2019 Junior High Mission Trip to Rainelle, WV.

IMG_3537On June 8-14, 2019 the Epiphany UMC Junior High youth group went to Rainelle, WV. for our Summer missions trip. About once every 4 or 5 years I like to take our teens to a rural area to serve to give them a different experience from ministry in the urban areas. These are always eye-opening experiences as many of the people in rural areas are forgotten about in mainstream culture yet they need help and love just like anyone else. Rainelle was devastated by what was called the 1,000 year flood back in 2016. The town sits in a valley around several mountains. When the storms came the flooding happened from multiple directions. Many lives and homes were affected.

Once we arrived, we set up camp at a school building that is no longer being used as a school but instead as a mission facility for groups to come in and help. It used to be a Christian school called Rainelle Christian Academy. It was a nice facility with a gym for the teens to play around in with their endless energy whenever we were not out doing mission work.

On our first full day we went to church at a local Baptist church both in the morning and in the evening. We met many people and had a different church experience that we were used to.  One thing that I thought came through loud and clear from hearing the preacher twice was that there is a lot of suffering within his congregation and community. A lot of hope was placed on the hope for the afterlife. Overall it was a classic conservative Baptist experience that reminded me of my own past from about 1979. Some genuine care, some fire and brimstone, some fear, some hope.

Monday through Wednesday were our community work days. Some of the projects we helped with were

  1. painting the fire escapes to Rainelle Christian Academy,
  2. helping with the community center in White Sulphur Springs, WV
  3. having a community cookout with the people of White Sulphur Springs
  4. helping the Rainelle Elementary School get ready for their summer reading programs
  5. meeting the mayor of Rainelle and helping her with some odd jobs

A majority of the jobs we did involved scraping and painting. In White Sulphur Springs we helped to take an old, abandoned school and help renovate it into a community center. We also had a cookout with the people that on our last evening there. The teens did a great job working hard, playing hard, and getting to know all the different people we interacted with in these West Virginia towns. It was hard to hear some of the stories about the floods but it was also amazing to hear and see how the towns have come back from such a devastating experience. It was awesome to hear their stories, see the renovations that have happened and continue to go on within the towns, and just appreciate and admire the beauty of these small country towns.

One funny thing that happened throughout the week was that we kept on telling the teens that there would be a talent show at some point. Some, not knowing any better, took us seriously so they began to develop acts for the show. On the last night we were there we decided to actually go through with it. It was a perfect way to end the week with a lot of laughs.

Another funny thing that occurred on our trip was the humming bird that continued to find its way into our cafeteria area. We discovered quickly how hard it was to get a hummingbird to exit the building.

Then another night I was just about to fall asleep when I heard what was a dog fight outside. I didn’t think much about it and went to sleep. The next morning we discovered that some local dogs cornered a skunk right buy one of our vans and tore it to pieces right there. For the remainder of the week that van had a strong odor to it. Thankfully the ride back to Ohio help to get ride of the smell. And I am especially grateful that I did not decide to go outside and see what was up with the dogs. It is a story that could have gotten a lot worse.

On Thursday we took the day off from mission work and went white water rafting with ACE Adventures in Oak Hill, WV. We had an awesome experience with them. The teens had a lot of fun as we rafted, ate lunch half way through, had a huge downpour at one point, pushed each other in the river, and had a great time overall. I would highly recommend ACE Adventures to anyone wanting to enjoy what West Virginia has to offer.

This was also the trip were we had our associate pastor with us and by Sunday we had to take him to the hospital because his heart was beating irregularly. Thankfully after three days at the hospital, he was let go with a strong heart beat. He is doing much better now.

If you would like to see our daily journal that the Praying Pelican Mission coordinators put together you can see it HERE

If you would like to see the photos of all the mission stuff we did you can go HERE

And if you would like to see some picture of the white water rafting activity go HERE

Overall, Praying Pelican Missions delivered a great experience yet again. The teens were taken out of their comfort zone and challenged to work hard and minister to the people we encountered. My hope is that the Holy Spirit uses these experiences to help the teens see outside of their cultural bubble and begin to love and care for people that are different than them socially, economically, and geographically. I hope to inspire the teens to apply all that they learned so that they look at their home life, school life, and extra-curricular life differently as an opportunity to be missional in all that they do. It is not just a one-week trip out of their summer but a way of life that helps us develop spiritual practices of service in any context we are in.

It is a privilege and honor to lead these teens to develop their spiritual lives. We also had a great adult team that went with us. They all assisted and helped the teens to do their best. I even had one adult brave enough to dispose of the skunk carcass before all the teens woke up! It would have been better if I would have done it because I don’t smell skunk but I appreciate the over-and-above attitude of the adults as well as many of the teens. May God bless the continuing efforts to restore Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs, WV.

Book Review: How Jesus Saves The World From Us

HJSTWFUIn many ways the American church has lost its way in fulfilling the message of Christ. We may mean well, but we get caught up in toxic behavior that has the opposite effect of what we are supposed to be in Christ. Morgan Guyton does a terrific job in helping us to see where we need help in his awesomely titled book “How Jesus Saves The World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity”. In the opening sentence Guyton asks “Have Christians become what Jesus came to stop us from being?” (p. 1). This is actually a scary thought to consider because a lot of the research that is out there does suggest that we have strayed from the ideal. In the book of Acts we see thousands attracted to the message of Christ as a result of how the early church represented itself. Today we seem to be doing more to push people away from Christ. The fastest growing group are the “nones” who do not claim a faith. SO with all that in mind, how have we gotten so toxic?

Guyton begins his book by arguing that we are called to worship, not perform. He states that “Faith isn’t the performance that passes God’s test to earn us a ticket to heaven; it’s the abolition of performance that liberates us from the hell of self-justification and restores us to a life of authentic worship.” (p. 17). When we come to worship, our focus needs to be on the object of our worship: Jesus. God’s grace rescues us from the feeling that we need to justify ourselves before God.

Guyton goes on to state that we are to be people of mercy, more than sacrifice. In relating to the story of the Good Samaritan, Guyton points out that “Mercy means abandoning the safety of a morally superior vantage point of judgement in order to assume the dangerously vulnerable wide-open space with the other person, so that in our mutual lack of safety, we become safe to each other.” (p. 25). The Bible itself says to obey is better than sacrifice and I believe that this is what Guyton is getting at. We can come up with a whole list of ways in which we are “sacrificing” ourselves thinking we are morally superior as a result but if we are not practicing our love for God and our love for others we have missed the mark!

In another chapter, Guyton explains that we need to be more focused on emptying ourselves instead of being clean. He says that “I don’t believe that God has any investment in our staying clean for the sake of being clean. I believe that God wants our hearts to be emptied of clutter so that they can be filled up with his love, just like the heart of the Samaritan who was capable of being moved with compassion. When Christians try to stay clean instead of getting empty, it’s a recipe for a toxic, judgmental faith that lacks self-awareness.” (p. 33). I have lived through and been a part of the “purity culture” in which we are encouraged to be hyper-vigilant about our purity usually with a very big emphasis on our sexual purity. The problem with that thinking is that we become obsessed with it and if we make any mistakes we fall into a tremendous amount of shame, which once again brings the focus on me and not Christ’s mercy and grace. The author even observed in his own life that “The tragic irony is that the friends I’ve known who grew up in this superprotective culture that so desperately tried to keep them safe and clean seem to have come out of it with greater spiritual damage than I experienced as a youth who wasn’t nearly as protected from worldly temptations and learned some things the hard way.”(p. 37).  He concludes this section in stating that “The goal is not to keep ourselves perfectly clean and absent of any scars or smudges; the goal is to be emptied enough of our self-preoccupation that we can lose ourselves in God. If you are preoccupied with staying clean, you’re still preoccupied with yourself. What truly makes your heart impure is whatever keeps your focus on yourself instead of God.” (p. 39). I know that as a parent and a youth pastor you want teens to make good choices so they can thrive in their life. But we need to also teach them how to empty themselves before God and enjoy His presence in their lives. This takes the focus off of them and puts it on the object of our worship.

Further into the book Guyton tackles the way in which the consumer culture has caused us to see others as commodities to our own life instead of beautiful expressions of God’s love. He states that “we need to learn to enjoy other people as gifts from God, as sacraments of God’s beauty, whose infinite mystery we can adore without the need to make them useful to our consumption. It is within a community that treats its people like temples of God’s breath to be revered that we experience the infinite comfort of being desired as occasions of joy for one another.” (p. 54). This is a beautiful way of approaching other people in your life.

