Monday, September 26, 2016

A Theology of "Seeing" God

Our experience of life informs how we see and interpret ideas and new experiences. For instance, being that I grew up on a farm, the way that I see the world has been shaped by those experiences. Therefore when I walk along the aisles of a grocery story, my view of the food that we purchase is different from that of someone who grew up in the city. My understanding of the packaged beef is informed by the fact that I raised cattle and showed them at various fairs for nine years.

This example states the obvious. Clearly our experience informs how we see something. Those who have been trained in gymnastics see what I cannot see when they watch girls complete in the floor routines or the uneven bars at the summer olympics. An experienced elementary teacher can see individual learning capacities in a room full of kids that I am clueless about. Our experience creates an awareness of certain things while excluding others. It's like a filter that helps us to process what we observe.

This way of seeing or "filter" is generated by the repeated experience we have around a continual loop. Each time we go around that loop or track, we generate a deeper understanding of what we know. And therefore, the more times we go around that track, the more nuanced our ability to see what we see. There are good aspects of this because it trains our eyes to see. But it can also blind us to that which we do not expect.

Jesus often spoke of this. After feeding the five thousand, he was warning the disciples about the "yeast of the Pharisees." They thought he was talking about the fact that they did not have any bread. To them he said, "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?" (Mark 8:18). He was challenging their understanding of what he was saying. Their perception or their ability to see and hear Jesus' meaning did not line up with what Jesus meant. Their filter filtered out the truth.

In the prologue of John's Gospel we read a general statement about how people did not see Jesus rightly:
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:9-11).
Light is meant for the eyes so that we can see the truth correctly, but those who saw Jesus did not see him as he was. Their experience did not give them eyes to see who Jesus was. They could not receive the light because they projected their expectations upon the light and therefore interpreted Jesus as being other than who he is. In the first century Jewish context, God's Messiah was supposed to restore Israel as a nation, to re-establish the Temple to its former glory, and to drive out the Romans. (This is the point that N. T. Wright so clearly drives home in his writings about Jesus.) But Jesus did none of these things, at least not as expected. Their cultural expectations of the Messiah kept them from seeing what God was up to through Jesus.

It is tempting for us today to castigate those blind people for not seeing who Jesus was. However, we do the same things today; we just have a different set of experiences that cause us be blind in different ways. For instance, those of us who live in the United States have been shaped by the pursuit of personal happiness. And while there are many good things about this aspect of our culture, this pursuit can cause us to search high and low for a mechanistic formula that promises such happiness and fulfillment. If we do the right set of actions, then we will attain the level of happiness that we desire. After all, almost every commercial promises to have the secret insight into our personal achievement.

This life experience of the pursuit of the right formula for personal happiness can easily be projected upon God. As a result, we see God as being a means to an end of our personal fulfillment. If then we follow the right set of instructions, then we will live up to our potential. We will be all that we can be for God.

The danger of the way that our experiences project expectations upon God is that we cannot see how it could be otherwise. This was the case of faithful first century Israelites. Their interpretation of Jesus—which resulted in him dying on the cross—was faithful to their way of viewing the world. No Messiah would come as a humble servant who washed feet, much less as one who would die on a cross.

And it is the case today. Because our common life experience trains us to see the world in terms of that which can add to our life and that which will subtract from our life, we tend to evaluate things in terms of goods and services. We invest in that which we view as providing goods and services that will enhance our living. And this is how we can "see" Jesus.

When we do this, we de-personalize God. He becomes a vendor of spiritual goods and services, a supplier of a product that will make our life better. He becomes the engineer in the sky who provides mechanistic patterns doing the right things so that we can get the right outcomes.

While there are incredible benefits to knowing and following Jesus, as soon as we see Jesus through this perspective, we actually miss the benefits. The benefits are secondary, which means that we only reap the benefits when we see him for what he is. Jesus did not come and provide a technique for attaining a better life. Instead he came as a person. He showed up and walked among us. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." When God wants to show us what life is really about, he comes in person and invites us into relationship in order to receive life. We don't relate to a formula or a technique. We relate to God.

