The third mandate Jesus issued regarding the witness of his followers is found in John 13, right after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. His humble and socially shocking demonstration apparently got a conversation going among the men. Jesus said to them (among other things):

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34f)

Jesus knew human nature pretty well to put his finger on the Achilles heal of many a church (and denomination). To state the matter positively, “The mutually lived-out heart love of Christians for one another will be the single greatest missionary force in the world.” (Dale Bruner, Commentary on John, 796). On the negative side, a lot of damage to our Christian witness occurs when, within the life of our congregations, we are unkind, rude, argumentative, or otherwise unloving. In every church I have served, my administrative assistant has been reduced to tears by the abusive incivility of callers who are members of the church! The wail always is, “But they are Christians; they’re supposed to be kind and loving.” Right on. So it hurts the Body when some find it justifiable to be condescending or demanding—not in the Spirit of Christ!

It is interesting that John focuses on Christ’s exhortation to his followers that they love one another. Matthew lifts up Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:43), and we certainly must do that. But John, in his gospel and in his letters, emphasizes the importance of loving one another as a sign of our faith’s genuineness and a requirement for our Christian witness. He is not saying, “Enjoy the love fest. Keep it to yourselves.” No, John’s Jesus is saying, “Love one another for the sake of others, so that nothing will obstruct their trust in Me.”

I checked in with my Coffee Ladies this week about this exhortation, and yes, sure enough, they each had a story of so-called Christians who turned them off to the church because they gossiped, bickered, or bad-mouthed others. It was truly a bummer to hear this. But when we do these things, we undermine and invalidate the gospel’s message; and who wants to take a chance on that kind of group?

The Apostle Paul is helpful here for describing love for the church. The famous 1 Corinthians 13 is not a passage about love in marriage, it is a description of what love is and is not in the life of the church:

06.13.14.Love Is Grid

In summary, love is not self-centered or insecure. Love extends tenderness to others, while abiding in God’s truth in full submission.

As many of my friends travel to Detroit today and tomorrow for the General Assembly of the PC(USA), which starts on Saturday, I am painfully aware that ours is a Christian tribe having trouble demonstrating love for one another. I do not think love, as Jesus promotes it, precludes honest and respectful debate. Nor do I think it is our prerogative to define for God and others what love is. Some “insisting on their own way” are saying to the church, “You must love me, and to do that you must accept my commitment to homosexuality. More than that, in order to love me, you must celebrate my commitment to homosexuality.” I do not think this is what Jesus meant by loving. Certainly one is to show utmost kindness and courtesy to the homosexually committed. There is no justification for rudeness or arrogance, which are unloving. But we are called to be patient (waiting for something yet to come), happy in the truth (obedient to the Word of God), willing to share the burden of others in the meantime, and hopeful for the transformation Jesus promises (new Life, free from sin).

So as you pray for the members of your own congregation and presbytery or district, could you also offer a prayer for the commissioners and observers as they begin to meet this weekend? “By this everyone will know that you are [Christ’s] disciples, if you have love for one another.” Make this a reality, Lord Jesus!

 

A recurring theme in the gospels, particularly in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, is the attitude required to pursue God’s purposes. Here are a few samples:

When the ten heard [about the power squabble between the sons of Zebedee], they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:24-28; parallels in all four gospels)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24; parallels in Mark and Luke)

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. (John 12:24-26)

After [Jesus] had washed [the disciples’] feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. (John 13:12-16)

What are the words that jump out in Jesus’ teaching? Servant, slave, take up cross, die, wash feet. Jesus exhorts his disciples to follow in his footsteps to serve others, deny themselves, adopt humility, and act sacrificially. In other words, dear readers, Jesus is asking us to step out of the way and defer to his will and Way, for the sake of the Kingdom.

This servanthood we are called to adopt is a serious commitment to the Lord’s agenda at the expense of ours. Availability to the Lord 24/7 is a way of life, rendering service that is as natural as breathing. By adopting this mindset (as well as choosing this active service) we opt out of competition, because our aim is simply to place ourselves at the bottom rung of the ladder in order to support and lift up everyone else. While it may seem so self-defeating as to be impractical if not impossible, the Lord says that if we do this we will not be defeated but ultimately honored (by the Audience of One).

But it does require “dying.” Dying to self, dying to ego, really letting go of my way in deference to the Lord’s way and possibly yours, too. This is about as easy as the mental and emotional transaction required to give up sugar permanently or to decide never again to celebrate one’s birthday. There is no question about its difficulty in the flesh, but in the Spirit we are able to die to self in order to live for God.