In another section Guyton argues that we are to honor the Lord rather than have a sense of terror when it comes to God. He says that “When we talk about fearing God, we have to remember that God chose to represent himself most perfectly in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. If that’s who God is, then fearing God is not being afraid of what God will do to me, but afraid of what I might do to Jesus. . . . those who can’t sleep at night because they worry that they might drop the cross that their crucified Messiah gave them to carry as their contribution to ridding the world of evil – those are the people who do fear the Lord.” (p. 66). When we have this perspective we come to understand the importance of our role as a Christ-follower in this world. We should be compelled to be the hands and feet of Christ to this broken world.

In another chapter I really liked, Guyton argued that the Bible is not a math book more than it is poetry. He comments that “some people read the Bible like a math problem, and others read it like poetry. The Bible is an essential tool for instilling beauty into our hearts, but so many Christians turn it into a weapon for winning arguments with other people. I believe that treating the Bible like poetry to be savored, instead of math to be solved, can help to save us from its toxic misuse.” (p. 70). I had two separate experiences when I decided to pursue Biblical studies. When at Liberty University the Bible was definitely treated as math to be solved. We were taught with absolute certainty why we believed what we believed and why everybody else was wrong. But when I went to seminary at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary many of my professors taught scripture more as poetry to be savored. It was then that I realized how little I actually knew about the Bible and how much there is to enjoy. In fact, Guyton agrees that “the irony that people who know the least about a topic are often the most confident in their knowledge. The more you learn, the more you’re exposed to how little you really know. So if you think faith means self-certainty, then you’re going to remain an infant in your spiritual journey.” (p. 73). This is why I cringe whenever someone tries to make a point by saying “the Bible CLEARLY says . . .”. Often they are certain about their limited interpretation without doing the diligent work of real study and interpretation. Guyton concludes this section in stating that “A better way to measure someone’s faith is according to the magnitude of good deeds that are inspired by that faith.” (p. 74).

Further along in the book Guyton writes about hos we are supposed to respond to sin. He comments that “Christians whose posture is solidarity love their fellow sinners by hating their own sin. To the degree that they think about sin, they are focused primarily on their own failure to love. . . . When we look at ourselves, we should be looking for ways that our love can be improved upon. When we look at other people, we should be looking for ways that they are lovely. . . . It is not merely being kind to other people; it is seeing and loving the good within them.” (p. 109). In my experiences it has always been those who have shown this type of love to me that made an impact on me, that challenged me to grow spiritually. To be judged never once worked.

Guyton goes on to talk about how we should take sides in conflict by being outsiders, not insiders. In wrestling with what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus as a white, middle-class American who has not really had to suffer he says that “It means renouncing my insider status to befriend and support people who will taint my reputation with other insiders. It means being crucified of the ways I justify myself moralistically against the world’s outsiders. It means being purified of all the spiritual botulism of white supremacy. It means leaving behind the comfortable privilege that Jesus and the apostles referred to as ‘the world'”. (p. 126). I always find it fascinating what the evangelical culture feels that persecution is to them: having to bake a cake for a gay couple or being forced to provide birth control for their employees. The reality is that it is typically those very same people who will persecute other Christians for identifying with the “outsiders”. Jesus was accused of being with drunkards and tax collectors. It is time we come alongside those who are considered outsiders and stand with them.

In a following section Guyton argues for how we are supposed to follow our Shepherd. He states that “What if instead of fetishizing leadership like the rest of our culture, the church focused on cultivating servanthood?” (p. 133). He continues by saying “To be a leader is simply to be a selfless-enough servant that I am focused on empowering others and helping them discover their gifts.” (p. 135). The concept of Christian leadership needs to be noticeably different from how it is perceived from the culture. Servanthood needs to be the driving factor as we empower people to discover their gifts and use them. Guyton goes on to say “We need to become a community of sheep who listen together. Christian leaders should be the ones who listen the most deeply, not only through prayer and the study of Scripture, but also by intentionally submitting ourselves to the meekest, most marginalized members of our community.” (p. 142). In doing this we act and behave more like Jesus.

In his final chapter, Guyton makes a case for how we are to grow as the body of Christ. He says that “Just as when Peter went to Cornelius, I should expect to find the Holy Spirit already spreading the kingdom of God in the lives of the people with whom I interact, regardless of whether they’re officially Christian or not. I should enter into these conversations expecting to be humbled and surprised by the insights God has given the other person to share with me.” (p. 154). I know that I take a much more different approach when it comes to doing mission trips than I did in my earlier years as a youth pastor. I encourage the teens to look for ways that they see Jesus in the people and places they interact with. This helps us not to see an “us vs. them” mentality but opens us up to seeing that God is already present in what is going on and we are invited to be a part of that.

In all, this was a GREAT book. I really enjoyed it and found how Guyton went about deconstructing and reconstructing the faith was beautiful. On just about every point I agreed. What Christianity is supposed to be and what it has become are two different things and if we don’t change Jesus really does need to save the world from us! But here’s to hoping that the Spirit enables us to see the privilege, the arrogance and the pride that has seeped into the American church and made it toxic, and hoping for a kingdom people who will return back to Jesus with a humble and contrite heart willing to serve, willing to identify with the marginalized, willing to love in extraordinary ways!

 

 

Book Review: I’m Still Here

91FY1VdV+HLI have a confession to make. I am a racist. It is not that I want to or intent to be one. It is just when I now look back on the life I have had I see how I have benefited from being white and I gave into fear and misunderstanding about people of color throughout my lifetime. I have grown up in predominately white middle class suburbia. I grew up in a predominately white conservative church. Any interaction with people of color was on my terms in my environment. It wasn’t until I went to college where I had a history professor teach us in graphic detail what the European settlers did to the indigenous people and what white America actually did to Africans enslaved in our country. The ramifications of what was done in the past still have powerful reverberations into our present reality. I remember thinking that slavery and racism was a thing of the past and something I would never be a part of in the present. But what I failed to see were the systemic ways that our country continues to judge, villainize, criminalize and punish people of color so that white America stays in control.

In the book “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness“, Author Austin Channing Brown explains how she has survived as a black African American women in America. Her parents named her Austin for the very fact that people would assume when they see the name on a resume they would think it was a white male. They wanted her to have the chance of at least getting her foot in the door. Austin begins her story in stating that “I learned pretty early in life that while Jesus may be cool with racial diversity, America is not. The ideology that whiteness is supreme, better, best, permeates the air we breathe – in our schools, in our offices, and in our country’s common life. White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.” (p. 22-23). When I think of a white supremacist I think of the worst case scenario that would obviously not include me. Yet I have benefited greatly by this ideology permeating our country. And I am naive to think I am not complicit or responsible for its existence in our country.

Brown goes on to explain her experiences within the workplace as a minority African American. She says that “White institutions are constantly communicating how much Blackness they want. It begins with numbers. . . . But numbers are only the beginning. Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls, attempting to accrue no more than what’s necessary to affirm itself. . . . It wants to pat itself on the back cor helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.” (70-71). It is vital to realize that we can all learn from each other and that multicultural is not a negative thing but something to be celebrated and shared as an experience of lives connecting with each other. Brown concludes with hope for the workplace explaining that “We must remind ourselves and one another that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, arming ourselves against the ultimate message of whiteness – that we are inferior. We must stare at ourselves in the mirror and repeat that we, too, are fully capable, immensely talented, and uniquely gifted. We are not tokens. We are valuable in the fullness of our humanity. We are not perfect, but we are here, able to contribute something special, beautiful, lasting to the companies and ministries to which we belong.” (p. 80). It is imperative that we never look at someone as inferior but see them just as fearfully and wonderfully made in the eyes of God.

Brown recognizes that there are a lot of “nice white people” who mean well and not realize that they are still acting in ways that are harmful to people of color. She says that “White people desperately want to believe that only the lonely, isolated ‘whites only’ club members are racist. This is why the word racist offends ‘nice white people’ so deeply. It challenges their self-identification as good people. Sadly, most white people are more worried about being called racist than about whether or not their actions are in fact racist or harmful.” (p. 104).

Brown then goes on to talk about the history of racism in America. She comments that “the reason we have not yet told the truth about this history of Black and white America is that telling an ordered history of this nation would mean finally naming America’s commitment to violent, abusive, exploitative, immoral white supremacy, which seek the absolute control of Black bodies. It would mean doing something about it.” (p. 116-117). We as a nation have yet to seek reparations or at the very least apologize for our history of racism and abuse of people of color. In fact we are currently living in a time in which our own government has blatantly stoked racism and white supremacy.