The problem is that most of us do not have much experience understanding this view of God. To see God rightly requires revelation, an unveiling, a surprise from the outside of our experience. Most of us project our expectations and experiences upon God. This is normal. We have to be open to having our way of seeing changed. We must hold our perspectives loosely before God and make room for the Spirit to change how we see things. Jesus spoke about it to the disciples in this way:
“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:22-24).
The disciples did not start following Jesus seeing this truth about Jesus. The prophets and kings of the Old Testament shaped their expectations, but now they were seeing something different about God the Father and the Son who was walking around before them. Their eyes began to see as they were exposed to the revelation of Jesus' life and teaching.

Think of it this way. Their life experience—and ours today—might be compared to that of walking around a track. Previous experience causes us to interpret life in terms of what we already know. While there might be new things that we learn along the way, these new things do not change the trajectory of the track. They only expand it, adding new lanes, if you will. But the revelation of God in Christ, is not something that we come up with based on past experience. It's an insertion of something other from outside the track of history. A different way of seeing the world is inserted into history, a way that does not fit the expectations of that track.

The revelation of God comes to us from the outside of us. This means that we must be open to that which does not conform to our experience. God gets to define God. We do not, which means that we must hold our pre-conceived ideas about God and about God's salvation loosely. As soon as we turn our concepts about God into a system that defines God, then we start relating to that system instead of to God.

This is why seeing God as triune is so crucial. If God were an individual, then at God's core would be his isolation from others. However since Jesus reveals God as being Father, Son, and Spirit, God is inherently relational. God is known then not in the concepts about God, but in the relational space between. God lives in love, in open communication between the three persons, and therefore we know God in this open communication.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Learning to Trust: A Devotional

“Trust the Lord with all of your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” —Prov 3:5

The Bible has a lot to say about trusting God. Isaiah 26:4 reads, “Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.” Jesus framed it this way, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). The vast story of the Bible seems to highlight story after story that contrasts those who trusted God with those who did not.

Trust can be imagined with the word picture of the putting our weight upon something. As we see in the passage from Proverbs quote above, trusting the Lord, is set in contrast to “leaning” on our own understanding. When we lean against a wall, we trust that wall. When we sit in a chair, we are putting our weight upon the chair. When we take a step, we lean into the leg that steps out and onto the ground that holds up that leg, thereby trusting our leg and that piece of ground.

When it comes to the question of trusting God, we can lean on God or lean on what we comprehend. If we were to sit two chairs next to own another, one labeled “God” and the other labeled “Myself.” We cannot sit on two chairs at the same time. We have to choose. If we step forward on a path, we can only put our foot on one path at a time.

This kind of trust calls for a simple naïveté, a putting our weight on God when it does not make sense in a world that does not operate in this way. Like like Noah building a huge boat when no one had ever seen rain before, we are called to trust God to be our all in the midst of a world where few have seen God come through like that before. Like the boy Samuel who heard God's voice calling him, we are called to trust that God speaks, even though most people might think that such things are just imagined. Like Jesus who picked up his cross and gave up his life for others, we are called to be a servant in the midst of a me-first world.

Trust means that we take a step with God when we don't know where the path will lead. It may often mean that the path will be covered with a fog where we cannot see anything more than the fact that God is walking beside us. And it definitely means that we cannot predict the outcome. Trust involves more questions than answers.
Today, we can lean into God, or we can lean into our own thinking, on the things that we can prove and justify. If trusting God coincided with that which we can know and do on our own, then why would we need God? We could just trust our own thoughts and our own abilities to make it happen. Why would the Bible make such wild claims about the promises of God and how God has and does fulfill those promises if in fact trusting God did not require our stepping out into an unknown place, where we don't know if God will be there to hold us up? 

Trusting is about putting all our weight on God. This is the only way that we can walk with God. If we try to trust own understanding and trust God at the same time, we are like a person trying to put his or her foot on two places at the same time. It just doesn't work. The trusting step God is calling you to take will not be fully explained by God up front. It wouldn't require trust if that were the case. Trust is trust because we are stepping out on a path that is covered by clouds, mist, and fog. We trust that God is with us on the path, not the path itself.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Knowing God—What Kind of Knowing?

