Disciples Discipling Disciples (Or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 5)…

By now, you’re saying, “Enough already! Is why you’re starting The House Church Movement all you have to write about?” This will be the last blog I write that deals with the “why” of house church (or, at least MY why). 

Photo courtesy of the PCAJesus gave a very simple mission to His church immediately before His ascension–go make disciples (Matthew 28: 18-20). I wonder how such a simple mission has gained so much complexity over the centuries. Jesus’ first disciples were told to disciple others, and the only example they had was Jesus. In Luke 9 and Matthew 10, we find Jesus going house-to-house throughout Galilee and Judea, and then Jesus telling his disciples to do the same. The Book of Acts certainly confirms this model of ministry.

The Apostle Paul, in writing his letters to the early church, wrote to churches that were meeting in homes, and the instructions he gave them were given with this model in mind. The concept of spiritual gifting was given to the Church with the understanding that the gifts of believers would be lived out in the community of faith–the house church.

A word of clarity, though. The Apostle Paul would use the word for church when referring to both the individual house churches and the gathered body, so using the one does not detract from the other. Again, I’m not anti-institutional (the fact that I keep mentioning that does make me wonder a little though). Wherever the body of Christ gathers, there is the Church.

Unfortunately, the “gifts” for ministry became formalized as the Church grew and transitioned from a house-based movement to the more “traditional” model we know today throughout most of the west. Pastors, teachers, evangelist, et. al., became church professionals. In the early church, there was a team of leaders–bishops, pastors, elders–who led the church in making disciples. Now, we depend on professional staff teams to lead us, and the individual giftedness of disciples is underutilized in the Kingdom economy.

The Apostle Paul was very specific in writing to the early church at Ephesus about the role of leaders in the church. He wrote:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4: 11 – 12, NIV).

Each of these giftings were given by Christ Himself for the building up of His church, and the most fruitful discipleship model utilizes these gifts in their fullness to increase the Kingdom. This is the model wherein disciples disciple disciples, thus fulfilling the Great Commission Christ gave to His Church.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).  He lists many different gifts that the Spirit gives to believers for the sake of the body. Then he explains how every part of the body is needed, and that we must be careful to not start to develop a mindset that some gifts are more necessary than others.  Does every single believer in a church realize that they are just as needed and important as anyone else in the church? Or do they tend to think that the preacher and worship leader are more important?

The House Church Movement is designed to create space for everyone in the body to contribute in the meetings and in everyday life.  The “pastor’s” is not the only voice that needs to be heard.  Long monologue sermons are not meant to be the norm in house church meetings because no one person should dominate things.

Everyone is called to make disciples.  We are all called to share the gospel with non-believers in hopes that they would follow Jesus. We are all called to take responsibility for the spiritual care of other believers.  But discipleship is hard and messy.  It involves intentionally getting to know someone, having hard conversations when sin is evident, working through conflict, and spending extra time with them when life gets hard.

The temptation in the church has been to replace discipleship with programs.  If there is a married couple struggling, we suggest they read a book, enroll in a marriage class, or go on a retreat.  Discipleship means having an older couple who loves Jesus to come alongside of them and do life with them through life’s challenges.  Though marriage retreats, classes and seminars can be helpful, we hide behind them and ignore our responsibility to make disciples. It’s not that these programs are bad, but they run the risk of undermining what is best and most important. We end up trading the best for the good.

In The House Church Movement, the pastors are not responsible for discipling everyone, but rather they will each disciple a few and then ensure that those disciples are also discipling a few.  And for those who are new to the faith, though they might not be fully responsible for the spiritual care of another person, they will be actively engaged in evangelistic efforts and be trained to take responsibility for others.

The House Church Movement, with its small, intimate, intentional group of believers provides no room to hide.  Each person’s life is consistently before someone else.  It means that each person is expected to be transparent with a few other believers about the things they would hide, while those believers walk with them through healing, repentance, and believing the promises of God.  There shouldn’t be any room for people just “attend church” when everyone is being discipled for life and ministry.

Discipleship is taking responsibility for the spiritual care of somebody else. It doesn’t mean you’re the only one invested in that person, but it does mean you should be aware of what’s going on in that person’s life. Discipleship is life on life. Discipleship doesn’t happen with coffee dates once a week. You need to be around each other and observe each other’s lives almost daily.

Disciples discipling disciples. It can be messy work, indeed! But, it can also be the most fulfilling and transformative work a disciple can ever do. It’s another reason I feel called to lead The House Church Movement.

So, there you have it. The five reasons I feel called to do this new thing. Now, maybe we can move on to something else.

Until next time, keep looking up…

It’s Harvest Time (or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 4)…

Let’s be frank. House church (organic church, simple church) is countercultural for us folks in the United States (most of the west, really). I’m okay with that, though, because if there was ever a time the Church needed to be countercultural, it is now.

Since I’m being frank, let me also say that if you should attend a house church, you’re not likely to find the music to be excellent (although if you come to the House Church Movement, you’ll find my daughter leading us with excellence), the preaching and/or teaching may not be as polished as one is accustomed to, and the youth/children’s program will be unspectacular.

These reasons (and probably a few more) are why there isn’t more house church focused church planting movements in the west. We like our high-energy music, our polished preaching and those youth/children’s ministries that are going to do for children what parents are so unwilling (or unable) to do for themselves. House church for too many people will lack the glitz and glamour that will reach a consumer culture.

That fact notwithstanding, I believe the house church model of church planting is perfectly poised to reach new fields that are ripe for harvest. The house church planting model is designed to be “close to the ground,” as in, rooted in relationships with neighbors and co-workers, high on interpersonal relationships, ingrained in the rhythm of the community, not restricted by money or funding and is simple in its administration.

