What love is this?

Church-going folks talk a lot about the love of Christ. But, really…What love is this? Is it like when we really “love” a book, movie, or a new pair of shoes? Or is it like how I (most of the time) love my family and close friends?

The love of Christ far exceeds our temporal infatuations. It certainly surpasses our capacity to love those closest to us. Left to our ourselves, we are incapable of the kind of love Jesus offers…

  • Love that sacrifices. Ephesians 5:2 says that Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice for God.
  • Love that heals. Matthew 9:35 speaks of Jesus traveling through all the cities and villages, healing every disease and every affliction.
  • Love that renews. Christ himself was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so that we, too, might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
  • Love that beckons. John writes in the tenth chapter of his gospel about Jesus as the Shepherd who calls his sheep and leads them out.

It is truly amazing–a miracle!–that the love of Christ dwells in us who believe, and nothing can separate us from that love. We have Christ’s capacity to sacrifice, to heal, to renew, and to beckon…just as Christ did. Left to ourselves, we are incapable of that kind of love. But, thanks be to God, he did not leave us to ourselves!

Simply put, when we allow Christ to have his way in us, we sacrifice for one another. We truly see each other’s pain and heartache. We take the time and make the effort to pray regularly for one another, watching to see the healing come because we are agents of that healing. And a holy transformation takes place as we are renewed day by day, as we grow into the beautiful body of Christ.

That beauty, that Christlikeness, that unbelievable love of Christ that shines through us as we are transformed into his likeness is a light that attracts like no other. It beckons people to come and taste and see that the Lord is good, and that his incomparable love can dwell in them, too. They, too, can be healed and transformed as they join a family whose love isn’t fickle or shallow.

I encourage you to push the pause button on your day and engage in a little reflection. Where are you allowing the love of Christ to have its way in you? Love that sacrifices brings healing and renewal, and beckons others to do the same.

my-lord-what-love-is-this-2008

(This is the third of three related posts. You can read the first post here, and the second here. I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences!)

The School for Prayer

prayer in community

 

[Church is] where you learn how to pray. Of course, prayer is continued and has alternate forms when you’re by yourself. But the American experience has the order reversed. In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.         -Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

The foreward of Peterson’s Book, The Contemplative Pastor, consists of an interview with Rodney Clapp, associate editor of Christianity Today. In it, Peterson speaks about private prayer versus common prayer. He says that, in common prayer, we learn to be “led in prayer.” It is an exercise in humility.

In my private prayers, my tendency is to just launch into whatever is on my heart and mind. This makes my prayer all about me, about my wants and needs. Humility is not a factor! These prayers may not align with what’s on God’s heart and mind, and are apt to be met with silence.

I worship in the Anglican tradition. Our worship is liturgical in form, and our prayers are rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. During our times of worship–praying in community–most of our prayers are responsive. In other words, their content is not initiated by me. Take Sunday’s appointed Psalm, for example. Instead of someone just reading it, the congregation is invited to join in the ancient prayer uttered by countless Christians before us. We pray it responsively by half-verse.

At another point in the service, we pray the “Prayers of the People,” a litany of petitions from the Book of Common Prayer. After each short prayer in the litany, we respond with one voice, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The emphasis is not on me, on my wants and needs, but on each of us aligning our heart with God’s heart as he speaks to us in community.

Prayer has to be a response to what God has said. The worshiping congregation–hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments–is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer. It is a center from which I pray. From it I go to my closet or to the mountains and continue to pray. (emphasis mine)

The second point that Peterson makes about praying in community has to do with feelings. He points out that individual worshipers are not asked what they feel like praying about when they enter the church. Our common prayer isn’t predicated upon, or evaluated by, my personal feelings. If the efficacy of prayer is dependent upon my capricious thoughts or fickle mood, it may well be a lost cause!

Peterson concludes this segment of the interview by pointing out that it’s virtually impossible to learn self-differentiated prayer apart from community.

But if I’m in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.

