Many years ago I saw a regional theater production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Children of Eden. A theatric rendition of the first few chapters of Genesis is certainly enough to bring me out on a Friday night! It was a fascinating interpretation of Eden, Adam and Eve, the snake, and the tragic human choice to sin against God’s will. What I remember most vividly is the form the temptation took:

The Garden on stage was fenced off around the edges, defining its parameters and focusing attention on God’s realm. But soon the snake starts talking to Eve, and introduces a new word to her vocabulary, the word “ beyond.” Look over there, Eve, beyond the fence is something you should examine! Yes, beyond the boundary that has limited your experience and deprived you of full knowledge. Yes, beyond this line is something beautiful, and bright, and so intriguing. It’s worth checking out!

The way Schwartz conveys the story, it is one word that opens the door to error. One concept just close enough to the truth but beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy opens the gates of Eden for her. The door opens not towards her enlightenment, it turns out, but to her exit.

The Apostle Paul understands the power of words, of rhetoric, and of ideas. If wrong (meaning incorrect) ideas lodge in our heads, the way out of orthodoxy is paved. Something along this line was happening in Colossae, though scholars disagree on which “wrong idea” was being promulgated there. Doesn’t matter. We all know that there are plenty of unsubstantiated but enticing ideas swirling about our airspace, so Paul’s word is just as important for us as it was to the first century church in Colossae:

8See to it that no one takes you captive through
philosophy and empty deceit (NIV: hollow and empty philosophy),
according to human tradition,
according to the elemental spirits of the universe (Gk. stoicheia),
and not according to Christ.
9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
10and you have come to fullness in him,
who is the head of every ruler and authority.

Paul’s first command in verses 6-7 was framed in the positive, an exhortation to continue our lives in Christ. The next command here is in the negative: “Be sure no one takes you captive . . ..” The language evokes a sense of urgency about preventing spiritual kidnapping. What makes a person vulnerable to such an attack? solitary travel, emotional neediness leading to gullibility, not paying attention to one’s surroundings, to name just a few factors. In spiritual terms, the Apostle Peter says elsewhere that God’s opponent (the evil one) is prowling like a lion to see whom it can devour (1 Peter 5:8). The image is apt here.

It is up to the believer to be on alert and to thwart intellectual captivity that uses “hollow and empty philosophy” as its snare. A strategy for spiritual safety includes traveling in groups, Christian fellowship that is rooted in biblical and historical faith; working through the events of life (with help if need be) that leave one scarred or hurt; continuing to learn from the Scriptures so you are very familiar with its vocabulary; and becoming aware of the hollow deceptions rampant within our culture. Do you hear the special word to the sojourner, the de-churched, those who are done with church? It is essential for our spiritual health to get back into fellowship that holds tightly to the gospel.

Paul here attributes the bad ideas not just to wayward, intellectually wandering humans, but to the stoicheia, the elementary principles of the spiritual realm that are opposed to Christ. He is telling the Colossians that they must reject the deceits and promises of an empty philosophy that are opposed to Christ’s person, work, and teaching.

Forget these other gods, Paul says, it is Christ in whom all the truth and goodness of deity dwells bodily! And you, my friends, have come to the spiritual place where you, too, find your spiritual completeness in him. Being found in him, you are aligned with the only One who has power and dominion over every other ruler or authority.

So just as one word, “beyond,” drew Eve and then Adam astray, so it is one Word, Jesus, who has brought us back to spiritual safety. With verses 3 and 4 of the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” we close:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.

 

Almost forty years ago, my husband Andy and I agreed to receive each other as husband and wife. We made some commitments then that have, thankfully, stood the test of time. We were young; I had just turned 22 and Andy was not far behind at 21.8 years of age. But our vows were uttered with great confidence and joy. I’ve never been more sure of a decision in my life than that one.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the exchange of wedding vows was a defining moment for both of us. We were just starting out life as adults, and with marriage we understood that our lives would be lived together as a team. We knew full well that we were not perfect individuals, but ours was a good match and our faith in each other (not to mention God) was strong.

