“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is empty; you are still in your sins. Those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:17-19)
Paul’s discussion of the resurrection with the Christian community at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 15 is a common text at Easter. Even though I have written a book on this letter, I still have difficulty with this chapter. However, Paul challenges us to see the resurrection of Jesus as a renewal and transformation of life.
First, Paul suggested that our faith, Christian life, and reason for being is based on the conviction that Jesus rose from the dead. While believing in the resurrection is incredible, it is who we are. Over the years I have met and become friends with many “secular religion scholars” (their words, not mine) who teach and speak about religion but do not believe much of Christian claims about Jesus. I live and have preached in a city with one of the highest Religiously Unaffiliated rates in the United States. If you visit this link you may also find your city on the list.
In the US we are experiencing a growth in a faith that does not see the need to be attached to a practicing faith community. In addition to this, Christianity continues to hold a unique position among world religions in that we proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. However, does this conviction still hold true? Is it common to hold to a Christian/religious belief without embracing the incredible claim that Jesus rose from the dead for our lives? Paul suggested that the Christian life, existence, and worldview hinged on the acceptance of this claim.
“Just as we have borne the image of the earthly man [Adam], so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man [Jesus]. I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (1 Cor. 15:49-50)
Paul wrote in this section that there were two “bodies” or “lives.” One was fleshly, the other spiritual. This theme ran through the entire letter to these Corinthian Christians who struggled to live differently than their world. Jesus (and Paul) had introduced a new system, empire, and way of life--the way of Agape (love), mercy, support, and faithfulness. The Roman Empire introduced a system of power and violence that Paul indicated was “passing away,” “fading,” and “being abolished.” The Empire of Jesus was going to endure with faithfulness, hope, and love. The resurrection of Jesus was also a resurrection of his people. We would no longer live according to our corrupt system but with loyalty, honor, love, and integrity—which were fruits of faithfulness.
These two themes of the chapter suggest that Christians have a great opportunity not only at Easter, but in our daily walk with Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is incredible—however it is believable when people see the resurrection among Jesus’ followers. The Empire of Jesus brings renewal and transformation. We accept people but also guide them to growth and living in the new life. We witness the resurrection verbally and behaviorally.
People will not believe in the risen Jesus until they see it in us. In our renewal of faith and discipleship we can transform and offer that transformation to others.
Transformation is not judgment. Judgment says, “You are hopeless—here is your sentence.” Transformation says, “Come as you are but don’t stay that way.”
Transformation is not neglect. Neglect says, “We accept you and will do little to help you get better—because we don’t want to butt into your business.” Transformation says, “Flesh and blood cannot enter Jesus’ Empire—how can we help you get there?”
Transformation is not manipulation or exploitation. Exploitation says, “Let’s get you to do this so that we can look better.” Transformation says, “How can we help you get to where Jesus’ wants you to be?”
Transformation is not observation. Observation says, “Let’s adore Jesus from afar.” Transformation says, “Let’s do what Jesus did so that we can become like him.”
Happy Easter, Renewal, and Transformation Sunday,
Welcome back. We’ve come to my third and final musing on church. Drawing conclusions are hard, but I’ll do my best.
Remember that picture in the previous blog? If you didn't see it, you can find it here. That was my grandparents’ farmhouse. My grandmother was born in that house. So was my dad. There is more than a hundred years of family history there. My parents and I used to drive hundreds of miles to visit Grandma and Grandpa Carr at that house most every summer and winter through my youth. My nose would be against the car window for the last 30 miles in anticipation of spotting the farm lights on the horizon.
By the time I was around, my grandfather wasn’t actively farming. Remnants of old barns and chicken coops remained but I had to just use my imagination. All the same, this was my happy place. I donned my overalls first thing in the morning and followed my grandpa out the door to see what kind of fun we might get into and to play farmer for the day. Dinner (that’s “lunch” for you city-folk) was a feast, and our evenings were serene, watching a little T.V. or working a puzzle. Grandpa snored in the recliner. Grandma sat in her chair next to him playing a game of solitaire.
When I was in college, my grandparents decided to sell the place. They felt the need to live closer to medical assistance so they moved ten miles into town. My grandmother, after leaving behind the only home she’d ever known, died the next year. Grandpa followed her a few years later. Last I heard, the farm belongs to a distant cousin . . . one I’ve never met. I guess you could say it is still in the family. But I knew after it was sold that I’d probably never see the inside of that house again. I still think about it quite often.
If the situation had been different and the house and farm had come to me, what would I have done with it? I have been considering my answer since sharing Tickle’s metaphor with you.
Thinking through this is a meaningful exercise in discussing the future of the church. Any talk of preserving, restoring, modifying, or reconstructing this “homestead” of ours should hit very close to home. When we discuss updating or scrapping the place that has shaped us, we must do so carefully. Our generation knows what might be lost in the process if we act too hastily. And yet, we also recognize the burden of possessing something that means a lot to some at the same time as it feels out of touch for others.