Additionally, Covid-19 has changed the landscape of traditional church. By all accounts, most traditional churches are averaging 30 – 50% of pre-Covid attendance. Those churches that see a higher percentage are outliers. Based on what I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with pastors, those percentages are not likely to change drastically for the foreseeable future. That’s because half the people believe the church shouldn’t be meeting yet, and the other half of the people believe the church should have never stopped.

The opportunity that exists for the house church in this environment is that the church can be where the people are. The new context is simply more conducive to the house church. The house church can meet in closed communities. The house church can meet in large apartment complexes. The house church can meet in dense urban areas where the cost of living (and the cost of property) is expensive. The house church can meet in college dorms. The house church can meet in places where the government has restricted public worship gatherings (it sure feels strange to write that sentence as I sit in the United States!). The house church can meet wherever there is a home and a facilitator.

For all these reasons, the house church model can revive an evangelistic zeal in the Kingdom of God for the west. Consider for a moment the rapid growth of the early church. Between Pentecost and 70 AD the church experienced the most phenomenal growth in its history, spreading from a mere handful of believers in Judea throughout the Mediterranean world. Most scholars agree that this growth was accomplished using private homes as the primary meeting place.

Consider, also, the following mathematical potential for a ministry such as The House Church Movement. Beginning with a single home congregation with an average membership of twelve people, allow for that one group to reproduce itself in the form of a second group after two years. Then, allow for each of those groups to reproduce during the next two years—and so on. Allowing for growth and loss within each group, yet maintaining the group average of only twelve members (a conservative estimate of group size), after 6 years, The House Church Movement would have 96 members. After 12 years, The Movement would have 768 members. After 15 years, it would consist of 2,304 members. After 18 years, 6,912 members. After 20 years, the overall membership of The House Church Movement would be 13,824!

Please understand, I hold no illusion that The House Church Movement will ever boast a membership of nearly 14,000 people. I simply offer these projections as a way of showing that this philosophy of ministry and evangelism has potential equal to, if not greater than more traditional models.

Please don’t think I’m trying to sell everyone on the house church model or The House Church Movement. I’ll admit that it’s even hard for me to move away from the traditional church model of ministry, but I feel called to this model and to this Movement because I believe that house churches take place where harvest happens–in the neighborhoods, in the work places and in the homes of both those who believe and those who do not.

Until next time, keep looking up…

No Needy Among Them (Or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 3)…

I love what Luke writes in Acts 4: 32-35–

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Can you imagine what that must have looked like?

As I began praying about a new church plant, I sensed the Holy Spirit calling me toward planting a “house” church. Initially, I interpreted the vision to be open to growing into a more traditional expression of the church—building, pews, administration, etc. As I’ve lived with and prayed over the vision the past two months, I’ve gained greater clarity as to where the Lord may be leading us as a new church plant. I am grateful to a group of 21 people who have consistently prayed for clarity in this unfolding work of the Holy Spirit.

It is not unusual for a new church to begin by meeting in a home. A small group of only ten or twenty people does not need a larger meeting place, and the costs involved in procuring any sort of space is often prohibitive. In this regard, a “house church” is understandable to many. But if they learn that it was the intention to continue meeting in homes no matter how large it grows, eyebrows will begin to rise.

The idea of the house church does not easily fit into the tradition of American discipleship. For generations, the idea of the church has been almost universally associated with a central meeting place—a church building. Even though the biblically informed disciple knows that the church is people, it remains almost impossible for some to escape the association between a particular local church and the building in which that church gathers.

When a society has grown up with an idea—a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation—a departure from that tradition can seem strange or even wrong. I will not fault anyone who questions the practice shared in this vision, or any who are not convinced of its benefits, nor is this unfolding vision a condemnation of the longstanding tradition of churches meeting in large central buildings. Too many examples of excellence within that tradition, both historically and currently, can be mentioned in its defense. My intent is simply to offer another reason why The House Church Movement will continue meeting in homes, and to demonstrate that not only is the practice biblically sound, but it is a great model for meeting peoples needs.

A NATURAL SETTING FOR FELLOWSHIP

During a House Church Movement meeting, we will enjoy facing one another in a warm, familiar environment, rather than sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head while most of the activity takes place on a stage. We may also enjoy eating a meal together every week, sampling friends’ cooking, or sometimes bringing in pizza. We might enjoy drinking coffee or tea after a Movement Meeting while sitting comfortably around the living room, sharing in each other’s lives. We could stay late, discussing personal or church matters and doctrinal issues. Sometimes, advice or counsel may sought by one, and given in return by another, or even several. Sometimes, two or three may find a quiet place to pray together. It could be like a family reunion every week.

While this type of fellowship can take place in a sanctuary setting, in the home it is natural. And, even as The House Church Movement grows large in numbers, it never has to lose the familiarity and intimacy that can be experienced in a home’s setting. Instead, new congregations can be formed—teaching others how to experience this same rich Christian fellowship. There is little doubt in a hurting world that people are longing for fellowship and intimacy that a house church setting could provide.

A DESIGN FOR BIBLICAL INSTRUCTION

When the New Testament authors gave written instructions to the church, they were writing in light of what they knew the church to be—small assemblies meeting in homes. Consider: If the church were later transformed into something that had never been seen or anticipated by the authors of the New Testament, the instructions they gave to the early church might not be as readily applicable to the new form. As an example, consider this principle in light of all of the “one anothers” in the New Testament—the commands to know, love, guard, and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ (i. e. John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Galatians 6:1,10; Colossians 3:12-16; 1 John 3:16-17).