We had been taught well by the good examples of both our sets of parents. Our Christian community had provided marvelous resources, and even more role models, to help us visualize a good marriage that could withstand the rigors and pressures of everyday life. It was clear from the outset that this was to be a new lifestyle rooted in each other. That meant that our primary friend and top priority in time and attention would be our spouse. We shared each other’s problems, tackled homebuilding and childrearing as a couple, and defined life around an intimate union. We built something together: a relationship, a home, a family.

Over the years and decades, we have met various challenges and encouraged one another “for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.” We have both changed a lot, and yet because we have been so joined in spirit and in hope through the years, we have changed together. And for the most part, that change has been growth and maturity, as we became better able to handle the new challenges of a fifth decade together.

I share this not only to give thanks for the wonderful grace God has poured out on me through my husband, but also to use the illustration that the Apostle Paul did in describing the church. Not in Colossians, but most notably in Ephesians (a closely related letter), Paul likens the relationship between Christ and the Church to marriage (Ephesians 5:21ff).

So imagine, as Paul gives the following exhortation to the Colossians, that he is calling his readers to the life-defining relationship with Jesus, whom he has extolled in the previous chapter.

6As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord,
continue to live your lives in him,
7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith,
just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

By receiving Christ, Paul means here that the young Christians in Colossae have taken hold of something (actually Someone) that was given, or transmitted to them, and they embraced the Lord as their own. The Christ Jesus he is talking about is the One who is God’s image, God’s wisdom, and God’s mystery (cf. N.T. Wright’s commentary)—the very one! If we are in union with this Christ, then, Paul says, continue to live “in him.” He is still alive—the Risen Lord—and by the pouring out and indwelling of his Spirit, we are joined to him in faith.

To live in Christ simply means that we align our lives with him, find our life’s encouragement and emotional stability in him, learn what we need to know from him, and draw upon the Spirit’s power to do this.

Paul is saying that if we have received Christ, then we are to live a new way, with a new set of habits and behaviors that are consistent with Christ’s way of life. [Later in the book, Paul will contrast the old life with the new.] This new life is possible because we have been “rooted and built up in him.” We have been planted in the rich soil of the Spirit’s life, where living water and spiritual nourishment sustain us. We have been matured under his guidance, in his light, and with his power. We have been taught the faith (and yes, I think this means the content of the Christian faith, centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ the Lord), so that we might know the difference between truth and falsehood.

As stewards of this treasure, life’s way is accompanied by gratitude. It is important for the saints (that’s us) to remember what it was like to “receive” Jesus and the difference he has made since that day or season to mature us. Our basic stance before the Living God is awe and thanksgiving.

Sojourners, in your desire to be done with the church (at least for now), please do not forget what God has done for you and how the Body of Christ, his Bride, has nurtured your understanding of God and established you in the faith. You got the gospel somehow, and you responded to it. Chances are, it was Christians who led you into an understanding of the Savior and his work, and who helped you align your life around him. It is also likely that you grew in faith because you were part of a learning community with faith as its subject. It is time to give thanks for that and to consider how your life can put into action the intent of their teaching and Christ’s call.

Yesterday’s post was the twelfth in this Bible study series on Colossians. I am pausing here today to make some comments and to solicit yours. It’s time for a mid-course assessment.

First, some observations:

  1. My readership has plummeted. I don’t think you can gain access to my “site stats,” but during this series my daily average readership has been just slightly over the average during periods in which I have not posted at all. Ouch.

  2. My original readership was born out of my accounts (starting in 2011) of some rather intense activity within the realm of the PC(USA), when I was playing a fairly unique role as legal counsel in church disciplinary cases. Those days are behind me (not because of any change to my basic commitments, but because that work is now done). I think it is difficult to shift focus without stopping and starting a whole new blog with a new identity. Is this really true?

  3. My readership spikes depending on the headline. So for instance, when I introduced this series with a piece on “When the Church Betrays You,” I got four times as many hits than an average day since. I have noticed this before, when my topic (going back eighteen months or more) was church politics. An outraged or alarming title immediately gathered a larger readership. This dynamic bothers me a lot. I think I appreciate more why negative press and negative campaigning “sell.” But I don’t like it.

  4. There will always be readers who find me through search engines and specific topics. The all-time top post (most hits over time) is “A Brief Comparison of ECO and EPC,” originally posted in February of 2012.