Author Shawn Lovejoy had an extensive collection of Hot Wheels. As a parent, Lovejoy gave them to his son hoping that he would love the toy cars, maybe even passing on the cherished set to future grandchildren. But there was a problem. His son didn’t love the cars the way he had. They mostly lived in a closet collecting dust. One day, without Lovejoy’s knowledge, the cars were included in a pile of giveaway items.
While the author uses this story to make a different point, I cannot help but see its relevance for this conversation. Sure, I loved my grandparent’s farm. I have a lot of memories there. But if all of sudden I was given the chance to give my wife and kids a first-time tour would they feel any nostalgia or connection? And even if they did, would any of us choose to live there? I doubt it. Sad but true.
Where then do we go?
You might recall that we began this discussion looking at some troubling statistics. The church is in decline. Something should be done. We can read disheartening numbers as a rejection of Christian ideals and values. Or, we can take the hint that old forms simply don’t evoke the same meaning to current generations. This is why, given the opportunity, I would choose the Tickle’s fourth option of “new construction.”
If that seems harsh, realize this is my calling. I’m a church planter. I’m supposed to think differently. Hopefully there are leaders of established churches or energized disciples who are ready to take bold steps with me to buck the trends and stop the bleeding. Consequential obstacles may require dramatic solutions.
Just because I believe that a new construction is in order for my context, I do not deem to speak for all of us. As I said last time, we should have the freedom to discover our uniqueness while we hold space for the different conclusions of others. Let us agree that context and environment matter. Church is not—and should not—be McDonalds. What may be effective in Little Rock may never work in Little Havana. Even within the same city, we might benefit from a variety of church expressions that connect with different people groups differently.
This has not really been our strong suit in the past. We love conformity and sameness because it is simple and orderly. Ironically, the drive for alignment and agreement has actually increased our disagreements.
If you’re interested in what I’m talking about, read Will Mancini’s Church Unique. Discover what is special about your context and get specific about ways to make an impact on your community. Imagine if more churches specialized in certain ministries. As we settle into our uniqueness, we hopefully find the opportunity to let go of needing to be everything for everyone. (That’s a relief!) What if we were okay with getting really good at one thing while we supported our friends across town who were strong where we were weak?
I see untapped power inherent in a variety of expressions. We should recall that Jesus had unique expectations for Peter and John (John 21:18-22). Remember that the early Church benefited from Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways (Acts 15:36-41). We even know that no two of Paul’s churches looked or acted exactly alike.
This brings me back to a point from my first blog. We need to release people for ministry even if they don’t fit our mold. Too many well-intentioned, creative, and energized disciples have been shot down or discouraged because what they came dreaming about didn’t match a leader’s expectations.
I have no problem with identifying and staying focused on a particular vision; we should not apologize for our visions. But let’s also not discourage people who feel inspired by our energy and focus from discovering their own unique calling. Let us give them our blessing (and some funding would be nice) to start the halfway house or the after school program or the new worship service aimed at the missed demographic. Then, let’s stay in relationship with them even if they get too busy to attend and support our thing. Can we commit to resisting the temptation of Kingdom competition?
We--you and I--have this unique opportunity to discover and shape the hereafter of Christian expressions. I believe the future is bright. This mission is worth our effort, our creativity, and our shared resources. It might even surprise you to hear me say that I don’t think we really need more “church planters.” I believe we need more disciples who take the calling and the opportunities uniquely afforded them to share the gospel wherever they live and work and play.
What do you say? Will you join me?
In my post The Shifting Church, Part 1, I discussed where we and the church are now. Specifically, I opined on the state of churches and asked some questions to get us thinking critically. Based on shared statistics, I conclude that churches are not connecting like they should.
A good, long look in the mirror seems in order. If we are unwilling to do that, then any new strategy might be like reaching for a bandaid when stitches are really what we need. (Um…why are my metaphors so violent? Sorry. Here’s to hoping the future of the church is peaceful.)
Ok, bear with me as I share a longer post this time. I believe we will find it thought-provoking and integral to our discussion on the subject.
Where We Are Coming From
Phyllis Tickle, in The Great Emergence, explains that, through its history, the church has experienced a major shift every five hundred years. A thousand years ago was the beginning of the Great Schism, the split that led to the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Then on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther inadvertently started the Great Reformation. Even though other dramatic developments have taken place within the last five hundred years— including the Restoration Movement that led to Churches of Christ—authors such as Tickle agree that the five hundred year mark is significant.
What “great” shift, then, is upon us today?
According to Tickle, those who could, at one time, be firmly found in one of four categories, or quadrants, of Christians--Conservative, Renewalist, Liturgical, and Social-justice—are moving away from their traditional polarities and convening near the center as they search for authentic faith and practice. Even secular religion historian Stephen Prothero says, “Christians identify less and less each year with labels of this sort" (God is Not One, p. 82).
Have you ever dropped a quarter onto one of those colorful donation boxes in the center of the mall and watched as the coin slowly looped around the plastic vortex toward the hole at the bottom? Many Christians, like coins, seem to be circling through the four quadrants, borrowing from one another’s traditions and perspectives, and becoming what Tickle labels “The Great Emergence.”