Certainly these are kept faithfully in many larger congregations, but one can hardly overlook the fact that increased size means increased difficulty in keeping them consistently. There exists the increased potential that some will fall through the cracks. It is evident that in order to keep the commands to love and care for one another, larger bodies need added structures and programs which, in turn, necessitate additional burdens of administration. I could multiply examples, but suffice it to say that in at least this one case, the instructions are much easier to follow consistently in a smaller gathering. I might even suggest that these instructions were designed for small gatherings.

Because no one falls through the cracks, needs are more readily known and easily met. I’m not sure there is a greater “why” for the house church, but there are still two more we’ll explore in coming weeks:

  • House churches take place where harvest happens, and
  • House churches raise up disciples to embrace the ministry to which they’ve been called.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Power and Purpose…

The great Methodist hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, is known for some great hymns of the church. Among those hymns are Blessed Assurance, Rescue the Perishing, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior. Historians have noted that Crosby is responsible for over 9,000 hymns in her lifetime. That’s incredible when we remember that she was blind from the time she was six weeks old. She died in 1915 just shy of her 95th birthday, and the final verse she wrote said, “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye.”

Long before she penned those last words, in 1869 she penned another of her now famous hymns. That hymn resonates with me as I spend this Lent at the cross of Jesus. Hear the words of the first verse of her hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross:

Jesus, keep me near the cross;

There a precious fountain,

Free to all a healing stream,

Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

“Keep me near the cross” is my prayer this Lenten season. It is near the cross that we not only see Jesus, but we hear the words he speaks from the cross. Jesus made seven statements while He hung on the cross. They were the last words of Jesus; each one has significance and meaning, and teach us something about the heart of God.

Famous Last Words

First, He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.” In the midst of being unjustly wronged, Jesus was still able to offer a prayer of forgiveness. Next, he interacted with two criminals being crucified beside Him. One rejected Him, the other repented and cried out to Him to save him to which Jesus responded, “You will be with me in paradise,” a wonderful word of salvation.

Then, Jesus spoke a third time from the cross. In his anguish, he looked down from the cross and saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved–the Apostle John. Here is what John recorded:

25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” 27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19: 25 – 27 NLT)

As I read these words, I make two discoveries.

The Power of a Passionate Love

The first discovery is the power of a passionate love. I see the passionate love of Jesus. Let’s remember all that happened to Jesus in the past 24 hours. He had been whipped, His back being completely torn to shreds. He had been punched repeatedly in the face. Romans had taken a crown of thorns and crushed it down upon His head. He had suffered an incredible loss of blood. He was desperately weak and thirsty. They took spikes, driving them into His wrists and feet, fastening Him to a cross, slamming it into the ground with all of His weight being held only by those spikes. He knew he was dying.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author and poet said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Here is Jesus, hanging on the cross watching the soldiers gamble for his clothes. If there was ever a time Jesus would be justified in being selfish, it was now, but his mind turned not to himself, but to others—particularly, his mother. Jesus dying concern is for his mother.

Jesus saw his mother and said, “Woman, he is your son.” Jesus was taking care of his mother’s needs. It was his tender compassion at work, even from the cross. Joseph was likely dead, and in ancient near eastern culture widows had no means of support. It was the oldest son’s responsibility to care for his widowed mother. Jesus was doing what I’ve witnessed so many others do through 28 years of ministry. As I’ve journeyed with many through their last days the concern most expressed is not for themselves, but for the one’s they leave behind. Who will care for them? Did I leave enough for them? Will they be alright? Jesus had a deep, passionate love for his mother, and he was expressing it from the cross.

Jesus wasn’t the only one expressing a passionate love, though. So was his mother, Mary. What mother could choose to watch her son die such a gruesome and painful death? Don’t you know that with every blow of the hammer, Mary felt the nails going into Jesus’ feet and hands? Don’t you know that with every labored breath of Jesus she lost a little of her own? It was a mother’s love that kept her near the cross in the face of such pain.

A few years ago, a newspaper report out of south Florida reported of a little boy who decided to go for a swim in the lake behind his house. In a hurry to dive into the cool water, he ran out the back door, leaving behind shoes, socks, and shirt as he went.

He flew into the water, not realizing that as he swam toward the middle of the lake, an alligator was swimming toward the shore. His mother in the house was looking out the window saw the two as they got closer and closer together. In utter fear, she ran toward the water, yelling to her son as loudly as she could.

Hearing her voice, the little boy became alarmed and made a U-turn to swim to his mother. It was too late. Just as he reached her, the alligator reached him. From the dock, the mother grabbed her little boy by the arms just as the alligator snatched his legs. An incredible tug-of-war began between the two. The alligator was much stronger than the mother, but the mother was much too passionate to let go. A farmer happened to drive by, heard her screams, raced from his truck, took careful aim and shot the alligator.

Remarkably, after weeks and weeks in the hospital, the little boy survived. His legs were scarred by the vicious attack, and on his arms were deep scratches where his mother’s fingernails dug into his flesh in her effort to hang on to the son she loved.

The newspaper reporter, who interviewed the boy after the trauma, asked if he would show him his scars. The boy lifted his pant legs. And then, with obvious pride, he said to the reporter, “But look at my arms. I have great scars on my arms, too. I have them because my Mom wouldn’t let go.”

This was Mary hanging onto Jesus as long as she could. Her passionate love kept her from turning away.

The power of passionate love was at the cross that day. Jesus, keep me near the cross that I might know such a passionate love.