“... the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, ...” —Philippians 3:8

We use the word “know” in many different ways. For instance, someone might ask you if you know Jerry? With this question, you are being asked if you have been introduced to that particular person and thereby have a knowledge of identity. Another use can be imagined if your pastor uses the word “eschatological” in his sermon and you have recently attended a class where he provided an extensive understanding of what that words means. This gives you a knowledge of information. A third use is illustrated by your overhearing a conversation in Spanish and you took a few classes and you actually paid attention and worked at it. As a result of putting the language to use, you are able to understand what they are saying. This is about having a knowledge of practice.

When we hear Paul talking about the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” we must ask what kind of knowledge he is talking about. Is he talking about knowing the identity of Jesus? Was he referring to information about Jesus? Was his meaning about having a knowledge based on the practice of the faith?

The answer to each question is both yes and no. Knowing Jesus of course referred to knowledge of his identity, of specific information and of an understanding formed by specific practices. However, the knowing Paul wrote about here went beyond this. This is the kind of knowing that we might refer to as knowledge of union. This kind of knowledge is personal because it affects us at the core of our being. We can experience this kind of union in a variety of ways. For instance, when asking my grandmother how to make one of her dishes, she would say something like, “Well you turn on the oven to medium heat. Then you add mix a bunch of flower with some milk, a bit of water, add a few shakes of salt ...” At that point, it became clear that there was no way that someone could do what she did in the kitchen. She was not working from a technical knowledge of the information about cooking. She was working from a knowledge of cooking that had shaped who she was.

Information builds upon identity, as we cannot know something that we are not acquainted with. Practice builds upon information. My grandmother did not arrive at that point of knowledge of cooking without practice. However, knowledge of union takes us beyond all three, as illustrated.

Or think of it this way: someone who grew up on a farm, went off to school to study the science of farming, and then managed a farm for thirty years has been shaped by the vocation of farming. He knows farming. While he might have plenty of knowledge of information about farming, that information is not the ultimate goal. The end goal is the kind of knowledge that arises out of the experience of working on the farm.

While the knowledge of identity, of information, and of practices are important, if we stop there, we keep that which we are trying to know at arm's length. It remains objective information that we can dissect and analyze. When we apply this to God, it becomes the kind of knowledge where we try to figure out how we can get what we want from God. If I believe the right facts, then I will go to heaven when I die. If I can only learn the right information, then my life with change. If I can start obeying God in the right ways, then I'll be faithful. If I pray the right way, then I will find God's favor. But this kind of knowledge leaves us in control.

Knowledge of union is the kind of knowledge that we cannot control. If I want to learn how to cook like my grandmother cooked, I have to move beyond my need to control and let the otherness of cooking get inside of me. The same could be said about almost anything we want to know. And it's even more true of God. If I want to know God, it requires that I let the Otherness of God be Other than I am, that is, something that I cannot control or manipulate for my own benefit. It requires that I let the Otherness of God draw me into mystery, into adventure, and into intimacy. It's not the kind of knowledge that we make happen. It's the kind of knowledge that we discover along a journey.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Small Groups Bull's-Eye

Groups are the most important aspect of the life of your church! 

Overstatement? Well maybe. But one could easily make the argument that groups will make or break a church as much as any other aspect of a church’s life. After all groups are the web that links people in the church together. They are not simply a strategy of a church. They pervade every aspect of a church, whether there is an explicit group strategy or not.

I make this claim because churches—as with all other organizations—do life as an organization of sub-groups. In many cases these are formal groups: leadership teams, worship teams, Sunday school classes, home small groups, youth groups, etc. But there are also other kinds of groups, informal connections of people who naturally gather and talk with one another in a way that they don’t talk with others. Just look around before or after a worship service and you will see the groups happen.

It’s only natural that churches would get stuff done in groups as they are part of the warp and woof of how good living works. All organizations operate as a system of groups. Businesses, governments, teams, classrooms, volunteer foundations, and, yes, churches work as a network of smaller groups.