So what would it look like if we put ourselves into the Lord’s service? This is possible, by the way, while maintaining whatever vocation the Lord has given you. Being on call for the Lord means, in simple terms, that we are open to the ministry opportunities as they arise in a day’s time, as we go about normal business. Serving Christ means being alert to the needs of people around us, particularly those who are overlooked or intentionally bypassed by most people. A cursory look at church history demonstrates that Christians have been the ones willing to die to self, decline a fat salary in some lucrative business, and adopt a need as God’s calling upon their lives. The missionary movement of the 19th and 20th centuries provide many examples in Asia and Africa.

I have mentioned in previous posts about my college roommate Alene and her husband Steve who minister in Bomet, Kenya. Well, another of my Stanford roommates Maci Berkeley now lives among and ministers to a tribe of northern Mexicans in the Sierra Madre Mountains who previous had no medical care whatsoever. About twenty years ago, she and her orthopedic surgeon husband Mike left a successful practice in Aspen, CO (let that sink in for a minute) to start a new clinic in this remote location sandwiched between the realms of two drug lords. Over the years, the Berkeleys have managed to arrange for the donation of medical equipment, pharmacy items, and even staff to run the place and now have a thriving practice among the poorest of the poor. Their ministry is amazing and at times dangerous, but they are making a difference and giving testimony to the health and justice of the Kingdom of God.

Sacrificial servanthood is a hallmark of Jesus followers. Unless a seed dies and is buried in the ground, it cannot sprout and bear fruit. May we all realize the impact of our baptism and our conversion, to see ourselves buried with Christ and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, risen to make visible the Kingdom for the glory of God!

Next post: The third characteristic of Christ’s missionary style, loyal love.

I am in a unique season in my life; I have good news to share with just about anybody who will listen. My glad tidings, as my regular readers know, is that after six months of messing around with a diagnosis of lung cancer and all its treatments (chemo, radiation, and surgery), I am now cancer-free with little expectation that it will come back. Disclosing this part of my story is coming very naturally as I am welcomed back to the grocery store where I have been a regular customer for sixteen years. My hair stylist gave me my first post-chemo haircut ten days ago, and he held onto every word of my account of the past seven months. The presumably Buddhist pedicurist was genuinely blessed when I said my doctors had God’s help to heal me. The list goes on and on. The power to witness has overflowed out of the intensity with which I experienced God in my life this year.

As we bask in the afterglow of Pentecost celebrated by the church this past Sunday, I am thinking about how that experience propelled 120 disciples out into the city of Jerusalem (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit had given them the power to witness, and their good news was that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was offering new life to anyone who would believe in him. Many of these disciples were hicks from Galilee, and yet God gave them the supernatural ability to communicate with everybody, even the international crowd. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection simply rolled out of their mouths, and nothing could stop them from proclaiming and their audience from hearing.

Christians of our century, having been reminded of the mandate and power to witness by the feast of Pentecost, are urged to recognize the uniqueness of our calling. This is a good week to go over some of the aspects of our faith that make our mission not only distinct from the non-religious world but different from other religious groups world-wide. Jesus’ teaching leading up to his crucifixion pointed to his radical expectations. Particularly in the gospel of John, the last public discourses and private instructions he gave focused on how Jesus’ followers were to conduct themselves once he was gone from their sight (the “ascension” we talked about last week). I’d like to comment on three of these requirements for the missionaries Jesus sent out into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

First requirement: It is to Jesus, not ourselves, that we give witness. I’ve noticed over the years that church people are more apt to extol the virtues of their worshipping community than they are to extol the virtues of God. I think the psalmist really meant it when he wrote, “One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). When God has done something really cool, it’s hard to keep quiet about it.

And yet, many Christians are very quiet about Jesus. I can see a few reasons for this: 1) people experience Jesus as a quiet presence in the background of their lives, while in the forefront they are busy with other concerns; 2) people’s faith has waned since the first time they got to know Jesus by name, perhaps in childhood long ago; 3) people are afraid that sharing what God has done in their lives will be ridiculed or dismissed; 4) people have not actually experienced the presence of God at work in their lives, and therefore have nothing to say; and 5) people are worried that if they bring up God in conversation, somebody is going to ask them a question they can’t answer.