Further in the book Brown talks about having creative anger. She points out that “Anger is not inherently destructive. My anger can be a force for good. My anger can be creative and imaginative, seeing a better world that doesn’t yet exist. It can fuel a righteous movement toward justice and freedom.” (p. 125-126). Righteous anger can be a really good thing as we look at the problems in our world and see ourselves as a force used by God to help bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth over the powers of darkness. We need to be seeking justice when it comes to how people of color have and are currently being treated in our world. We need to understand our history and not sugarcoat it with white supremacy. We must recognize our sins as a nation and lament and ask forgiveness for what happened and what is currently happening.

Brown goes on to recognize the disparity of how even blacks are seen differently when it comes to the way we judge them. She says that “At the end of the day, Blackness is always the true offense. Whiteness needs just a hint of a reason to maintain its own goodness, assuring itself that there’s no reason to worry, because the victim had it coming. He was a drug dealer. A criminal. A thug. We don’t talk about white drug dealers this way. We don’t even talk about white murderers this way. Somehow, we manage to think of them as people first, who just happened to do something bad. But the same respect is rarely afforded to Black folk. We must always earn the right to live. Perfection is demanded of Blackness before mercy or grace or justice can even be considered. I refuse to live this way.” (p. 146). I have seen this happen so many times. We have even seen this with how immigrants have been characterized at the Southern boarder. We make them less than human. We assert our whiteness and take away their humanity in the process. This happens all throughout the recent occurrences of police brutality and quick-trigger shootings of black people throughout our nation.

Brown has seen through her experiences with white people that many of them want to at least be proud of the progress we have made over the years when it comes to racial issues. But Brown says that “I am grateful for my ancestors’ struggle and their survival. But I am not impressed with America’s progress. I am not impressed that slavery was abolished or that Jim Crow ended. I feel no need to pat America on its back for these ‘achievements’. This is how it should have always been. Many call it progress, but I do not consider it praiseworthy that only within the last generation did America reach the baseline for human decency.” (p. 151). I remember in college thinking that I am a good person because I never had slaves or treated black people as inferior. But the truth is IT REALLY WASN’T THAT LONG AGO when our nation did institute slavery and Jim Crow laws. We still are dealing with the repercussions of those days. We still have racism and white supremacy woven into us from past generations. It is time to deal with it.

Brown wrestles with what reconciliation may look like to set things right. She states that “Here’s another misconception. A great many people believe that reconciliation boils down to dialogue: a conference on race, a lecture, a moving sermon about the diversity we’ll see in heaven. But dialogue is productive toward reconciliation only when it leads to action – when it inverts power and pursues justice for those who are most marginalized.” (p. 169). She goes on to state that reconciliation is “a ministry that belongs to Jesus. Jesus, who left the comfort of heaven and put on flesh, experiencing the beauty and brutality of being human. Jesus, who dies on a cross and rose from the grave, making a way for all humanity to be joined in union with God.” (p. 172-173). Through Jesus, we ought to feel empowered to bring the message of reconciliation and justice to a world that is out of control. We are call upon God to do His will “on earth as it is in heaven.” And I believe this is the problem with most White America. Do we find our primary identity in our country and its history? Or have we renounced that, in order to seek instead to be Kingdom people who are instruments of His reconciliation throughout our country and throughout the world?

Brown concludes her book in looking at the present state of affairs. She says that “She looks at the present – police brutality, racial disparities, backlash against being ‘politically correct,’ hatred for our first Black president, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the election of a chief executive who stoked the fire of racial animosity to win – and I ask myself, Where is your hope, Austin? The answer: It is but a shadow. . . . It is knowing that God is God and I am not. This is a cool place from where I demand a love that matters.” (p. 181-182). It is scary to see where we are at as a country and to see how racial and religious minorities are being treated all the time. It is time that we as the church stand up to this evil, call it for what it is, lament, make reparations, seek justice and allow God’s love to supernaturally bring us all together. The church cannot survive being a mere reflection of the culture of hate and racism, but instead we need to be a force for unity, love and a peace that passes all understanding.

My encouragement to you if you are a White Christian is to understand our history. Not the white-washed version of it. But understand what really happened to native Americans, and Africans who were brought here by force to serve as slaves. Pay attention to what is happening at our Southern boarder and how those people are being characterized as sub-human by our government. It is time that we stop going along with the culture we are in. We need to fight against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness that continue to divide us with hate and fear of the other. It is time we recognize this as demonic. We are called to be peacemakers. We are to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Only then and there can we turn the tide of darkness and evil in our country that divide us according to race, gender, sexuality, generational and socio-economic levels. Our faith needs to stop just being an accessory to our lives as White Americans. If we are true to our faith, we are called to be kingdom people that are very different that this present darkness. We are to be the light of the world. It is up to us to come to the table and live out a life of love and justice for ALL.

With all that said please read this book! It must be read and taken seriously as Christ followers.

Bearing Fruit: John 15:1-17

Picture1I don’t know what your experience has been living in this area, but I have discovered that trying to have a garden is an exercise in futility. When I first moved here we bought a small ranch-style home that had a huge backyard. I was proud of the backyard because I saw an opportunity not only for my kids to play, but also a chance to develop a big garden. So, one Spring day I got myself a rototiller and began to tear up the ground. My intent was to have a nice, big garden with lots of tomatoes and peppers. It was fun to see the plants start to peek out of the ground and start growing. Every day I would check their development, try and get rid of any weeds, and water the plants.

One day Zach was playing in the backyard with a friend and they were tossing around a football. After some time went by I noticed some of my tomato plants didn’t look right. Some of them looked like they were stomped on or maybe hit by a football. I confronted Zach and told him to be more careful. Of course, he denied any wrongdoing.

The next morning, I woke up, made some coffee, looked out into the backyard and noticed right away EVERY SINGLE PLANT in the garden was smashed down. I was in disbelief as I struggled to imagine Zach would do this to me. As I walked out to the garden to get a closer look I then noticed that there were deer tracks all throughout the dirt.

Since then, I have continued to notice that we have a massive deer population problem here in Loveland! All of you that go away for deer hunting season just need to come to my neighborhood! But the point is this: while it may be hard to develop a garden here in Loveland, God is in the business of gardening all the time.

Our Scripture today comes from the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. This is a unique section of Scripture in that the other gospels do not spend this amount of time on Jesus’ last words before he heads to the cross. Jesus gets his disciples together for one last time. He begins by washing their feet and telling them to serve one another likewise. He then begins to teach them many things to prepare them for what is about to happen in the next few days. What I want us to focus on is the passage that deals with the topic of gardening.

Jesus begins by recognizing that GOD IS THE GARDENER

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

Jesus’ main point here is that God is the gardener. As the gardener He is most interested in making sure that we do the very best in producing fruit. That means of course that, in agricultural terms, those branches that are not producing any fruit will be trimmed off and those that are producing fruit will be pruned to produce the best fruit possible. A good gardener will want to do the best to maximize their potential harvest. More tomatoes are a very good thing! God is not an absentee, deadbeat dad that just started everything and then walked away from it all. He is our heavenly Father that wants to bring out the very best in us.

Jesus’ next point is to explain what it means that JESUS IS THE VINE

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

Jesus connects himself to this agricultural analogy by explaining that he is the vine. The vine is the source of life and sustenance for the branches. The branches must be connected to the vine to produce any type of fruit. To not be connected to the vine means the branch will wither and die. Once again though, Jesus emphasizes that not only is the gardener interested in producing fruit, but if we remain in Christ, who is the vine, he too wants us to produce fruit. The fruit that we produce from our lives will either demonstrate that we are disciples of Jesus or not.

Jesus concludes this part of his talk with explaining what it means that WE ARE THE BRANCHES.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.”

Now I want us to sit here and think about the passage a bit.

The SOURCE of love comes from the Father through Jesus. As a plant produces necessary nutrients for the branches to produce fruit, so too the love of the Father, through Jesus, give us the necessary stuff we need to learn how to love. As He loves us, we need to love each other.

Jesus goes on to foreshadow the fact that He is about to give up his life for these disciples. Jesus also breaks down any type of hierarchical mindset that the disciples may have. He doesn’t call them servants in relation to him, but instead he calls them friends. He then explains that the fruit he is most interested in the disciples producing is LOVE! That is our main fruit that ought to be evident in our lives as Christ-followers!

