Friday, December 6, 2013

The Compelling Need for Spiritual Giants: Non-Negotiated Faith

Look around at culture today and you see people desperately trying to fill a “void” in their lives.  They do it in a variety of ways:

·      Spending/shopping/buying
·      Hook-ups
·      Excessive Drinking
·      Reality TV shows
·      24 hours/day sports
·      The latest fad diet

Deep down people know something is missing so they run wildly after anything that will fill the emptiness, only to have to refill again and again and again.

I’ve been suggesting that what the world needs to see, to fill that void, are spiritual giants—people of deep, authentic, world-changing faith.  A faith so compelling in its power that people will see it and immediately recognize that that’s what they have been looking for all along.

But too often the world sees a shallow faith—people who claim to be followers of Jesus but who live in the shallows rather than in the ocean of God’s grace.

So I’m doing some “outloud” writing about what it looks like to be Spiritual Redwoods—people of real faith.

The third characteristic of Spiritual Giants is Non-Negotiated Faith.  I got this term from Joseph M. Stowell’s 1996 book, Following Christ.  I’m only a fourth of the way through it but the first few chapters were body blows of grace to the soul.  Here are a few quotes:

·      Ghandi was asked by a close friend, “If you admire Christ so much, why don’t you become a Christian?”  Ghandi replied, “When I meet a Christian who is a follower of Christ, I may consider it.” (p. 9)
·      Something significant has happened since Christ issued that call (Follow Me!) nearly two thousand years ago.  We have become quite happy to call ourselves Christians with little to no thought of following.  As a result, we are paying dearly through a loss of fulfillment, personal satisfaction, and our impact on the world.  (p. 9)
·      Although we may hear a multiplicity of voices from both within and outside the church, we listen to only one.  It is the voice of Christ who simply said, “Follow Me.”  No conditions. No negotiations.  No particulars.  No contractual exceptions.  Just follow.  It was the first and last thing Jesus said to Peter (Mark 1:7; John 21:19, 22).  It is the beginning and the end of what it means to be a Christian.  Everything in between is measured by it.  (p. 12)
·      Yet, in a strange, twisted sort of way, many of us live out our faith in Christ as though He exists to follow us.  We come to believe that Christ exists to satisfy our demands.  Distorted perceptions of Christianity pose the power of faith and prayer as instruments designed to get Christ to serve our impulses for peace and prosperity.  This disguised form of self-serving religion sets Christ up as just one more commodity in life that will enhance and empower our dreams and destinations.  (p. 13)
·      …Christ calls us to come after him.  He calls us to count ourselves singularly, wholly, and without compromise fully devoted followers of Him—not as a part time expression of, or add-on to, our Christianity, but as the all-consuming center point of our existence.  (p. 15)

Hard-hitting stuff.  Transformative stuff.  The kind of stuff that builds Spiritual Redwoods.  The kind of stuff that compels people with a vision of life.

More to come…

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Compelling Case for Spiritual Giants: Thanks-Full-Ness

I’ve been “blogging out loud” about my gut sense that the world desperately needs Spiritual Giants; Spiritual Redwoods; people of deep faith.  Many individuals know that their lives lack meaning and depth. The deep-seated hunger for God, created in them by their Creator, consciously or not-so-consciously, has them on the look out for something of depth to meet that hunger.  What they are tired of seeing is shallow faith—faith lived on the shores of the ocean rather than in its depths. 

With so many “faith” options now available, people are looking for the real thing—and that will show itself in a faith that’s lived.

In a previous post I suggested that the first characteristic of people of deep faith is that they know their Subject.  People of deep faith never stop diving into the depths of God and his grace.  They know the stories of the Bible.  They know Jesus with head and heart.  And they live accordingly.

Another characteristic of deep faith is Thankfulness.  Spiritual Redwoods live in the constant awareness of God’s grace and blessings.  As Paul writes, they give thanks in everything (1 Thess. 5:18), not for everything, but in everything.  We all experience things in life for which we can’t possibly give thanks—nor should we.  But we can still give thanks because the God of the Cross is in the midst of them.  He has not abandoned us.  Rather than focusing on what we don’t have or the awful stuff of life, Spiritual Giants keep their hearts centered on God and God’s grace.