It is so much easier and more natural, they say, to talk about what’s going on at church or to invite someone to a concert happening there this weekend, or even to wax eloquent about feeling good and blessed without giving a hint as to the Source of that blessing. Right now, in the Presbyterian tribe, it’s easier to talk about hopes and expectations for next week’s General Assembly, which is a church activity, than to talk about the Lord of the Church himself.

Jesus made it quite clear that the outcome of our testimony would be God’s glory. Our job is to point people to what God is doing and to show gratitude for that. Of course it is possible that God is doing something in and through your church, and it is fair game to share that with others. But rather than praise the church, are we not called to praise God from whom the blessings flow and make know the mighty acts of God?

So, the first hallmark of Christian mission is that it is about Jesus, not about us. No other religious body lifts up the name of Jesus as Lord of all, head of the church, or shepherd of our souls. Some may acknowledge his teaching ability, his role as a prophet, or even his good and pure life. But nobody but the Christian bows and worships Jesus Christ as God-come-in-the-flesh to redeem the world. The power of the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to acknowledge the truth of biblical proclamation a d the mighty acts of God testified to therein. Given this first unique aspect of Christian mission, how are you doing talking about Jesus instead of yourself? What would equip you to do this better? Whom can you ask for help to develop skills or summon the courage for giving witness? Food for thought, and then power for action!

Next post: the second unique requirement for Christian mission, sacrificial servanthood.

Ministry without Power

June 6, 2014

As the church family awaits the celebration of Pentecost on Sunday, I have been reflecting on what it would have been like if the Spirit had not come as promised. From the testimony of the gospels and the book of Acts, we know that the disciples—waiting as instructed for “power from on high”—basically did nothing risky or bold in the interim. Unless you consider the nomination and election of a new elder to fall into that category . . . (see Acts 1:12:26).

I have two personal experiences to share that gave me an inkling of what it is like to minister without power. The first took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Pentecost Sunday, 1994. The pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Zimbabwe was called away on a family emergency the week before this holy day, and asked me to preach in his stead. I chose as my topic “The Power of Pentecost.” I climbed the staircase to the “birdcage pulpit,” and preached what was a good, solid piece of work on the Holy Spirit. But there was something wrong with the sermon; I did not feel the power of the Lord behind it. I told the pastor when he got home, and he solicited a few comments from parishioners. Their feedback affirmed my orthodox theology but acknowledged that the sermon was more treatise than testimony. Yes indeed, it is possible to preach “The Power of Pentecost” without power! I learned a big lesson that week: I need to take as much time preparing the preacher as I do the sermon.

The second story comes from the fall of 2006. It was late September and I was launching into the new “program year” at church, feeling by that time that my work there was drawing to a close. I had been applying for new pastoral positions for a few months, but nothing was materializing. It was a Saturday, and I was reading a New York Times article about women in the pastorate when God broke into my thoughts and out of the blue said, “Mary, your time at First Church is completed and I want you to move on. I am asking you to go before you have a new call in place. Trust me. And just to make sure that you do what I am requesting of you, I am withdrawing my power from your ministry.” It was so definitive and accompanied by the surety of God’s peace; I just knew I had to begin to take the steps to exit. And yes, God did withdraw his power from my work. I’m not sure the people knew this was happening, but I definitely felt it. God was calling out of me an obedience in one direction (exit) and making it clear that this was my only option. [For those with active imaginations, no, I was not being “chased out” by hostile elders; quite the contrary, things were sweet at the time.]

So what does that feel like, to be doing the Lord’s work without power? There is a sense of waiting, because one’s spirit knows that help is needed in order to have spiritual impact. There is a retreat into listening mode to hear how the Lord is redirecting one’s efforts. There is a summoning of a sense of duty to do the work faithfully without the consolations often present when power is flowing. There is a sense that one’s faith is being tested and that one’s motives are being examined (by God). And it becomes far easier to say “no” to the things that are counterproductive to God’s new plan emerging. But because ministry without power is not sustainable, a certain kind of misery also sets in, causing me for one to do a thorough “examination of conscience,” confession, and repentance. I think this is what Ignatius of Loyola had in mind for his spiritual exercises, which originally were designed to help disciples discern their vocational call.

I am happy to say that the mourning lasted only a little while, and in time the Lord rejuvenated me with his power and direction for the new life I have been leading since leaving that parish at the end of 2006.