The Power of an Incredible Purpose

The second discovery I’d like for us to make is the power of an incredible purpose. We find this power in the Apostle John—the one whom Jesus loved. It was this John who had a special place in the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. It was Peter, James and John who saw Jesus gloriously transfigured on the mountain. It was Peter, James and John who were invited by Jesus to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and they were invited to go with Jesus deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest. It is an awesome lesson for us that those who are close to Jesus will be entrusted with great opportunity to serve in the Kingdom: to do for Jesus what he could not do for himself.

Jesus was saying to John, “You have to take my place. You have to do what I cannot do.” We see in these words, not simply a concern of a son for his mother, but also a demonstration of the re-ordering of relationships based on Kingdom principles. Jesus was affirming what he taught in his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been confronted by great crowds, so much so that Mark says his family was looking for him because they thought he has “lost his mind.” Word came to Jesus that his mother and brothers were outside:

33 Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. 35 Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3: 22 – 34 NLT).

We are familiar with the saying, “Blood is thicker than water.” In Kingdom relationships, Spirit is thicker than blood. This was John’s commissioning to become the hands and feet of Jesus and demonstrates to us that the purpose of the church is to become the hands and feet of Jesus. As the elder son was responsible for the mother, so those who are becoming people of Christ are responsible for the forgotten of society. You and I are responsible for others. What an incredible purpose!

I am reminded of the story of the husband who had an affair and divorced his wife so he could marry his mistress. The two married and had children. After the children were born, the new wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As her days final days drew near, she asked the ex-wife to visit her. The ex-wife reluctantly went to see the dying woman. As the two chatted, the dying woman looked intently at the ex-wife and said, “I have a request.”

“What is that?” the ex-wife replied.

“When I’m gone, will you take care of my children? I don’t know anyone I could trust more with their care,” was the woman’s request.

The ex-wife hesitated for a few moments and the air became heavy as the mother thought about the request she had made. Finally, the ex-wife replied, “I’ll gladly care for your children after your death.”

Later, friends asked the ex-wife, “How could you consent to do that after she destroyed your marriage?”

“God’s love has given me the power to forgive. I think I can accept her children as my own,” was the woman’s answer.

God’s children become our own when we stand near the cross. Like John, we are charged to do for Jesus what He can no longer do for himself–care for others. What an incredible purpose!

Want to know your life purpose? Stand near the cross. That’s where we discover the power of an incredible purpose.

Until next time, keep looking up…

This Fruit is Always in Season…

I’ve been teaching from A Firm Foundation: Hope and Vision for a New Methodist Future on Wednesday evenings. The book is a collection of essays designed to cast a compelling vision for a renewed Methodist movement, specifically in light of the current debate within the United Methodist Church.

I bring the book up only because of the chapter I read/taught last week–“When the Holy Spirit Comes with Fire.” I won’t unpack the chapter here for you, but reading the chapter and preparing to lead the Wednesday night group caused me to dig deeper on the Holy Spirit. My digging reminded me of much I had forgotten (okay, not forgotten, but taken for granted) about the work and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

My digging deeper took me specifically to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians. In Galatians 5, Paul instructs the Galatians on living the Spirit-filled life (read the whole chapter here), and in that context he offers his list of he calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” You know the list, right?

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I’ll confess my own conviction as I read that list again (I’ve probably read it one thousand times before). I was convicted because there was one noticeable fruit that I can acknowledge has been absent from my life, and I believe the fact that I’ve been consumed with General Conference 2019 has put me in this place. The missing fruit, you ask? Joy!

We are, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, supposed to be joy-filled people.  One of my favorite stories about a person with a grumpy personality begins with a man going into the doctor’s office.  As he walked in, he was met by the receptionist.  He told her that he had a sore on his chin that he wanted the doctor to examine.

She said to him, “Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

“But ma’am,” he said, “it’s just a sore on my chin. I don’t think all that is necessary.”

She repeated, “Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

“But ma’am,” he said.

“Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

So he went down the hall, took the first door to the right, walked in and saw another man already sitting there in his boxer shorts, shivering. He said to him, “Boy, that receptionist is really something, isn’t she? I just have a little sore on my chin and she told me to come down here, go through this door and take off my clothes.”

The man in the boxer shorts said, “You think that’s bad? I’m the UPS delivery man.”

There a lot of days recently that I felt like that nurse. But, joy is supposed to be one of the fruits that is always in season in the Christian.

What is this fruit of joy? The Greek word is chara, meaning “cheerfulness, calm delight.”  Unfortunately, I confuse joy with happiness. If I’m happy, then I am joy-filled, and if I’m joy-filled then I’m happy. That is incorrect. Joy is not happiness, and happiness is not joy. Actually, I can be happy and full of joy, but I can be unhappy and still be full of joy. Happiness is external. Joy, in the biblical sense, is internal. Happiness is based on chance. Joy is based on choice. Happiness is based on circumstances. Joy is based on Christ. Happiness is too often conditioned on what is “happening” to me. If people treat me well, and things are going good around me, then I am happy, but if things go wrong then my happiness is likely to be as fleeting as my circumstances.

Joy, however, goes beyond my circumstances. Joy throbs throughout Scripture as a profound, compelling quality of life that transcends the events and disasters which may dog God’s people. Joy is a divine dimension of living that is not shackled by circumstances. The Hebrew word means, “to leap or spin around with pleasure.”  Listen to the Psalmist:

16 But as for me, I will sing about your power.
    Each morning I will sing with joy about your unfailing love.
For you have been my refuge,
    a place of safety when I am in distress. Psalm 59: 16

The Apostle Paul understood this, too. He wrote to the Corinthian Christians: Our hearts ache, but we always have joy (2 Cor. 6:10). Joy should never be dependent on what is happening around us. Too often, unsatisfied expectations, unresolved conflict (like we have in the UMC right now), or unconfessed sin can serve to steal our joy from life. These are just three reasons that joy seems such an elusive fruit.

