Discipline and the Perfect Double-Play

Discipline, Perichoresis,

And the Perfect Double Play: a Pre-Pentecost Reflection

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my continuing maturity in the image and likeness of Christ over the past several months. A number of habits (both good and bad) have prompted these reflections and my overall sense has been that of dis-ease. A quick disclaimer is likely helpful, before I proceed with my thoughts. I am in a fruitful season of my Christian journey. There is much to celebrate and be thankful for. My gifts and experiences are being used in profitable, gratifying, and meaningful ways. Still, I am unsatisfied and unsettled. I don’t view this as a bad thing; it is uncomfortable, but not bad.

Discipline

Discipline is an expression that for me, conjures quite a few word pictures and memories. On the one side, are many memories of corrective action being meted out in response and consequence to some of my poor choices. Conversely, I am reminded of times where discipline translated into practices experienced in the context of sports and military exercises.

The Testing Discipline of God

The past few days I’ve been actively reflecting on a passage of Scripture that has prompted this writing (Deuteronomy 8:1-6).

Be careful to obey all the commands I am giving you today. Then you will live and multiply, and you will enter and occupy the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors.Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell.Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good. So obey the commands of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and fearing him.

At first glance, there is much here that causes me unrest. For instance, I want the favor of God. I want to flourish, living in the land of promise under God’s sworn faithfulness. I am not always so eager to consider whole-hearted faithfulness and obedience to all the commands of God as my prerequisite to life in the land of favor and abundance. Yes, I want favor, but I want it on my terms and not on the terms of God. I would like favor and promise, but I would also like to negotiate the degree of obedience I must be willing to give up in order to have it. Why can’t my entry to the land of favor and promise be contingent on my desire and best efforts (determined by me)? Shouldn’t I get credit for obedience simply on the basis of “I tried” or “I want to obey”?

Likewise, I do not like the idea that my life might be a continuous trial by fire to test and purify my character. “Remember how the LORD your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands.”  Forty years of testing??? Are you kidding me???!! Why must every day be a test to prove my obedience; didn’t yesterday (assuming I was obedient yesterday) count for something? Oh…what’s that you’re saying, Lord? “My character doesn’t need proving to You, the tests are for my benefit to prove and reveal my character flaws to me.” Ouch.

Discipline and Repetition

I remember a class assignment from elementary school I used to despise. I would even go to extreme efforts to devise ways to circumnavigate the assignment or cheat my way through it. The efforts I would engage in would often be more work than the assignment itself; I suppose this confession reveals a something of my nature and character. The exercise was writing spelling words…over, and over, and over again. I hated it. It seemed pointless and physically painful to me that I would have to spell out words ten or more times a piece, especially when I could prove to spell them correctly after one or two attempts. It was worse that this exercise was sometimes administered in the context of correction or punishment for minor infractions of misbehavior. I might be told to stay in from recess for talking out of turn and made to write out my spelling words while the other kids played. Discipline. Repetition. Correction. Behavior modification…

Spiritual Exercises

Discipline can be found and practiced in and with acts of repetition. It (discipline) is often and possibly only learned through those repeated practices. Although I rebelled against most acts of repetition during my youthful years, I have learned the value of repetitive acts especially where they are related to behavioral changes, and specifically in the area of spiritual formation. For instance, the repetition of writing out my spelling words in elementary school is not wholly unlike the repeated and disciplined acts of faith I practice now that leads to a godly life. I have learned and I continue to learn that the body and the mind are both strengthened through “healthy” acts of repetition.

Echoed in the Letter to the Hebrews (chapters five and twelve) are central themes to the disciplined life. There is even the mention that Jesus, in obedience learned through suffering, was made perfect through his discipline. How much more then, do we need to learn discipline and obedience. Likewise, as Christ, our perfection comes through discipline, testing, purging, pruning, and repetition leading to our consummate maturity where we will lack nothing reflecting the nature and character of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16, Eph. 5:1, James 1:2-4, 12). Anything less than perfected maturity in the life of the Christ-follower is not an option. Discipleship is discipline to the perfected image of Christ in me and in you.

I get by with a little help from my friends…

It needs saying that I’m not promoting a canon of self-works. I cannot make myself perfect no matter how disciplined or how hard I might try…at least not perfect as it relates to the image and nature of Christ. The discipline and spiritual exercises I refer to assume the empowerment and partnership of God, the Holy Spirit, in every life of the practicing believer. It is impossible to produce Christ-like behavior on our own, but God has given us all we need to live a godly life even sharing with us His glory and the Divine nature (Romans 8:30, John 17:22, 2 Peter 1:3-4), and with His help and partnership we are able to pursue and live a Christ-perfected life. This is Good News. We are God’s dance partner, waltzing the perichoretic two-step in time with the Triune perfection of our God to the to the tune of perfected obedience and melody of Christian maturity.