We often miss the reality of how groups pervade our lives because they are always present, whether they are healthy and life-giving or not. We are born into a small group called a family. We go to school in groups called classes. We play in groups called teams. We organize our work in groups. Our friendships naturally cluster in groups. We even eat in groups, something that is easily illustrated—for good or bad—by our high school lunch breaks.

Small groups are everywhere.

This is just the way relationships naturally work. We cannot relate to everyone we meet with the same level of depth. We even see in this in the life of Jesus. He did not relate to everyone in the same way. He did not come to the entire world 2000 years ago. He came to the people of Israel. Within Israel he related to people at different levels. Like concentric circles, he connected more deeply with smaller groups as he move further into the center.

He surrounded himself with three intimate confidantes and nine other close friends. Jesus then related to a large group of up to 70 people who followed him in his ministry (See Luke 10). Then there were others who were connected to him, symbolized by those in the Upper Room after his ascension. Beyond this, he related to the crowds of people who did not know him personally (e.g. the crowds who heard the Sermon on the Mount or the 5000 who were miraculously fed). Those around Jesus formed a web of connections where he demonstrated God’s relational kingdom. At the center of this web was a small group.

What We Need
Even though groups are foundational to the way we do life, in our day, grouping well is a challenge. When we consider the reality of the context of how we do life in Western society, the need for the development of community has never been more central. We live in an era of chronic isolation and disconnection. It does not take much effort to survey how sociologists describe Western life to see what is going on. Over the last few decades, cultural observers have used images like the lonely crowd, bowling alone, the saturated self, a society of strangers, intimate strangers, the myth of individualism, and many others. There has never been a time in the history of mankind when we have practiced a way of life that is driven by such isolation.

We are “hardwired for relationships,” and we intuitively know it. However, our way of life fosters a set of practices that train us to live as if we don’t need them. In the describing this way of life, the authors of the classic book Habits of the Heart write about the mythology of individualism using the classic characters of a cowboy and private detectives as individualistic heroes.
“Both the cowboy and the hard-boiled detective tell us something important about American individualism. The cowboy, like the detective, can be valuable to society only because he is completely autonomous individual who stands outside it. To serve society, one must be able to stand alone, not needing others, not depending on their judgment, and not submitting to their wishes.”
While we all know that none of us can stand alone against the tide, this mythology shapes us. Our logical conclusions about the need for belonging and connections don’t necessarily form the way we practice life on a daily basis. The environment in which we live forms us without our even knowing it. For example, I grew up on a farm and I learned about life by being formed through the ups and downs of farm life. Those raised in the inner city, for instance, learn how to do life differently. If you are raised in the inner city, you will be shaped the pattens commonly found there. Western society has formed us through the mythology of individualism which means that who I am as an individual is to be prized over my relationships. The habits that correspond to this mythology create life patterns that we practice on a daily basis without ever thinking about it.

For instance, we tend to operate as if we are able to construct ourselves from nothing so that we can do what we want to do and be whomever we think we should be. We change jobs. We relocate. We create identities online. We switch marriage partners. We form and reform ourselves as if we were a blob of Playdo. If we were to look in the mirror and ask “Who are you?,” the honest response would be, “Who do you want me to be today?”

What We Want
When we take an honest look at how we do life and then compare that to the biblical call to be the church, it does not take long to see the disparity. We could look at many different scriptures to illustrate this, but this one highlights as concretely as any:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil 2:1-4)
The word that is translated “others” is the Greek word allelon, which literally means “one another.” The church is called to be a people who live in community with each other and manifest God’s love to each other in these ways. This stands in sharp contrast to the patterns of life that describe our culture.

We are made for this. We need this. We might even say that we hunger for this.

When you are hungry, what do you want? The answer is obvious: you want food. If you were to say that they want _____________ (insert your the name of your favorite restaurant), no one would think that you want the actual restaurant. You want the food that is served by that restaurant. The restaurant is simply the form used to provide that food.

When you say that you want groups to flourish in your church, what is it that we really want? We don’t actually want the form called “small groups” or “missional communities.” We want belonging, community, life together, connection, prayer, sharing, sacrifice, the presence of God together, mutuality, discipleship, leadership development, spiritual gifts, mission.

