In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Luke 24:5
What our world often is seeing in our day is a devoted, committed Christian serving God. But, they are not seeing God. They comment on what we are doing, “Well, there’s a wonderful, dedicated, committed group of people serving God.” They, however, do not see anything happening that can only be explained in terms of the activity of God. Why? Because, we are not attempting anything that only God can do. Henry Blackaby
“Spiritually Dead” is probably too strong an indictment for the church in America…”spiritually limping” or “spiritually challenged” may be closer descriptions. But whatever the precise measure, few of us would deny that the church in America is hurting right now. With the exception of some clear pockets of vibrancy, the church in our culture is simply not the bastian of enlightenment it once was for the world. Moreover, our two youngest adult generations are running from the church, which does not bode well for our future.
If the Blackaby quote above is accurate, if this lost and broken world is truly looking for God-sized evidence that the church is a place to find truth, then we are in trouble…because they are looking for God-sized evidence in a culture of man-sized efforts.
The American church is blessed. We have had over 200 years of absolute freedom to grow and to express ourselves and to figure out all the best ways to further our institution without fear of governmental interference (or any other real interference, for that matter). As a result, we have gotten very, very good at doing church. We build amazing buildings, produce amazing communicators, have …
But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Luke 1:13a
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. Luke 1:30
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Luke 2:10
I have never seen an angel, but apparently, it is a frightening thing. We know this because, every time an angel appears in the Christmas story, the first words he says are, “Do not be afraid…”.
Now, I am no angel. But, as a peacemaker, I do know what it feels like for people to be frightened of me. It is actually a fairly common response, especially in church conflicts. When I am called in by a congregation or Christian organization to begin my work as a peacemaker, and I begin having my one-on-one meetings with the players, it is always interesting to me how frightened they seem to be to talk to me. Maybe it is because they know I am a lawyer? Or maybe it because they have misunderstood my role in the process? Or maybe it is their fear of being held accountable? I honestly do not know.
But I do know that, for peacemakers, it means we have one task that is first and foremost in every conflict…we must be a non-anxious presence. We must develop an ability to disarm the players, reassure them that they are safe, and guarantee a process which they can trust. We apparently share that task with the angels. Everything about our demeanor and our words must send a clear message: “be not afraid”.
I’m glancing at some of the long strings of comments we see today on …
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”… When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. Matthew 1:19-21, 23
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. Luke 1:35-38
The Christmas story is filled with contrasts between those who rearranged their very lives in order to make room for the birth of the Messiah and those who either opposed His birth or were completely indifferent to it. Mary and Joseph had their lives changed forever. Their obedience and their ability to embrace a seemingly impossible circumstance set them apart. Even more, it was their willingness to set aside their own pretty good plans in order to be obedient to God which makes them perfect …
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us…The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written… Acts 15:6-8, 12-15
Have you ever noticed that the process of spiritual discernment is often much more complicated than merely examining the evidence logically? The more background I read about the Jerusalem Council and its crucial considerations in Acts 15, the more I worry I might have voted the wrong way, if I had been among them. As it turns out, being a legalist is a lot easier than we would like to think.
Circumcision, to the very first Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem, was a big deal…every bit as big a deal as baptism is to the Christian church today. It was clearly not an act “stumbled upon” through some twist of tradition and men’s preferences…it was an act given to them by God Himself. There was a plethora of Holy Scripture which required it [insert your favorite among a half dozen or so Old Testament stories showing God’s clear directives about circumcision here]. It was a non-negotiable to them, because …
But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong…While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s.And when Peter saw it he addressed the people…Acts 3:6-7, 11-12
Are you old enough to remember when it was said of the U.S. that our “national pastime” was baseball? I can remember it being said. I’m not sure I ever really believed it. Those were simpler times, to be sure. Nicer times. Less complicated. But what about today? What would you suppose is this culture’s favorite pastime? My educated guess is this: having a “take” and making it known. We are living in a culture obsessed with finding creative, persuasive, (controversial?) ways of communicating our beliefs or opinions about every single happening or news item or public personality. Racism? Here’s my take… Same sex marriage? Here’s my take… Abortion? Here’s my take… Politics? Here’s my take… Evangelicals? Here’s my take… Muslims? Here’s my take… You get the idea. It’s an obsession. All of us feel compelled to have a take and make it known. And we spend an enormous amount of our time either reading/listening to other people’s takes or coming up with our own.