As I pondered these things, another memory was wrestled from my past. I used to play baseball at a fairly competitive level. I cannot begin to count the hours of practice that we used to joyfully endure. I think, literally, hundreds, maybe thousands of ground balls and fly balls fielded and played out. One of the main plays we would practice from a defensive posture was the double-play. Ground ball after ground ball was fielded and fumbled for the sake of preparing for the eventuality of making the double-play out in a real game. It is impossible to know when the situation might occur or where the variables might line up for your team to make the double-play. You must be ready for every possible outcome. Practice, practice, practice and repetition helped to create a deep muscle memory of how to field the ball, determine the play, and make the following throws and catches that would ensure the success of the double-play. It was rare for anyone to witness the countless fumbles and foibles committed in practice and connect those trials and errors with the beautiful dance of completion and perfection that would happen on game night.

Desert Spirituality

And we come back to where we began… This is the desert experience I think we might understand from the Deuteronomy Eight passage. It’s repetition. It’s testing. It’s faithfully showing up and trusting the outcome to participating with the persons of the Godhead. It’s all there. It’s not always fun. Discipline requires work and sacrifice, but there is a harvest of benefit and glory. Sometimes you jam a finger…sometimes a hard grounder to the chin, but those always seem worth it when you turn the perfect double-play with Jesus as your teammate.

This is something I think might be helpful for me to remember… Discipline often is, but should not always be associated with punitive correction. I think the better understanding of discipline could be associated with proactive conditioning, the kind that leads to healthy behavior and habits producing a fruitful and abundant lifestyle, the kind of life that Jesus came to offer us. Healthy spiritual practices + repetition = Abundant Life.

Book Review: What Your Body Knows About God

Book Review: What Your Body Knows About God

Author: Rob Moll

Publisher: IVP ISBN: 9780830836772

What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive

This has been without doubt, one of the most fascinating and brilliant books I have read in years. I may be putting a lot of trust in research that I have no background or knowledge of, but it seems that the claims and data presented by Rob Moll in What Your Body Knows About God is sufficiently supported in the notes section of the book for fact checking. Why would I make a statement like that? I make a qualifying or disclaimer statement because the information shared is almost too fantastic to fathom. On the other side of fact checking, is intuition and experience, and this is where I have made the connection with What Your Body Knows.

Here are some salient details about my experience. I am a former addict. Although I was raised in the heart of the Bible belt and taught the Christian faith most of my life, for many years I was living my life very far from God. Quite a few years ago, I made my pilgrimage back to the Christian faith with hopes of finding a deep connection with God that I could never find in some of the earlier forays into Christian spirituality during my younger-self life. Somewhere around ten years ago, I was introduced to the ancient and classic methods of spiritual formation,  engaging in spiritual exercises and disciplines practiced by souls for centuries who were on the Way of Jesus who sought whole life transformation in the image and nature of the Christ they follow. Ultimately, these practices were supposed to help facilitate deep reconciliation, restoration, and union with Creator God and many, many of those practicing this lifestyle of devotion did report deep personal transformation…with equal affirming reports from witnesses and peers to the same. My testimony is similar. I have found peace with myself, peace with God, and realized a renewed mind and changed heart.  My spiritual life was not the only thing that changed with me through this process. In addition to my spiritual health, my emotional health, my intellect, and aspects of my physical self have changed… in some cases, these changes have rendered me unrecognizable as the man I was formerly known. I am, in every sense of the word, a new creation. I know others will attest to these changes in me as well, but the challenge has been quantifying and validating the process and methods. This is especially true of my Christian tradition, which remains highly skeptical of any efforts that might resemble “works” or self-effort on the way of spiritual recovery.

I have struggled with language to articulate my experience, but that struggle is ending due in large part to the work Rob Moll has done in this most excellent book. While I have known the changes in my life (and others’ lives) have been real, I have needed something more to help communicate the rationality of what has happened. The reality of living in the information age and the age of reason dictates a language the culture can understand. What the Body Knows About God is providing me this language. Moll produces deep science and medical studies to corroborate the experiences of those who have been spiritually transformed. Evidence that supports the “renewing of the mind” and rewiring of the emotions (think fruit of the Spirit) are all included in this magnificent study. Verifiable connections to the disciplines of spiritual formation and life transformation producing “abundant living” are all recorded and explained in terms non-science person like myself can understand.

I am beyond grateful for the work put into this book and know it will be a game changer for me as I continue to share my testimony, now in ways that might better communicate the miracle of God in a life transformed. We are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made” and made so that we might be in faithful fellowship with one another and with the God who created us. What Your Body Knows About God helps to make all of this clear. A must read!

Book Review: Pilgrim's Progress

Book Review: Pilgrim’s Progress

Author: John Bunyan

Publisher: ANEKO Press

Pilgrim’s Progress is likely one of the greatest works of literary allegory that exists. I realize how bold that statement might be, but one only read the book to find the truth steeped in that boldness.