My Journey Through the Quadrants
Come to think of it, this is a pretty accurate description of my journey. Growing up in churches of Christ, I remember being drawn toward a desire for the experiential in ways that our tradition had mostly neglected. This was more than just teenage excitement in response to youth group
highlights. I overheard talk about the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit. I watched as some found cause to introduce demonstrative forms of worship as their personal expression. We may have not know it, but we were leaning into and borrowing from Renewalists, such as
the Assemblies of God.
Later when I was in college, I was introduced to the deep mysteries and traditions of liturgical churches. I was not alone in my curiosity; there was a sudden collective interest in the church calendar, uses of lectionary readings, and contemplative postures from ancient mystics. A few years later, a friend and I were reading and discussing The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. We began to judge faith by its concern for the least of these and were suddenly attuned to social justice.
This journey produced in me an appreciation for the many forms of Christianity. At the same time, it required that I let go of the unnecessary trepidation of becoming like “those” Christians —whomever “they” were. Over time, I grew in my faith as I found a wide variety of expressions
that helped me discover an authentic and diverse set of practices for my personal development.
I’m not the same as I was back then. And I’m glad for it.
All of this discussion might send shivers up spines as some fear losing a particular distinction or heritage. Some might even suspect, based on my coin metaphor, that such a movement leads Christianity (or at least our wandering sons and daughters) to fall through the center and out of sight completely.
My bad. There is no drain; there is no hole in the vortex that threatens our existence. Sorry for the confusion.
Tickle proposes that this flow will draw some out of their quadrant and into one of four “currents" around the center, as you can see in the graphic above.
Approaches to Repairing and Restoring
Tickle uses the following metaphor to further desribe distinctions within Christiantity.
Imagine that you’ve recently inherited an old farm house that has been in your family for generations. You have a strong connection to this homestead, even if the years of wear and tear show its missing luster. Now it belongs to your generation. It is up to you to decide what to do with the house. And let’s assume that you have already resolved it would be a shame to just sell the property to a stranger who doesn’t know the meaning held within.
How would you approach this home?
Some may be fine to dust off the cobwebs and shake out the rugs. They won’t find any need to get new furniture or change much of anything. Their grandparents’ old couch and bed will suffice after a little cleaning and repair. For them, it will bring great joy to know that they are living just the way that their family always has. It will be sweet to hear the floorboards creak like they would have under Grandpa’s footsteps. They will rest easy in Grandma’s chair out on the porch. Sure, they’ll have to learn how to use the old wood burning stove to heat the house, but they will feel a great honor in doing so every time.
Others will say that the furniture is beyond repair . . . and so are some parts of the house. They believe there is something about this century old home that could shine again with a little effort. They will set out to restore it, refurbishing the floors (fixing the creaks), repairing missing baseboards and hardware. They will even update the wiring and the HVAC to bring in some modern comforts. However, the goal is not to notice major changes. They want to work hard to make the old feel like new again.
Then there are those who will say moving a wall or two, adding a much needed second bathroom, or modernizing the kitchen will not change the connection one has with the original place. In fact, they might even argue the changes are the only thing making the house livable in this modern age. They suppose, “Grandma and Grandpa would have done the same if they
were still alive.” This family concludes that it would be silly not to swap out drafty windows and install modern appliances. In no way does even the most drastic updates jeopardize any connection they hold with the past.
Finally, there will be others that maintain great fondness with the homestead even when the original house is gone completely. They may argue that the view from the house or the land it sat on is the real heritage worth building upon. Now, in the process of tearing down the old house and building a modern place to live, these thoughtful folks may designate mementos from the old to feature in the new. They may save a section of the flooring where Grandma used to stand in the kitchen to hang prominently on the wall. Maybe they’ll keep that old bench that used to live by the back door where Grandpa would sit and take off his muddy work boots every evening. For them, the memories will live on and the connection to the past will remain long after the physical features are replaced.
Or option five.
I really don’t think there is a wrong answer here. I might argue that we need all of these systems to address the homestead, or the church, of the future. Any of these approaches, done with authenticity and intentionality, can be an option worth the effort. And yet, can we also appreciate and honor the journey of others who arrive at different decisions from us?
Our opportunity here is to foster a positive landscape, fertile for producing unique takes and fresh approaches while avoiding drawing boundary lines of distinction and alienating the brave.
Remember: even if we’re in a different current, we’re all swimming in the same water.
Maybe you are not familiar with the term “futuring.” No worries, neither is my spell check. Researcher Stephen Millett writes, “Futuring is a systematic process of thinking about the future in order to frame reasonable expectations, to identify emerging opportunities and threats to the company or organization, and to anticipate actions that will promote desired outcomes.”
Futuring is an aspect of strategic planning that identifies market conditions and trends to help businesses consider what customers may be attracted to in the future. Some might confuse this with creating a vision. In fact, visioning is the opposite of futuring. Futuring is like a pair of binoculars we use to assess what is on the horizon. Visioning is donning a pair of bifocals to see what is within you in order to develop an intentional response to the perceived future. Both are necessary for a well-rounded, strategic approach to business…and Christianity for that matter.