This is my command: Love each other!

Now let’s for a moment consider Jesus’ audience while he is speaking these words. He has 12 disciples of which we know that one is about to betray him, and one is about to deny him 3 times. And all of them are about to abandon Jesus in his moment of greatest need. Knowing this alone would be reason for me, if I were Jesus, just to cancel this whole Last Supper and give up on these guys. But when we consider some of the backstory of these disciples I think we can see some hope. Matthew was there, along with Simon.

Let’s talk about MATTHEW. What we know about Matthew is that one of the gospels is attributed to him. But through the Gospels we also learn that he was a tax collector when Jesus called on Matthew to follow him. Now a Jewish tax collector was seen as one who has sold out to the Roman government and betrayed the Israeli people by working for the Romans. The Romans were the occupying force that was over Israel at the time. Many Israelites were looking for a savior who would be a political revolutionary by overthrowing Rome and establishing them as the dominant kingdom. Any Jewish person who worked for the Romans would be seen as a traitor, especially a tax collector.

Now let’s consider SIMON. He has been referred to as the Zealot. A zealot was one who was a Jewish nationalist who was fiercely opposed to the Roman occupation. Zealots were known to assassinate Jewish people who were considered sellouts to the Romans, especially tax collectors.

So, without Jesus being the common denominator in this story, Matthew and Simon had really nothing in common to bring them together, and they had every reason to hate and despise each other and wish the worst on one another. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the political climate of the first century.

But the common denominator that brought them together was Jesus. And Jesus taught them to love each other. Going back to our gardening analogy, Jesus was teaching them that while there may be two very different branches, they are still all connected to the vine and expected to produce fruit, and that fruit will be evident in their love for each other. I suspect that God did a lot of pruning especially on these two in order to shape them into disciples who love each other. While Jesus met these two where they were at in their lives, Jesus had a transformative effect on inviting them into the kingdom as brothers in Christ.

Now, at this time in our denomination, and at this time in the history of our country, we would have to be blind to not see that there is a lot of divisiveness. If you spend any amount of time on social media, cable news or talk radio, you will see people taking sides on any number of issues and viciously demonizing the other side that may disagree with them. It has gotten so bad lately that we have even had a congressman suggest we are heading into a next civil war. It has gotten so ugly, and so nasty. We have completely lost the ability to have any rational debates trying to figure out what is best for everybody. Instead, we surround ourselves with people who agree with us and we demonize those who may disagree with us. We strip them of their humanity and denigrate them with names that are used to demean them and make them less than human. This is the culture and society we live in right now.

What I want to challenge you with is will we as a church just reflect the divisiveness of the culture or will we rise above all of this and be the kingdom people that is seen through our love for each other? If we love each other the way Jesus calls us to we are going to be a big, shining light in a world that is lost in darkness. We will be branches connected to the vine, producing large amounts of fruit.

But if we don’t live into the fullness of loving one another I would say either be prepared to be pruned or even cut from the vine. This is a deal-breaker. We need to learn how to love each other. Now I will admit sometimes it is difficult to put this into practice. I catch myself at times thinking how much easier life would be if everyone just thought exactly how I thought! I come from a family that is very diverse (that’s putting it nicely) in their political and theological perspectives. I have to restrain myself at times to be very careful about what I am willing to talk about to them. It takes effort sometimes to remind myself that love is the common denominator here, not our political candidates, not our random theological or social positions on hot button issues, not on my personal ideas on how I think they should be raising their kids, and on and on and on.

Honestly, the people who have had the greatest impact on me within the context of the church are those who showed love to me regardless of where I was at in my faith journey. They saw something in me that I had a hard time seeing in myself. They told me they see Jesus in me, when I didn’t feel that way at all. They invited me to participate in small groups and church when I felt like an outcast. They invited me to be involved in the Kingdom of God by showing grace, love and compassion when I felt, disconnected, angry, lost and shunned as a “backslider”.

As I thought through this passage, I was reminded of the fact that Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that we could have a lot of great things going on in our life but if there is not love, then it is all meaningless. In the letter to the Galatians he writes about the fruit of the Spirit and the first one mentioned is love. I don’t think that that is a coincidence. He intended for that to be first because without it, the rest means nothing. You really can’t have the others without love being the foundation.

Let’s consider the disciple John himself. He was called one of the “sons of thunder”. In the gospel of Mark, we see that Jesus is getting ready to travel to Jerusalem with his disciples and he decided to send messengers ahead of him into Samaria to see if they could pass through. But they were not welcome. John’s reaction was to ask Jesus if he could call down fire from heaven to destroy them! This was John! As they were heading to Jerusalem where Jesus would be executed.

But what is fascinating about John is that we can see how his faith evolved after the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus by looking at his letters that he wrote later on in his life as a significant church leader. 1 John 4:7-12 says,

“7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

When Jesus was speaking to the disciples just before he went to the cross, it would appear that he may have been planting seeds within the minds of the disciples because what we see with John is a person whose thunderous personality softened over time. As he matured in the faith, and he was able to better understand Jesus’ mission, John knew that love was the mission of Jesus and co-mission for us. We must love one another.

If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us!

Let me give you a paradigm in which we can think through or process our theological ConcentricCirclesTheology2thoughts using 3 concentric circles. I am borrowing this diagram from author and pastor Greg Boyd. I have read some of his books and listened to his podcast for years and this concept has really helped me out a lot in processing my thoughts.

In the center of this diagram is JESUS. He perfectly embodies the love of God for us and he models the type of love that we ought to have for him and for each other. He is the means whereby we experience the love God has for us.

The next circle is labeled DOGMA. These are the beliefs of the church that make us distinctly Christian. Many of these beliefs are reflected in the creeds of the church such as The Apostle’s Creed. The belief in the Trinity, and also the humanity and divinity of Christ would fit this category. These are like the non-negotiables that define Christianity.

The next circle is labeled DOCTRINE. These are important beliefs that we have but may have different views. Many denominations have different views on what exactly happens in the sacrament of communion, how it should be performed and who can participate. Some denominations believe that God is involved in every detail of life while others believe that there is some degree to free will.

And the final circle is labeled OPINION. This circle represents different ways in which we may interpret particular doctrines, such as how to interpret the Creation story in light of evolution, and there are different views on how to understand the atonement, the afterlife, the apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation and on and on.

Notice in this diagram that Christ is always central. His love for us and our love for each other. That must be the most important thing. The wrestling match comes when we try to determine what is dogma, doctrine or just opinion. Regardless of whatever issues we may be struggling with as a church we need to always keep Christ central.

So, at this point, I would challenge all of you to take an assessment of your life and make sure you are not getting caught up in the divisiveness of our culture, with all the hate and anger that is out there, but instead we learn how to be more and more like Christ through our love for God and our love for each other. We must make sure that we are connected to the vine and that we are demonstrating the fruit of love in our growth as a Christian. Always keep the main thing, the main thing.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” So, let’s make sure that our faith is centrally located in the love of God and the love for each other. This is the one and only way that we will stand out as kingdom people and rise above all the hostilities that divide and label others. Love one another. This is not an opinion but what is central to our faith. Let us love one another. Amen.

 

 

Book Review: Inspired

InspiredI’ll admit that I have read all of Rachel Held Evan’s books. It has been enjoyable to see how she has evolved as a writer. In many ways her faith journey of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction has been similar to my spiritual journey as well. This book is entitled “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again”.

In the introduction, Evans reminisces that “Gone was the comforting storybook of my childhood, the useful handbook of my adolescence, and the definitive answer book of my college years. The Bible in my twenties served only as a stumbling block, a massive obstacle between me and the God I thought I knew.” (p. xvii). The Bible evolved for her over time into a book that was disturbing and troubling at best. She needed to deconstruct her faith from her past and reconstruct it  into something that made sense to her with all her questions, doubts and concerns. Evans comes to terms stating that “From the rich history of Jewish interpretation, I learned the mysteries and contradictions of Scripture weren’t meant to be fought against, but courageously engaged, and that the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine, and debate.” (p. xix).