While Pilgrim’s Progress charts the arc of the Christian journey, I don’t think it is limited to the Christian experience. Truly the brilliance of John Bunyan is realized in his astute understanding and the following portrayal of the human journey as seen through Pilgrim’s (Christian) eyes.

Originally written almost three hundred fifty years ago, the version I review has been updated to include both the actual Holy Bible Scripture verses and the Scripture references in line with the text of the story. This is a great benefit to the reader who may want to understand the theological reference from whence Bunyan develops his story (an example follows).

“What does this mean?” Christian asked.

The Interpreter answered, “This is Christ who continually maintains the work already begun with the oil of his grace in the heart. By this grace, in spite of what the Devil can do, the souls of his people still prove to be gracious.” (My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, I will rather glory in my weaknesses that the power of Christ may dwell in me. -2 Cor. 12:9)

Other than the Scripture helps and modernized language, the book remains faithful to the original writing published in 1638. Although  some of the concepts may be a bit complex for very young children, I wouldn’t hesitate to read it to those even as young as second grade. In fact, I read the story to my children when they were between the ages of seven and twelve years old. Even if some of the ideas and situations found in the story or “big,” it can serve as conversations starters and discussions about the nature of life’s journey. This work should be on everyone’s “must read” list… perhaps to revisit and read again and again.


I received a complimentary copy of  this book with no obligation to post a favorable review.

Intimate Devotion

Intimate Devotion

I’ve take a “less is more” approach to my Lenten Season this year. I am still active in my participation and devotion, but most of my devotional practice is quiet, still, and intimate. It has taken some getting used to and there is still some awkwardness I’m having to work through, as my normal practices are heavy on “do-practices” rather than “be practices,” especially during the season of Lent. I think it is working well overall despite my occasional feelings of awkwardness.

Today is the Third Sunday in Lent. My devotions the past few weeks have been powerful, intimate, and very clear. This morning as I was meditating and praying through my Scripture readings, an uprising of gratitude and praise bubbled up out of soul, over my lips, and spilled out onto the pages of my journal.

God, I am thankful for the truths you reveal to the hearts and minds of those who seek you. But why should I be surprised? It is something you promise and we see those promises delivered again, and again, and again. We see them delivered throughout Scripture, we see them delivered through the writings of your saints through the ages and we see them delivered in the verbal-audible confessions of our spiritual brothers and sisters today. Breathlessly amazing is what it is. Life-giving assurance is what it is. The power of God unto salvation is what it is.

Thank you and praise you, O Lord my God, for rescuing me and showing yourself to me. Thank you for moments of inspired clarity that bring into focus the mysteries of the universe that are the tapestry of your eternal kingdom. To you I ascribe all glory and honor as I tremble with delight to know that I am yours, truly and eternally yours.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, world without end. Amen.

Nothing Seems Right Or Everything is Right

I was gathered yesterday with my faith community. At one point during our worship, we were guided in prayer and I heard the words proclaimed, “In a world where nothing seems right…” And my heart and my mind were gripped in pause. Now, I should confess that I too have spoken those words and likely on more than one occasion, but this time my soul was arrested with these words ringing in my ears.

“Nothing seems right?”

The context of these words was in proclamation of a world disordered around us. It is true; all around us there are swaths of chaos, turbulent waves of discontent, poverty, famine, pestilence, pollution, dread, and dis-ease. All this is true, but even in the midst of this broad brushed generalization, can we say with certainty… should we say with certainty “nothing seems right?” I question if this is a true statement.

I think and believe there are many things, perhaps most things that are truly right. I’m afraid we miss the deep truth as a result of our blurry, self-absorbed, and shallow perspectives. When we view the world, the cosmos, and all of creation through the narrow experience of our own self-realized being, we inevitably see all things tarnished by our own frailty and brokenness. Does our brokenness though, translate to all things being broken? Does our inability to be what we were created to be translate to “nothing seems right?”

There are many things right; in fact, most things are right.

Rocks are right. Gravity is right. Osmosis is right. Photosynthesis is right. Stars, suns, planets, and galaxies are right. Plants, animals, insects, fish, and fowl, all express perfect being. They are all complete expressions of what they were created to be. Not one is outside of its origin as God intended. A rock rocks as a rock was created to rock. Birds bird as they were intended. And so on. None of these created entities are in rebellion to their created being. Counting all created things, only man rebels against his created essence. Because of this rebellion, nothing seems right

I wonder…I contemplate the possibilities and consider, what if man submitted to the order of his creation—surrendered to the command to reflect his Creator—would it be possible for us to see and even realize how much is right? Amidst the chaos and dis-ease, might we see the hallelujahs sung by the waves, might we hear the crescendos of the rising and setting sun? Is it plausible that we might witness the incomprehensible Divinity that sustains each atom that binds this universe together? I think we might. I’m sure we can.