These disciplines have become essential in my work as a church planter. I try very hard to consider the needs of the community as well as continually observe what is happening all around Christendom. I am committed to not to start a church without first addressing what kind of church—and even if a ‘church’—is needed.
I hope that by pulling back the curtain on the work of church planting, I might inspire existing churches and leaders that are also on the cusp of addressing current cultural shifts and hoping to connect with a lost audience in their area. I plan to share my thoughts in three parts, since we have quite a lot to consider.
Where We Are
First, let’s start with where we are now. It should come as no surprise to you that the Church is dying. According to the Barna Group, there are now half as many “Practicing Christians” as there were ten years ago.
Yes, you read that right.
Fifty percent of those surveyed in 2009 “identified as Christian, agreed strongly that faith is very important in their lives and attended church within the past month.” By 2019, this number was twenty-five percent. Wow. That sentence deserves a long pause to fully take it in. (Let me point out that these statistics DO NOT reflect fallout from the coronavirus crisis. That number very well may be even lower now.)
It doesn’t take an analyst to conclude that what we have been doing in churches seems to be connecting less and less with our audience. Something drastic may be in order.
There is hope. People do seem interested in tangible, fresh approaches that connect with their innate desires. Authors Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch (The Shaping of Things to Come) have found that “the advent of postmodernism has raised within the West many expectations for an experiential, activist form of religious, mystical experience.” I’ve seen this to be true. People are hungry and looking for authentic, meaningful connection to one another and the divine. They long for something to inspire them, something to move them beyond their current scenarios and perspectives. They are looking for this, but often they haven’t found it in the Church. Why is that?
Here are a few pointed questions:
I want to be the kind of leader who is willing to work through these complicated questions, to keep an eye on the horizon and try to develop tangible solutions to answer that call. I hope others are doing the same in their own ways and in their own areas. This work requires that leaders are brave. And it always helps to know that we are among good company.
Renewal. What a good word for 2021. We are ready for renewal after we emerge from the pandemic, of course. But considering renewal leads us to its deeper theological meaning.
In English, we make a distinction between renew and new. New means brand new, or something that has never existed before. We use renew to describe something that already exists that is being improved.
In commercials, they say something is "New and Improved!" It can't be both--It must be one or the other!
However, the Hebrew Bible does not make a distinction between renew and new. The Hebrew word ChDSh (chadash) can be translated “new,” “repair,” “renew,” or “rebuild.” It also is the same root for “month” or “new moon.” The ancients saw each month as a cycle of the moon which brought a new or renewed day.
God was not afraid to take what was broken, used, old, or bad and renew or repair it. It was then considered ChDSh.
In Genesis 1-2, Yahweh created the earth as new. After the flood God has continued to renew his relationship/covenant with people. In the prophets, God promised to return Judah and Israel from captivity to repair and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. This was described as a “renewed heavens and earth,” “renewed or repaired covenant/relationship,” “renewed Spirit,” “renewed life and resurrection,” and “repaired city of Zion,” (Is. 65:17-25; Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek.37:1-14; Zech. 12). As Isaiah 40 shifts from judgment to restoration, Yahweh describes the process of renewing the people in exile as childbirth, healing from sin, forming a new city, and restoring nature (Isaiah 40-42).
Renewal and repair have always been the work of God, especially for those seeking forgiveness, healing, and transformation.
Unfortunately, the Greek word for new (kainos) failed to capture the diverse meanings of ChDSh. We have typically understood many passages in the New Testament gospels and letters to refer to “new” as “brand new” or “newly created.” In the book of Hebrews the writer tells the audience to listen and trust Jesus, who is the author of a “renewed covenant” (Heb. 3:7-11). Rather than interpreting this with New Testament context, we can understand the letter to state that the old covenant was broken when the people disobeyed God; yet Jesus offered a chance for forgiveness and renewed the relationship/covenant…by giving his own blood. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus served a meal as a sign of this “renewed relationship through his blood” (Luke 22:20-22). Same relationship, same God, same humans…but repaired by the sacrifice of Jesus. The Apostle Paul encouraged Christians to be “renewed” by repenting of their sin and transforming their lives into the image of Jesus (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:17-5:20; Col. 3:9-10).
Through the resurrection of Jesus, we are “repaired,” “renewed,” and “rebuilt,” to live to the glory of God.
Same person, same relationship, same God…but rebuilt to live a different life.
Those of us who have planted churches understand this concept. We do not plant brand new churches, we learn from the best and rebuild ministries to serve those who live in our contexts. We preach and teach from old texts that repair lives both young and old. We reestablish relationships with people who remember the Jesus of their past, but who have lost touch with their first love and Savior. We guide people to see Jesus and reignite their passion through the Holy Spirit. Church planting restores relationships and lives in the image of the one who created all things new and repairs them when they are broken.