  5. For a blog entitled Bringing the Word to Life, it is particularly disappointing that my lowest readership occurs when I “do Bible study” in this space. What is this saying about the people I am trying to reach? They have enough Bible study on their own or in fellowship? They do not like the blog format for contemplating the Scriptures? They are more interested in church politics and negativity than they are making a positive investment in their spiritual lives? You see where my mind goes on this. It’s not pretty.

  6. Or perhaps, what is called for here is something more meaty, lengthy, pithy, and scholarly, and my approach in the Colossians study has just been too watered down to be much good.

Why does this matter to me? Because I spend at least 90 minutes a day working on this, and I would like to know if it is bearing fruit or if I should redirect my efforts. Let me know what you think! I will resume with Colossians, chapter 2, when and if I feel there is enough support for continuing. If there is something I could add that would help the material be useful or transferable (e.g. the addition of study questions), let me know that, too.

In the meantime, we all have a daily challenge to use our time well for the Kingdom, and I hope God is directing you to places and occasions where you can be effective.

 

 

I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
24I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions
for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
25I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you,
to make the word of God fully known,
26the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations
but has now been revealed to his saints.
27To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles
are the riches of the glory of this mystery,
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
28It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone
and teaching everyone in all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
29For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

Chapter 1 of Paul’s letter to the Colossians culminates in a testimony by the author. He offers a glimpse of his motivation for a very difficult ministry, a tenure that has required tenacity, courage, wisdom, and spiritual power to conduct. There are three themes woven together in today’s passage: the gospel as mystery revealed, Paul’s call as servant of this gospel, and how the gospel has been made known.

The Gospel as Mystery Revealed: The word of God—the Word written and the Word Become Flesh in Jesus—is God’s way of making known his eternal purposes. The Jews certainly had a lengthy and complete corpus of Writings (we call the Old Testament) that demonstrated God’s relationship with his creation (and with them) from the very beginning of time. In these writings, the history of Israel was laid out, God’s expectations for a covenant relationship were made clear, the Commandments were issued, and leadership was instructed and appointed for service over at least two thousand years. All of this activity pointed to the anticipation of a Messiah, the Savior, who would save the people from their sins. Jesus is that Savior. He is announced as the Word Become Flesh, in whom the fullness of God resides. In previous verses, Paul has eloquently expressed the majesty and realism of Jesus Christ and the meaning of his life and death. And now, Paul announces that the same Christ—eternal, present at creation, fully God and fully man, preeminent over all creation—is in you.

By virtue of his indwelling, he imparts the hope of glory. We get a taste of what is to come because the One Who Is, God himself known to us as Jesus Christ, is installing eternal life in us. This is the great news in two parts: Christ’s presence within us, and the knowledge that gives us of our own eternal destiny in the light and life of God’s glory.

What was a mystery to those who came before Jesus is now made known. This is knowledge for everybody, not just an elite few as the Gnostics taught.

Paul’s Call as Servant of This Gospel: We gain some insight into Paul’s motivation for proclaiming this message of hope in Jesus Christ. Remember that he is writing toward the end of his life (as far as we can tell) while under house arrest in Rome. He has been through a lot over a period of at least twenty years, traveling around Asia Minor and Greece, primarily, spreading the gospel. He has counted himself a servant to Christ and his message, and suffering has been a major part of his experience as an evangelist. He sees his afflictions over the years as the natural follow-on to Christ’s sacrifice. If Jesus had ventured forth from Israel, he would have encountered the same resistance Paul was experiencing in his name. It’s Paul’s turn and Paul’s time to continue in Christ’s footsteps doing Christ’s work to establish the church, equip its leadership, and secure its future. It is only Jesus Christ that Paul is serving, no other, and Paul is all in and rejoicing in the fruit of his labor.