It was narcissistic coordinates that landed us on planet ME and self-centered perspective leads me to see the world through my own corrupt lens. Jesus Christ prescribes the course correction: “Pilot, adjust your coordinates 180° and set your course for Deny Self.” Herein we are privileged to take in scenery that assumes the likeness of its Creator and suddenly…everything seems and looks right.

Community: Gaffs, Gifts, and Glory

I shared this devotional thought a few years back, but as I am about to enter into a new season of forming discipleship groups in my local church, I thought it a timely piece to share again.


The Gift of Community: It’s a Family Sort of Thing

Hey, uummmm… you’ve got a booger hanging from your nose.

I know, I know; “ooooh gross!” But really, who hasn’t heard these words at least once in your life? I know I’ve heard it more than once myself and it is never any less embarrassing than it was the first time I ever heard it, but in the end I’m always thankful (after the initial horrifying embarrassment) I was made aware of my “booger.”

Something I’ve realized about publically exposed boogers, there aren’t lots of people who will tell you about them. Strangers, casual acquaintances, and sometimes even close friends will hardly ever take the time to advise you of your “hanging chad.” There are rare exceptions, but that’s why they are exceptions…they’re rare. Family, on the other hand, will almost always tell you about your “sticky little friend.” I come from a family with brothers and sisters; none of us ever hesitated to share with one another about a potentially vulnerable “exposure.”

This is the gift of true community; family familiar and intimately comfortable community. Speaking generally, family love and family friendship is a working paradox of the exquisitely beautiful and grotesquely messy existing side-by-side and all the time.

We talk much about our Christian experience being one of community, but I think we have lost something in the translation. I read something not too long ago that talked about our lifestyles being overly connected through the advances of technology (email, IM, Facebook, etc.), but we are more disconnected from intimacy than at any point in the history of mankind. My experience in the Christian community has been largely disconnected even though we speak of connection. It’s not often that I have had someone share with me about an exposed booger… and when I’ve pointed out boogers to some of my brothers and sisters in the church, some of them have become offended to the point that it was catastrophic, but enough about boogers…

I am becoming more and more of a believer in very small communities of faith. As well, I think these communities need to live in close proximity to one another and spend much time together… really doing life together; eating, playing, learning, laughing, crying, and praying… all together. This is how families live and this is how we grow comfortable with one another even through the screaming frustration that being in family creates sometime. I know that my biological family had some serious knock-down-drag-out matches, but that never stopped us from being family. Truth be known, it was the laughter and the tears that taught us about unfailing beauty and assurance of unconditional love. There needs to be more of this same experience in the Christian family (in my honest opinion).

I think another illustration might be helpful. We are sometimes stubborn about admission of our faults, especially when we spend so much time making ourselves look and smell good. What do you do when someone tells you that you might be wearing too much perfume or cologne? I know my first response is that it might be that person’s issue. Maybe that person who told me has sensitive smell or doesn’t like my cologne; that is their problem, surely it isn’t mine. Right? Well, in a large family a parent, brother, or sister might come to tell me I’m wearing too much cologne as well. Maybe this happens three or four or eight times (my family might be as big as the Walton Family). Maybe now I am inclined to think the remotest possibility could be a reality; maybe my cologne is on a little heavy. Now, I might be persuaded to ask one of my most trusted family members if they think I’m wearing too much cologne… They, of course, being a brother who has nothing to lose or gain (unconditional love works that way), tells me; “Of course, you’ve got too much cologne on. You didn’t notice people passing out from lack of oxygen whenever you entered a room?” Armed with new information and valuable insight, I am now able to adjust the amount of cologne I use so that it enhances my presence instead of overwhelming everyone who comes in contact with me.

On the other side of this “family coin” is the confidence of privilege a family member has in speaking truthfully to a brother, sister, mother, or father in the family. Consider yourself; how comfortable do you feel about telling someone you randomly pass in the shopping mall their perfume is too strong, or how about someone in your workplace, school, or church? Now, consider the same about a member of your immediate family… If your family is anything like mine, you feel comfortable about saying, “Hey Sis, you need to back off a bit on that Miss Dior Chérie and by the way, you may wanna blow your nose.” This is the value of true family and true Christian Community.

I hope my playful illustrations provide something for us to think about on a much more serious level… and we might just want to check our nose before walking out the door today… just sayin’

Revisiting The “I’m better than I was card”

Revisiting The “I’m better than I was card” 

I originally wrote and posted this a few years back. As I was reading some of my past writing, I thought this an appropriate reflection as I head into a new year. What is it that God is calling me to? What is it that he desires of me? He desires whole-hearted devotion and complete transformation to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ… How often do I drag my feet? How often do I think of myself better than I should?