Desiring the Lord’s power is not being selfish, it is an absolute necessity to rely on divine help to accomplish anything of lasting, eternal value. And so, in a very real sense, these days before Pentecost offer the simple reminder that we are to wait for the Lord’s power, stay in fellowship in the meantime, and with the help of fellow disciples to fully embrace the Lord’s energizing direction when it finally does come. It is not the time to barge ahead with our great ideas, our agendas, or our plans, without first asking God to confirm them by pouring out his Spirit and showing favor for those ideas, agendas, and plans that are actually his. [I am not saying that an idea that is popular is necessarily God’s will; I am saying that somehow we must sense God’s favor with an idea. I suppose this is a subject—that is, how do we detect God’s favor?—for another blog!]

We know what it feels like to force a size 10 foot into a size 7 shoe. If that is what you are feeling in the pursuit of some particular plan, may I suggest it might be time to check in with God about your reading of his will, and ask for wisdom and power to proceed in the right direction for the sake of his Kingdom.

Happy Birthday to Me!

June 5, 2014

Today is my birthday, and given the bout with the Beast this past year, one worth celebrating with gusto! We are having a few friends over to share dinner and birthday cake, and if family tradition prevails, I am entitled to special treatment all day. Actually, maybe all week—we try to stretch our luck as far as we can. Last year at this time, our kids were putting on for us a joint celebration of our milestone 60th birthday. Relatives and friends came from all over and made us feel very loved, putting us at the center of attention.

Those were the BC days; who could know that within three or four months, I would be so medically challenged and that every day would be a gift? Why should I get cancer? Unfair! Right?

After all, do we not deserve a long life without trouble? Am I not a special person around whom the universe revolves, if even for a day annually? Is it not true that “God danced the day I was born” and because of God’s great love and provision I can expect special treatment the rest of my life?

Well, yes and no. The sentiments I have expressed here come dangerously close to an entitlement mentality we find so irritating in others, even as we cultivate our own little universe personally. Such an attitude affects the way people relate to other while driving, while shopping, and yes, even while doing ministry. The fact is, we would love to get our own way, be deferred to, applauded and feted every day of our lives. Eve and then Adam showed this self-centeredness, King David even used it to justify his dalliance with Bathsheba. From a biblical standpoint, an entitlement mentality gets people into really big trouble because it comes from a need that can never be satisfied, even though we try.

Take biblical Israel as a case in point. A people of such humble beginnings—the first three generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hanging on by a thread—grew into a great nation as promised by God. God loved them and protected them, ultimately bringing them into the Promised Land and establishing them not only as a tribe but a nation.

As they grew in numbers and prestige, during the golden age of monarchy led by Saul, David, and Solomon, they began to develop a mindset of greatness. The great blessing God poured out upon them was perceived differently than it was intended. God poured out his grace (undeserved favor) and commissioned them to become a blessing to the world around them (blessed to be a blessing, Genesis 12:1-3). But they hoarded the blessing in fat-cat fashion, neglecting the poor and looking down on the needy and vulnerable. The prophets continuously brought this sin of pride to their attention, but their largesse led to national disaster despite prophetic pleas and warnings:

            How the faithful city [Jerusalem]
                        has become a whore!
                        She that was full of justice,
            righteousness lodged in her—
                        but now murderers!
            Your silver has become dross,
                        your wine is mixed with water.
           Your princes are rebels
                        and companions of thieves.
            Everyone loves a bribe
                        and runs after gifts.
            They do not defend the orphan,
                        and the widow’s cause does not come before them. (Isaiah 1:21-23)

The basic spiritual problem of entitlement is putting oneself at the center of life and universe, displacing God from his throne. You understand that this displacement is only a delusion, as nothing really can take the place rightly occupied by God. God is sovereign. But we think we can pull off the great magic trick and live the self-created fantasy of a world that revolves around our desires, our preferences, our timetable, or our tastes.

But can you just imagine what kind of world we would be living in if every person thought he or she was the center of the universe? Taken to its ultimate expression of selfishness, our world would be dominated by wars, ecological calamity, and violence. Oh, what am I saying? This is the world we live in! Mercy me, do I harbor the same selfishness and entitlement that fostered all that?!

Jesus says to us, “Yes, I love you and have gone to great lengths to pour my grace into your heart. Yes, I created you uniquely and you have a special role to play in my Kingdom. But it is my Kingdom, not yours! In order for you to fully realize its benefits, you must die to yourself and follow me. If you do this, you will be amazed at the impact you can have on the world and the glory that will return to my Father!”

I don’t think I can stop my friends from singing “Happy Birthday” tonight and blessing me with their good wishes. But as a person desiring to follow Jesus, as I receive that blessing, I will be asking God to show me how I can turn it around to become a blessing to others. Rather than inflate myself with thoughts of “I deserve this,” may the Spirit of Christ within me enlarge and empower my service to others, for their sakes and not my own!