But there’s hope!  And that hope is spelled J-O-Y! I was reminded of this pattern on a church sign not far from my house. I think it’s really what solidified the message I’ve reflected on over the past couple of weeks. It is Jesus, Others, and You. Joy starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus is the source of our joy, and Jesus is the example of our joy. If we don’t know Jesus, we don’t know joy. If we know Jesus, we should know joy.

Then, others. If we’re serious about desiring to bear the fruit of joy, we must make sure we are doing OK on the horizontal dimension of life by living in biblical community with others. We will never know joy apart from others.

Finally, you. You have the challenge, and here it is: Go to church, get connected to Jesus and serve others. You’ll find joy in great abundance, and you’ll discover that the  fruit of joy is always in season.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Golden Grace…

Silence is golden! It reminds me of the Psalmists words from Psalm 46:10, where he wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Silence makes us uncomfortable, though, and if you find yourself uncomfortable sitting in silence for 30 seconds, you might need to develop the habit of solitude.

Solitude and silence are two sides of the same coin, for they are both about quietness—inward quietness and outward quietness. We can remove people from our lives but still fill the void with noise, and we can be in a great crowd of people and remain empty and lonely. The habit of solitude is a means of grace that brings inner fulfillment.

What do I mean when I talk about the habit of solitude? If fasting is the abstaining from something (primarily food) for spiritual purposes, then solitude is withdrawing to privacy for spiritual purposes. It is a “going away,” or “getting away” for the purpose of listening for the voice of God. We should note, however, that solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a particular place. We don’t necessarily have to go away to get away. We can possess inward solitude that can set us free from loneliness and fear no matter where we are.

LONELINESS AND FEAR

Let’s talk about that for a moment because it is loneliness that keeps many of us from developing this habit of solitude. I have over the years had the opportunity to go on a few silent retreats—most of them at Catholic abbeys. I remember the first one I attended. I was a first year “resident in ministry.” That means I was fresh out of seminary, beginning the “provisional” process toward ordination and the Conference begins that process by the practice of silence and solitude. I will confess I was scared to death. I’d never been on one before, and this was going to be for three days. I had four children and a spouse. I had just completed three years in seminary with friends and colleagues. I was appointed to a new church with people I needed to get to know. I’m a people person! What in the world was I going to do on a silent retreat for three days? I was going to go crazy, that’s what! But, when it was over, I couldn’t wait for the next one!

Loneliness is inner emptiness—so says Richard Foster. For some of us, we don’t like to be alone because we don’t much like our own company, or because our personality is so shaped by the people around us, we don’t even know who we are when we are alone. It may have to do with whether we are an introvert or an extrovert – introverts gain their energy from within, and are drained by exterior stimulation. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain their energy from exterior stimulation and are drained by interior work. Whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert, whether we don’t like our own company, or whether we don’t know who we are when we’re alone, we need to cultivate this habit because as a means of grace it strengthens our soul.

JESUS’ HABIT

Jesus knew the power of solitude and he practiced it often. Mark’s Gospel records a time when Jesus and his disciples had been busy doing miracles and ministry across Galilee. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat. In this span of ministry, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown, commissioned his disciples for a ministry tour and received the tragic news that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. He’s literally “had it up to here,” and so he says to his disciples, “Come on! Let’s get away to a quiet place and rest.” He knew that the clamor of busy-ness will sap even the greatest person’s strength.

Mark’s account wasn’t the only time scripture records Jesus getting away. Jesus began his earthly ministry by spending forty days alone in the wilderness (Matt. 4). With three disciples He sought out the silence of a lonely mountain as the stage for the transfiguration (Mt. 17:1—9). We could go on, but you get the picture that seeking out a solitary place was a habit for Jesus. So it should be for us, too.

GET REAL

What grace comes from solitude? What benefits? Let me mention only two. First, solitude provides an opportunity to get real with God. Charles Caleb Colton once said “Character is who you are when no one else is looking.” If we are going to be real with God, we need to get alone with God. In the quiet of solitude, all pretensions can be stripped away, all the things in life that are trying to mold us in their image are removed, all the requirements of the world disappear, and we can stand before God “just as I am” as the song says.

This is scary for some, but it is in solitude that we am reminded that above all else our identity is caught up in the fact that we are God’s chosen child. If we are not really sure of what God thinks about us, being alone with him might be pretty scary! If we’re not so sure that God loves us, get alone with him, listen to his voice – the first thing that the Holy Spirit teaches our spirit is how to say “Abba, Father” If we can get alone in silence with God, the first thing we will hear is the Spirit whispering in our ear “you are God’s adopted child – he chose you, he loves you.”

Dallas Willard, who wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, said that the discipline of solitude is for strengthening. You may remember the story of Elijah from the Old Testament. Elijah was God’s prophet to the nation of Israel at a time of great apostasy under King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. There was one instance when Elijah challenged 450 false prophets of the god Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah even did so mockingly, and he called fire down from heaven that destroyed all 450 prophets of Baal and the surrounding altar and their sacrifice. It was a victory of monumental proportions. Immediately after the victory, though, Elijah flees because he’s afraid for his life. Weary and worn out, it’s on a mountain in the Sinai desert that Elijah encounters God, not in a windstorm, not in an earthquake, not even in the fire, but in a still small voice. It was after Elijah encountered God on that mountain that he was able to complete his calling. He poured out his heart to God, he got real with God, and God strengthened him.

