Calling

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Since the pandemic started in earnest this past spring, I have been driving Heather to work and back most days. It started as a way to have a little time together since our family was at home all the time during the early days of Covid but over time it became the norm. With school starting back, it has become a necessity since we have two kids going to school at different times and one of them driving herself on a different schedule than the rest of us. Suffice it to say, this little daily activity has given Heather and I a lot of time to talk while going to and from her office.

One of our recent conversations found us talking about the idea of vocation and life calling and she asked me, “What is your calling?” For those in ministry this is a common question that we ask ourselves on a regular basis. Many ministers—myself included—find the answer to this question changes with the seasons of life at least in terms of the details and way the calling is carried out. At first, I tried to answer her by talking about various ideas about calling and the purpose of calling and vocation—seminary speak in truth—but my wife was asking a very specific question and was not dissuaded by anything other than a very specific answer.

Finally, I quit the theology and got to the personal answer of calling. My answer: to be a disciple to make disciples. Sounds simple, right? It’s the answer found throughout the gospels especially when Jesus is talking to his disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and gives them their marching orders going forward: Go, make disciples. Get out into the community and the rest of the world and find people to teach the stuff I taught to you so they can mature in their faith and understanding of the Way of Jesus and then in turn teach other people.

As I thought about my calling and Jesus words of calling to the disciples, I began to think about the state of the church and how we find ourselves here and now with declining membership and communal influence. Many would say it has to do with everything from a changing world and values to liberalism to conservatism to the imminent return of Jesus. While those things might play a part in it, I don’t think it has to do with any one of those things. I see them as results more than causes. I think the problem is we have become a religion that has made church members but failed to make disciples. We have traded a lifestyle and way of being for creeds and confessional statements. We have become a people who says things about God rather than a people who follows the Spirit of God.

For years now, centuries even in some expressions of the Church, we have used the litmus test of believing rather than being. The test of believing calls us only to offer intellectual assent or mental agreement to certain statements about God or the church: The Apostle’s Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Articles of Religion, and others like them. While these things are good at helping us understand certain ideas about God, they are not a substitute for the Way of Life we are called to as disciples. I believe the true calling, the calling that will draw people to presence of God and the Way of Jesus are teachings of Jesus from the gospels: The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25’s discussion of sheep and goats, The Fruit of the Spirit from Galatians. These are not just statements about what we think, these are teachings about how to be and encourage others to be. I believe many people in the Church has come to think that the statements and declarations of and about God are more important than how they are supposed to live out the Way of Being those documents point to, even when people say otherwise. In this case, the proof is in the actions and the current state of our Church has seen little to no action. Being a disciple—as the gospels illustrate—is giving up the life you thought you wanted for a better life in the Kingdom. It is putting aside self and embracing Jesus as master (one who knows the greater way and is willing to teach you) and lord (one whom you submit to having authority over you and your life). Being a disciple is learning from the teacher to become one who teaches others and the curriculum is a Way of Life and being not a set of propositions to argue about.

There seems to me to be a massive divide in our Church culture between those who declare and those who do. Declaring is easy. Offering your assent or agreement to an idea is easy. Living the way of Jesus is challenging. Living the Way takes work. When it comes to being a disciple, we are called to a Way of Life and being, to not only know but to do what we know. It is my hope that those who claim the title of Christian as those who profess belief will be willing to exchange that for the title of disciple as those who follow Jesus, for the sake of the Kingdom and the Creation it is here to restore.

Why Were You Sent

Learning a trade or a craft from someone requires a lot of things from the student. The student must be disciplined enough to follow instructions over and over and dedicated enough to believe in the what the master is teaching. The student must also practice for hours, days, weeks, years, to master the craft and be able to practice the necessary skills well enough to do it on their own. If the student cannot be dedicated and disciplined, they will likely fail as a student, learning the craft poorly or not at all.

Jesus talks of learning the craft of discipleship in Luke 6. He talks to the disciples about learning to be like but not greater than the teacher. He talks about seeing the student being able to see their faults before seeing the faults of others—a practice teaching humility—and he talks about good fruit having to come from good plants. These are all great lessons in and of themselves, but Jesus is using them, I think, to lead into something else, something jarring but necessary for the disciples to hear.

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?