What will 2021 hold for our Kairos network? We hope that this year will bring change and healing. All kinds of people are asking all kinds of questions.
I encourage you to join us in considering renewal.
Easter 2021 will be April 4. What a perfect time to share how the resurrection of Jesus rebuilds lives. Your people, your community, and you personally need to experience repair.
I challenge you to dig through the Biblical text, look for themes of renewal, repair, and rebuilding. Share them with us, your churches, your family, and your community.
“Behold I renew all things…” Rev 21:5
I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands and do not share in the sins of others.
Keep yourself pure…
The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden forever.
1 Timothy 5:21-25
Moral Failures in Spiritual Leadership
Last winter, as I was preparing to step into my role as executive director of Kairos Church Planting, I decided to read a few of my “ministry” and “church planter” leadership books which focused on character and integrity. One book had been given to me by one of our brotherhood leaders whom I deeply admire. The book was over 15 years old but had timeless wisdom. In one chapter there was a reference to mega church minister Bill Hybels and a discussion of how he had spent years developing a routine to prevent “false accusations” of sexual misconduct. I remember hearing Hybels talk years ago about his elaborate efforts to avoid the appearance of sin and evil.
Bill Hybels resigned from ministry in 2018 in the wake of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct spanning more than a decade.
My work involving domestic and sexual violence within faith communities has proven to me that leaders don’t fall, they intentionally violate boundaries.
In 2020, Hillsong Church pastor Carl Lentz and Liberty University president Jerry Fallwell Jr., both of whom accepted the highest calling of Jesus, made choices to shame the name of our Lord. This is a reality in which we live.
In December 2020 I was asked by our county to do abuse and faith community trainings with a specific focus on abusive, controlling, and sexually inappropriate faith leaders. So many people in our community have been hurt by these leaders; several community leaders told me that their congregation did little to confront the leader and protect the flock.
Promise of Integrity
As a planter with Kairos Church Planting, one of the many blessings I received was the Ethical Conduct Agreement. Kairos staff introduced this document to us over a decade ago. We were encouraged to read the document and sign it in front of our congregation. My wife, Lori, and I did this on a Sunday every January Sunday at Agape Church of Christ, and we asked our staff to do the same. Our members were always encouraged by this; on several occasions, visitors to our church that particular Sunday would tell us they had never witnessed anything like it. In fact, some would tell us stories of a past minister “falling from grace” as their church turned a blind eye to the issue.
Reading and signing an Ethical Conduct Agreement or Covenant before a church not only serves as an encouragement to our congregations, community, and those who have been hurt by church leaders, but it also provides a level of accountability for ministers. Knowing that I have made a covenant with my God and my church to reflect the life of Jesus has kept me from saying, posting, and even acting in ways that would not honor my calling from Jesus. On occasion, I have been called out by others, which has prompted me to apologize and make changes. Christian leaders have a powerful opportunity to grow spiritually while encouraging their churches by simply promising to be who God has called them to be.
In the scripture passage above, Paul offered advice to Timothy, a young intern/evangelist who was sent to Ephesus to extend Paul’s ministry while caring for the church in his absence. Paul gave three major instructions in this passage.
First, Paul warned Timothy not to show favorites in his ministry. He was ministering in the presence of Jesus, God, and the angels. He was to avoid participating (the Greek word for fellowship/communion) in sin by allowing others to get away with inappropriate conduct. Timothy was to see his ministry as being under the eyes of heaven and was to be honest and hold people accountable for their sin.
Second, Paul simply told Timothy to be pure. He did not tell Timothy to “watch out for those wild women,” or “make sure it doesn’t look like he is sinning,” or even “blame others for his temptations.” Paul told Timothy that he was responsible for his own actions, and he needed to set healthy boundaries.
Finally, Paul reminded Timothy that good and bad works were obvious to people. Ministers who believe that they are “getting away with” or “successfully hiding” sin need to look at this verse. People know, people find out, and people see what goes on in a leader’s life. Even in this day of social media, the public knows who is authentic and who is hiding something.
At Kairos Church Planting Support, we are encouraging planters, ministers, campus leaders, and our staff to take this covenant with their congregations or ministry teams. We believe that this will not only strengthen their personal walk with Jesus but will help our churches become healthy. When we are open and honest concerning holiness, people tend to come forward and seek guidance.
Please pray for planters, staff, and leaders as we commit ourselves to Jesus, the calling to ministry, and our churches. If you'd like to watch a short video about the Integrity agreement, click here. To download a copy of the integrity agreement, click here.
This is Why We Plant Churches…
It was a sunny Saturday morning in Portland. We had taken a team from our supporting church in Oklahoma downtown to Pioneer Courthouse Square to make one last connection with people before we launched our new church, Agape Church of Christ. This year Easter was in early April and we were lucky to have a sunny day so early. Lori and I had been meeting in our home for nine months with a small group of five families, preparing to launch a church that would reach people on the margins. I had made many trips downtown to connect with others and listen to what they needed from a church.