Scripture Meditation: Ezekiel 33:10-20

10 “Son of man, give the people of Israel this message: You are saying, ‘Our sins are heavy upon us; we are wasting away! How can we survive?’ 11 As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?

12 “Son of man, give your people this message: The righteous behavior of righteous people will not save them if they turn to sin, nor will the wicked behavior of wicked people destroy them if they repent and turn from their sins. 13 When I tell righteous people that they will live, but then they sin, expecting their past righteousness to save them, then none of their righteous acts will be remembered. I will destroy them for their sins. 14 And suppose I tell some wicked people that they will surely die, but then they turn from their sins and do what is just and right. 15 For instance, they might give back a debtor’s security, return what they have stolen, and obey my life-giving laws, no longer doing what is evil. If they do this, then they will surely live and not die. 16 None of their past sins will be brought up again, for they have done what is just and right, and they will surely live.

17 “Your people are saying, ‘The Lord isn’t doing what’s right,’ but it is they who are not doing what’s right. 18 For again I say, when righteous people turn away from their righteous behavior and turn to evil, they will die. 19 But if wicked people turn from their wickedness and do what is just and right, they will live. 20 O people of Israel, you are saying, ‘The Lord isn’t doing what’s right.’ But I judge each of you according to your deeds.”

I’m still pretty hung up on this passage of Scripture from Ezekiel that I was also considering in yesterday’s meditation and post. While this passage speaks pretty loudly in its entirety, I keep being drawn back to the words shared in verses twelve through sixteen. In these verses, the LORD God Almighty is giving instruction to the prophet Ezekiel to send a wake-up call to a people who have grown complacent in their faith, even taking for granted the mercy and salvation of their God. It seems the people didn’t take seriously the nature of their sin against God. The nation of Israel was rife with idolatry, sexual immorality, greed, oppression of people, and a host of other abominations that were counter character to the nature of God. The end result was that the people were not reflecting the nature of the God who had called them out and made them His own.

Interestingly, it seems as though the people may have had the attitude that they were entitled to God’s goodness in spite of how they behaved. In fact, in verse seventeen, the people actually hold God responsible for their treatment. It doesn’t seem as though they are taking personal responsibility for their sin. Even more interesting, paying attention to the verses twelve through sixteen, it appears there may have been some assumption on the part of Israel that because they were “righteous” at one time in their history (as a nation or group) that God should show them favor in spite of what their hearts revealed in the way of rebellion and disobedience in the present. And, it seems as if the people are completely blinded by their own self-righteousness and pride, because they do not turn from their sin…

“The righteous behavior of righteous people will not save them if they turn to sin, nor will the wicked behavior of wicked people destroy them if they repent and turn from their sins. 13 When I tell righteous people that they will live, but then they sin, expecting their past righteousness to save them, then none of their righteous acts will be remembered. I will destroy them for their sins.”

Here is where it gets interesting to me. How often do we, as a people, do something similar with our actions and attitudes? I will confess that when I first examine my own heart concerning issues of sin, I am always prone to compare myself to “my best days.” I will think, “Oh, but I’m much better than I was… and God sees how much I have grown since I was the despicable me.” And, I will do this with little intention of changing the things that I still know are unpleasing to God. I will consider those “still to be corrected abominations” something that God forgives because of my “past righteousness.” Wrong. Let’s read that verse thirteen once again. “When I tell righteous people that they will live, but then they sin, expecting their past righteousness to save them, then none of their righteous acts will be remembered. I will destroy them for their sins.” We can see this same theme carried over under the dispensation of grace under the blood of Jesus too. Hear the words of James the brother of Jesus as he writes; “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17).

Funny (in a sad way) how we are so easily ensnared in this twisted deception that the false self would tempt us to believe. We want to place blame on God too. We want to say He isn’t fair… just like the people of Israel. We will lie to ourselves and say it is too hard to change and God’s expectations for us are too difficult, but He tells us otherwise “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach” (Deut. 30:11). I think the truth is that we just need to be honest with ourselves… either we want to walk after Jesus or we do not. If we do choose to walk after Jesus there is the way of repentance, dying to self, and the life of service to humanity (Phil. 2:5-7). If we choose otherwise, we have no one to blame for the mess we make for ourselves…but ourselves.

 


 

“Today if you hear his voice, harden not your heart…” (Hebrews 3:15)

Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; knit my heart to you that I may fear your Name. The LORD has pleasure in those who fear him, in those who await his gracious favor. For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation. Happy are they who trust in the LORD. (Psalm 86:11; Psalm 147:12; Psalm 62:1; Psalm 40:4)

Discipleship's Greatest Challenge

This past fall, I was taking some CEU classes that entailed lively discussions about the history and challenges of the modern church in North America. My pastoral role and calling to the vocation of pastor as spiritual director puts me headlong into some of the challenges we discussed, especially those challenges that affect the process of discipleship and whole life transformation in the image of Jesus Christ. This is, after all, the primary mandate Jesus commissioned his followers to pursue before his ascension back to the Father. Jesus said; “Go and make disciples of all the nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” We, the Church of the 21st Century, specifically in the United States of America, face unique and difficult challenges… not insurmountable, but challenges nonetheless, if we are to fulfill the commission we have received by Jesus. The following is a presentation I shared following the the completion my my CEU course.