Evans then breaks down her book into sections that deal with specific themes that emerge from the Bible. She starts with Origin Stories. This is related specifically to the Creation Story in Genesis. Growing up I was taught that this was scientific fact. At Liberty University I even had to take a Creation Science class that attempted to prove a literal 7-day creation and young earth theory. Evans says that, “Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.” (p. 9). In ancient days there were many different types of creation stories out there from pagan religions. The creation story that the Jews had stood in stark contrast those. Evans concludes this section in commenting that “The creation account of Genesis 1, in which God brings order to the cosmos and makes it a temple, is meant to remind the people of Israel, and by extension, us, that God needs no building of stone from which to reign, but dwells in every landscape and in the presence of the humble will make a home. (p. 19).

In the next section Evans tackles Deliverance Stories with a view towards liberation theology. She says that “This crimson thread of justice has been traced by marginalized people through the ages, their struggle for freedom sustained by Scripture’s call to honor the poor, welcome the stranger, and liberate the oppressed.” (p. 39). Evans sees that scripture will be seen differently from the oppressed than the privileged. She goes on to say that “Anytime the Bible is used to justify the oppression and exploitation of others, we have strayed far from the God who brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, ‘out of the land of slavery’ (Exodus 20:2). This is why it’s especially important for those of us who come to the Bible from positions of relative social, economic, and racial privilege to read its stories alongside people from marginalized communities, past and present, who are often more practiced at tracing that crimson thread of justice through its pages. (p. 41). And then I love Evans statement here in that “They say art should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I think the same is true for Scripture. For centuries the Bible’s stories of deliverance have offered comfort to the suffering and a challenge to the privileged. (p. 43). At this time in America it is a shame to see how the poor and marginalized are being treated. The church, of all things, should be in the trenches learning form them as well as serving and lifting up those who are on the margins of society. She concludes by saying that “the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?” (p. 56). We must evaluate and take a good, hard look at where we stand with the oppressed in our communities, in our country and around the world. Have we become a help to them, or do we ignore them or vilify them since they are different from us?

The next section deals with the War Stories found in scripture. Evans wrestles with the text of scripture that are tough to reconcile with a loving God. She states that we need “to  engage the Bible’s war stories with a bit more humility and introspection, willing to channel some of our horror over atrocities past into questioning elements of the war machines that still roll on today.” (p. 76). Evans sees Jesus as the culmination of the plan of God all along in stating that “if the God of the Bible is true, and if God became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ is – as theologian Greg Boyd puts it – ‘the revelation that culminates and supersedes all others,’ then God would rather die by violence than commit it. The cross makes this plain. On the cross, Christ not only bore the brunt of human cruelty and bloodlust and fear, he remained faithful to the nonviolence he taught and modeled throughout his ministry.” (p. 77). Jesus is seen as the perfect representation of who God is. Evans concludes this section in saying that “God save me from the day when stories of violence, rape, and ethnic cleansing inspire within me anything other than revulsion. I don’t want to become a person who is unbothered by these texts, and if Jesus is who he says he is, then I don’t think he wants me to be either. There are parts of the Bible that inspire, parts that perplex, and parts that leave you with an open wound.” (p. 79). Evans does a great job in wrestling with the passages of scripture that are disturbing. Greg Boyd is an excellent source in one who has struggled with the war stories and how the God of the Old Testament can be reconciled with the God of the New Testament seen in the person and work of Jesus.

The next section of the book tackles Wisdom Stories. Evans says that “In the paradox of Job, the vulnerability of the Psalms, and the angst of Ecclesiastes, God’s children are invited into the whirlwind, to cry out and question, to demand and debate, and to consider the big questions of life without resting in easy answers. The Bible reflects the complexity and diversity of the human experience, with all its joys and sorrows.” (p. 99). She continues in stating that “When God gave us the Bible, God did not give us an internally consistent book of answers. God gave us an inspired library of diverse writings, rooted in a variety of contexts, that have stood the test of time, precisely because, together, they avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. It’s almost as though God trusts us to approach them with wisdom, to use discernment as we read and interpret, and to remain open to other points of view.” (p. 104). Evans concludes this section saying that “The Psalms are, in a sense, God’s way of holding space for us. They invite us to rejoice, wrestle, cry, complain, offer thanks, and shout obscenities before our Maker without self-consciousness and without fear. Life is full of the sort of joys and sorrows that don’t resolve neatly in a major key. God knows that. The Bible knows that. Why don’t we?” (p. 111). God is a big God and he can take on all of our emotions from praise to cursing. The wisdom literature shows us that life isn’t made up of simple answers and easy cause and effect solutions. Life can be messy and complicated, yet God is still with us in the good and bad times.

The next section was one of my favorites. It tackles the Resistance Stories. This helped me to better understand the resistance between the Kingdom and the Empire throughout scripture. Evans begins with saying “One of the most important questions facing the people who gave us the Bible was: How do we resist Babylon, both as an exterior force that opposes the ways of God and an interior pull that tempts us with imitation and assimilation. . . . It is in this sense that much of Scripture qualifies as resistance literature. It defies the empire by subverting the notion that history will be written by the wealthy, powerful, and cruel, insisting instead that the God of the oppressed will have the final word.” (p. 118). Knowing this, we need to take heed in the fact that we are a part of the most powerful nation on the planet. In light of this, Evans states that “Americans, particularly white Americans, have a hard time catching apocalyptic visions when they benefit too much from the status quo to want a peek behind the curtain. When you belong to the privileged class of the most powerful global military superpower in the world, it can be hard to relate to the oppressed minorities who wrote so much of the Bible. . . . The fact is, the shadow under which most of the world trembles today belongs to America, and its beasts could be named any number of things – White Supremacy, Colonialism, the Prison Industrial Complex, the War Machine, Civil Religion, Materialism, Greed.” (p. 125). Evans builds on this in commenting that “There’s just no denying that the very things for which Israel was condemned by the prophets – gross income inequality, mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, carelessness toward life, the oppression of the poor and vulnerable, and the worship of money, sex and violence – remain potent, prevalent sins in our culture.” (p. 127). There is hope though! Evans concludes that “Jesus takes the Resistance beyond prophecy, beyond songs of hope and lamentation, beyond satire and mockery, and beyond apocalyptic visions to declare the inauguration of a new kingdom. With his birth, teachings, death and resurrection, Jesus has started a revolution.” (p. 140). We as a church need to be involved in justice issues. It is in relating to the poor and oppressed that we can see Jesus in a way that we never could in the comfort of our middle class bubble that many of us live in.

The next section deals with Gospel Stories. Evans goes into telling the stories of many people who have all been effected by the Gospel stories in their various contexts. Evans then states that “The gospel means that every small story is part of a sweeping story, every ordinary life part of an extraordinary movement. God is busy making all things new, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has opened that work to everyone who wants in on it. The church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.” (p. 157). As small as we may feel at times, we are all invited to be a part of a much bigger story through God.

The next section deals with the miracle stories which Evans titles the Fish Stories. Evan says that “The miracles of Jesus prefigure a future in which there is no more suffering, no more death, no more stigmatization, no more exclusion, no more chaos. They show us what it looks like for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, and they invite us to buy into that future now, with every act of compassion and inclusion, every step toward healing and reconciliation and love.” (p. 185). This is a beautiful way of looking at the miracle passages in that Jesus is showing us glimpses of how a broken world can look when it is healed or made right.

The final section of Biblical literature that Evans tackles is the letters to the church which she calls Church Stories. Evans says that “the letters of Paul weren’t written by a crotchety misogynist intent on regulating the behaviors of women and minorities for millennia to come, nor were they composed by a godlike philosopher disseminating soteriological truths into the universe from an ivory tower. The apostle Paul was a smart, worldly, and broad-minded Jew who had been utterly transformed by what he saw as his singular mission in life: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and welcome them in to Israel’s story. In pursuit of that mission, Paul was determined to break down every religious, ethnic, and cultural barrier that stood in the way.” (p. 210). Paul was interested in getting the gospel out to as many Gentiles as possible within his lifetime. With every type of culture he came into there were certain things that could either help or hinder the spread of the gospel. It is within this context that we need to read the church stories.

Overall, I just love Rachel Held Evans! She is a great writer who has gone through the construction of her faith within a very conservative, evangelical setting, deconstructed that in her 20’s and is now in the process of reconstructing her faith as an adult. Her journey has had a lot of similarities to mine. But with this book, I really appreciate how she can put into words things I have thought for quite a while. I still wrestle at times with my conservative, evangelical roots and where my faith journey has taken me now. I appreciate authors like Rachel Held Evans showing their vulnerability and process that they have gone through to reconstruct their faith. I highly recommend any of the books Evan’s has written. Each one gets better and better.