Want to pray more effectively? Cultivate humility through praying in community–prayers that do not have their origin in your thoughts, feelings, or desires. Then take what you learn there into private prayer.

 

 

The Problem With Commitment

I hear it over and over again:

He didn’t show up to serve on his scheduled Sunday.

She signed up for the retreat, then cancelled at the last minute.

Everyone thought hosting the event was a great idea, but no one showed up to help.

Culturally speaking, we have a problem with commitment. Perhaps it’s a problem with definition. Oxford Online Dictionary offers these definitions for commitment:

  1. The state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.
  2. An engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action

I find this to be something of a paradox. It’s hard to be dedicated to a cause, activity, etc. that restricts one’s freedom. Yes…exactly. It’s hard. Keeping a commitment sometimes requires making a hard decision.

If we are honest, perhaps we might acknowledge that…

  • The problem with commitment is that it requires showing up to do something when I would rather be home relaxing, going out with friends, spending time with family, or any one of a hundred other things.
  • The problem with commitment is that it requires me to be responsible to those who are depending on me, and I don’t want that responsibility.
  • The problem with commitment is that it often requires some sort of sacrifice–and I don’t like to give sacrificially.

I can absolutely own any one of those statements on any given day! I don’t know a single person who is not tempted at some time or another to renege on a commitment. We can chalk it up to our innate desire to serve self.

But here’s the problem with failure to keep our commitments: it undermines trust and tears away at the fabric of our families, our church, our communities, and our world.

It’s not rocket science. Before we say “yes,” we need to stop and ask whether we really mean it. Better to say “no” and do it commitmentanyway than to say “yes” but not keep the commitment. (Matthew 21:28-32)

Before we give in to the temptation to renege, we should ask who will be effected by this decision–who will be inconvenienced, disappointed, left “holding the bag?” (1 Corinthians 12:25-27)

Before going back on our word, it is wise to ask whether the sacrifice of our character is worth it. (Acts 5:1-5)

I don’t want to communicate judgment or unforgiveness. Of course there are times when something unforseen arises that necessitates breaking a commitment. Let’s be sure, however, that this is indeed the case and not a refusal to prioritize, to make the hard decision.

The missing link

I am a church member.

I like the metaphor of membership. It’s not membership as in a civic organization or a country club. It’s the kind of membership given to us in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now you are the body of Christ and individual members of it” (I Corinthians 12:27). Because I am a member of the body of Christ, I must be a functioning member, whether I am an “eye,” an “ear,” or a “hand.” As a functioning member, I will give. I will serve. I will minister. I will evangelize. I will study. I will seek to be a blessing to others. I will remember that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  (read the entire blog post here)

Wouldn’t it be great if every single church member shared this perspective on membership? There would be no need for stewardship campaigns; there would be plenty of resources for ministry! Ministry would no longer belong only to the “paid holy people.” Instead of bemoaning the lack of volunteer ministers, church leaders would be scrambling to accommodate all those willing servants! There would be baptisms every Sunday as new believers professed their faith in Christ. Small groups would be regularly digging into the word of God–not just storehousing knowledge, but actually living it out as they went about their days blessing others.

Yeah, wouldn’t that be great! A perfectly unified church… But how?

Here’s a hint:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13, NIV)

Quoting Eric Geiger, Thom Rainer writes:

For the sake of brevity, let’s deal only with the role of pastors/teachers. Note these truths from the text:

  • Christ (He) personally gave this role. It was important to Him, so it has to be important to us.
  • The role of pastors is not so much to do ministry, as it is to train or equip others to do ministry.
  • If pastors fulfill this role, the body of Christ is built up.
  • As the body of Christ is built up, the believers become unified in the faith.

The passage is clear. As pastors are more involved in training others to do ministry, there will be greater unity in the church. (read the entire blog post here)

Rainer goes on to say that they uncovered an interesting–and unsettling–statistic through their research:

Almost all pastors we surveyed affirmed their critical role in training others to do ministry. But almost three fourths of these pastors had no plans to do so. For most pastors, the reasons behind this gap were simple: they either didn’t know how to take the next steps, or they didn’t feel like they had the time to do so.