Our hope for our groups can easily be summed up with:
  • Love God
  • Love One Another
  • Be Witnesses in the World. 
One of my mentors put it this way, “If you love God, love each other, love those who don’t know Jesus and the train others to do the same, you group will flourish.”

Some kind of basic explanation like this for what we want to see in groups can be found in almost every book or conference on small groups and missional communities from the last half century. It's remarkable how every resource about groups starts out with the confession that we are aiming for the same things. For instance Bill Donahue writes of four basic components that he hopes to see in groups:
  • Love. “Love is expressed in a variety of ways in group life. First, we express love to God through prayer and worship and by giving him praise. We express love to one another as we serve one another and care for one another in our group.” 
  • Learn. “Learning about Christ and about his will for our lives is a key component of group life. All groups learn—they learn the Scriptures, they learn about one another, and they learn about them- selves.” 
  • Serve. “Service and good works are part of any vibrant, healthy small group. Your group must decide how you will express Christian love to your community or to others in the body.” 
  • Reach. “Groups must make decisions that ensure the group’s purpose and vision are carried out. That means reaching others for Christ.” 
Steve Gladden writes in his book Leading Small Groups with Purpose that his dream is based on the experience of the early church recording in Acts 2. There he finds the five purposes of the group: Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, Evangelism, and Worship. (41-42)

Joel Comiskey has done by far the most research on the worldwide growth of the cell church and has written over 25 books on the topic. While the cell church has not taken off in North America like it has on other continents, the hopes and dreams of what leaders want to see happening in the cell groups looks much the same as those stated by Donahue and Gladden. Comiskey writes,
“Cells are groups of three to fifteen people who meet weekly outside the church building for the purpose of evangelism, community, and spiritual growth with the goal of making disciples who make disciples, which results in the multiplication of the cell.” 
Similar things are stated about what leaders want to see from the groups that are commonly called missional communities. Mike Breen writes of the Up-In-Out dimension of group life. Reggie McNeal summarizes it this way:
“The up dimension includes worship and efforts toward helping members maintain a dynamic and growing relationship with God, including a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior. Typical in-dimension emphases of community life are the nurture and care of each other, praying for one another, encouraging one another, and attending to the physical, social, economic, and spiritual needs of other members. Out-dimension expressions of service and witness vary from group to group, depending on the particular mission of the community. Some communities target the homeless and others minister in night clubs, some in gated communities, and others convene Alpha groups in their living rooms and office conference centers.” (Missional Communities, 45)
There are a ton of opinions and perspectives on groups. There are statements by thought leaders that they have found the most effective way to do groups. There are promotions that their perspective unlocks the biblical methods of first century church life. There are declarations that we don’t do small groups anymore because they are inward-focused and therefore we need outward-focused missional communities. However, when you survey what each perspective actually espouses, it is easy to see that we all want groups that live out the same things. I summarize them with the words Communion, Relating and Engagement.

This is the bull's-eye.

What We Want: Communion with God
Right before Jesus went to trail and then to the cross, he prayed for this kind of life together in this way:
I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you’ve sent me and loved them
In the same way you’ve loved me. (John 17:20-23)
The connection with God that we were made to experience cannot be manufactured by our efforts. The oneness of Jesus’ prayer is oneness that is only realized as we are one in the life of the Father, Son and Spirit. And this is related to how we relate to each other. We cannot be connected to one another without communion with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:
Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Life Together, 38)
We only connect to one another as Christ by the Spirit stands between us. If we lack an upward communion with Christ by the Spirit, then connecting to each other will only be something we manufacture via our efforts.

What We Want: Relating with Each Other
Jesus prayed that we might be one with each other in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. Our communion with God unites us in love to one another. This manifests creatively like a great painting. I’m a fan of the Impressionists. Prints of Monet, Renoir and others bring life to a room. However, upon seeing the real thing in person, I entered into and experience that no print can reproduce. Prints, being flat cannot replicate the brush strokes or the depth of the paint on the canvas. The light bounces off the paint in such a way that the images come to life. The characters sitting around the tables looked as if they were inviting me to join them. I stood mesmerized. I didn't just view it. I did not see it. It saw me. It engaged me. It's beauty moved me.