 

 

Book Review: Scripture and the Authority of God by N. T. Wright

51KYSRyGB3LNow I know that my “book reports” are more of a recap of what I read, more than a review. I typically read books I know that I will most likely enjoy. So when I do a blog on a book I want to capture the basic idea of the book along with my favorite quotes. I hate when I read a book, like it, and then 3 months latter I can’t remember much about the book. So I like to use blogging as my way to remember my favorite parts of the book. This blog is on one of my favorite authors.

I love reading anything by N.T. Wright. Let me just get that out there right away. He is our modern day C.S. Lewis. He is certainly one of my favorite authors and had contributed a lot to my theology. I enjoyed this book as it explored how we look at Scripture throughout different stages of time all the way up into Post-modernity.

Wright begins by establishing by what authority Scripture ought to speak to us. He states that “When John declares that ‘in the beginning was the word,’ he does not reach a climax with ‘and the word was written down’ but ‘and the word became flesh.’ . . . scripture itself points – authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority! – away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ.” (p. 22). Authority is found through the life of Christ of which Scripture points to. Wright continues that “self-revelation is always to be understood within the category of God’s mission to the world, God’s saving sovereignty let loose through Jesus and the Spirit and aimed at the healing and renewal of all creation.” (p. 29).

Wright goes on to explain the relationship of Jesus to Scripture. He says that “Jesus was the living embodiment of Israel’s God, the God whose Spirit had inspired the scriptures in the first place. And if he understood his own vocation and identity in terms of scripture, the early church quickly learned to make the equation the other way as well: they read the Old Testament, both its story (including covenant, promise, warning, and so on) and its commands in terms of what they had discovered in Jesus.” (p. 43). So the life of Jesus is the grid in which we go back and interpret all of Scripture. Jesus is the culmination of what all of scripture was leading up to.

Wright then goes into various ways that the church has interpreted scripture throughout history. As he talks about the impact of the Enlightenment, Wright explains that “Much would-be Christian thought (including much would-be ‘biblical’ Christian thought) in the last who hundred years has tacitly conceded these huge claims, turning ‘Kingdom of God’ into ‘the hope for heaven after death’ and treating Jesus’s death, at the most, as the mechanism whereby individual sinners can receive forgiveness and hope for an otherworldly future – leaving the politicians and economists of the Enlightenment to take over the running, and as it turns out the ruining, of the world. (This political agenda, by the way, was of course a vital part of the Enlightenment project: kick ‘God’ upstairs, make religion a matter of private piety, and then you can organize the world to your own advantage.)” (p. 89). We have lost sight of what it means to be kingdom people right here and now in all areas of our lives.

Wright continues in his argument against the effects of the Enlightenment on our interpretation of Scripture by saying that “To affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, “We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions. (p. 92). I fully agree with this in that each generation needs to be responsible in looking at scripture with fresh eyes in how it speaks to us today.

Wright then goes after postmodernity stating that “Postmodernity’s effect on contemporary Western readings of scripture is thus, as with much else in the movement, essentially negative. Postmodernity agrees with modernity in scorning both the eschatological claim of Christianity and its solution to the problem of evil, but without putting any alternative in place. All we can do with the Bible, if postmodernity is left in charge, is to play with such texts as give us pleasure, and issue warnings against those that give pain to ourselves or to others who attract our (usually selective) sympathy. This is where a good deal of the Western church now finds itself.” (p. 98). I would agree also that we need to be aware of how postmodernity affects our thinking for good or ill. We need to be able to look back on how people in the past interpreted scripture in light of the cultural and philosophical influences that would shape how they would think.

After his critiques of how scripture is being interpreted Wright positively says that “Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say. We really do have access to the past; granted, we see it through our own eyes, and our eyes are culturally conditioned to notice some things and not others. But they really do notice things, and provided we keep open the conversation with other people who look from other perspectives, we have a real, and not illusory, chance of finding our more or less what really happened. (p. 113). I agree here that it is important to be in dialogue with others that come to the understanding of scripture from different perspectives. This helps to challenge, critique and possibly strengthen our original thoughts on scripture. It is not healthy to be in an echo chamber where everyone agrees with everything you believe Scripture to say. It is through others experiences and other perspectives that we can get a fuller understanding of Scripture and maybe even see things that we did not originally see for ourselves.

Wright points our that “We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be. This means that ‘the authority of scripture’ is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel, the good news that in Jesus Christ the living God has defeated the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation. It is with the Bible in its hand, its head, and its heart – not merely with the newspaper and the latest political fashion or scheme – that the church can go to work in the world, confident that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” (p. 116). Unfortunately, at this moment in time we as a nation seem to like Caesar over Christ and it is hurting the church in ways we will never fully understand until decades from now. American evangelicalism has gotten infatuated by political power over the mission of the church. My rant is over.

Wright then goes on to explain how we get back on track in that “if we are to be true, at the deepest level, to what scriptural authority really means, we must understand it like this: God is at work, through scripture (in other words, through the Spirit who is at work as people read, study, teach, and preach scripture) to energize, enable, and direct the outgoing mission of the church, genuinely anticipating thereby the time when all things will be made new in Christ. At the same time, God is at work by the same means to order the life of the church, and of individual Christians, to model and embody his project of new creation in their unity and holiness.” (p. 138). I love that Wright sees the project of new creation as our mission right now! It is not our job to just wait until the afterlife. It is our job now to be kingdom people and to live into that right now.

Wright wraps up his book in stating that “The various crises in the Western church of our day – decline in numbers and resources, moral dilemmas, internal division, failure to present the gospel coherently to a new generation – all these and more should drive us to pray for scripture to be given its head once more; for teachers and preachers who can open the Bible in the power of the Spirit, to give the church the energy and direction it needs for its mission and renew it in its love for God; and, above all, for God’s word to do its work in the world.” (p. 141). We must have a high view of scripture and its effect and impact on others when used appropriately.

As I have said before, I love N.T. Wright and I highly encourage everyone to read anything he has written. He is one of the greatest thinkers of our day and age. This book empowered me to see the importance and primacy that scripture should play through my life and through the church. It is important that we wrestle with scripture using our ability to reason, consider what tradition has taught us, and wrestle with other’s experiences to help us better understand it. He wraps up his book by doing two case studies; one on sabbath, and the other on monogamy.

 

 

Back to the Future: Youth Ministry Edition

B2TFWhen I was in high school I still remember taking my girlfriend (who is now my wife) to go see a movie at the local mall. All I knew about the movie was that it was a Steven Spielberg movie starring Michael J. Fox. These were two very good reasons to see a movie in 1985. Little did I know what I was in for. It turned out to be one of my favorite ‘80’s movies. The concept of going back in time 30 years to help change the future was a great concept. Of course, Marty McFly was trying to help his parents who were teenagers in 1955. But I often wonder, what would I do if I could go back 20-25 years and find the young version of myself just starting out in ministry. Knowing what I know now, what would I say to the 1990’s Scott just starting out in youth ministry?

First, I would begin by saying, although you have studied youth ministry and biblical studies, and you are super anxious to try out everything you have been studying in college and seminary, learn to appreciate and support your parents of teens! When I first started out in ministry I was slightly resentful towards my parents and adult leaders. I always felt like they thought I was not fully capable of understanding teenagers until I raised my own. I felt slighted by this in that I have spent years studying adolescent development, adolescent psychology, adolescent spirituality, adolescent culture, and a heaping dose of biblical studies. I was proud of the knowledge I had. I believed that I spent more time studying the modern-day teenage experience than most parents have even had teenagers in their own home. A little prideful, I know. But now that I have raised 4 kids of my own, and have had all of them go through their teenage years, I get it now! There is nothing that college can teach you when it comes to parenting your own teens.

Secondly, parents are not your enemies! They can be your greatest allies. Understand that their lives are crazy trying to manage their teenager’s life. Many of them are going through their own issues when it comes to marriage, parenting and work in that any help that they can get would be awesome. Minister to your parents by regularly communicating with them, providing resources to them and using them to help with the ministry. Some of the best youth leaders I have ever had have been parents of teens.

Third, teens’ lives are crazy busy and it is even more crazy as each decade passes. Be careful to put even more pressure on them than they already have. Allow youth group to be a place of rest; an opportunity in their lives where they can take off the masks, let go of their responsibilities and just be themselves for a few hours. In my early years, I was so busy trying to make teenagers even more busy doing church stuff. Now I admit that there is a place and time to get them doing ministry, but they also need downtime just to be themselves. And what better place to do that than in youth group.