When asked to prepare a thesis and presentation for what I might consider one of the greatest challenges of the church for the twenty-first century, I immediately thought discipleship…that is, making true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Specifically, I believe consumerism is one of the greatest challenges to the mandate of the Great Commission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ” the Church faces today.

The very nature of making disciples in the image of Jesus is difficult by definition of Jesus himself. It is he who qualifies the disciple as one who “denies himself daily” and/or one who “takes up a cross” to follow Jesus. Likewise, Jesus proclaims his disciples are people who are “kingdom people,” yet he also says the number is “few” who find and follow the path to this kingdom (Matthew 7:13-14).

While I believe the Teacher and writer of Ecclesiastes speaks truthful words saying, “There is nothing new under the sun,” I think our first-world western culture offers unique challenges making discipleship as difficult as or more difficult than any time in the history of the church.

I pastor and worship in the context of the United States of America and my statements are reflective of this context and not a generalization of the global church. This is important because, while I believe discipleship is difficult in any culture; my statements are uniquely applicable to our setting.

It doesn’t take a deep reading of Scripture to realize there is something strikingly different about the message that Jesus taught his followers. A quick reading of the gospels reveals the message of Christ as very counter-cultural, especially when that culture is centered around the economic system of capitalism and the “American Dream.” We, the church in North America, are in direct competition with our culture; this detail alone makes creating disciples incredibly difficult.

Reading from the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain, quickly reveals the American Dream as the antithesis ideal to following Jesus.

Before I proceed, I think it necessary to say that I love my country and I love the Church of the Living God. I also believe in large part the motive of the Evangelical Church has been born of honorable intentions, but I also believe despite her intentions, she has been deceived by destructive intent disguised as an “angel of light.” Our good intentions and attempts to be culturally relevant have largely defused the dunamis of the Gospel of Christ. Many of our efforts to acculturate the gospel for shifts and changes in our society has resulted in blurred understanding of the gospel at best and a complete reduction of the gospel at worst. The result of this blurry reduction of Jesus’ message is a lack of discipleship and a patchwork of shallow theology that often borders on heretical teaching.

In the monumental Reveal study commissioned by the Willow Creek Association, one thousand churches and two hundred fifty thousand congregants were surveyed. It was discovered that our contemporary church growth model was largely ineffective in making true disciples of Jesus and producing measurable spiritual growth. Our programs and formulas can build self-sustaining organizations, but these organizations are rarely consistent fulfilling the primary mission given to us by Jesus Christ to make disciples.

Recently, I have been reading from the book Thinking | Listening | Being by district superintendent of the Kansas City District Church of the Nazarene, Jeren Rowell. In this book, particularly found in chapters titled “thinking identity” and “thinking leadership,” he gives voice to the dangers presented to our churches as our models for organizational leadership have shifted from the pastoral and prophetic to business and the boardroom. Superintendent Rowell identifies the jugular of this challenge quoting from Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles; he writes:

“The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.”   

One of the greatest challenges we face with making disciples in our society is the economic engine of capitalism. The very success of a capitalistic economy hinges on consumers; therefore, all that our society does from top to bottom and side-to-side is built to nurture and develop consumers. The result of this nurture and development is most everything in our society becoming commodified and/or commoditized. Capitalism and consumerism has trickled and seeped into the church at a slow and steady pace over the years until it has become utterly saturated until it bears little difference from any other marketplace in our society. In practice, the western church has simply become another marketplace for many consumers seeking “christianized” commodities. Sadly, the Gospel has become another commodity to sell on Sunday and one wonders if there might not be tables and lattes overturned were Jesus to join the services on any given weekend.

In many churches across America, congregants come to the marketplace on Sunday to have felt needs met and to get their soul entertained…rarely is the intent to enter into deeper transformational relationship with Creator God by becoming a more dedicated disciple of Jesus Christ.

This consumeristic relationship between the church organization and the congregant develops codependency. While codependency may be good for the capitalistic model, it is critically unhealthy for the Bride of Christ.

The dangers of codependency become realized when the organization becomes the focus of the church rather than Jesus Christ, making disciples, and living as kingdom people.