This almost seems like common sense and in truth it should be. If Jesus is master/teacher/rabbi/lord, it seems common sensical to allow ourselves to be taught and then to follow the teaching. Unfortunately, much of Christian theology has tried to move the focus of being Jesus’ disciples toward a type of belief more interested in confessions and proclamations and less focused on learning and following the actual teachings. Why? I think the answer is simple: the teachings are hard. The teachings call us to do things that are, many times, in opposition to the way our culture has developed over the past two millennia. The teachings call us to connect with and serve the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast, the immigrant, and the enemy. They call us to put aside self, comfort, and status, to embrace these ideals taught by Jesus. They call us to see the world in an almost upside-down way from what we are taught and see our success in life as being nearly the opposite of what many, if not most, people in our culture see it.

The fact is Jesus is only master and Lord when we not only believe but act according to his teachings—teachings that extend far beyond moral platitudes—and live as true followers of the Way. What we need, as followers of Jesus, is to either do as the master/Lord has said or renounce our claim to call him that.

Growing Up

I just spent 180 some odd dollars on back to school stuff for the kiddos. Among the items were a backpack, specialty tools for geometry, lots of pens & pencils, and assorted other things feel into various categories of needed or might need. One thing that struck me as odd or curious was the differences in specifics for the sixth grader and the junior in high school. Donovan needed certain items and certain amounts of them: 96 pencils, 4 packs of notebook paper, 1 set of page dividers, etc. Avery had a list of things, but the amounts were designated enough for the year or as required by school projects. In other words, there is some discretion for how much you need as you get older and as an older student, you know if you need forty sheets of loose-leaf paper a week or four.

I think there is something to be learned from this in the way we approach God. Much of our traditions and habits of worship—be it liturgy, music, preaching styles, teaching—are intended to act as training wheels of the faith. As we get older our spiritual balance gets better, we should be able to take the training wheels off and ride without them. What I mean by this is, when start your journey of faith, these training wheels are there to help you develop some basic ideas understanding about God and the Way of Jesus. Most of our practices that are communal are just that for the community—the entire community, first steps to final steps, no matter where they are in their journey. Mature practices, those of disciples that have been walking the path for years, sometimes decades are things that require deeper, more critical thinking about what we believe and our way of practicing those beliefs (remember, you don’t really believe until you put it into practice).

Many people, I would say unfortunately most, who have been members of churches for a long time, are still trying to use the training wheels. They are still focused on the parts of the journey intended for those taking their first steps and focused quite often in unhealthy ways. When challenged to move to the next stages in the journey, some become quite defensive even angry at the thought of being seen as immature while wanting to persist in the practices of the beginner. Others may say things like, “I’m just a simple Christian. I’m only able to do the basics.” We are called to learn the basics and simplicity can be a virtue but reveling in immaturity is not. Paul says to the Ephesians,

He [God] gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. — Ephesians 4:11-16

Maturity in the faith is goal. To use another metaphor, staying in the shallows and splashing around isn’t an option for the disciple past a certain point. We are called to dive into the deeps so that we can learn the riches in the depths and teach them to others while teaching them to dive deep as well. Otherwise, we all end up being children playing on the sand and never becoming what we were meant to be.

Perspectives

Years ago, just after Heather and I were married, we went on what I considered a dream trip. We traveled out west and spent the better part of a week at Rocky Mountain National Park near the little town of Estes Park, Colorado. We hiked, camped, and wandered all over the general area from the campground around the lake to the town proper. We hiked up to the boulder field in the shadows of Long’s Peak, though we only it made it part way before we turned back because of snow and ice. For a week we lived in a picturesque wilderness and enjoyed it as home. I even tracked down a newspaper at one point and looked for jobs in the hopes of staying. A seed was planted, and from that point on, I returned to the idea of moving west on a regular basis, though I had no idea how it might happen.

Fast forward a decade or so. I was sitting in a library conference room at Asbury, talking to a district superintendent from the Rocky Mountain Conference. During my seminary experience, I had a series of aha moments and had begun to explore faith and theology beyond the bounds of my upbringing and early adulthood. Moving west appeared to provide an opportunity to not only get back to the mountains but to also be part of a conference where I could do some theological and ministerial exploring. I happily joined the ranks of the commissioning class of 2015 with the hopes that I could wander not only the Rocky Mountains but new faith mountains and pastures as well.

When we moved to Colorado, our family found a house in a neighborhood near the church I was appointed to serve. At the time I was excited to be living so near the mountains less than an hour from Mount Herman. I was hopeful that I might get to spend ample free time wandering the mountainous forests and boulder fields. The mountains were calling, and I thought I should go. From our home the view was nearly all the same: a house on either side, a house in front, a house in back. There was one window on the top floor that faced Mount Herman and if you sat on the bed and looked up rather than out, you got a beautiful panoramic view of the Rampart Range. Otherwise, you saw a generic looking subdivision, not unlike the other dozen or so in Monument.