Today as I continue exploring the implications for Jesus’ Ascension into heaven (as the Apostles’ Creed puts it), the spatial considerations are interesting and worthy of note. It turns out, referring to heaven as “up there” and distant from us is a bit misleading. Luke’s gospel (24:50) records, “Jesus left them and was taken up into heaven.” In Acts, he writes, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. [The disciples] were looking intently up into the sky as he was going . . .” The Greek translated “taken up” means to be carried off, to be removed. The “up” aspect of our translation is not necessarily a spatial reference. What was key is that Jesus was removed from their sight, obscured by a cloud. He was removed from physical limitations of space to reign alongside the Father who already transcends physical space. That means that God does not dwell in a place (that is, a physical location) but in fact fills the heavens and the earth where he always has access. Dallas Willard puts it this way: “God relates to space as we do to our body. He occupies and overflows it but cannot be localized in it. Every point in it is accessible to his consciousness and will, and his manifest presence can be focused in any location as he sees fit [as in the Incarnation]” (Divine Conspiracy, 76).

Practically speaking, the so-called ascension made Jesus available as spiritual presence to all people because he occupies all space that isn’t already taken up by something else (our bodies, all creation, etc.) The good news is that Jesus is very close, though invisible to the eye, and we are invited to relate to him, follow his lead, and summon him at any time. What I have been trying, clumsily, to describe is the immanence of Jesus Christ.

But there is still a transcendence to hang on to as well. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father to reign forever and ever! This is a spatial description of a spiritual reality that Jesus Christ is distinctly set apart from everything and everyone else, identified as “with the Father” in that unity he described in the great priestly prayer of John 17. He reigns over all and holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). This is a position of holiness, purity, and power, and no one else has it but Jesus. Our unholiness, as in “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), has separated us from God, who then feels distant and “up there.” Jesus changed that reality when he reconciled us to God and when he, by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelt in our mortal bodies by faith (Romans 8:11). But Jesus at the right hand of the Father will always be purer, higher, and greater than we are; of this there is no doubt. From this position—having God’s ear, so to speak—Jesus Christ intercedes for us to the Father (Romans 8:34). He bridges the gap of any “distance” between us, and makes known what we really need.

When Jesus described what he would be doing after his departure (I’m thinking of John 14 now), we get this sense that preparing a place for us and sending the Spirit could only be accomplished if Jesus were no longer in sight. It seems to me that Jesus’ disappearance was necessary in order for us to more fully experience the Trinity: God’s reign, Christ’s reconciliation, the Spirit’s empowerment. From this angle we cannot conclude that Jesus left his disciples but that he, in a sense, moved out of the way so that they could see more readily the full glory of God. In fact, once introduced to the “glory of God in the face of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:6), our vision by the Spirit is now expanded to see God at work through the dynamics of the Trinity, God’s full engagement with human beings to complete our redemption.

If this appreciation for the Trinity is a sign of spiritual progress to the Christian (the crux of Teresa of Avila’s point in Interior Castle), then of course the very visible public Jesus would want the shy member of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit, in Dale Bruner’s terminology) to shine forth. And does he ever, with a lot of racket and excitement on Pentecost Sunday!

So in summary, the ascension of Jesus made possible the following very practical dynamics:

1. His disciples were commissioned to step up and participate in God’s Kingdom agenda, following closely what Jesus had taught them.

2. His disappearance made possible his immanent presence to all regardless of their geographic location.

3. We were given access to the wonderful dynamics of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit.

4. Specifically, from his position on the heavenly throne, Jesus Christ pours out his Spirit upon his disciples.

5. Sitting at the right hand of the Father, Jesus intercedes for us (as does the Spirit who dwells in our hearts by faith—Romans 8:26).

 

We left off yesterday in the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection, pre-ascension period with just a glimpse of the magnitude of the commission he was imparting to his disciples. The Savior, loved and followed, was patiently instructing them on the basics of his identity, his purpose in coming, the relational implications of his crucifixion (redemption and forgiveness), and the importance of making him known throughout the world. Peter in particular was singled out to “feed my sheep,” (John 21:15-19), but all were sent to become “fishers of [people]” (Matthew 4:19). Regardless of the particulars, the disciples heard their commission as a beyond-the-imagination undertaking, so it was a good thing that Jesus promised power to get it done.

