighborhood, come on by. My friends enjoy the company and are always ready for the next conversation.

A New Question

what-are-the-prime-numbers-less-than-100_3ea8ce05c7c21b1aFor church leaders and especially lead pastors, there’s a lingering question which many of us despise.  We know it’s coming in those introductory conversations.  It’s a question I often tried to avoid while leading a local church myself, but I could never completely circumvent the inevitable.

The question is this: How big is your church?  The question was asked in a lot of ways, of course.  What do you run on Sunday?  What’s your average attendance?  How many members are there?

Perhaps you’re wondering why I think this is a bad question, or already disagreeing with me that it is.  What’s wrong with numbers?  After all, there is a book in the bible with its name, and the New Testament details numbers of crowds that followed Jesus around as he performed his earthly ministry.  The answer is, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with numbers inherently.  I hear (and tend to agree with) people that say, “We count people because people count”.  Perhaps a bit trite, but quite true nonetheless.  Numbers do have a value to them, and they can tend to show us things that are working and things that are not – although we must always be careful to assume the why behind what seems to be working or attracting more people.  A growing church doesn’t necessarily represent a healthy one.

The reality is, however, that the church in our context has become increasingly competitive, and that is in fact an inherently bad thing.  Here’s what I was thinking every time the numbers question would come up.  I would either think that this pastor is judging me (me personally, that is) or he thinks that I’m judging him (him personally, that is).    Often, I would assume both.  The problem with numbers in churches is that these numbers are often used to validate the identity of the pastor.  There, I said it.  The truth is – and we all know this – the church has little to do with the pastor, and his value is determined the exact same way every other follower’s of Christ is; by Jesus.  Our value isn’t in our work, or our title, or our bank account, or a car, house, boat, kid, spouse, etc.  Our value and identity is solely fixed in the person and work of Jesus.  As we see mega church pastors dropping like flies, this concept is becoming more and more real.

I must admit, that I was an instigator of the question as much as I was a victim of it.  When trying to grasp an understanding of a fellow local church, there just never seemed to be a better option, perhaps other than outright avoidance.

Allow me to propose an alternative question, one that I am attempting to be the first one I ask of pastors-freshly-acquainted.  The question is this: How are you seeing God shape the neighborhood your church is in?  Of course, there are other ways to ask it.  What are you doing in your neighborhood?  How is God redeeming and restoring the neighborhood where your church campus is?  How are the people of your church engaging their respective neighborhoods and/or communities?

Maybe this is a clearer alternative to tell the story of a church.

After all, Sunday’s should never define a church.  The church (aka, the collective gathering of local missionaries) should be defined by what happens Monday through Saturday, and Sunday simply becomes an celebration of what God is doing in and through them as Jesus restores the community he’s placed the church within.  If this is a good working definition of the church (or a definition of the proper description of a local church) then what other more appropriate questions would we ask of each other?  Whether your church is running 10 or 10,000, you can have a profound impact on the neighborhood where you reside.  All you need to do is ask, “How is God shaping the neighborhood(s) that we gather in, and what’s our part in the process?”

By God’s grace, our local churches can add great value to our cities, and maybe it will all start with a new question.