Fourth, GRACE, GRACE, GRACE! Do not take things personally and get resentful towards teens or parents if they are not showing up or getting involved in the way you would like them to do. Realize that many times they are trying to figure out life themselves. You may not agree with their decisions or choices but always err on the side of grace and love. Don’t show preferential treatment to your “fan base” and snub the others. Instead, show grace and love to everybody, all the time. Always leave the door open for any and all teenagers to come back and get plugged into the youth group. Go to where the teens are. Go to their games, performances and recitals! Show that you care even if they are not regularly involved in your ministry events.

And finally, BALANCE! Give equal time to all areas of your life. To have the greatest youth ministry of all time is not worth it if your own family is in shambles. Make time for just you and your family. Make time for you personally doing things that you like to do that will recharge you. Make sure you are investing in your marriage. You will see way too many couples divorce when their teenagers go off to college because they stopped making time for themselves and invested all their time into other things. Once the teens left for college then the couple realized they didn’t really have a relationship anymore. If you are in a church that demands 60-90 hours every week then get out. Busy weeks throughout the calendar year are inevitable and always work hard during those times. But it is vital for you to find a church that sees the importance of you and your family development being just as important of a “job” as the ministry you are being hired for. You are going to want your own biological teenagers to love the church. I promise you they will not if they feel like they are ignored because all your time is given to the church and you have no time for them, that is, until they are in your youth group. But by that time, they will be resentful of the church and you have defeated the very thing you would want for your own kids!

Ministry can be tricky. And it can play with your thoughts and emotions. But keep a balanced life and always, always, always be full of grace and love! I wish I could go back in time to convince my young self of these things. Sometimes I wish I could have a do-over. But thankfully God continued to work in me and bring me to this point in my life where I feel proud and honored to be a husband, father and minister to teens!  

Book Review: Start With Why

startwithwhyOnce again, I heard a great speaker at the Global Leadership Summit back in August 2018. They so inspired me to go out and buy some of his books! This one is called “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” by Simon Sinek. It was a great read in explaining how great leaders start with the “why” when it comes to being successful. So many businesses start with what they do and how they do it without wrestling with why they do what they do. When you discover your “why” that will help to inspire and empower the people who work for you. And the answer to WHY is not just about making money. It is about what inspires people to want to give their best effort towards your cause.

Sinek states that “Great leaders . . . are able to inspire people to act. Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained. Those who truly lead are able to create a following of people who act not because they were swayed, but because they were inspired.” (p. 6). This sets up the rest of the book in detailing companies, like Apple, who have created a culture of inspiration and excitement for their workers. They believe in the WHY of the company which inspires them to do their best when it comes to WHAT and HOW. Sinek says that “By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” (p. 39). He goes on commenting that “We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special., safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.” (p. 55). These are the kinds of leaders in business and in the church that make serving more enjoyable. When we know what our WHY is, we can create vision, direction and inspiration. I have worked for pastors who are really good at this and some who were really bad at this. Now ultimately the United Methodist Church’s “WHY” is the make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But the question is how have individual pastors used this WHY to inspire their own congregations. You would think this is so simple but yet I have seen it go horribly wrong.

Another characteristic that Sinek adds to great leadership is authenticity. He points out that “Being authentic is not a requirement for success, but it is if you want that success to be a lasting success. Again, it goes back to WHY. Authenticity is when you say and do the things you actually believe.” (p. 69). Nothing is worse in a church setting than an inauthentic, fake leader. And the reality is that many young people can pick up on this big time. That is why I believe that many of the younger generations are leaving the church. The church is not doing well to help define it’s WHY and then lead authentically and with integrity to be who we are meant to be. When we lead like this we build loyalty and trust with the congregation as they are inspired to fulfill the purposes of the church. Especially in the context of the church, we ought to feel like we are working for something bigger than ourselves. The Bible gives us that inspiration but it takes great leaders to take that and inspire others to believe in the bigger picture of who we are and why we exist.

Sinek goes on to say that “Companies with a strong sense of WHY are able to inspire their employees. Those employees are more productive and innovative, and the feeling they bring to work attracts other people eager to work there as well.” (p. 95). A church that is living into its WHY will be a church that is attracting others who want to be a part of the vision and direction of that church. Good leadership will take time to develop their WHY and then use it to inspire the congregation to live into that vision.

Sinek also comments that “The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” (p.99). Pastors who feel that they need to do it all themselves are prime candidates for burnout. But those who help to inspire WHY will create an environment in which people can feel free to think creatively and come up with their ideas. Sinek points out that “only when individuals can trust the culture of organization will they take personal risks in order to advance that culture or organization as a whole.” (p. 104). So creating a culture in which people are both inspired and feel a sense of trust with the organization will help to bring out the very best in people.

Passion is another key aspect to inspiring people towards the WHY. Sinek says that “Passion comes from feeling like you are a part of something that you believe in, something bigger than yourself. If people do not trust that a company is organized to advance the WHY, then the passion is diluted.” (p. 111). This is what a good pastor wants to do in advancing why we exist as a church. Creating passion to feel like you are part of something that is bigger than yourself and that you are a part of contributing to that cause is huge. Instead of having passive participants you can have a church that is alive and moving in the right direction.

Now you can have a vision but not know how to get to where you want to go. The WHY needs to inspire the HOW. Sinek states that “It is the partnership of a vision of the future and the talent to get it done that makes an organization great. This relationship starts to clarify the difference between a vision statement and a mission statement in an organization. The vision is the public statement of the founder’s intent, WHY the company exists. It is literally the vision of a future that does not yet exist. The mission statement is a description of the route, the guiding principles – HOW the company intends to create that future. When both of those things are stated clearly, the WHY-type and the HOW-type are both certain about their roles in the partnership. Both are working together with clarity of purpose and a plan to get there. For it to work, however, it requires more than a set of skills, it requires trust.” (p. 142). A vision statement and the mission statement must work together to accomplish its goal. But ultimately trust has to be the glue that holds it all together. In the context of the church I would agree that dynamic pastors and leadership teams need to work through their vision and their mission and be transparent about it in order to earn the trust of the congregation. Without trust, the whole thing can come to a screeching halt.

I have also been a part of churches that are busy for the sake of being busy without doing the due diligence of defining our WHY and then clarifying HOW we accomplish that. Without a clear WHY, we could have so many things going on that have no rhyme, reason or connection to ultimately answering why we are doing such things in the first place. Sinek says that “When people know WHY you do WHAT you do, they are willing to give you credit for everything that could serve as proof of WHY. When they are unclear about your WHY, WHAT you do has no context. Even though the things you do or decisions you make may be good, they won’t make sense to others without a clear understanding of WHY.” (205-206). We cannot be busy just to be busy. We need to define WHY we exist first and then structure WHAT we do and HOW to get there. This kind of visioning should help a church be more purposeful in its mission as people trust the vision and see how it is being fleshed out.

Sinek concludes his book by pointing out that “Leaders don’t have all the great ideas; they provide support for those who want to contribute. Leaders achieve very little by themselves; they inspire people to come together for the good of the group. Leaders never start with what needs to be done. Leaders start with WHY we need to do things. Leaders inspire action.” (p. 228). It is with this that the book wraps up this quest for understanding our WHY. Leaders are not the ones with all the ideas but instead, are the ones who can create an environment where people feel inspired by the vision that empowers them towards action. On rare occasions I have actually seen this work the way it is supposed to in the context of the church. But when it is done right, look out! That church will find itself, live into its purpose, and attract others to be a part of the kingdom building that it is supposed to be doing in the first place. It seems so simple but yet it can be so complex depending on the ability of the pastor and her/his team around them.

This was a great book to help understand the WHY behind what we do as an organization or church. It helped me to see the difference in creating a vision statement and how a mission statement comes out of that. This book also helped me to see the importance of trust with the people you work with. If they don’t trust you’ or you don’t trust them, not much is going to happen. But with trust, you can help to inspire people towards a vision bigger than themselves. When a church does this correctly there is a desire for others to want to plug in and contribute to the vision. And that right there is a dynamic church that will attract people to Christ rather than bore people to death or, worst yet, repel people away from the cause of Christ.