Ultimately, the codependency becomes the “driver” behind every vision and mission statement. If the “mission and message” is not new and fresh to compete with the latest “flavor of the day,” consumer-members may seek out a more popular and momentary gratifying mission and message… In essence, churchgoers may seek out a more charismatic teacher (claiming they are not being fed), they may seek out a different music, children’s program, affinity group, or more robust programming. While there may be some validity and good in all these aforementioned programming elements, it can easily be recognized how quickly they become commoditized and consumed. When this becomes the model and churchgoers become dissatisfied consumers, they leave in search of a better product to consume. When churchgoers leave, finances wane. When the organizational structure (building, grounds, staff, and capital resources) get large, the organization cannot afford to suffer serious and unsustainable loss of income. When this happens in a capitalistic model, bankruptcy can occur and the business dissolves. Churches have largely copied the business model of western society and tried to balance the reality of their message with the wants and perceived needs of the churchgoers and have effectually compromised the message and call to “deny self” and follow Christ. Simply put, the consumer discipleship model hinges on serving the self, which illustrates the fundamental flaw when compared to a Christocentric discipleship model.

The call of the Church is to make disciples and teach them all the commandments of Jesus Christ. We are not called to make “McChurches” looking to franchise or assembly line church growth methods. We are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ, not consumers of church products hoping to make a better self… a better self is not necessarily a denied self.

The nature of this thesis is to identify the challenge of the Church and not to necessarily identify a definitive correction; however, there are some suggestions we might consider as we ponder our next steps.

We might remember that systems and processes are needful, but discipleship is intimate and organic at its core. People and souls are unique, mysterious, and wonderfully made, and as such, disciples cannot be cookie-cutter created or assembly line manufactured.

It is likely we will not be able to change the current and flow of our economy and society. Personally, I’m not sure that is part of our mandate; there are a number of Scripture passages that teach us to not conform to the world and we are “in the world, but not of the world.” The point is that we are all consumers of some degree and it is all too easy for consumerism to creep into all we have done and all we do. It will be important for us to remain vigilant, always on guard that we do not allow consumerism to contaminate our mandate to make disciples of Jesus.

The Church can learn much from the ancient traditions and not fear the streams of Christendom that are not our own. God has been working from the earliest days of the Church to refine His bride and make true sons and daughters in the likeness of Christ. We might choose to walk on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and embrace the revelations that God shares with us today.

by Jeff Borden–The Greatest Challenge for the Church of the 21st Century ©12/27/2014

Advent (2014): Christmas Day—Incarnation—God in Flesh, God in Me

25DEC2014—Christmas Year B

Incarnation—God in Flesh, God in Me: Christmas Day

Scripture Reading:  Year One Readings from the Book of Common Prayer

Lectionary – Christmas 1: Psalm 96  Isaiah 9:2-7  Titus 2:11-14  Luke 2:1-20

Christmas Collect: O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

Contate Domino1 Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth. 2 Sing to the LORD and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day. 10 Tell it out among the nations: “The LORD is King!” 11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad. (Psalm 96)

Christ has come! The LORD is King!

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad.

What a great and marvelous promise that comes to us through the words of the prophets, speaking as the oracles of God. These, the words of the prophets, are the words that strengthen and encourage us as we wait in patience…even in suffering… with hopeful, and joyful, expectation. James exhorts his listeners; “For examples of patience and suffering, dear brothers and sisters, look at the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord (James 5:10). Let us look to the prophet Isaiah today, based upon the exhortation of James, to hear what the LORD might speak to us.

(Isaiah 8:20) Look to God’s instructions and teachings!

1 The time of darkness and despair will not go on forever… 2 The people who live in darkness will see a great light. 3 They will rejoice as people rejoice at the harvest. 4 For you will break the yoke of slavery and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders. You will break the oppressor’s rod. 6 For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders and he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His government and its peace will never end. The passionate commitment of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen! (Isaiah 9:1-7).

What amazing hope-filled promises to look forward to from God through the words of Isaiah. The passionate commitment of our God is to “break the oppressor’s rod.” No more will the yoke of sin’s slavery be the burden of humanity! This is the promise! “Darkness and despair will not go on forever…”

700 years might seem like forever (the amount of time between Isaiah’s prophecies and the birth of Jesus), but the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s decree arrived in the form of God himself wrapped in the flesh of humanity. Light came. Darkness was dispelled. The rod of the oppressor was broken. The promise was real and the promise was realized; Luke’s gospel shares the account of the herald of his arrival.

The angel said; “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today… Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (Luke2:10-20 NLT)

The One the world waited for since the time of Adam’s rebellion had come. The waiting was much longer than 700 years. The wait had been millennia. The estrangement of humanity from God had been too long. God himself condescended himself (Phil. 2:5-7), so he might re-breathe life into his most cherished creation (Gen. 2:7, John 20:21-22) to reconcile and reunify himself to them (John 17:20-24) as he had determined all along, before creation and time itself, that this creation, yes, humanity, would be the Tabernacle of His very Presence (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, John 14:16-17).