Are we, as pastors/teachers, the missing link? Have we developed a plan for equipping our people, raising them up to be fully devoted followers of Christ? Are executing that plan? Do you need to develop one, write down what you are going to do and how you are going to do it…step by step? I’m not sure there’s anything more deserving of our time than equipping our people for ministry.

Perhaps the first step–one we may have overlooked–is teaching our people what it means to be a church member.

First things first: Salvation does not a disciple make.

Twenty plus years ago I professed Christ as my Savior.change

I had no idea what that meant or what I was supposed to do next.

Mine was one of those crazy, emotional conversions–the kind some people scoff at, including my pastor at the time. Our church was hosting a faith renewal weekend. I wasn’t interested, but attended the Friday evening session simply out of a desperate need to get out of the house and away from my family. I was not impressed, and planned to skip church on Sunday. God apparently had other plans.

On Sunday, my husband practically bounded out of bed, uncharacteristically enthusiastic about attending church. He was clueless about the renewal activities; had he known, I’m confident he would have been far less excited. However, I didn’t want to discourage this new exuberance for church, so I dutifully got myself and the kids ready and off we went. This particular Sunday was orchestrated by God so that I would accept Christ. I’m not being arrogant–I was the only person who responded to the invitation at the first service! When I went forward, tears streaming down my face like something out of Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show, my pastor whispered in my ear, “Thanks for rescuing me; it was embarrassing when no one came forward!” In his mind, my acceptance of Christ as Savior was not legitimate because it was rooted in emotion rather than intellect.

But for the grace of God, I would have joined the ranks of the pew-sitters. Our churches are full of them–those folks who profess Christ as their Savior, dutifully sit in the pew every Sunday, drop their money in the offering plate, and go on with life as usual Sunday afternoon through Saturday night. An hour or two out of their week, a dollar or two out of their paycheck. Lest you think I’m harsh, I assure you that I’m not passing judgement. Maybe they just don’t know any better. Perhaps their commitment, like mine, was written off as less than sincere. Or perhaps someone introduced them to Christ, led them in a prayer of acceptance, and then moved on to the next soul ripe for the harvest. (I’ve been known to proclaim that evangelism without discipleship is irresponsible!)

I was blessed. After several months of trying to figure out what that moment of surrender truly meant, my husband and I joined a small group in our church where we met Ron and Donna. They spent the next few years discipling us through Bible study, deep conversations, shared meals, and ministry partnership, thus ensuring that our minds were being transformed along with our hearts. They invested in us, in spite of the crises they experienced during those years–crises of health, employment, and teenagers. Whatever was going on in their lives, they were always willing to share themselves and their Godly wisdom with us. It was a life-on-life discipling, one that taught us how to follow Christ in our everyday walking around life.

I have to be honest and say that I’ve not followed their example as well as I could or should. I’ve made excuses for why I can’t invest in others the way Ron and Donna invested in me. But they are excuses, not reasons.

  • If I want to see my faith community grow spiritually, I need to be available to disciple those who are willing and eager to learn.
  • If I expect fewer pew-sitters and more disciples, I need to invest in those people God brings my way who are hungry for more of him.
  • If I want to transform the culture of the church, I must begin with the people.

Done with fixing the church.

Church is the gift of a community of Christians in which we rehearse and orient ourselves in the practice of resurrection. It is never an abstraction, never anonymous, never a problem to be fixed, never a romantic ideal to be fantasized. (emphasis mine)

I pray that these two sentences will forever change my ministry. They are from the pen of Eugene H. Peterson, found on the next to last page of his book Practice Resurrection: a Conversation on Growing Up in Christ.