We divided into teams to canvas the area, hand out flyers, invite people to our worship service, and have discussions with those who were interested in Jesus. I had my two-year-old son, Caleb, with me who was riding on my shoulders. I was quickly walking along the light rail (MAX) tracks to the center of the square. As with any sunny Portland day, people and their children, homeless youth, and others were gathered throughout the square visiting, eating, or soaking up the sunshine.
“Spare some change?” a quiet voice said as I passed. I stopped and turned around. I noticed a young woman, wearing black with black fingernails and thick black eyeliner. She was in her early twenties and took the spot where many young people sit while spanging (asking for spare change). I had been walking so fast and was so preoccupied with directing our teams that I almost missed her.
“Sorry, I don’t have any money. Something to eat?” I asked.
“No, I’m not hungry but would like something to drink,” she responded.
“I can go to the Starbucks over there and get you some coffee or juice. Would that be OK?” I responded. “No, that would be too expensive,” she said.
“No problem,” I said, “if you like I can get you something.”
“OK.” She smiled, “I would like some juice.”
I hurried to the Starbucks with Caleb on my shoulders and returned with apple juice. She drank it, thanked me and we talked. She said she had come to Portland from the Midwest for work and adventure. Unfortunately, life was hard for her and her boyfriend and they were sleeping in his car under one of the bridges. She talked to Caleb, said he was cute, and asked what I was doing. I told her about Agape as a new church and invited her.
“Naw,” she said, “my boyfriend and I don’t do church — that’s cool for everyone else but not us.”
“No problem,” I said, “I will see you around. My name’s Ron.”
“Cassy,” she said, “thank you for stopping and listening, a lot of people don’t do that you know.”
I smiled and waved to her and walked away. I had to smile because I was almost one of those who did not stop, listen, and offer help. It was convicting. I almost told myself not to bother because “I was too busy…” I almost ignored someone who was asking for help.
In Luke 18:35-43, Jesus and his followers were headed to Jerusalem. Luke indicated that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was a type of “travel narrative,” (Luke 9:51; 19:28). His journey will end at the “city of David.” He has told his disciples often that his destiny was to die at Jerusalem and rise after three days. He has a calling, a journey, and a direction he must go. Jericho was the last city he would pass through before fulfilling this prophecy. As Luke progresses more and more people join Jesus in this journey.
A blind man was sitting by the road that day in Jericho. He asked for help and begged for money—spanging. However, money was not the issue—he simply wanted mercy. When he heard it was Jesus, he asked for mercy. Oddly, alms (gifts to the poor) and mercy are similar in the Greek language. Did he want spare change or mercy—or did it matter?
Luke tells us that Jesus’ group was “leading the way…” (Luke 9:39). It was Jesus’ journey, but now he was not setting the pace—his followers were. This is the only place where Jesus does not lead…until we get to the crucifixion…there the soldiers “lead the way,” (Luke 22:54).
In typical Jesus fashion, he heard the man, stopped, and “called them to lead the man to him…” Many of us know the rest…Jesus talked with him, healed him, and gave him what he wanted. While this was more than “apple juice” I see a similar point.
Luke wanted us to know that sometimes Jesus’ disciples lead the way, or maybe push him past the voices on the road needing attention. We often believe that “Christianity is about the cross…so let’s get Jesus to the cross so he can die and we can have our sins forgiven. Then we can move on to the resurrection. There is no need to doddle along and help every person who asks for it.” In the end we forget that he is supposed to lead us, not the other way around.
Thank God that Jesus is different…he hears, he listens, and he says, “lead them to me,” rather than “drive me past them…” or “let us hurry along now…”
Thank Jesus for the interruptions that remind us to do his true work.
By the way, Cassy’s boyfriend went to jail. She showed up three months later at Agape…pregnant, trying to recover from drug use, and feeling alone. Lori, our interns, and the women at Agape welcomed her, accepted her, walked with her. She became active at Agape, occasionally sang on our praise team, and came to our home community. Everyone loved having her there and she connected with many of our young people, also working in some of the community outreach programs. Lori and I were there to witness the birth of her first daughter, and I remember holding her second one just after she was born. She now has a college degree, has been sober for seven years, has three wonderful children, and lives a stable life back in the Midwest.
I am often reminded in prayer…what if I would have kept walking that day?
In the United States it seems that “Thanksgiving” has become a silent or overlooked holiday, overshadowed by After Thanksgiving Sales, Christmas, and an unrealistic history of the early colonists. And now, it is “to be celebrated under quarantine.”
Will this be a time to celebrate or mourn another passing holiday?
Our family has always used Thanksgiving to invite those in our church who needed family.
The past few years, we would have a full home with those who had no family locally, those who were homeless, women leaving the sex industry, couples wanting to join us and encourage our guests, and others who found this as a time to stay clean and sober another day. We spent the day eating, playing games, visiting, or watching football.
This year, with statewide restrictions in place, I must reflect on what this day represents. In my opinion our Oregon Governor has not “forbid” Lori and I from having our usual Thanksgiving celebration. She has forced me to address what is truly important about my life.