My theological view wasn’t much different. The conference thought I would be well matched with a successful pastor who had graduated from the same seminary as me. The truth was, he was only willing to accept another minister under appointment if they came from our shared school. I was the only one with youth ministry experience, woeful as mine was. Our theological and personal differences were so extreme, I only stayed a year before being moved to a nice quiet hamlet on the edge of the Black Hills, which interestingly enough, was closer to what I had hoped for in Colorado. My dreams of exploring mountains and theology were somewhat dashed or the very least seen through a glass darkly. The Colorado I had hoped for and the conference I had hoped to be a part of didn’t really materialize. As I was wrapping up ordination, Heather was applying to graduate school back east and we felt the need to be back closer to family. I found an opening in the South Carolina Conference and well, here I am.

The journey of my dreams out west taught me some things. Mostly, you don’t necessarily see the whole picture, even if you are looking for it (which I wasn’t). My idea of life in Colorado was based on a single trip—one vacation taken decade earlier—to a very particular part of Colorado at a certain time of year under specific circumstances. My idea of ministry in Colorado was based on a freedom I thought I would find among like minded people and the truth ended up being most people were entrenched on one side or the other of the great battle for the denomination called United Methodist. As much as I wanted to be there and be a part of things, my desires for what ministry is and should be (evolving as they were and continue to be) were not the same and I found I didn’t fit in either camp (a still don’t).

Looking back, I’m glad I went out west, glad I was ordained there, glad I got to see the other side of the camp so to speak. Mostly I’m glad I had the chance to reorient my perspective and step away from some misconceptions. Perhaps that is the greater lesson. It is only when we stop running toward the things we think we see, and step away from the situations we are in, then we see where we are that we can truly have perspective. The Way of Jesus offers us this if we are willing to embrace it above and before all other ideas and ways of life.

Being and Becoming

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”—Heraclitus

“After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!”—Mark 1:14-15

Change is a funny thing. On the one hand, we recognize it is inevitable, it is going to happen. We say things like, “Only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes.” We look in the mirror and watch ourselves age from childhood to adulthood to old age, all while encouraging or discouraging the result. We can look at the world today see clearly that it is not the world of our yesterday.

On the other hand, we struggle against this inevitable change. We try exercise and special diets to combat the aging of our internal bodies while using an assortment of chemical concoctions to keep the outside looking and seeming younger. We hang on to the things of our youth, things keeping life change at bay: music, clothes, culture, ideas and are loath to give them up. We talk about the good old days as though they were the perfection of our civilization, a way of life to return to in order to feel right about the world.

Change is also something out of our control, something that will happen whether we like it or not. It is happening as we speak, everything on this planet, in this universe, is changing. Everything from the molecular structure of the flowers outside to the ideas about culture which will be prevalent today but gone tomorrow, all of it is growing, becoming, ceasing to be what it was. It is being altered into something not quite as it was.

For some of us, this acceptable. Some recognize it is simply how things God has ordered in the universe. For others, it is a frightening movement in a direction that is at the least fearful to travel. Many if not most of us find it to be a mixed bag where we accept some kinds of change but not all of the change. Things like aging can be conceded to change but things like belief and culture, not so much. I think the level of acceptance seems to be limited to those things which have the least immediate effect.

There is also a kind of change that really isn’t change at all. It’s really more of a superficial, fadish thing which doesn’t actually change anything in a deep, meaningful way but simply makes it appear to be something new on the outside. It’s kind of like fad diets or exercise programs for the soul: you think it’s great for a while, show all your friends you’re doing it, then get bored with it, put it back in a box, and put it on a shelf somewhere. This isn’t real life change. This is being aware of social trends and finding a bandwagon to ride.

The truth of the matter is change is central to the Way of Jesus. In fact, the Way of Jesus is the way of change because the goal of following Jesus is become like Jesus, to change into a kind of living version of Jesus in the here and now. We become “a new creation” as Paul writes, and that new creation is something which leaves the old ways, old culture, old way of being behind. We no longer live for ourselves but for the goal of becoming like Jesus as little imitation of Christ. In order to do this, we must embrace change as we let go of self. This process of letting go of self to embrace change is central to what the Way fo Jesus calls us to do and be.

In so many ways, the greater Church finds itself at a crossroads. We are looking at being a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century in a few years. What have we really accomplished in the grander scheme of things, going the direction we are now? Church division? In fighting? Distancing ourselves from the people we are seeking to make disciples of? Good change is like good trouble: we need to get into some on a regular basis. Who knows? Maybe good change can bring healing to some of the wounded in the Church and some of those the Church has wounded.