In the Christian world, we usually call it “speaking the truth”. We may or may not want to be seen as going along with the crowd, so we may or may not intend to jump on the social media bandwagon of “have a take and make it known”, but we do …
My office is in downtown San Antonio. My daily walk from my parking garage to my building takes me right through the heart of one of our city’s gathering places for homeless folks. Years ago, when I first started making this walk, my heart went out to these men and women and I found myself giving to them pretty regularly. Over time, I felt like I needed to develop some “rules” about who I would give to and under what circumstances. If I am going to be a servant, after all, there have to be some parameters. You know what I mean: (1) no money for anyone who smells of alcohol, (2) no money for anyone who is rude, (3) no money next time for anyone who doesn’t seem grateful this time, etc. The list of rules has grown over time.
It has occurred to me this week as I prepare to teach John 13:1-17 that, with regard to servanthood, Jesus not only demonstrated WHAT to do, but He demonstrated HOW to do it. He could have done the foot washing by just standing up, grabbing a wash basin, and quickly going through the motions, but He did not do that. He made it a point to first take on the form of a slave before he even began the work. Far beyond the mere act of serving, He gave us an insight into the attitude of serving, i.e., the condition of the heart of the servant.
Servants do not serve with a list of rules about the condition under which they will serve. Servants do not come to their master with a list of terms for their “service agreement”. Isn’t this what Jesus meant in this passage when He reminds us that “no servant is greater than His master…”? …
And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.Genesis 6:13-14
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.Proverbs 3:5
When it comes to building churches, there is no shortage of conventional wisdom. And in matters of church growth, church finances, and (alas) church conflict, the “church world” is loaded with advice and counsel. Moreover, add to that the wisdom of the secular world about how to build a corporation or how to lead an army or how to have a winning team (much of which wisdom gets imposed on church leadership), and you could fill a library with all the ways that it makes sense to build a church.
But God is not impressed with our conventional wisdom…never has been. At a time when the world had never even seen rain before and over a project schedule of some 100 years or so, God had Noah build an ark. On dry land. In the middle of a wilderness. There was absolutely nothing conventional about it. In fact, Noah was surely considered to be a crazy old drunk by pretty much anyone who knew him during this time, and his “project” was 100 years of sheer nonsense.
So, as I consider how incredibly closely Noah had to be walking with the Lord in order to rightly understand his assignment and to then fulfill it, I am captivated by the thought of just one church, one local body of believers, equally sold out and tuned in to God. Can …
In our ministry, we refer to it as the “Principle of Perceptions”…it is one of our 5 Principles of Unity in the church. It simply states: I have some responsibility for how others perceive me. It is simple to state, but it becomes awfully complicated in application. There is a scriptural principle which calls upon each of us to take reasonable measures in order to preserve our testimony before others. The more leadership responsibility we have (i.e., the more influence we have), the greater those measures become.
Where relationships are concerned, perception is far more important than reality. In our relationship, if you perceive me to be an abuser, then that perception will affect our relationship whether I actually am an abuser or not. In our relationship, if you perceive me to be a racist, then that perception will impact our relationship whether I actually am a racist or not. In our relationship, if you perceive me to have anger issues, then that perception will dictate much about our relationship whether I actually have those issues or not. And so on and so forth…you get the picture.
So, where relationships are concerned (and where my ability to be a leader or influencer in your life is concerned), I simply must take some responsibility for how I am perceived. I must always weigh the cost of my choices on that scale. There will be times when I must go ahead and choose in such a way which costs me that influence. And there will be other times when I will choose to sacrifice my freedom in order to preserve my influence with you or with others. This is life. This is leadership. And, most importantly, this is what following Christ entails.
So, it was with terrific sadness that I left the …
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,“Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” Numbers 13:1-2
Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.”So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height.And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night.And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Numbers 13:31-14:4
It is bad enough when God’s people make decisions for themselves out of a spirit of fear; it is a whole different level of bad when we spread that fear like an infectious disease in accord with some ungodly agenda to scare people into agreeing with us. …
Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last couple of decades, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation. I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.
For some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, gospel communities, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. They all have slightly different aims, but one reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.
But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about …