When you and I get alone with God, we’ll hear him say he loves us, and we’ll find strength to face life whatever challenge it might bring our way.

GET CENTERED

Second, solitude provides an opportunity to get centered. Jesus sought out solitude before he made big decisions in his life and ministry. Before he chose the twelve who would be his closest disciples, Luke tells us Jesus spent the entire night alone in the wilderness. Following the healing of a leper Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Lk. 5:16). As he prepared for His highest and most holy work, Jesus sought the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36—46).

Billy Graham, in his autobiography Just as I Am, recounts the period in his life when he was being pressured by Charles Templeton to give up his belief in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Graham took some time in solitude and he realized that intellect alone would not solve his problem – that it was an issue of faith. So he placed his Bible on a stump in the middle of the woods, and knelt down and said, “Oh God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Templeton is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” And through that time of solitude Billy Graham was shaped into the man the world came to know as the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. We get perspective when we get centered, and we only get centered when we get alone with God.

PRACTICAL STEPS

Solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a place, but even so, we can’t forget that habits are actions, whether inward or outward. We can be pious and talk about the solitude we practice in our hearts, but if that doesn’t issue itself in how we act, we missed it altogether. We need to take it from theory and put it into real life. How do we do that?

Why not start simply? Start with those first few moments as we awaken each morning. Rather than thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get up,” why not think, “God, you love me and I love you”? My daily solitude comes with that first cup of coffee in the morning. Nothing but my Lord, my coffee and myself. No computer. No television. No telephone. Just silence…well, and the ticking of the clock. Silence is often hard to achieve.

Could you try silence and solitude while you’re driving? Turn the radio off for a time. Sure, you’ll hear road noise and passing cars, but you also might just hear God’s voice. Could you, instead of saying a blessing as your family gathers at the table, simply bow and sit in silence for a minute? Parents, why don’t you challenge your children when you’re on that long vacation road trip to a game of silence? See who can be silent the longest. It may only last five minutes, but those will be blessed minutes. We might do something as simple as slip outside for five minutes before bed to taste the silence of the night. We can redeem the time in many, many ways. Grab little moments that help us reorient ourselves to who we are and whose we are.

There are other more intentional and intense things we can do. We might not want to immediately through ourselves into a three-day silent retreat, but we can be intentional about designating a place to be quiet. My place is my couch early in the morning. It’s comfortable. It’s quiet. It’s cozy. Perhaps some of you have heard of Joel Hemphill. He’s a Christian singer and songwriter. Vanessa and I visited with him and his wife when they were building their new home in Nashville a few years ago, and the pride he had to show us was the room he had specially built to be his “quiet place.” Why can’t we find a room, or designate a space in our home to be quiet? Maybe your space needs to be a park, or by a stream. Wherever it is…find it…and use it!

Here’s another idea: Try to live one entire day without words. Spouses, please tell your significant other if you chose to do this! Otherwise, they might just think you’re mad at them, and that won’t do anyone any good.

Others have suggested three or four times a year, take three or four hours to get away and reflect on your life’s goals. You can stay late at the office, or you can go sit by the river. Better yet, use it as an excuse to go to the beach. Take a journal and write it all down. God may just surprise us with some new alternatives we never considered.

Then again, you might just want to try that three days of silence in a retreat. Here’s a way to make that happen.

The fruit this habit will bear in our lives is a more acute awareness of the voice of God. That’s grace to us. But, it will also bear an increased sensitivity and compassion for others. Like Jesus, we must go away from people so that we can be truly present when we are with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs and a new responsiveness to their needs, and that becomes grace to them. Solitude is the habit that can be grace for everyone, and that is just perfect!

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Most Difficult Grace…

Easter is fast upon us. In two weeks, disciples of Jesus Christ will gather in places across the globe to celebrate the pivotal event in the life of our faith—the resurrection. Yes, we’re headed to Easter and new life—new life is the promise, not the old life redone. We experience this new life through Jesus Christ and the grace he offers us in practicing habits in our lives that bring transformation—habits such as prayer, fasting and bible study. There is one habit that sits at the heart of new life, at the heart of Easter itself. It is the habit that most reflects the life of Jesus, and it is the habit that should most reflect the heart of his disciples. It is the habit of submission.

SUBMISSION

Mention the word submission these days and minds run in a thousand directions both positively and negatively. As Richard Foster says, “Nothing can put people into bondage like religion, and noting in religion has done more to manipulate and destroy people than a deficient teaching on submission.” Foster’s statement demonstrates the power of sin to take the best teaching and turn it upside down. For this reason, it is with trepidation that I take up the task of exploring this spiritual discipline, for this is meant to be life-giving, not life-taking. If it is life-giving, it can be life-changing, and I remind us, we are headed toward Easter.

There are a ton of passages we could refer to this morning, but Ephesians 5: 20 – 21, captures the essence of “how” the habit is formed and lived out. We get stumped by the passages that follow Ephesians 5:21, but the verses that precede it actually set the context. The Apostle Paul tells us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What follows is perhaps the most misappropriated and misapplied passage in the Bible. The passage has been used for centuries to subject women, in many cases, to forced servitude, and to limit the status and role of women in leadership in the church. I believe it’s a terrible reading of Paul’s otherwise radical first-century teaching. That’s all I’m going to say about that matter because what is important to our understanding of submission is found in what precedes the verses we read this morning, and we find Paul’s opening imperative in verse two, where Paul says, “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.” And what was his example? One of a life fully submitted to the Father—submitted even unto death.