 

So It Begins!

soitbegins

And so begins another year! And with a new year comes even more resolve to get myself in a healthy place. This time last year I attempted a diet with the YouthPastorDiet.com group led by youth ministry extraordinaires, Doug Fields and Josh Griffin. They created this idea to inspire youth pastors to get real about their health. Why? Because so many of us, as a result of the ministry we are involved in, are around a lot of food that would fit into the “unhealthy” category: burgers, fried food, pizza, wings, chips, cookies, candy, etc.. Teens can burn this stuff off with no problem. But for this 50 year old youth pastor, my eating habits have expanded my waistline more than I want.

So anyhow, last year, January 2018, I started the diet topping out at 230 pounds. Throughout the course of the diet I lost a total of 21 pounds. That was Round 1. That was good. But like most people, once the challenge was over, the bad eating habits came back with a vengeance. Currently I am at 228 pounds. I am embarrassed to say I gained most of it back. So now begins Round 2.

As a result of No-Shave November I decided to grow a beard. I kept it through out the holidays. But much to the chagrin of teenagers with no filters, when it comes to their mouth, both in the church and in my family, I got told I would make a great Santa Claus by one too many. So I shaved off the beard today and I am ready to start the process of getting back to a healthier place. My goal is to get down around 189. And yes, I am signed up for Round 2 of the Youth Pastor Diet. This year it goes for 100 days, ending on April 11. My other goal is to not have to do this again in January 2020. At least not to the extent that I am attempting to lose this year. I want to keep it off for good this time.

To reach these goals I am going to go to the gym (Planet Fitness) every day possible after work. No less than 3 times a week, but if I can make it 6 or 7 times a week just to at least drop weight then so be it. As long as the weather is wintery outside, the gym is my only option. But when the weather starts to get better in March/April, I would like to get outside and start running again. If things go really well I may even sign up for the Flying Pig half-marathon that is always the first Sunday in May. I have done that race 3 times. This is a huge goal, but if I get some running partners to run with me I know I will be more motivated to do it.

So here is to a great start to 2019. I’ll keep updates coming.

Living Fully into God’s Will

 

91fe1Q8CSALI heard Erwin McManus for the first time at the Global Leadership Summit in August 2018. He was by far, the most passionate and dynamic speaker of the whole event. He spoke about the fact that he was diagnosed with cancer a while back. As a result of his battle with cancer, this has helped to put things into better perspective as to living his life in order to make the most impact possible.

While I enjoyed reading the book about his journey with cancer and the lessons he learns, his actual live delivery was incredible. If you ever have a chance to hear Erwin McManus speak then do it. He will get you fired up and inspired. With that said, the book was great also. He focuses his readers on 2 Kings 13. It’s the story of Elisha telling  king Joash to grab a bunch of arrows and fire them off. The king fires off some of the arrows but stops with some arrows still available in the quiver. Then Elisha gets upset with him, explaining that the amount of arrows represent the amount of battles the king will win against his enemies, but since he did not fire off all of the arrows he will not be completely victorious in his battles. It is an odd story to say the least. I am impressed with the fact that McManus developed a whole book around this passage. McManus does a great job in using this story to explain how we need to live life fully into what God has called us to do.

McManus begins by focusing on the fact that we were not made to be ordinary or average. He states that “I do not believe anyone is born average, but I do believe that many of us choose to live a life of mediocrity. I think there are more of us than not who are in danger of disappearing into the abyss of the ordinary. The great tragedy in this, of course, is that there is nothing really ordinary about us. We might not be convinced of this, but our souls already know it’s true, which is why we find ourselves tormented when we choose lives beneath our capacities and calling.” (p. 4).

In referring to the quiver of arrows that King Joash partially used, McManus goes on saying that “There is a posture toward life that separates those who end their lives with their quivers full of untapped potential and unseized opportunities and those who die with their quivers empty.” (p. 10). This is an interesting application of this passage of Scripture. I never thought of it this way. He sees the arrows representing all the potential that we have to offer. We are to live life in such away that we live fully into who we were meant to be, holding nothing back for the next life.

Many times we do not develop our potential due to fear. McManus says that “I am convinced of this: you must not allow fear to steal your future, and every day that you walk this earth you must make sure you save nothing for the next life. You must never allow fear to keep you grounded. The moment you choose to play it safe, you’ve lost the game. Instead of running from your fears, lean into them, for on the other side of them is the future you long for. These moments form character and forge the future.” (p.24) We live in a culture that is stoked by fear. But as believers we must not give into the fear-mongering whether it is from our culture or within our own minds. To do so will lead to a less than average life.

McManus gets more specific about living into the life we were called into in that “the one thing where you must never settle for less is the calling that God has on your life, the purpose for which he has created you, the impact he designed you to make in the world. The great tragedy that I have witnessed over and over again is that we keep underestimating how much God wants to do in us and through us.” (p. 28). Primarily, what the author is communicating is that we ought to “seize the day” fully living into all that God has created us to be.  He concludes this chapter stating that “You have one life to use everything you have been entrusted with, so you might as well save nothing for the next life.” (p. 30).

Fear is not the only thing holding people back. McManus also believes that some of us live comfortable lives that don’t require us to trust in God. He says that “Perhaps the reason so few of us have received a double portion of God’s Spirit is that the lives we have chosen require so little of God because they require so little of us. I do not want to watch God work from a distance. Neither do I want to hear the amazing stories of God’s work from a distance. Neither do I want to hear the amazing stories of God’s activity in the world as if they are fables made for other people in an ancient time. I want to live the kind of life that cannot be lived without the fullness of Christ in my life.” (p. 89). Some people live their lives in a way where they really don’t need God in their lives because they have created a comfortably average life for themselves. We hear of God doing amazing things in other areas of the country or in the world but never in our context. McManus is challenging the reader to live fully into all that Christ has made us for.

The author goes on to explain why we need to live into this life that Christ has for us in saying that “If for no other reason, we need to choose our most heroic lives, because a world desperately needs to see what it looks like to be fully alive. What the world needs most from you is for you to be fully alive.” (p. 102). We certainly need more people like this. Instead, so many Christians are know for what they are against. If we live into all that Christ has created us to be I would hope that that would attract others to the faith.

McManus goes on to implore that “There comes a time and a place where you have to decide, This is worth fighting for. This is where I stand. This is who I am. This is the life I have chosen. I will not run. I will not allow fear to move me from where I should be to where it wants me to live. I would rather die facing the challenge than exist running from it”. (p. 124-125). We need to find that which God has made us passionate about and pursue it to the fullest.

McManus focuses some of his criticism on the church in that “The church has become an institution that preserves the past and fears the future. It is not an overstatement to say that the church has become more of a reflection of what we are running from than what we are running to. No wonder we have lost our power to change the world. No wonder the church has lost its magnetism to a world searching for hope. We are seen as the guardians of tradition. The church is known for fighting the future rather than creating the future that humanity desperately needs.” (p. 140). This is his most powerful statement against the modern American church. And I pretty much agree. While we learn form our past, we must live into a future that radiates with hope, love and passion. We need to stop being a church that is only known for what we are against.

McManus explains that throughout this process we need to be in line with God first. He comments that “the process must begin by loving God first. It is in loving God with all your heart and mind and soul that he begins to shape your passions. When God has your heart, you can trust your desires. His will is not a map; it is a match. He shows you the way by setting you on fire. You will know God’s desire for you by the fire in you! The fire win you will light the way.” (p. 176). When we make God the center of our life, He will create and shape us into his image and that will develop passion in our lives to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humble with our God. If God has made you passionate about something that stoke that fire, don’t put it out.

McManus concludes with stating “Don’t make the mistake of living your life waiting for good things to happen – make good things happen. Be faithful in the small things that do not matter to you as much and treat them with the same level of respect and importance as the big things connected to your hopes and dreams. Remember that Jesus laid out this principle for us: it is the person who is faithful in the small things who will be entrusted with bigger things.” (p. 194). When you read all that McManus has done in his life it is pretty amazing. But he is not saying “be just like me”. He points out that we need to be faithful in all things. We need to be trustworthy in the little things of life and that helps to prepare us to take on bigger responsibilities. Don’t wait around for the BIG opportunity but be faithful now in all the things related to your life.

I really enjoyed this book. Erwin McManus is a popular American pastor and writer. He is involved in a lot of great things. But to have to face cancer and to not let that derail you is amazing. Instead, it seemed to light a fire under the author where he wants to make the most of every moment of every day living faithfully for Christ and doing all he can to expand the kingdom of God in the remaining amount of time that he has. His story is powerful and passionate. And to build a book around the passage of King Joash shooting some arrows I thought was great.