The experience we long for in our groups is like a work of art. Each one is a masterpiece, but none are the same. Relating is not a cheap print replicated from a past experience or a formulaic concoction promoted by another church across the country. Relating cannot be copied, replicated or mimicked. Every connection experience is unique, a one of kind expression of God's love.

What We Want: Engagement with Context
According to the prayer of Jesus in John 17, the way that the world will come to believe that Jesus is the manifestation of God is through our connection with one another as we commune with God. Our love for each other demonstrates to the world that we belong to Jesus, that we are his disciples (John 13:35)

Jesus prayed that we might live in unity, in oneness with one another as we are one with the Father which results in being “witnesses about” Jesus. This is not about developing an evangelism program so that we can get converts to join our groups. This is about living in such a way that our lives are a witness, so that we put on display the beauty and love of Christ in the midst of the world.

What We Want: The Way of Jesus
Simply stated: The bull's-eye is groups that live out the way of Jesus. At least that’s what we confess. But what do we get? That's for another time. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Way We Pray is the Way We Lead

There is an ancient Latin rule of the church that reads: lex orandi lex credendi, "the law of praying is the law of believing." Or to put it into a slightly different vernacular, "the way that we pray is the way that we believe."

In other words, our theology is not merely a confession of agreement with an orthodox list of beliefs. Our beliefs about God are manifest and even cultivated by our communion with God.

So often theology is used as a kind of litmus test that we pass in order to get to the place of doing something for God. So if we believe the right things about God, then we are qualified to work for him. And as a result, it seems that theology has little to do with what we do in the church outside of that which we preach or teach.

In other words, theology is foundational to things like leadership and the running of the church, but we don't see how it is relevant to what we do when we walk into the church office on Monday morning or what we do as a church council on Wednesday night.

So on Sunday morning, we pray that God will help us to believe, because we know that we depend upon God to do what only he can do in the transformation of lives. But do we pray in the same way on Monday morning? Or during a council meeting?

But belief is not merely about a list of theological facts. Theological belief is about life, all of life. We could state it like this: The way that we pray is the way that we work. Or the way that we pray is the way that we parent. Or maybe still: the way that the pray is the way that we play.

The way that we pray as leaders in the church is the way that we lead.

The way that we pray as we lead the church reveals what we believe about how God leads the church. Recently, I surveyed about 25 books from the last two decades that are commonly considered to be some of the best on the topic of church leadership. It is remarkable how little ink was used to talk about the relationship between prayer and leadership. Endless pages spent on the crisis that we face in the church. Strategies upon strategies outline 5 ways to make your church outreach oriented, 8 steps to church transformation, 6 patterns for the church of the future, etc.

But prayer is in most cases virtually absent.

And where it is present, it is tucked away and presented as if this is something that we already know how to do. Or the focus lies on praying that God will help us live up to his or her full potential as a leader.

The way we pray is the way we lead.

Too often we pray by offering words up to God as a transaction. God did his part on the cross and in the resurrection. Now we pray that God will help us do our part. We are saved by grace, by the miracle of the work that only God can do. Church leadership is about our efforts, our strategies and our skills. Prayer is something that we do so that we might be as good a leader as possible.

We know that we need God when we preach, when we serve communion or during an altar call. But the rest of our leadership seems to fall back up us to pull off.

Church leadership gets thrown back upon us. It is something that we must accomplish for the sake of God's work. And those of us who are not "great" leaders—which is most of us—read the books by those who are—which is very few—and we try to figure out how to become like them. (Maybe I'm the only one who has done this, and if so, then ignore this.)

I'm no longer interested in trying to lead like those who get the most done for God. I don't want to implement a list of leadership habits or laws. I'm not sure that God is that interested in my ability to be a great leader.

Paul confessed to the church at Philippi:
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it. (Phil 3:7-11, The Message)
What might it mean to talk about leadership within this frame of reference? What might it mean to see our leadership prowess as mere "dung" in comparison to knowing Christ, to embrace Christ and being embraced by him? How might that mindset change the way we lead?