Risks

Winston Churchill was rather quotable, probably because he talked a lot, but also, because he was well spoken. One of my favorites came out from a radio broadcast in 1939 when he said, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Mark chapter five isn’t quite a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but it does have has a story that is a double feature: a story told inside another story. The two stories capture a similar idea which is why, I believe, they are told together, perhaps so that one reiterates the other and helps us to see the bigger point.

The story starts off with Jairus a man on a mission. That mission is saving his daughter’s life since she has fallen ill—near to death—and the physicians can’t seem to figure out why. Jairus decides to try a last-ditch attempt to save her by seeking Jesus. Maybe the prophet from Galilee, the one who is known as a miracle worker, can work the miracle of saving his daughter. Jairus tracks down Jesus and begs his to save the girl, which Jesus agrees to, and the disciples along with a crowd follow. Within the crowd is the second story, one of equal desperation to the first. A woman is among the crowd whose last hope seems to be Jesus as well. She trails along behind the Galilean with one thing on her mind, “If I can just touch the fabric of his robe, just get close enough to brush against it, maybe I can be healed.”

While narrated as two different things, this is same story twice told. Both are stories of desperation, of last hope, of dreams that may never be. Jairus faces the loss of his daughter, a child whose life has not yet truly begun. Any parent can see how you would do anything or everything to save your child if you faced those circumstances. The woman within the crowd suffered from a hemorrhage, a constant physical suffering that led to emotional and social suffering. The bleeding she dealt with made her ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the Jewish community and therefore outside the community as one who many may have thought was being punished by God (look up retribution theology for a detailed explanation). In both cases, the desire to be healed drives the woman and Jairus to do whatever is necessary.

That makes me wonder. When it comes to our relationship with God how desperate are we? Are we desperate enough to seek healing from God for the emotional and spiritual damage of our lives? Are we desperate enough to put aside ego and pride to seek God no matter the cost? Are we willing to do the hard work of being attentive to the leading and teaching of the Spirit so that we can change to become more like Jesus, to step onto the Jesus Way in a fuller, more surrendered way? Are we willing to live the Way of Jesus no holds barred, no retreat, no regrets?

How much do we really want the Kingdom of God and how much do we want our own kingdoms?

Worship & Prayers This Week

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Daily Prayer
Monday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/331262961361504/
Tuesday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/909644269541697/
Wednesday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/290733492013782/
Thursday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/724087988444099/
Friday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/2703329273272001/

Lunch & Learn
The Bible: An Owners Manual – Overview of How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/785906712214144/

Sunday Service
The Ancient Ways: Tithing
https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/210638440368639/

A Farewell to…

I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Zahnd called A Farewell to Mars, a book about the author’s journey toward a biblical understand of the gospel of peace. Throughout the book the author makes his case for the church needing to separate itself from the politic of war and the economic ideals of the state and toward a biblical understanding of these things. In one part he says,

In political conversation these days, we hear a lot about “right” and “left.” People have a lot of passion bout these teams, but I have no allegiance to either the political right or the political left for this simple reason: Jesus has his own right and left! In the Jesus right-left divide, you definitely want to be on the right. (The goats on the left are sent away into hell prepared for the devil and his angels!)[1]

He, of course, goes on to reiterate the story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25 where Jesus basically says that those who care for the poor (food, water, clothes), the sick, the prisoner, and the foreigner are those who will be at his right hand and those who don’t will hear,

Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me. – Matthew 25:41-43

Reading this, and other things of late (especially a lot of church history), I have found a personal need to examine the idea of what puts us in a right relationship with God or what does it mean to experience salvation. A lot of people talk about salvation as a transaction: say the prayer, believe a few ideas about Jesus, and punch your heavenly ticket. As I look at the New Testament, particularly the words of Jesus, I find that there is always something said about how we treat others in connection with those who face judgment. Believe in Jesus—that is the Jesus Way of living—and you will be judged by God as being sheep. Live otherwise—regardless of what ideas you subscribe to—and you endanger yourself before God.

I think Martin Luther did some great things for Christendom, but I think his most famous ideas ‘only faith’ and ‘only scripture’ have been misinterpreted and re-misinterpreted to make the church a rather lazy institution. It’s created what some people in my seminary referred to as Jesus, the bible, and me in rowboat theology—all I need for this life is Jesus and a bible and a quiet place to get away from the big, bad, terrible world. By using the mantra ‘only faith’ as a rallying cry, the revivalists of the nineteenth century (1800s) were able to offer a fire insurance version of salvation to a scared people in a scary world. In the process, American Christians learned to lean into the idea of ‘believing for salvation’ without realizing that believing calls for something other than sitting in a pew. Believing requires acting on the ideas that Jesus taught—and the Holy Spirit reteaches to us—in everyday life. This version of Christianity is still prevalent if not predominant today in most American circles.