Another word for Thankfulness is Contentment.  Paul says it this way while sitting in a jail cell uncertain if he will live or die:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and  of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  (Philippians 4:11-13)

Paul discovered the secret to a deep life in faith: Trusting in a God who will care for him.  That trust leads to contentment which fuels thankfulness.

And thankfulness forges us into Spiritual Giants—people of depth.  People who, no matter how tough life is, follow the Crucified One with a heart of gratitude knowing that Jesus has been there before us.

How different that is from a culture that constantly bemoans what it doesn’t have, incessantly focuses on the new and the latest must-have, and lives in a constant restlessness and emptiness.
And how attractive a life of authentic gratitude looks when we see it.

The world is crying out for more Pauls, more Christ-followers, more people of deep, grateful faith. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Compelling Case for Spiritual Giants--Part 2

As I wrote last week: what the world desperately needs today are Spiritual Giants; Spiritual Redwoods; people of deep faith.  In part, they need people of spiritual depth because all too often life for many is lived on the surface.  Many nibble on life rather than feast on it.  So when life gets tough, nibblers have no substance to stand on.  That’s when they need in their lives people with some depth in their life-outlook.  They need someone who can bolster them from the depths of life.

I also think those outside of faith are tired of seeing so many people of shallow faith—judgmental faith, easy-answers faith, low commitment faith.  They reason, rightfully so, that if someone embraces a faith, that that faith ought to set the agenda for his/her life.  It ought to mean something meaningful.

In a consumer culture, where everything can be bought in a moments notice and tossed the next, where our self-worth is based on what we have and on getting the next thing (the latest I-phone or big screen TV or Coach purse or jeans or car or designer puppy, etc.), where everything is experienced in the shallows—including, too often, relationships—depth of faith becomes a surprisingly refreshing, liberating, transforming, eye-opening two by four to the head—an “I could have had a V-8” moment: This is what life looks like! 

My first foray into this topic last week generated some interesting responses from “I want to know more” to “what prompted you to write that?” to “what does it look like?” to “fascinating…what does it mean?”  To be honest, it started out as a gut instinct.  So over the next several weeks lets see where that instinct takes us by teasing out some “characteristics” of Spiritual Giants.

Paul writes in Colossians 2:6-7: As you have therefore received Christ Jesus, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Characteristic 1:  Spiritual Giants Know their Subject

The other day one of our kids at the Lake Pleasant Estates rattled off her knowledge about her favorite Boy Band: One Direction.  These are the stats she shared with me from their latest Take Me Home Tour:
·      They performed 134 shows in 20 countries
·      The shows were held in 68 cities
·      1,635,000 tickets were sold
·      7 babies were born while on tour
·      They utilized 86 crews
·      3,680 cups of Yorkshire tea were consumed

My point: Think about all of the stuff that we know—without really knowing anything useful!  Some of us are experts on the Kardashians.  Some of us know every NFL player backwards and forwards.  Some of us are so articulate in all things Shades of Grey that we can enter into the big debate on who should play the main characters.  Some of us are obsessed with our favorite celebrity.  Some of us with the news (from the left or from the right). 

We know a lot of stuff…and that stuff is neither good nor bad.  I’m the kind of person who thinks that any kind of learning is good as it exercises our brains (I’m proud to say, for example, that I know a lot about Victor Mature, BJ Thomas, and Barry Manilow and am pretty good at movie-focused trivia!).  

But, at the same time, all too often we fill our brains with empty calories.  We know stuff…but we really don’t know a lot of stuff steeped in substance.

When it comes to faith, many Christians sadly know about as much about their faith as non-Christians.  Many Christians are Biblically illiterate.  They’ve not read more than a few verses in the Bible.  They don’t know the great stories of the Bible.  They don’t know important “doctrinal” truths about Jesus or the Spirit.  Their life story doesn’t really connect with the Jesus story.  So we’re afraid to talk about our faith because we’re afraid we can’t answer the questions that may be asked.  Or when tough times happen, we get angry at God or fall away from God because we don’t really know the Subject of our faith; we have no substance to draw on.