Think about the term “Thanksgiving.” Before it became the title of a holiday, it simply meant “giving thanks” for what we have. It is a time that we set aside to be appreciative for what God has given us. However, during a pandemic, can we find room for appreciation and gratitude—even if we cannot gather with our families and friends?
Thankfulness, gratitude, kindness, and appreciation are clusters of words that reflect our attitude toward life. In his book, The Five Side-effects of Kindness, David Hamilton provides evidence that kindness, gratitude, and appreciation aid in the physical and emotional development of humans. First, he suggests that when humans practice kindness toward others they are happier than those who only perform kind acts toward themselves. Second, his research indicates that practicing kindness or gratitude develops strong bonds of trust with others. Finally, gratitude and appreciation allow us to navigate difficult times in our lives with hope and compassion.
“Gratitude doesn’t ignore difficult times, nor does it pretend they don’t exist. A regular practice of gratitude merely trains the mind to scan the everyday landscape of our life and settle more on the light than the dark. That’s all. And as it settles on the light, it makes us feel better.”
In reading the books Tortured for Christ and I am N, I was struck by how Christians in persecuted countries survive their oppression by choosing kindness, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness. It may be difficult to imagine this, but evidence indicates that this practice helps us emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Being thankful is healthy.
The Bible indicates that gratitude is also an important spiritual quality. The famous Thanksgiving Psalm 136 calls the congregation of Israel to give thanks/praise to God four times. Every verse has a repeating phrase explaining why we are thankful. God’s faithfulness or mercy endures forever. The Hebrew word usually translated “love” is chesed which means faithfulness/loyalty. When Jesus confronted the Pharisees over their loyalty to traditions rather than people, Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 and translated the word chesed as “mercy” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7) indicating that chesed described a relationship that God upholds and nurtures. Truly God’s enduring quality is persistent faithful and merciful action toward those of us in relationship.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians that humans who refuse to be thankful or give glory to God live in darkness (Rom. 1:21). Just as Hamilton suggested earlier, gratitude and appreciation can lift us out of chaos even as Paul suggested to the Asian Christians, who had left darkness and sin, that being thankful reflected a spiritually healthy life (Eph. 5:4; Co. 2:7).
Appreciation, gratitude, thankfulness, and kindness are not simply good ideas, or good for you, they are strong indicators of spiritual and emotional maturity. Oddly enough, the older I get the more I wonder if these indicators are missing in our world, and sometimes our faith communities.
Is this also true of our communities during a pandemic?
Are we grateful, appreciative, and thankful? Do we thank people for their help? Do we thank people for their acts of kindness? Do those of us with children teach them to be thankful?
I want to encourage you to see November 26, 2020 as an opportunity to express thanks, gratitude, appreciation, and kindness. Here are some suggestions…
Either way, I am thankful that you took the time to read this.
God bless you and we appreciate your love and support!
These are difficult times to be a leader. In addition to Covid-19, we continue to be challenged, individually and collectively, concerning systemic racism in our world. Engaging this issue takes a tremendous amount of physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. We are trying to learn to be better people while helping our families and faith communities listen to the voices of those who cry out for justice and peace. At the same time, we want to support those we love and lead who work in law enforcement, knowing they are also struggling during this time.
Being a person of peace is difficult. Resisting the urge to respond with anger and hate is exhausting. Endurance is key.
Years ago, I served as an adjunct at a local Christian college and a preacher for a congregation in the same town. A fellow professor, Dr. Dennis Lynn, stood before the packed house at a preacher’s forum to apologize on behalf of our college for the dismissal of a black student 40 years before. The school’s stance had been that the student had violated the code of ethics, but Dr. Lynn, believing it was racially motivated, repented on the school’s behalf.
The man’s response on hearing the apology was, “I felt as if I had been in the wilderness for 40 years wandering, and now I can enter the promised land.”
The Hebrews must have felt the same way when Moses told them he would lead them out of slavery in Egypt. “When they heard that Yahweh was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped.” (Exodus 4:31)
Their response to hearing that God knew they were suffering was to worship him.
People who are hurting, enslaved, and suffering can truly worship only when they know that God and others believe them.
Dr. Lynn’s apology was met with mixed reactions. I was surprised and angry that it wasn’t received with overwhelming support. I spoke up on his behalf and was called on the carpet for it. Some of my church leaders (to be fair, it wasn’t all of them) were upset that my sermon on racism made the church and the school look racist.
“Ask the black churches in town,” they said. “They’ll tell you it wasn’t racism.
Not long after that, I attended a wedding at a local church, one that is predominantly black. The preacher and I got to talking and the conversation came around to the student’s dismissal, Dr. Lynn’s apology, and my sermon on racism. The words of those two elders still rang in my ears. “Ask the black churches. They’ll say it wasn’t racism.” Yet here I was, at a black church with a black leader. And he was telling me, “Brother Ron, we all know it was racism.”