And then he left.

“He was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

Now wait. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, in their previous way of thinking. The clouds were to open and the Son of Man was to descend from the heavens to reign over all (Daniel 7:13-14). One can imagine them just looking at each other and rehearsing in their minds, “What did he say again?” They had another ten days to think about it, waiting in the Upper Room to which they soon retired (Acts 1:12f). “He wants us to do what?”

It reminds me of the heart-rending scene in Gravity [spoiler alert]. Mission commander Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) points to a distant space station and directs mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to navigate there, enter the station, and get herself home. And then Kowalski floats away to be of no help at all (or so we think). Stone’s panic, grief, and frustration are palpable. But clearly, she was commissioned to persevere and to do what was necessary to give witness to what had transpired. She had to summon every piece of training, every instruction so far given, and be fully present in the moment in order to survive.

Sounds a lot like some ministry days I have known: completely in over my head.

One time I pulled a fast one on my staff, coming down with a serious bout of food poisoning (campylobacter) just 36 hours before we were all to depart for a weekend session-staff retreat. It became clear I had a significant infection (I would be sick for almost a week) and I was not going to be able to go with the team or speak at the retreat. So I called them to a meeting by speaker phone and let them know: “I’m not going to be with you for this….you’re going to have to lead it yourselves….there’s no backup . . . here’s what you need to tell them . . . remember everything I’ve been telling you the last few weeks . . . etc. etc.” They told me later they were looking at each other wide-eyed, like deer in the headlights.

But what do you do under such circumstances? You begin to follow very carefully the instructions you’ve been given. The disciples returned to Jerusalem and met in the Upper Room. They were joined, by the way, by dozens more close friends and followers of Jesus. They waited, as instructed; they took care of administrative business in the meantime (Presbyterians are good at this). But they knew, at some point, they were going to be off on some kind of adventure that would be laid out for them soon enough.

If Jesus had not disappeared from their sight, the disciples no doubt would have hung on his every word, stayed right by his side both to protect and be protected, and otherwise keep his fellowship to themselves. They probably would not have gained too much more ground in the ministry-skills department either. I mean, when you have Jesus right there to pray over bread and fish, why do you have to go to Costco to buy provisions (or actually learn how to cook!) for a crowd on Homeless Ministry night?

You get the idea. Jesus’ goal for his followers was nothing less than to become his agents, fully empowered and equipped to make the Kingdom of God known, visible, and effective. He had taught them enough. He had demonstrated skills enough. He had given them enough practice sessions. He had given them feedback enough. Now it was time for them to stand on their own two feet (upon the wings of the Spirit, I have to add) and fully cooperate with the “program” Jesus had laid out.

Did they feel ready? Probably not. Was there anything they lacked to do the work? Only the Spirit, who was coming soon. As the Apostle Peter wrote later in his second letter:

3His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. 5For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8).

Next post: What other implications does the Ascension of Jesus hold for his disciples?

I am feeling particularly grateful for the discipline of writing this blog, mostly because I have failed to produce anything in the last week and am reminded of how it keeps me centered if I do. The good news is that my energy level is near normal and I have been busy re-entering my world, including going back to active duty (part time) at the church I have served. No excuses here, just an observation that the writer’s life is a lot harder to structure than you might think! Life happens, people call, requests come in, and whoosh! There goes a day (or two, or three).

The other factor challenging me anew is that there are just too many daily jobs that are best done “first thing in the morning.” Exercise and blogging are constantly slugging it out for priority, so that situation needs sorting, especially now that the weather is heating up. I reveal all this in extremely good humor, grateful to God for meaningful work, good health, and the joy of being his disciple.

So in all the hub-bub, I missed a timely comment on Ascension Thursday, which was last week. Because the message of that day (the Word) is so germane to Life as We Know It, I will settle on “better late than never.” Here goes:

The disciples, blown away by the news and unfolding significance of Christ’s resurrection, have forty days with him. His appearances are widespread (up to 500 people at one time, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:6) and, as noted in my previous post, there are times when he surprises them by cooking breakfast on the Galilean beach or otherwise popping in. During this five-week period, Jesus’ messages are somewhat sparse and it doesn’t appear that the disciples comprehend much of the future. So some time between Day 1 and Day 40, a Thursday as we celebrate it on the church calendar, Jesus meets up with the Eleven for a farewell speech and a charge (Matthew 28):

16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and [lit. Therefore, as you go...] make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Luke tells it this way:

44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Luke recaps the story at the beginning of the Book of Acts:

3After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

Clearly, Jesus is preparing his followers for something big, but not what they might imagine. The question about restoring the kingdom to Israel reveals their Messianic script. Now believing that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, they expect he is going to take over the universe and restore sovereignty to Israel, right? Jesus deftly hands that question off to the Father, and instead gives them a set of instructions for right here, right now:

1. You have a special calling because you have personally witnessed my life, death, and resurrection. You will be my witnesses.