The Jesus Way of salvation calls for a complete and total lifestyle overhaul with the goal of becoming a living imitation of Jesus and his Way. This living imitation has its core in passages like the one above, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, the Farewell Discourse of John 14-17, the living way of Jesus presented in Mark and Luke where the poor and disenfranchised are center-stage with Jesus as those whom Jesus spent his time teaching and healing. His criticisms were almost exclusively leveled at the religious authorities, the greedy rich, and the Roman governmental systems who abused those that Jesus championed.

The current political climate has politicized faith on both sides of the divide and quite honestly, I think to the detriment of historic Christianity. We have traded in the true Way for an easy way in order to fit into the society of comfort that we live in. The Jesus Way calls for the imitation of love and sacrifice that our namesake lived into during his life and ministry. It is time to change.

When we choose the Jesus Way, right and left don’t matter—except for sheep and goats.


[1] Brain Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars, p. 165-166

Ghost Army

In 1944, the 23rd Army Special Headquarters landed in Britain after training in Tennessee and New York. The 23rd was made up of 1,100 men who came from unusual backgrounds for your average soldier of the war: art school students, advertising executives, stage technicians, set designers, and audio/visual engineers. They started off with borrowed equipment from the British and used whatever they could get their hands on. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, this ragtag army developed some of the most ingenious ‘weapons’ and helped the Allied forces win the war in Europe. Oddly enough, most of them never used a weapon to do it.

The 23rd Army was also known as the Ghost Army. They were the army that wasn’t really there. The 23rd used inflatable tanks borrowed from the British and loudspeakers blasting the sounds of troops, equipment, and gunfire recorded at Fort Knox to mimic troops moving around the German positions. With this setup, they were capable of creating the illusion of thousands of troops moving through the countryside. They created dummy airfields, artillery positions, and troop bivouacs to make the German army think the Allies had set up bases in places where there actually no troops. They faked crossings of the Ruhr and Rhine rivers and staged positions along the Maginot Line and Hürtgen Forest, drawing German troops away from the actual troops and creating opportunities for other units to attack. At one point, they convinced part of the German army that a larger force of 30,000 men was surrounding them, creating fear and confusion that helped drive a German occupation force out one French town.

This is a really neat story (in fact I thought it was so cool I bought a t-shirt with the Ghost Army insignia on it) but sometimes I think that we might be part of a Ghost Army called the Church. If you look around there are buildings all over the place that bear the name church but are there really forces of and for good—Jesus style good—in them? I sometimes hear people talk about the ideas of church from time to time or get fired up about some religious based caused when a politician says the wrong or right thing, but other than voting or complaining on social media, are they doing anything? I have a hard time seeing the things that Jesus advocated for in his ministry and taught his disciples visibly in the world. For instance, if there is a large force of Jesus followers, why is so much hate in the world and why does so much of it come from religious leaders and religious people—especially on social media? If there is a large force of Jesus followers, why are there so many people left hungry, thirsty, clothesless, homeless? If there is a large force of Jesus followers, why are so many people so turned off by the church and the way they have been treated by the church? I could go on but I think you get the picture.

I realize that this little indictment is not a you guys should have done this but a we should have done this sort of thing. We have failed to be the church. We have gotten good at hiding behind the ideas of the church but we have failed—miserably at times—to live into the ideas. I think the greater Church has chosen to be a clearinghouse for arguing over doctrine rather than a sending house for missionaries of the Jesus Way into the world.

I can’t speak for you, but I can’t be a part of that kind of church anymore. I also can’t see leaving the church either. That leaves one option—reformation. I think it is time for a new reformation, a reforming of the Church from what we turned it into back to what Jesus called it to be—a place where the needs of people both spiritual and physical are met, a place where anyone and everyone is welcome to explore the possibilities of what it means to follow the Jesus Way, a place where no one is left out, behind, or beside the way. It should be a place where love of the person and the needs of the person is the deciding factor in ministry decisions. It should be a place where people look to as the example of who Jesus was and what he stood for and not a warning for what not to do with Jesus’ message or the Jesus Way.

Fanciful, unrealistic pipe dream? For some, maybe. For others it may just be a haven, a place to work towards and from to share the true gospel—the real good news— of Jesus. Otherwise, we may well lose the greater war against the darkness that we have created in this world and become a true ghost army—invisible, ineffective, nonexistent.