The student did not feel free true freedom until someone heard and acknowledged his pain. Only then did he feel he could enter the promised land. Only then could he fully worship. Even though it took 40 years.
People who are hurting, enslaved, and suffering can truly worship only when they know that God and others believe them.
In this and many other situations, I’ve learned that only those who are oppressed can understand the scope and meaning of the problem. The elders at my church thought they understood the situation, but the members of the black churches in town saw it as racism. It’s only through active listening for understanding that we can grasp where the true problems lie. Those of us who are not oppressed do not get to define what oppression means.
I encourage you to:
May God Continue to Bless You This Week
Centuries ago, the people of Israel were let loose into the promised land. Like a pack of school kids when the bell rang, the doors flung open, and the crowd rushed outside screaming, yelling, and cheering.
Alice Cooper sang it so well, “School’s out for summer! School’s out forever.”
Imagine the teachers, principals, and coaches yelling to the crowd saying, “Behave this summer, we will see you next year.”
A similar event happened with the nation of Israel. Deuteronomy ends with Moses telling the people stories of Yahweh’s love and faithfulness, and sadly, their stubborn resistance to that love. In an extremely intimate moment (Deut 31:16-18) Yahweh confessed to Moses, “You are going to rest with your fathers and after that, this nation will turn their backs on me…” It was a prophecy that was too true. I can imagine Joshua standing by thinking, “Not on my watch.”
Joshua led the nation forward with this “not on my watch” attitude. He also struggled with the people as well as himself, with his summer speech, “You choose whom you will serve, but me and my family will serve Yahweh,” (Josh 24:1-27). Two great leaders had impacted their community. These were men who loved God and were honored in the presence of all by their Lord. The bell rang and the kids went crazy. With Moses, Joshua, and the leaders of his day shouting, “Have a good summer and don’t forget God,” it seemed that this time would be different. However, Yahweh knew the hearts of those created in the image of their God. The book of Judges repeats the pattern so often described:
We can see what the problem is can’t we? People are just rebellious…isn’t that the main issue?
Last summer I was in Colombia, South America. One of the churches where I spoke indicated that the problem of humanity was a rejection of authority. When I taught the class, I shared that this may be the case in Colombia, but in American our problem is that we have a “leadership crisis.” They disagreed with me, but I continued to mention that good leadership is needed and our only hope for the future. The church must actively lead in our world. I still stand by those statements.
Today we may feel frustrated at the events we witness. In addition to the Stay at Home Orders from our leaders and the anxiety we face with surviving Covid-19, we now wrestle with the anger from oppression and racism that continues to infect our world today. Peaceful protests coexist with riots, anger and hostility are spewed from both sides, and it seems that some of our leaders pour fuel on a raging fire. Leaders feel overwhelmed, law enforcement struggles to educate and hold officers accountable, and tired, angry, hurting people hurt others. Is this simply a problem of sin, rebellion, and people refusing to respect authority?
I would suggest that it is deeper than this.
In Judges 4-5 a wonderful story is interjected into the history of the school children on a Canaanite playground, monitored by a loving God. Throughout this book Yahweh raises up leaders, known as judges who “save” their people from oppression and maintain peace on the schoolyard. Yet in the midst of these stories two women Deborah (a judge) and Jael (a housewife) deliver the nation from a bully. Deborah, also a poet, shared a song about life on the playground.
5:2 “When leaders let loose in Israel and people willingly offer themselves, Yahweh is blessed by them…”
5:9 “My heart is with Israel’s leaders and with the people who willingly offer themselves, Yahweh is blessed by them…”
Notice the difference in these translations from our English Bibles.
In 5:2 the Hebrew word for leaders is similar to Pharaoh, rather than “princes.” Israel had no king, no royalty, and no princes at this time. No institution of authority but God. The word occurred twice, once as an intensive verb. It means to lead and to let loose (one’s hair figuratively, probably for battle or work). Deborah sang that Israel had leaders who “let loose” against the enemy. In 5:9 the word for “leaders” refers to “those who write decrees,” or “those who make rules.” The Hebrew word meant to cut or to write rules. Deborah indicated that the nation was saved when the leaders, the influential people, and the lawmakers led their people.
Another common phrase mentions the people who “willingly offer themselves” in service. This Hebrew word was used when the people freely gave to build the temple. For Deborah when leaders lead…people join, people serve, and people give themselves in support. As I mentioned in Colombia, we live in a time of “leadership crisis.” People will not support bad leaders.
Deborah’s song of victory honored the people who rose up to do what was right, and those who supported them.
Finally, while our versions may use “Praise Yahweh” (Jud 5:2, 9), the Hebrew word is an intensive form of “to bless” and is “imperative,” or a command. These texts tell us that when leaders are let loose, people follow, and they bless God. To put it another way, God is blessed when leaders lead and people support them.
The challenge today involves leaders, as it always has. The questions are not:
The questions are:
The text teaches us that when good leaders lead, people follow and ultimately, God is blessed.
Christian leaders…what are you willing to do to lead this nation, our communities, and our churches forward?
This is how we bless God.