The way we pray is the way we lead. We can focus on getting stuff done for God and that's what we will "know." We will be embraced by activities that accomplishes something because that's what we embrace. Or we can know God in the midst of our leadership.

And this can be part of the life of a leader on Monday mornings and during council meetings, just as much, if not more, than on Sundays.

Photo Credit: Daniel Maat vai flickr

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Engagement

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about the rhythms of the Jesus way. In the first, I proposed the rhythm of communion with the Father. The second introduced the rhythm of relating to one another. Here I want to introduce the rhythm of engagement with the other.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s masterpiece on Christian community, he opens with words about mission:
Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.
The way of Jesus is found in diasporatic community, not cloistered community. Diaspora is the Greek word used to describe the scattered nature of God’s people throughout the world. And it implies that Christian community is about living in a way that engages the world around us. Bonhoeffer continues:
"According to God’s will, the Christian church is a scattered people, scattered like seed “to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Deut. 28:25). That is the curse and the promise. God’s people must live in distant lands among unbelievers, but they will be the seed of the kingdom of God in all the world.
God’s kind of community does not happen in an enclave or as an exclusive club. God’s kind of community happens in the midst of life, right in front of those who don’t understand why we worship and love the way we do.

What does this look like in the local contexts where our groups gather? The answer to this question might seem obvious at first. We think in terms of evangelism, relationship outreach, mission projects, service initiatives, social justice involvement, and the like. In other words, we invest in things that we can do for those outside the community of Christ. That which we do for outsiders is set in contrast to that which we do as a church or small group that we classify as insider activity. Insider stuff includes things like prayer, worship, Bible discussion, fellowship, spiritual disciplines, etc. Outsider stuff is what we do for those who are not a part of us so that they will come and do our insider stuff with us.

While I’m not challenging the specific actions found within outsider activities—there is actually great value to them—I think we do need a different imagination when it comes to engaging the “other.” Acts 1:8 tells us that we will become “witnesses” and to be a witness is to put on display the truth that we experience. We do not fully do this when we are doing outsider stuff in order to do outreach. For instance, the way that we pray is just as much a witness as doing a service project in our community, or at least it has the potential to be. The same is true about how we relate to one another in love. Our witness is truncated when we limit engagement in our community to some kind of list of outsider actions.

The challenge that the modern church faces is related to how we break down the barrier between insider and outsider church activities. What does it look like to show people how we commune and how we relate while we are also engaging the other as a part of life as a scattered community?

To address this is much more complex that giving out some kind of list of things that a group can do in order to be more effective at outreach. We have enough of those kind of things. While I'm not saying that such lists are unnecessary, I am saying that more often than not such lists don't really help that much because we implement them within this insider-outsider mentality. We can implement those ideas and put all kinds of effort into them and still find ourselves in the same place.

This is one of the reasons I wrote a chapter in Leading Small Groups in The Way of Jesus entitled “Hang Out.” We need to learn the art of wasting time with each other in the presence of those who need an encounter God’s love. In this way, they can see who we are as God’s children and give them a reason for asking why we do what we do and why we believe that we believe.

Too often we turn outreach or "missional" into another way of being an activist. It seems that we get anxious to make an impact, and we are very proud of the impact that we happen to make on the world. But this turns engagement into getting busy for God while we risk our own souls. God said to go and do and we had better go about doing it. This does not seem to be much of a witness to the ways of Jesus. It's more of a witness to what we can get done. Busy, stressed-out Christians who are trying to win the world and grow the church might look noble, but it's not the Jesus way.

It seems that we are reacting to the tendency for the church to be an escapist enclave. The answer is not found in activism that we might label as "missional. It's found in being with people as we are with God. And there we trust that God will be at work, usually in a much slower way than we would like. Within this mindset we find a ton of practical ways that this can manifest, some of which are very activist in nature.

If there is anything one practical point to make at this point, it is that we need to learn to practice eating together and while doing so, involving others who are not part of the church.

Being God’s witness involves showing people how we love with the love of Christ. This is about life, not just about an outreach project. In this way, we can show people who Jesus is. This is engagement with the other.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Rhythms of the Jesus Way: Relating

In the previous post, I introduced the rhythm of Communion. In what follows I want to talk about the rhythm of Relating. I've struggled with what to call this rhythm through the years. Something like community or life together flows of the tongue much easier. But there's a reason why I use this word. Let me explain. 