Spiritual Giants are theologians.  Theo means God.  Theologians wrestle with the things of God.  That’s the call of every Christian.  To follow Jesus is to know him—to know the stories about him; to know what he’s passionate about; to know his heart. 

Like everything else we want to know more about, we have to spend time learning about him to know him.  This can’t happen in one hour a week (or, for most church-goers, in one hour once a month or twice a month). 

If our faith is going to be deep and transformative, we need to make the study of God a priority in our lives—to read the Bible every day (even the hard parts); to worship regularly; to take a class or seminar that helps us dig deeper. 

Think of it this way: Do you know as much about the God of your Faith as you do:
·      Politics?
·      Sports?
·      Hollywood?
·      The “characters” in your favorite “Reality TV” show?
·      Cars?
·      Sewing?
·      Painting?
·      Your career?

Again, there’s nothing wrong with knowing stuff about stuff, important stuff or even stuff that doesn’t really matter.  It can help us connect with life and expands our field of vision—even though that field of vision can, at times, be fairly shallow.  But life is lived in the depths.  And Spiritual Redwoods have roots that go down deep into the ground.  The deeper the roots, the more established the faith, the deeper the life.

No matter where we are in our spiritual journey, we can continue to live our lives in Jesus, growing through learning as much as we can about him.  Because ultimately Spiritual Redwoods never stop growing.  No matter how deep our roots go into the things of God, we’re never anywhere near the bottom.

And that depth will not only serve you well…it may very well transform the lives of those around you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Compelling Need for Spiritual Giants--part 1

As a pastor and preacher, I continually wrestle with the content of the sermon.  On the one hand, we have people who have been in church for decades; people who have heard the story of God over and over again. On the other hand, we have people who are very new to the faith--every story, every thought, is new.  If the sermon goes too deep, it can lose those who are still drinking the milk of God's grace.  Offer too much milk and those who need sweet potatoes and salad and chicken either walk away malnourished, apathetic, or bored.

For the first 22 years of my ministry my sermons were geared primarily to those who were, for the most part, unfamiliar with the Gospel story.  And there are a lot of them!  In those days, one of the compelling ways we reached those not yet connected to the church was through an inspiring, engaging worship event that presented the story of Jesus in a relevant, dynamic, fashion--using dramas, contemporary forms of music, and messages that dealt with every day life and how Jesus can make a difference.    This form of ministry worked well with my generation--Baby Boomers--because most of us had church exposure.  And while we didn't like what we grew up with, we were attracted to churches speaking in our musical and life language.

It's not the same world anymore.  My kids generation did not grow up in the church.  My grandkid's generation will be increasingly "unchurched."  So, while it may work for some, trying to attract new generations to Jesus through a relevant, hip worship service won't cut it for most.  Instead, what new generations want to see is a dynamic, deep, passionate faith lived out in the lives of followers of Jesus--augmented by a worship experience that says: This is a congregation that takes Jesus and grace seriously.

To say it another way: The world today needs Spiritual Giants.  It's had enough of shallow faith--the kind of faith that doesn't think for itself; that comes across as judgmental; that's driven by consumerism and what the church can do "for me;" that seems to always put everything else ahead of faith.

If following Jesus is really what life is all about--people want to see it.  They want to see commitment.  They want to see faith lived compellingly.  They want to see Christians and churches serving, giving, sacrificing, living grace-based lives.

The world needs Spiritual Redwoods.  Men and women of deep-rooted, lived-out faith.  That deep faith will look differently for each of us depending on where we are in our spiritual journey--but it's time for all of us who call Jesus our Lord and Savior, to step up our game and begin to live the compelling Jesus-life we were created for and that the world needs.

During our first 9 years as a congregation God has been shaping us into Spiritual Giants.  In the next 10 years, I believe he's going to ramp up his work in us, so that we as a church and as his followers can be the Spiritual Giants the world desperately need.

In the next few weeks I'll try to tease out what I think I'm talking about!  :)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Makes Grace Grace?

Even though I played hooky from Grace this past weekend, I did attend worship.  I visited a church I have been reading about for years.  This church is doing incredible things in terms of serving their community and in terms of being an inclusive church.

I hesitate to critique any church but this church was such a mixed and challenging experience for me that I wanted to use it to say some things about Community of Grace.