God has come. Incarnation. God in the flesh, and God in me.

The free reign of the oppressor is no more in the life of the believer. God can live fully in me as he did in Jesus when he walked amongst men (John 14:12, 2 Peter 1:3-4 NLT). This is the joy of what the day of Advent, His Coming, the Christmas Celebration entails. The Apostle Paul helps to shed “light” on the what the coming of Light means to us in his letter to Titus.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to god, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds (Titus 2:11-15).

We live as people who are filled with the presence and full-embodiment of Christ. Are we not filled with his Holy Spirit? Is not the Holy Spirit a person of the Triune Godhead? The Spirit of Christ lives in us and among us. What is the Spirit of Christ?

In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God.God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. (John 1:1-5 NLT)

God has come. Incarnation. God in the flesh, and God in me.

It means something. Christmas. Incarnation means something. God came. God has come. There is a reason and there are lasting repercussions to his coming… both good and bad. For those who receive Him and his eternal, life-giving, Holy Spirit, breath… the repercussions are good and active even now as we wait for the eternal fulfillment of all God’s promises. We can live and expect to live fully into the atoning grace of Jesus Christ today. This is good news. This is great joy news! This is Glory to God in highest heaven. Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad. I know I am. Glad. And rejoicing. God has come. He was in the flesh and now is in me.

Prayer:

O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever…

My merciful God comes to meet me…

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your Name; may thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil—for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Glory be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, so it is now and so it shall ever be, world without end. Alleluia. Amen.

Leo the Great preached, “Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the incarnation. From the time when Christ came, the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, and speech of kindliness diffused. A heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth.”

“My merciful God has come to meet me…” This is Christmas. Christ has come. Christ lives in me. Christ will come again. Praise Him. Alleluia and Amen.

And now may the spirit which was in Jesus Christ be in me, enabling me to know God’s will and empowering me to do God’s will. Amen.

Advent (2014): Christmas Eve—The Power to Save

24DEC2014—4th Wednesday ADVENT Year B

Advent: Christmas Eve—The Power to Save

Scripture Reading:  Year One Readings from the Book of Common Prayer

Psalm 45, 46  Isaiah 59:15-21  Phil. 2:5-11  Luke 1:67-80

As for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord. My spirit, which is upon you, and my words, which I have placed in your mouth won’t depart from your mouth, nor from the mouths of your descendants, nor from the mouths of your descendants’ children, says the Lord, forever and always. (Isaiah 59:21 CEB)

Today is the eve of Mystery revealed; Advent is upon us, and darkness is now at dawn. The question begs asking; “Are we ready?” Are we prepared for the greatest and our most longed for Visitor to arrive? Are we looking for and anticipating his living amongst us…living within us? Arrival is nigh. He comes. Ready or not.

“How can we expect to find Jesus if we do not seek him in the states of this earthly life, in loneliness and silence in poverty and suffering, in persecution and contempt, in annihilation and the cross?” -Francois Fenelon

The time and place of Jesus’ birth makes me wonder if many of us in this modern and over-busy world would recognize his coming today. We people living in “first world” countries have a debilitating habit and hunger for the loud, proud, and shiny things. Many of us like busy and entertainment filled lives; we do not crave the quiet or silence, and many of us do not like being alone or in solitude.

Jesus was born in the shadows…and lived in relative poverty on the edges of his society hidden from the world’s stage for more than ninety percent of his life. Would we know him? Would we recognize him? In all likelihood, many who claim to know him today probably would not have recognized him then… Truthfully, many who say they know him today, probably would not recognize him if they saw him face-to-face today. I count myself as one of those who likely would not have known or recognized him.

For Christmas is not merely a day like every other day. It is a day made holy and special by a sacred mystery. It is not merely another day in a weary round of time. Today, eternity enters into time, and time, sanctified, is caught up into eternity… We are then, above all, obliged to reveal Christ in our lives… Every day of our mortal lives must be His manifestation, His divine Epiphany, in the world which He has created and redeemed.”  -Thomas Merton

A Psalm and a Prayer

God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble. That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart, when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea, when its waters roar and rage, when the mountains shake because of its surging waves. There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city, the holiest dwelling of the Most High. God is in that city. It will never crumble. God will help it when morning dawns. Nations roar; kingdoms crumble. God utters his voice; the earth melts. The Lord of heavenly forces is with us! The God of Jacob is our place of safety. (Psalm 46:1-7 CEB)

Lord God, our Father in heaven, you have sent u the Savior, who was born to bring great joy to all people. Glorify your name, we pray. Give the world the peace you along can give, the peace that wells up in our hearts. Let your favor rest on us so that we may hold out under our sufferings on earth. We need your loving help to remain inwardly steadfast until everyone can be reached by the message, “Be strong in the grace of Jesus Christ.” Amen.

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