Paul’s task as servant of the gospel is “to make the word of God fully known.” By this Paul means the Word Become Flesh, Jesus, himself; but Paul also means the content of the gospel as in transmittable information, interpretation of the Scriptures, and doctrine that will carry the church forward. We have ample evidence that Paul’s task includes both the Word Incarnate and the Word Written in his understanding of his commissioned duty. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . .” and “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, . . .” (1 Corinthians 11:23). And one final example, in 2 Timothy 2: “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” Jesus acknowledged his role as conveying the words of truth given to him by the Father to share with his followers (John 17:8-17). Yes, indeed, God has made know the mystery of the gospel, so that it is hidden no longer!

The Characteristics of the Gospel Servant: Often in Paul’s letters, he writes personally about what it has cost him to proclaim the gospel in a hostile environment. The road has not been easy for him. So perseverance is the first quality of an evangelist. Prophetic faithfulness is evident in Paul’s ministry too, as he is willing to tell things as they are and help people see their need for the Savior. He is a patient teacher. The Colossians know that he spent three years in Ephesus, until he was sure that he had accurately and completely conveyed the truth about God, humanity, and Jesus Christ in order to build a church there. Paul focused on God’s goals rather than any professional career path the world would dictate. He was a great example of downward mobility, demonstrated by his imprisonment at the time of this letter. And finally, Paul would be the first to tell you how necessary it was to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. All these characteristics came into play to fulfill Paul’s purpose. He was always pouring knowledge and wisdom and insight into those he hoped some day to present to God mature in Christ.

For those of us who may not have a clear, institutionally blessed, position in the church from which to minister are nevertheless challenged. Paul didn’t have one, either, but he sought to uncover the mysteries of the gospel to people otherwise wrapped in worldly points of view. We certainly can do that as we go about our business each day. We can believe that our presence in our homes and communities makes a difference. We can act as though what we say is as important as how we live the life, and that the two messages must meet. We must also be prepared for the reality that gospel witness can be costly. Paul had the moral support of the people who had previously received his message and embraced Christ. Do you?

[Got sidetracked yesterday, first with Jury Duty and then with the Giants-Pirates wildcard match-up last night. Okay, I am back in focus!]

In my last post, I suggested that just because something is new or experimental, it does not necessarily follow that it is good or orthodox. The catalyst for my comments was an “outside the box” worship service conducted during the last meeting of San Francisco Presbytery.  It makes sense now to explore whether the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other historic mainline denominations have fallen off the deep end in their efforts to try something new. The motivation, it seems, would be to attract new people to worship, to reach the next generation, or to break through the culture’s din to get its attention.

An oft-quoted Scripture that is bent out of shape to justify all kinds of practices within my tribe, the PC(USA), is this one:

            Do not remember the former things,
                        or consider the things of old.
            I am about to do a new thing;
                        now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18f)

How is it that Christians are to be open to “a new thing” God might be doing while retaining orthodox, historic doctrine? I realize that I have framed the question such that progressives have an opening to say, “Old doctrine prevents us from doing a new thing. The new thing is more important; we should jettison the old doctrine.” The “Reformed and always reforming” crowd goes so far as to say that chucking the old doctrine is part of our Reformed Heritage! I have contested that view before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission and on committees I have served, to no avail. Some of my previously written thoughts are found here.

The present generation is restless for the new thing, intellectually and spiritually speaking. I have seen this dynamic among friends who have moved to the left on issues and practices. Their journey begins with a sense of boredom with the old ideas, an attraction to the new and novel, a lure toward creative theology. This restlessness is an almost universal motivator, as described by the writer of Ecclesiastes:

            All things are wearisome (or, perhaps, restless);
                        more than one can express;
            the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
                        or the ear filled with hearing. (Ecclesiastes 1:8-9)

The problem identified here is spiritual dissatisfaction. What exactly about the Christian faith is less than satisfactory, enough to cause a person to let go of the anchor of God’s Word and paddle out to sea spiritually? Does this spiritual dissatisfaction leave us open to the enticing words of the tempter, “Did God really say . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1ff). I think so. I also think some people are just plain explorers by personality. They have made it a habit over a lifetime to keep moving on to new thoughts, new views, new commitments. Sometimes that has meant leaving behind treasures, like the Word of God, as eyes and ears perk up to novel new ideas that tickle in just the right place.