I arrived 30 minutes early so I had a chance to talk with one of the ushers.  While it is a denominational church, he said, they are open to anyone and everyone.  He mentioned that they serve free meals three times a day (they are in the heart of downtown San Francisco) for over a million meals a year.  After the first song the leader announced that the church needed 5 people to volunteer immediately to pack lunches for the homeless--that's immediate mission!  The choir was made up of a variety of people and sexual identities.  I've never seen that kind of living picture of an inclusive church before.  It really is a magnificent mission--one that is embraced by the city of San Fran. Almost 2000 worship there per weekend, with about half being visitors!

The usher mentioned that they took down the cross from the worship center so as not to offend anyone.  The opening prayer was a further demonstration of that desire not to offend.  They prayed to the God who is known by many names, who is found through many paths, and a special prayer of thanks was given for the truth of God found in the Hindu scriptures.

The music was amazing--a large choir backing up vocalists with a strong Black Gospel feel (one of the soloists was probably in his 70's and he sang a couple of spirituals in a Louis Armstrong vibe including Amen!).  In between the songs the pastor or others would talk--and they always talked about the congregation and the great work they were doing.  Again and again they upheld their openness, their often radical take on inclusiveness, and, after awhile it seemed to me--did a lot of patting themselves on the back.  I understand the importance of a congregation owning its mission and feeling good about what they are doing.  But after awhile it got a bit much for me.

That's the critique.  It seemed to me to be all about them.  About their mission.  About how unique they are among churches.

What was missing (and I missed the message--I could only stay an hour; the service was 90 minutes) was that this is all about God in Christ.

I came to this conclusion: When your vision of God is squishy (and in my opinion, this church has a squishy view of God--all paths lead to the same God, God is known by many names, all religious texts are equal to the Bible, the cross has been removed from the worship center so as not to offend anyone, etc.), then promoting the church becomes the focal point--because the church and its mission becomes concrete while God remains somewhat abstract.

This is in no way meant to demean the amazing work this world-class church is doing.  But I disagree with their theological center.  And at the same time, I was deeply challenged by how we talk about Grace and what makes Grace Grace.

If we claim to be Christians, or a Christian Church, then Jesus is not optional. The cross is not something we remove from the worship center so as not to offend.  Paul says the cross is the great offense. The cross means God isn't squishy.  He isn't known by many names.  He's known only by the name Jesus.  His inclusive grace doesn't come to us through many paths, all of them equal, it comes to us through the cross and only the cross.   God isn't squishy.  God comes to us on a rugged cross with nail holes in his hands and a wound in his side.  And that can be a stumbling block for many.  But that's how God chose to make himself known to us--using the scandal and recklessness of the cross.

And so, with Paul, as a church we should ultimately be known for one thing and one thing only: Christ and him crucified.

While it's important to hold up how God is at work through us as Community of Grace to inspire us to continue to follow him, ultimately, if we aren't known for our passion for Christ, for being a faith community gathered around the cross of Christ, then we've lost our way.

What makes Grace Grace? The cross of Jesus.  The call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him.  Following him on the bold, daring, reckless adventure of bringing grace to the world.

This is going to be increasingly important these next 10 years as we begin to transition to the next generation of leadership.  It's not about Tim Wright.  It's not about the staff or worship team or volunteers. It's about Jesus the crucified one, using us to bring his grace to the world for generations to come.

My prayer is that Grace increasingly gains a reputation in the community for being a church that really believes in Jesus and really follows the Crucified One.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Story of Repentance

9 years ago my back told me it was time to stop running.  I didn't want to listen.  I knew I was probably hurting myself.  I knew that I could cause further damage.  But I loved running.

Finally, moved by my need to protect my back and yet keep exercising, I was lured to cycling.  I bought a road bike (not cheap) and began a new chapter in my life.  I changed direction, so to speak, and moved from running to biking.  Sort of.  While I loved riding my bike, it was hard to give up running.  So for a couple of years I also tried to add running back into the program but I always ended up hurting my back.  In the end, the pain in my back and the new passion and promise of cycling got my attention and there was no turning back to running.