2. You’re fanning out from this place with a job to do.

3. That job is making disciples by two means, incorporating them into the Fellowship through baptism and teaching them everything I have told you.

4. You can’t do this job without some special help, so . . . wait for it! But then . . .

5. Once officially empowered, you will turn the world upside down.

With their prior hopes of a Messianic take-over, I suspect that the disciples figured Jesus would do all the work of ushering in the Kingdom. They could go back to their fishing or other livelihoods and bask in the glory soon to overtake them. But no; Jesus commissions them for service that would be the primary focus of their lives, whether they preached or created Christian communities or served in some other capacity along the Way. That alone is a rather staggering thought, because we of course stand—in our generation—as recipients of the Great Commission also.

As I re-enter my life, transformed though I be, I am challenged to accept the requirement of effort as part of my job in Christ’s Kingdom. No, no, my friends, not “works” earning salvation, but the role God has given me (and you!) to demonstrate and make visible the reality of Christ’s reign on earth. So no matter how busy we get with what we think is “real life,” our real calling is to live into the Great Commission and do the work that is not finished yet. That work is difficult, sometimes without visible fruit, requiring ingenuity and passion, sacrifice and service. And there is nobody else to do it besides us!

In my next post, I will explore the significance of Christ’s Ascension.

Casting a Wider Net

May 28, 2014

Ministry transitions are sometimes difficult to navigate. There is always the pesky need to “make a living” while following Jesus into the unknown. In the hour-long Q & A with almost 200 Ugandan pastors last August, one of the dominant themes was financial support for the pastors who desired to work in the ministry full-time. They were frustrated because the overwhelming demands of pastoral care and the need to work a job that would pay their living expenses clashed. The deep poverty of their parishioners—a pastoral care issue in its own right—meant that the community did not have the funds to support a full-time minister and cover a church budget. Mind you, their congregations’ expenses were minimal because they did not have a lot of assets to maintain; but still, their pastors needed to eat and provide for their own families. The advice to them was, “Get a job where you can find one, and work like your parishioners do to make a living. The ministry will by necessity flow around your labor.”

In this period of the church year, between Easter and Pentecost, I am pondering how Jesus’ eleven remaining disciples managed what appeared to be a major ministry transition. We have precious little biblical data about the activities of the disciples after their world turned upside down on Good Friday and then Easter. Matthew mentions only that the disciples followed Jesus’ post-resurrection instruction to meet him at “the mountain” in Galilee, where they saw him, worshipped him, and received the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Mark, in an epilogue the earliest manuscripts do not include, focuses on the “lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe” the testimony of those who had seen the resurrected Christ (Mark 16:9-14). So clearly, there were some disciples who were sitting on their duffs or otherwise occupied, paralyzed in the face of the gospel’s implications. Luke records more close encounters with the disciples, including the two on their walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and the Eleven, assembled in Jerusalem, with whom Jesus ate (24:36-43).

It is John who gives us a tantalizing clue as to the ongoing activity of his followers: Jesus appears to the gathered disciples locked behind closed doors (John 20:19-23), then to Thomas the Twin who missed that appearance and doubted that the Lord was risen (20:24-29). “Afterward,” that is, some time later but within the 40-day period between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus appeared again to his disciples who were fishing in the Sea of Galilee. It might have been a foray out on the lake for old time’s sake, or it might have been a routine income-producing necessity. In either case, the night of trolling was futile; they caught nothing. Early the next morning, Jesus in his new post-resurrection body, called out to them from the shore and told them to try casting their nets on the other side of the boat. When they did so, the nets filled beyond capacity and they couldn’t even haul the catch in. At this point, they recognized Jesus and swam the hundred yards to shore for a joyful reunion (21:1-14).

Following a freshly cooked breakfast on the beach, Jesus took Peter aside to ask, “Do you love me?” When Peter answered (three times), “Yes,” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” and began to tell him what was to come (21:15-19). Peter went on to lead the new Jesus-following movement, along with James and John, with Jerusalem (not Galilee) as their base of operations. We hear nothing more about the other eight disciples (except for the Pentecost event in Luke 2). What is the possibility that among the original eleven, the only “full-time Christian workers” were Peter, James, and John, and the other eight (plus Matthias, who was elected to replace Judas) were self-supporting laymen who lived out their faith and the Great Commission in the marketplace? [More on that topic in a later post.]