From an adult development standpoint, a person’s worldview naturally expands, as new experiences require new categories of thinking. What used to be a satisfactory answer to a heartfelt question is no longer adequate to cover a new, very real, often very difficult experience in life. As an example, a little girl age four loses her mother in a fatal car accident. An explanation is given that is appropriate for a four-year-old. But at twelve, that same answer simply does not address the new, expanded question in that child’s heart, and someone must tackle it at the twelve-year level. At age thirty-two that same little girl with adult questions is left dissatisfied by an answer given twenty years before. With good guidance, this woman can land in a good place emotionally and spiritually. But for some in a search for answers, paths of “healing” can go in directions that have warning signs along the way. The seeker may miss them in the pain or confusion of the moment. I’ve seen it happen, and it is very sad.

The Scriptures teach that restlessness of this kind can never be satisfied fully by earth-bound things, because nothing actually is “new”:

            What has been is what will be,
                        and what has been done is what will be done;
                        there is nothing new under the sun.
           Is there a thing of which it is said,
                        “See, this is new”?
            It has already been,
                        in the ages before us. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

Meanwhile, in our search for what cannot satisfy (thinking of Isaiah 55:1-2), we find ourselves at a dead-end. The so-called “new” thing soon feels just as stale and ineffective as the “old.” To this dynamic, the Word of Life introduces the incarnational, intrusive, and transformative power of God, who by doing the old thing makes all things new. More on that tomorrow.

 

One of the first things a counselor (of any type) will tell you is that if you want to change a behavior, the best place to start is by monitoring what your current behavior is. If you want to change your eating habits, for instance, you would keep a food log for a couple weeks to observe what you are actually putting in your mouth. Then when it is time to start the behavioral change project, you know where your points of vulnerability are, you know how much of a change is required, and you get a pretty good idea of what to do to change course. If you are honest and complete in your log, self-monitoring is also a good foil against self-deception. Human beings have a huge capacity to sweep reality under the rug, underestimate its impact, or avoid accountability simply by changing the facts one keeps track of.

It has been said that what gets measured gets valued. A few years ago, Willow Creek Community Church came to the conclusion that they were measuring the wrong signs as indicators of their success. While they attracted a lot of people into their worship services (easy to measure), there was a disappointing lack of evidence that the throngs were actually growing more mature and deeper in their faith commitment (something notoriously hard to measure, but everybody would agree is more important than just church attendance). When it comes to measuring progress in the Christian life, congregations and denominations have a difficult time getting to the real issues related to discipleship.

One such area where I think a study should be conducted [within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tribe] is the relatively new 1001 New Worshiping Communities project trumpeted at the 2012 General Assembly. As was reported in my blog last week, one such new worshiping community sponsored within San Francisco Presbytery seems to have gone sideways, as evidenced by the so-called worship experience it led for the September presbytery meeting. And yet, at the 2014 General Assembly, news of the proliferation of new, experimental communities was applauded based primarily on the number of new groups formed and grants distributed (easy to track). It did not report the number of groups that formed and failed nor did it report the theological center-of-gravity. I do not believe that the numbers collected so far are telling the real story, but you can find that report by going to www.pc-biz.org and adding key words 14-01 to see the story the General Assembly was given.

Lest you get the wrong impression, let me just say that I am all in favor of the mission of new worshiping communities that seek to make and shape new disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen to that! On its website, 1001 New Worshiping Communities defines itself:

New

  • Seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture

Worshiping

  • Gathered by the Spirit to meet Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament

  • Sent by the Spirit to join God’s mission for the transformation of the world

Community

  • Practicing mutual care and accountability

  • Developing sustainability in leadership and finances

A great starting point, n’est-ce pas? In the elaboration of this definition, “varied forms” and “innovation” have high value. In general, and within parameters, I have no problem with experimentation and innovation, because many congregations survive on the maxim WADITWB (the seven last words of the church: We’ve Always Done It That Way Before).

But immediately, I am also cautious. The word innovation, and its Presbyterian cousin “Reformed and Always Reforming” (a misquote/mistranslation of one of our hallmarks, “Reformed, and always needing reform according to the Word of God”), is fraught with temptations not only to “think outside the box” but to “go to la-la land.” My pastor friend Frank Jackson, now with Jesus, used to say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” That is why Presbyterians rely on church discipline to keep ourselves accountable to a biblical standard—or at least we’re supposed to.