About a year ago I started having more issues with my back.  The sitting position of my road bike (learning forward) was irritating my lower back and tailbone.  I bought a new bike saddle.  I raised the handle bars.  And I had relief for awhile, but it didn't last.  Again, pain in my back forced me to look in new directions for exercise.

So I did something few road cyclists would ever do...I bought a hybrid bike.  A bike that allows me to sit up.  And...dare I admit it...I love the ride.  It was hard giving up the road bike but this bike has in many ways renewed my love for cycling.

But I knew that if I kept that road bike in the garage, it would keep calling to me.  So I had to make a clean break.  This week I gave it away to the Arizona Foster Care Agency.

A day later, when I went to ride my new bike, I looked at the place where my road bike had been.  Almost 19,000 miles on that bike. Great moments outdoors praying and enjoying nature.  8 years riding it.  And I wondered if I had made a big mistake.  But after my morning ride on my new bike, I knew there was no going back.  I was now a hybrid bike rider, no longer a road cyclist.  And that, for me, is a good thing.

Repentance is one of those big Bible words that people often misunderstand.  We often see it as something we need to do to get right with God.  We see it as a form of confession.  A form of turning from a life of sin and turning to God.  It's something we do.

Repentance is the act of turning from sin to God, but it's not something we do.  It's an act initiated in us by our Creator.  God's grace comes along and creates in us a sense of dissatisfaction with life as we are living it or creates in us a hunger for something different or it forces us to take a long look in the mirror revealing the sin and guilt and pain we've been living in for years.  At the same time it captivates us with a promise of something better--Grace, life, forgiveness, peace, joy, and hope, among other things.  And lured by that dissatisfaction with life and the promise of something more, God's grace empowers us to turn from our old life to the new life in Christ.  That's repentance.  It's turning from the old to the new.  But it's not done to get right with God.  It's done as a result of God making us right with him through the grace revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The old life, however, lingers.  The desire to keep running after repenting of it and leaving it behind for cycling entices us.  We find it easy to fall back into old patterns or behaviors or habits.  As Martin Luther says, the old Adam/Eve doesn't die easily.  But God's grace keeps calling us, shaping us, leading us into the new, drawing us to a new life with the promise of grace.

Sometimes we need to get rid of remnants of the old so that they don't tempt us.  That might mean giving away the running shoes or the bike or joining an AA meeting or getting rid of certain magazines or no longer attending certain events.  But even the power to get rid of the old is a gift of grace.

The main message of Jesus was a message of grace: God's kingdom of forgiveness has broken into human history in Jesus.  And that promise of grace calls us to repent...not to earn that grace but as a result of that grace.  But like Paul, we need the grace to die (repent) daily.  A grace God gives.

As you look at your life...what might God be calling you from...and to?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Wrapping up Outrageous Grace

For the last five weeks we've been looking at the 5 most outrageous stories Jesus tells about grace.  You can view the various messages here.

In these stories Jesus makes several outrageous claims about God's grace:

1) God's grace is far more expansive than we can ever imagine.

2) God's grace is only offered to sinners/losers/spiritually dead people.

3) God's grace is always unfair.

4) God's grace will go to death and hell to find the "lost."

5) God's grace covers and embraces us before we can ask for it.  In fact, we can't ask for it because we are spiritually dead.

6) Faith in God's grace is a result of God's grace--God's grace resurrects us, breathing faith into us.

7) It is not our job to determine the parameters of God's grace.  That's God's job.  And as all of these grace stories remind us, this grace is far more expansive than we can ever imagine (see point 1).

One final word on grace...for now.  Grace is never forced on us.  It wouldn't be grace if it was.  We can never do anything to get God to grace us.  It wouldn't be grace if we could.  But grace is ultimately an irresistible force.  It is a power, a love, a compassion, a hope that keeps on calling to us until finally we can resist the gift no longer.  As I said this past weekend: Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, (in heaven and on earth and under the earth) that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).  This is not a threat.  This is not coercion.  This is a promise of grace.  It is the reality of an irresistible grace.  No one can resist that powerful, sacrificial, unconditional, transforming gift forever.  It's too explosive.  It's too combustible.  It's too overwhelming.  It's ultimately too good.

And that irresistible grace will lead us into life and it will lead us home!