I ask the question because one of the ministry transitions I am seeing more of these days is the move from full-time pastoring to some other line of work. In the PC(USA) tribe, there are more trained and ordained “teaching elders” (i.e. ministers) than there are positions as church pastors. I am among those who, sometime between 2006 and 2011, abandoned what was a futile search for a full-time pastorate and found other things to do in the Lord’s name. This included teaching for Fuller Seminary, a wonderful well of challenge that has since dried up.

It seems as though the Lord, through these circumstances, has suggested casting my nets on the other side of the boat. I have a deep assurance that fruitful ministry will be found in another kind of “fishing.” Hence my reassignment to the ministry of writing while maintaining ties in a local congregation where I (will, as of June 1) have part-time pastoral responsibilities.

The missional good news in all of this is that Jesus’ followers are dispersing into the world. They carry with them the gospel of hope and salvation and plant seeds through their teaching-by-example. Yes, they must “make a living” somehow, and I will be the first to say that finding that occupation can be frustrating and diverting. But if we receive the challenge as a reassignment from the Lord, there is great potential for filling the nets! So my prayer for you, even as it continues for myself, is that we find great joy in serving Christ through our work, whatever that turns out to be. I pray that we would be fruitful witnesses of the resurrection as we live in its power, and that we would be surprised and humbled by the power of God at work within and through us.

As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

When Jesus bid his soon-to-be disciples, “Follow Me,” they dropped their nets and came alongside the itinerant preacher from Galilee. That was some invitation! Suddenly, nothing was more important to these fishermen than staying in close proximity to Jesus of Nazareth. They had demonstrated skills at fishing, though this would be sorely tested and Jesus would be proven superior at the sport (Luke 5:4-11). Nevertheless, when Jesus beckoned, their fishing ability became an item on their resumés, and a new work path unfolded before them. They would be called upon to transfer their fishing prowess to “fishing for people.”

I feel like that is happening to me. My experiences as musician, full-time pastor, Presbyterian activist, and academician have shaped me, but in order to follow Jesus I must put down those nets and “fish for people” another way. Redirecting the gifts and skills God has given, I believe that it is time for me to embrace the discipline and ministry of writing as my primary focus. Perhaps I have mentioned before that I have maybe four books in my brain waiting to come out, and at this stage in life it seems right to make that endeavor a priority.

Writing requires quiet time alone, and I have proven in the last few years that I can function productively while working by myself (and know how to get people-contact when I need it). From a personality standpoint, as well as the cancer experience this year that radically quieted my life, thoughtful reflection has become a necessary part of my routine. The affirmation of friends and responses to my blogs have suggested that a potential readership exists beyond my classroom or pulpit reach; in other words, writing books can expand my ministry of teaching to a wider audience. Such a lifestyle switch is also an acknowledgment that any sort of administration-laden “church job” would feel confining and diverting from my call.

Having made the case for writing, I also realize how important it is for me to interact with people at a deep level. The daily visits of friends, my “helping hands” during my cancer treatment, not only met this need but also became the context for examining ideas, making disciples, and “exegeting people” with whom I wish to communicate. Not only does this regular fellowship test my thoughts, but it also exercises me spiritually. For this reason, I want to maintain some kind of pastoral practice in the faith community. A part-time contract at a local church is in the works, as I feel ready to emerge from my medical leave and resume my public service.

Saying “yes” to these two core activities—writing and part-time pastoral service—means saying “no” to other activities. After cheering on the Presbyterian Renewal Network’s advisory team going to Detroit for the PC(USA) General Assembly in June, I will retire from denominational activism. Ramping into that decision, I will not be going to Detroit personally, in order to maintain my pulmonary rehab and to avoid absorbing the spiritual toxicity so prevalent in these meetings. [Hasn’t my body taken in enough toxicity—chemo and radiation—this year?]

The life change I undergo does not in any way render my past experiences or my present skills as irrelevant, wasted, or misguided. In fact, I truly believe that nothing is wasted in God’s economy! It will be interesting to see how my history feeds my present calling and ministry effectiveness. However it all comes out, my desire is that you would be edified and my Lord would be glorified. Hold me to that, will you, dear reader?