The PC(USA) and some congregations within it have not demonstrated an ability or a willingness to hold one another accountable. Recent history has shown, for example in Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery, that we are unable to define orthodoxy and therefore cannot “practice accountability” for it. What suffers, as the higher value becomes innovation, is sound doctrine, spiritual focus on the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) in the context of Word and Sacrament, and a differentiation between the church and culture. Hence it is possible for the experience we endured two weeks ago to be tolerated and to be perpetuated by PC(USA) grant money.

Wouldn’t this be a great Ph.D. project for someone: to visit the new worshiping communities and report on the intangibles of Christian discipleship, through carefully designed interview collection and observations of behavior within those communities? Who wants to take up the challenge?

In earlier posts, found here and here, I shared a couple of methods for generating discussion on topics needing theological reflection. I used 4-MAT and Case Studies often in the Fuller Seminary classes I taught. Versions of both have been helpful in the church Sunday school context, but I fell upon a less formal approach that got excellent traction in the last church I served.

Years ago, I started an adult Sunday school class we called “Hot Off the Press.” The idea was to engage in discussion of world and national events from a faith perspective. My agenda was to model and teach “ordinary” Christians how to think, in a world that often values feelings more than rationality. Each week I brought a news story that begged for a Christian response. We read it together, and brainstormed the issues it raised. We then considered what God might say about the situation and what actions we might take in response. Among the many subjects we tackled, we talked about the Palestinian/Israeli question (which took more than one class session), human cloning, religion in political life, parenting issues, just war, and “What would Jesus drive?” (during a light news week).

My favorite discussion revolved around the case of a young boy attending a church nursery school, whose mother was a lap dancer or stripper at a local club. The 4-year-old boy was expelled from the school three weeks before classes ended in June, because his mother’s occupation was discovered by a church member browsing the web.

Did we have fun with that one!

Who was it that said, “Preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”? This is what we tried to do, and the engagement of faith with real life stretched us. I was encouraged by the development of these folks, who over two years’ time revealed fewer unsubstantiated biases, asked better questions, turned to the Bible appropriately, and loved each other better.

Christian Scharen, pastor friend and facilitator of a Yale study group called Faith as a Way of Life, visited my HOTP class and made the following report:

Mary ministers to a diverse crowd including typical suburban families and longtime Concord residents, faith seekers and lifelong Presbyterians Her driving goal as a pastor is to learn how to ask the right questions to help people grow in faith and to align themselves with the life of Christ. One key way she has done this is through a long-term coaching effort that takes place during “Hot [O]ff the Press” . . . The Sunday I visited, the news article was about the street protests over treatment of immigrants in France. The article, from a local newspaper, presented multiple voices, including leaders in the immigrant communities and various French politicians and government officials. We first needed to sort out as best we could what facts could be known. Mary pushed hard to separate our opinion and bias such as “The French have a sense of nationalism rooted in racial purity” and discern the actual shape of the circumstance. The interaction of the twenty-five or so participants was lively and responsive to her prodding. They clearly knew the drill, policing each other as much as Mary did regarding the effort to sketch a factual basis for the discussion. Then Mary introduced several Scripture passages, including passages from Deuteronomy on treatment of the “alien” and Galatians 3:28 regarding oneness in Christ. Mary’s clarity about Scripture’s importance for considering the issue did not collapse into any direct policy recommendations; rather, it gave way to a vigorous conversation about the complexity of law, immigration, and issues California faces that are similar to the French case.

Practice thinking about faith in relation to immigration in France teaches that faith matters in all spheres of life. Such guided conversation . . . trains Christians how to see and act with eyes and legs of faith rather than be guided by the many other orienting forces in their lives.

—Christian Scharen, Faith as a Way of Life (2008, Eerdmans), 92-93. Used with permission of the author.

As we model for others what it looks like to be a World Christian, full of compassion within the realm of Christ’s grace and truth, we need to be equipped for discussion around sensitive topics. Perhaps one of the models I have shared here at Bringing the Word to Life spurs you on to some purposeful, constructive reflection upon world events. It might even help you and yours enter into some of the controversial subjects facing the Presbyterian tribe these days. We must not lose heart, lose feeling, or withdraw our interest from the news that swirls around us. Let us hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, and stay engaged long enough to gain a sense from Jesus our Redeemer of how we can be a redemptive presence.