The cross is a symbol of death. It is the symbol of Good Friday. It is the symbol of the totality of Jesus’ submission. But, may I suggest it is also the symbol of life because Jesus was as submitted to the Father’s will in life as he was in death. Jesus died as he lived. He rejected power and position, telling his disciples not to let anyone call them Rabbi or teacher (Matt. 23:8-10). He lived his submission as he took women seriously and met with little children. He lived his submission as he took a towel and basin and washed his disciples feet, and then he said, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I’ve done to you” (John 13:15). Jesus’ life and teaching were revolutionary because it turned the cultural values of the day upside-down, and ushered in a new model of leadership—servant leadership.

FREEDOM

Servant leadership undermines power and self-interest because it is rooted in self-denial. Self-denial lies at the heart of submission. Remember when Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34)? But do not confuse self-denial with either self-contempt or self-hatred. It is neither. Self-denial frees us to understand we don’t have to have our own way. It frees us to surrender our need to be right, or our need to win every argument. Self-denial frees us to realize that most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are. Self-denial frees me to accept that, thank God, I’m not the center of the universe.

And, we need to know that submission is freedom for us because it is a choice. If self-denial is the foundation of submission, then we understand that submission is choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another. Forced submission is slavery. Chosen submission is sacrifice. There’s a big difference.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 5:21, Paul shares an example of how this idea of submission could be lived out. People like illustrations in the sermons I preach. Illustrations make abstract ideas a little more concrete for us. My hearers may not always remember the big idea of my sermon, but they most always remember a story if I tell one. So, to illustrate everything he’d been writing to the church in Ephesus, he uses the household relationships of husband and wife, parent and children and master slave. Read it today and the passage seems strange to us in the 21st century. It sounds oppressive, even. It’s not quite so strange or oppressive when we connect it to the concept of mutual submission—submission as a means of grace. Paul is simply laying out an illustration of how submission works in those relationships, and not just those relationships, but submission is meant to extend to EVERY relationship.

It’s a little easier to understand what submission is—choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another, to give the right of way to another, to put their needs ahead of our needs. It’s a bit more difficult to grasp the “how” of submission. What does submission look like? How do we practice this discipline so that it becomes a habit that opens us to God’s grace? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes, it’s easy to determine what it needs to look like. Other times, it’s extremely hard to define. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. Then again, if we had a book of rules for every circumstance, we’d be Pharisees, and we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit. Let me just say, though, that submission looks a lot like service.

SEVEN AREAS OF SUBMISSION

Richard Foster, in his seminal work Celebration of Discipline, notes seven distinct acts of submission for a follower of Jesus Christ. First is our submission to the Triune God. The beginning of every day should begin with a simple prayer of submission. It can be as simple as the one prayed by E. Stanley Jones: “Lord, take me over and make me over.” A daily submission in body mind and spirit into the hands of God for His purposes can become a habit of submission, and it will be grace.

Second is a submission to Scripture. We submit ourselves to hear the Word, to receive the Word and to obey the Word, trusting the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word to interpret and apply it to our lives.

Third is our submission to our family. Freely and graciously we make allowances for each other. We give ourselves to one another, and that means surrendering our rights to the other. We also acknowledge the home is the primary incubator for developing this habit in our lives. What a transformation could take place in our world if husbands and wives could surrender themselves to this solitary discipline so that it becomes habit. It would be grace, indeed!

Fourth is our submission to our neighbors and those we meet in the course of our day. Random acts of kindness become the norm for us. No task is too small, for with each task, we have an opportunity to live in submission.

Fifth is our submission to the believing community—the body of Christ. There are opportunities to service to the body of Christ and service through the body of Christ. Submission is acknowledging that though I cannot do everything, I can do something.

Sixth is our submission to the broken and despised. In every culture there are people who are helpless and defenseless. We have a responsibility to be among them, to know them, and to do all we can to help them. Here is where we find self-denial most meaningful and transforming.

Seventh is our submission to the world. Our submission is a determination to live as a responsible member of an increasingly irresponsible world.

A story that captures the essence of practicing the habit of submission is told by author Stephen Beck. Beck tells of driving down a country road and coming to a narrow one-lane bridge. In front of the bridge, a sign was posted: “YIELD.” Seeing no oncoming cars, he continued across the bridge to his destination. On the way back, he came to the same bridge from the other direction. To his surprise, he saw another YIELD sign posted. He thought, “I’m sure there was one posted on the other side.” When he reached the other side of the bridge he looked back. Sure enough, yield signs had been placed at both ends of the bridge. Drivers from both directions were asked to give right of way. It was a reasonable and gracious way of preventing a head-on collision. When we practice submission it is a reasonable and gracious way to let the other have the right of way and to experience the life-changing grace of God in our lives and in the world.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Lost Grace…

CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, in his writings and teachings noted what he called the “means of grace.” By “means of grace,” Wesley meant those practices whereby the disciple of Jesus Christ could experience the grace of God in life-transforming ways. Wesley would say, “Do these practices on a regular basis, and watch the work of the Holy Spirit change you.” That’s the popular Lynn Malone paraphrase but you get the idea. Wesley would distinguish between what he termed the “instituted” means and the “ordinary” means by allowing that the “instituted” means were those given to the body of Christ directly by Jesus himself. Among those “instituted” means of grace were prayer, fasting, searching the Scriptures (we’d call that Bible study) and the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), but he also lists a fifth that we’ve lost sight of in the 21st century. He called it “Christian conference.”