Through the words of New Testament scripture–particularly in the second chapter of Acts–I believe the Spirit gifted me with a sense of what the Church is supposed to be. I can’t necessarily articulate it in a clear and compelling manner,  so I prefer to speak of “sense” rather than “vision.”  Semantics perhaps. But this sense has been strong in me for 20 years and has become as comfortable as my marriage. I can’t imagine life without it. (A fitting analogy, according to Apostle Paul!)

But after reading those two sentences from Peterson’s book, I am struck by the realization that I may well have fallen into the trap of a romanticized hammer&nailsideal…meaning my concept of what is perfect, but not likely to become a reality this side of the Second Coming of Christ. And in so doing, I’ve been tempted into seeing the church as a problem that needs fixing and myself as one whom God has ordained to fix it.

In the previous chapter, Peterson has much to say about relationship to and within the church. I commend it to your reading, but for the purposes of this blog, suffice it to say that it’s all about relationship–relationships of trust and adoration with God, relationships of righteousness and love with one another (p. 238). The kind of relationship that is not abstract, that does not objectify others. The kind of relationship that understands that my maturation in Christ is inextricably linked to the maturation of those with whom I am in community. I can’t reach maturity on my own, and neither can anyone else in the church. God has graciously given us the gift of each other, that we might share this journey to maturity in Christ. I am to share the gifts I am given in order that we grow together, rather than using those gifts with the intention of fixing, of creating my romanticized ideal of  the church.

Ephesians 4 paints the picture, and it is truly the Spirit-inspired vision.

Thou shalt not compete…

We live in a culture that prizes competition. Heaven knows, we’ve been exposed to some pretty heavy–and ugly–competition over the past several months leading up to yesterday’s election. More than once I’ve listened to an ad or a debate and wondered exactly what would happen if the candidates worked together, pooling their resources and cooperating with each other rather than competing.

Competition is as old as mankind. We see it in the story of Cain and Abel, in Lucifer’s desire to have equal status with God, between the disciples as they jockeyed for a favored position in the Kingdom of God. Yes, competition is as old as sin itself.

When applied in moderation, competition can hone, sharpen us. But competition unleashed is the antithesis of cooperation, and a strong deterrent to interdependence. One doesn’t have to look any farther than 1 Corinthians 12 to understand that the body of Christ must be interdependent in order to function the way God intended.

Where do we see competition in the church today? I’m not talking about competition between denominations (though there is certainly that!), but about competition that goes on within individual churches…places that are supposed to be known for loving fellowship.

Competition among volunteers.

It’s not at all unusual for me to encounter someone who covets the spiritual gift or ministry that someone else has. Sometimes it’s a matter of helping them discern their own unique design and finding a good ministry match. Sometimes it just boils down to a desire for attention and recognition, so making a point of celebrating all ministry equally can help avoid that particular symptom of competition.

Competition between staff and volunteers.

Any equipping leader knows that a hallmark of good practice comes when they find they’ve equipped themselves out of a job! But in all honesty, that’s a scary scenario in the middle of a recession, with so many churches taking the brunt and laying off staff in order to survive. It may be tempting for a staff person to protect their job by limiting the ministry they are willing to give away. If you find yourself dealing with this temptation, I encourage you to face down your fear and continue to give the ministry away as God brings qualified volunteer ministers. You can trust that he has more than enough ministry to go around–even for you! (I speak from experience.)

Competition between leaders.

Leaders who fight to keep their favored ministry continually in the limelight in order to garner resources–people, time, and funding–at the expense of other ministries do so much damage to the church body. Not only does ministry become very lopsided, but the perception is given that one ministry is more important, more valuable, more desirable in God’s eyes than any other. In reality, all are equally necessary–everything from cleaning the church’s bathrooms and washing windows, to serving a hot meal to the poorest in the community.

No matter how you look at it, competition within the church is divisive. It robs the body of Christ of the interdependence it needs to be the body of Christ, leaving the church crippled and ineffective in its ministry. But when we work cooperatively, serving together inside and outside the walls of the church, our ministry becomes fruitful and attractive–to God as well as to those who are watching us!