In Western society, friendships are expendable. When we try to connect with others, we often ask questions like, “What’s in this for me?” or “How can this benefit my life?” or “What’s this going to cost me?” Relating does not come naturally to us. Loving others is not something that we do very well or very easily. 

It’s easy to criticize this fact. We describe the experience of individualism, isolationism, loneliness, selfishness, etc. Over the last few decades, cultural observers have used images like the lonely crowd, bowling alone, the saturated self, a society of strangers, intimate strangers, the myth of individualism, and many others. There has never been a time in the history of mankind when we have practiced a way of life that is driven by such isolation. While it's easy to diagnose the problem, it’s a lot harder to talk about my own individualism. And it's even hard to actually do something about it.

Imagine that you are in a conversation with a historian who lives 200 years from now. Somehow she has developed the technology to send you an questionnaire so that she can better understand life in the twenty-first century. Her research is not delving into the history of war or politics, which is the normal stuff for history classes. She is focusing on everyday life to determine how people lived.

She asks you, “What words might she use to describe how we live today?” Every time I lead a group through this process, the words used always include things like:
  • Fast-paced, frenzied, time-crunched 
  • Lonely, isolated,
  • Productive
  • Unsettled, transient 
  • Binge watching
  • Extended family scattered
  • Controlled by fear
  • Fast-food
  • Exciting, exhilarating 
  • Technology-driven
  • Rootless
Then she asks you a follow-up question: “What words might use to describe how people ‘do relationships’ today?” Do these words come to mind?:
  • Avoidance of Conflict 
  • We have too many 
  • Overwhelming 
  • Social media-driven (Facebook and Twitter) 
  • Paper-thin 
  • Surface 
  • Short-term 
  • Nice
We know that this is how most of us do life. And we know that it's not how we were made to do life. We were made for relationships, but it seems that we don't do them very well. Groups become the natural go-to fix and churches organize people into groups with hopes that people will somehow develop different patterns simply because they join one. However, we end up with groups of individualists who are trying to connect on a regular basis, but they are not relating in a way that expresses the life of unity. It’s almost as if we are trying to merge individualism with community and hold on to both at the same time, an act of futility. Individualism is based on a certain set of life practices that stand in contradiction to the practices of community, and it keeps groups mired in mediocrity.  

So we use groups to form some kind of relationships that we can produce if we put enough effort into it. And we write books and hold conferences that talk about how great it is. Putting a group of individualists in the same room for a meeting once a week is a good start, but it’s not the goal. 

It's not relating in the way of Jesus. 

The Russian Orthodox pastor Seraphim Sigrist was shaped by an underground church during Soviet reign. He writes, “Community life is a journey toward, and an entering into, a space that is immensely greater than the combination of all personal spaces, and into a life that is far more than that of all our separate lives taken together.”

This is a new space where who we are as a group is far more than what we add up to be as group members. Here the “I” is grounded in “we.” In other words, who I am is shaped by who we are together.

And in this sense, I become far more in the midst of this “we” than “I” am when I’m trying to hold on to my individualism.

This does not mean we give up our individuality. Instead our individuality flourishes when we enter into the Jesus way of relating.  Russian theologians have used the word sobornost to describe this. This word is hard to translate into English. Sigrist writes that at the heart of sobornost is “sharing life together without any loss of your true self; we are no longer isolated from each other and no longer isolated from the whole of God’s creation.” We become our true selves while at the same time become more than ourselves. How’s that for a paradox?

This is far more than the development of a small group program or of some kind of organic missional community experience. It actually is not something that we produce at all. It's not something that we make happen. It's something that we enter, that we participate in as we love the other in the presence of Christ. We love each other through Christ who stands between us by the Spirit and in the same way we are loved. 

This is mystery. This is the reason why I use the awkward word "relating" to describe this rhythm. We know what it means but in all honesty, we only enter into this dynamic when we realize that we don't know how to do it. 

—Adapted from Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus, pages 58-59