We hear “Christian conference,” and we think about going to a big gathering of Christians to hear preaching and teaching, worship and the like—think Promise Keeper’s or Women of Faith. Or, if we’re a good Methodist, we think about going to Annual Conference, which is the yearly gathering of Methodists from across the state where we worship and fellowship and conduct the business of the “Annual Conference,” which (for those of you not familiar with the Methodist tradition) is an institution in and of itself. None of those thoughts were on Wesley’s mind as he taught the practice of “Christian conference.” For Wesley, Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness.

GRACE LOST

Why don’t we practice this habit more often, or at all? One reason is that we desire comfort and seek to avoid conflict. Confrontation is awkward, messy, and hard, so few do it. Additionally, churches and spiritual communities are intentional about creating a sense of peace, encouragement, happiness, and joy even if it’s a façade. Identifying sin, exposing immorality, admitting the truth, uncovering corruption, and acknowledging failure contradict the image many churches are trying to portray. Following Jesus was never meant to be comfortable or easy. To live a holy life requires accountability.

In a society obsessed with self-gratification, pleasure, and comfort, churches too easily succumb to an attitude of appeasement instead of responsibility and intervention. Unchecked sin causes havoc and devastation. And while accountability can be misused, not using it at all can cause widespread harm. Accountability goes both ways and isn’t exclusively meant for pastors or those in leadership to punish those “beneath” them. Everyone is responsible. Often it’s those in leadership who need accountability the most.

Another reason we don’t develop the habit of accountability is because we live in a culture of unlimited options and choices. The next sentence is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is going to hurt, so prepare yourself. Churches (and pastors) emphasize comfort because discomfort causes people to leave congregations. There, I said it! In a world inundated with options, where endless venues vie to satisfy our every need, churches are no different, and if Christians become uncomfortable, upset or discouraged, they can simply pack up and go someplace else, and many of them do. It’s easier for a church to make everyone feel good, but it often comes at the cost of spiritual maturity.

Jesus faced the same problem, too. John’s Gospel records an incident in chapter six. Jesus had fed five thousand and walked on water. The next day, the crowds clamored to be around him. Jesus figured it was time for a little accountability, so he told them, “You just wanted me for what I could do for you. Don’t worry so much about what I can provide for you, but focus on the eternal matters of life” (John 6: 26 – 27). It turned out to be one of the most difficult conversations Jesus had with those who followed him as he tried to explain that He was the bread of life. The people began arguing among themselves, and when all was said and done, we find a revealing little passage in John 6:66—“At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Difficult conversations cause discomfort, and with so many options, we choose not to be uncomfortable.

There is a danger in developing the habit of accountability, though, and that danger is another reason we don’t practice it much anymore. The danger is legalism. Sadly, many churches, both past and present, have wrongly implemented “accountability” to serve their own agendas. There are numerous accounts of using guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, and terror to manipulate, abuse, control, hurt, and destroy the lives of countless victims. Church history has been stained by varying degrees of legalism, and today’s churches will do anything to avoid such labels, even if it means abandoning the practice of accountability altogether. It is sad that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

REDISCOVERING GRACE

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian church to hold each other accountable, and reminded them of how to do it. Paul said that we should “gently” help a fellow traveler back on the path so that we don’t fall into the same ditch. The loss of accountability can lead to believers who are susceptible to self-righteousness and spiritual immaturity. Ironically, it can also result in Christians who are more judgmental towards those outside the faith. Instead of holding ourselves accountable, it’s much easier to point the finger at the rest of society, and to be the accuser instead of the accused. To avoid our own sins, we often distract ourselves by focusing on the sins of others.

Our challenge is to responsibly develop the habit of accountability without abusing it, to gracefully and lovingly help people grow in their faith without being legalistic or abusive or accusatory, to challenge and inspire people through relational support and encouragement instead of abandoning and isolating them. The grace of accountability is about building up, not tearing down. The grace in accountability is about encouragement, not discouragement. The grace in accountability is for prayer together and prayer for one another—it is, as Paul reminds the Galatians, about bearing one another’s burdens.

John Wesley would agree. In what are called Wesley’s “Large Minutes,” he writes in reference to Christian Conference: “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? It is always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?” For Wesley, it was always about building up the body—to help each other live holy lives.

Living holy lives is the end game. It’s not about church growth, it’s about spiritual growth. The church is the place we learn to practice the habits that promote spiritual growth that we can then take back to work, to school, home and to our communities so that God’s transformation takes place, not only in us, but in the world around us.

How do I begin to develop this habit, and discover its grace? It’s all about relationship! Transformation takes place in relationship—a relationship with Jesus Christ and a relationship with others who walk the journey. The imagery Paul uses in Galatians 6 of another believer being “overcome” by some sin, the language literally is of one who has slipped—like on an icy sidewalk, or on an uneven path. No one plans to slip on an icy sidewalk. No one plans a misstep on that path, but it happens, even when we’re being careful. Yes, we can many times pick ourselves up, but when someone else is there to help us, it makes it easier. Yes, it’s embarrassing to slip on that icy patch. We look around to see if anyone saw us, and we even try to resist the efforts of others who come along to help us. Paul’s point is we need someone to help us when we stumble over sin in our lives.

Wesley’s genius was his organization of converts into societies, classes and bands. Think congregation, small group, smaller group here. For early Methodists, these accountable relationships happened in the class meetings. Classes were groups of 10-12 persons who met weekly and focused on the details of individual’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness, and where they were not experiencing God or failing to grow in faith and holiness. They asked one simple question: “How is your life in God?” It was, in all its facets, a means of developing the habit of accountability, and for Wesley, it was grace.

Accountability can be grace to us, too, when we find a group, or even a person where we can ask and be asked the question, “How is your life in God?”

Don’t have a group? Ask your pastor. Or, ask me. I’ll be glad to help.

Until next time, keep looking up…