For further information about implementing Hot Off the Press in your church family, please see “Hot Off the Press” under Pages in the right hand column of my home page.

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?

It’s an interesting thing about experience and ministry. Experience is not required to do something or to be someone useful to the Kingdom of God. There are many entry-level positions in God’s economy. But if one has had experience in ministry settings, one has some clues as to one’s gifts and calling. I remember my very first mission trip, a month-long excursion to Guatemala after its 1976 catastrophic earthquake. Based on that experience—riding a school bus from the Bay Area the entire length of Mexico into Guatemala, mixing cement and setting reinforced concrete brick, cleaning bathrooms, and speaking with the locals through an interpreter—I came to the conclusion that God was not calling me to be a foreign missionary! I had reason later in life to reevaluate that assessment, and I did participate in another mission endeavor (four months in Zimbabwe in 1994). Though that amazing venture went much better, I still believe that my primary mission field is here in 95% unchurched San Francisco Bay Area. But the experiences have been valuable for understanding myself and appreciating where I thrive.

I have been an ordained Presbyterian pastor since 1987, but for twelve years before that I was a lay specialist in music, small groups, and discipleship ministries at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (what we’d now call a mega-church). After my ordination, I served another large Presbyterian church in the East Bay, as Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries. During this time I honed God’s gifts of teaching, preaching, leadership, and administration. Also during this period, I got involved in Presbytery and was elected for the first time as a commissioner to General Assembly in 1992. Ever since then, I have been involved in organizing the work of more theologically conservative Presbyterians through national renewal organizations Presbyterians For Renewal and the Presbyterian Coalition. In 1997, I moved thirteen miles away to become the senior pastor of a medium-sized church in downtown Concord, California. Then preaching almost every week, teaching a regular Sunday school class, moderating Session, leading a staff through its various transitions, and helping people resolve conflicts, I developed another set of skills and gifts by necessity. When my time there was completed, I shifted course into academia, bearing down on full-time pursuit of a Doctor of Ministry degree, writing a dissertation, and teaching courses for Fuller’s regional campuses on “Teaching for Christian Formation,” “Teaching the Bible,” “The Missional Church and Its Leadership,” and “Preaching Practicum.” Finding another pastoral call has been an elusive goal, but since finishing my D.Min. in 2011 I have served part-time at a large Lutheran church (ELCA, with whom Presbyterians are in “full communion”) as a parish associate.

Those are the activities that appear on my resumé. Add the experiences of professional vocal performance (of the classical genre, primarily), musical theater, and record albums.

And then, there has been this six-month adventure slaying the Beast of lung cancer and the blogging that accompanied it.

I have had a lot of ministry experience, primarily working with adults. There aren’t too many ministry situations that would be out of my league at this point, but the question remains: which of these experiences might carry forward or suggest something new in the next season of my life? In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The value of any particular involvement is assessed and used by the One who is orchestrating Kingdom work. On the other hand, God is also able to start a new thing in and through me, regardless of previous practice or lack thereof. We have plenty of biblical data points to support that assertion:

Abraham, called out of Ur “to a place I will show you,” to become “father of a great nation.” We know nothing of Abraham’s background or qualifications other than God’s sovereign choice (Genesis 12).

Judges like Deborah appear out of nowhere to answer God’s call to give leadership in Israel before the nation had a king (Judges 4-5).

Prophets about whom we know precious little are hustled out of obscurity to become prominent voices of godly reason. Hosea is assigned particularly hazardous duty (The Book of Hosea).

The lowly maiden Mary was chosen precisely because of her inexperience and her humble situation (Luke 1-2).

So, while ministry experience is helpful to observe how God uses a person, it is not necessary to prove one’s worth or abilities, if in fact God is calling a person to do a particular task. In my case, though I have had lots of ministry experience, what I really have gained in the last few decades is confidence that God can make me able for whatever is needed in a particular time or season. One can also come to the conclusion, like the Apostle Paul, that the achievements and certificates of accomplishment one might gather are worth nothing ultimately, but only that one knows and loves the Savior, Jesus Christ, and is available to do his bidding (Philippians 3:8). So that kind of leaves the door open to new things, doesn’t it?

In my next post, I will gather all the observations about my SHAPE and come to some conclusions about how I will serve the Lord in this new season.

Getting in SHAPE

May 13, 2014

This morning I will be meeting my personal trainer at the gym for the first time in over six months. Not with a little fear and trepidation, I will submit to thirty minutes of exercises, addressing each muscle group and testing my capabilities. What I know is this: I am out of shape. Cancer-drug-related weight gain has plagued me since the first of the year, my overall strength has diminished, and stamina is completely redefined by pulmonary limitations at the moment. Yes, it sounds pretty pitiful for one who used to be able to run the paces and maintain a heartbeat of 135/min. But one has to start somewhere, and today we will find out where that is and work up from there slowly but surely.

Being “in shape” is a great metaphor for the Christian life and has provided for me perhaps one of the most enduring discipleship concepts over the years. It originally came out of Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, CA), where the guiding question has been What is your SHAPE for ministry? It is this outline I would like to use to identify the type of ministry to engage me in this next phase of my life.

SHAPE stands for five areas of assessment:

S—Spiritual Gifts
H—Heart for Ministry
A—Abilities
P—Personality Type
E—Experience

Spiritual Gifts. My spiritual gifts are teaching, prophecy, and leadership. Other gifts have been prominent in certain times of my life, like creative communication, especially through music, and discernment. And God has certainly worked in me—out of necessity—disciplines involving evangelism and compassion. But my primary gift is teaching: helping people to know and love the Scriptures and discover their implications for everyday life. It’s been a good day when I see folks grab hold of God’s Word and take steps to align their lives with the Living Lord revealed therein. The goal is not simply to acquire an impressive set of facts about God and his history with the human race but to gain an understanding of God’s nature, God’s actions, and God’s vision for us in such a way that we are able to trust and obey him in every area of our lives.

I also happen to believe, and wrote a doctoral dissertation on the subject, that teaching is a primary way to fulfill the Great Commission. Everybody needs good information upon which to make a decision to believe in Jesus and a commitment to follow him. The Church has drifted a bit on this score, as there are many proponents of the idea that evangelism is primarily relational and not informational, but I disagree. Particularly in an age where a much larger percentage of children are growing up in families with no exposure to the gospel, to church life, or to the Bible, we are starting with an information vacuum. How do we expect people to understand the choice for their life direction without giving them God’s Story to explain God’s Invitation? Yes, I am passionate about teaching people, even while I understand that the packaging for that gift is not limited to a classroom or a lecture, but can happen effectively in the context of relationship-building activities: Hence, my sit-downs with “my coffee ladies” at Peets and my walks around the block with neighbors on my street.

Prophecy is perhaps a misunderstood gift these days. What I mean when I use that term is the God-given ability to speak for God into a situation, public or private, in which it is important to know God’s perspective. I probably lean into the “forth-telling” aspect more than the “foretelling” aspect of prophecy, and it is this gift that fights the propensity to be critical rather than discerning. It is very hard to describe the moment, when I am talking to someone, when I simply know something about that person’s spiritual life that has not been spoken yet (that would be the gift of discernment at work) and ask God for wisdom to know what to do with that information. Usually the assignment is to help that person come to grips with the spiritual and emotional reality that is driving his or her behavior and to appreciate the power God is offering for a transformed life.

On the public side of this gift, prophecy expresses itself in my preaching of God’s Word, proclaiming “thus says the Lord” from Scripture and with a sense of urgency encouraging people to act upon it.

Leadership as a gift has found expression since the beginning of my walk with Jesus. My pastorates, for instance, have afforded the opportunity to influence people through the communication of vision shaped by a God-centered worldview, a Christ-centered focus on the Kingdom of God, and a Spirit-empowered energy to move forward. The spiritual disciplines required for the leadership gift are listening to God, staying anchored in God’s Word, having compassion on the people to be led, and thereby being a humble follower of Jesus Christ.

Next post: Heart and Experience