12 Witnesses

Let these stones be a witness to what we have done here this day.

The Cross and the Refugee

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refugeeAs followers of Christ, the cross, on which Jesus self sacrificially bore the wrath of God to set us free, must be the substance of how we are defined.  The cross is the fulcrum by which grace lifts us.  It is our center.

And the cross must also define the way we see the world around us.  To fail to do this is to deny who we were, who we are, and how we got here.

When the helpless poor come before us and we reject them, what does that say about the grace offered to us?

When we were helpless.  When we had nothing to offer.  When our reception meant a significant price paid by our Redeemer. He paid the price in full, and received us in love.

As recipients of what we did not deserve and could never earn, the cross compels us to offer to the helpless what may cost us, even significantly, our welcome and our comfort.  The cross must define us, and it must define how we see the refugee.

Else, it means little to us at all.

Did God call them to do that?

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God CallingWe can claim that the sun is disobedient to God because it neither rises nor sets when we expect, but that is no indictment of either the sun or of God. Our ramblings only reveal the skewed understanding, the idolatry of our hearts, that we believe God and His creation should move as we see fit.

So it is when we say that “God has not called” that person to do as they did, when no Biblical mandate against their actions exist. It is blasphemous to sit in judgment of the motives and actions of others. It screams that we are the “true” judge, whose expectations must be satisfied. There is nothing “true” about it.

The clear hemorrhage in our thinking is the elevation of our own opinions to that of Scriptural authority.  No matter how close we believe we are to God, if we seek to supplant His opinion with our own, we rebel utterly.

4 Ways to Failed Leadership

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This is a true story.

“If the Lord, Jesus Christ, came down out of Heaven to lead these people, it wouldn’t have been good enough,” the Pastor’s wife said to the Student Pastor as he was departing the church a little over a year after his celebrated arrival.

There had been meetings both large and small.  Every time it seemed like things would get worked out.  Communication would be had.  The Pastor guided almost all of them, trying to bridge the gap.  Eventually, he would give up and offer the young minister and his family a lifeline.  He played a little politics, went to the Personnel Committee, and came up with a severance package.

Despite the Pastor’s recognition that some within the Student Ministry simply were not following their leader, he had some frustration with the Student Pastor, too.  He hadn’t always been wise. Sometimes naive. Sometimes temperamental.

But the guy was under so much stress, constantly being undermined and picked apart in ways that no one could withstand.

But then he gave them so much ammunition.

Failed Leadership: A Mixed Bag

Failed leadership is always a mixed bag.  Everyone bears some blame.  Frequently, however, the failure becomes inevitable when some or all of the participants quit listening and refuse to bear any responsibility.

When everyone is still willing to work, to grow, to repent, to try… Well, frankly, leadership success is almost guaranteed, with a slight nod to the unforeseen catastrophe that no one but God could anticipate. If everyone comes to the table with humble and honest hearts, a willingness to work through what is stalling the team, and a passion for the task, how can that team be stopped?

Well a breakdown, of course.  Here are a few things that can derail the team.

Breakdowns

These can be found in either the leader or the team.

  1. A limit.  Someone decides they’ve had enough and are no longer willing to work with the other person or persons.  I have to admit that there is a time to stop, but that is when the other person is no longer trying.  You can still lovingly part ways and be gracious.  If, however, you are the one who gives up while everyone else is trying, then the fault is with you.
  2. A catastrophe.  This would include a moral collapse, but not a mistake, or even a sin repented of, such as an unkind or thoughtless word.  Be careful not to assign “moral failure” to someone who is no less righteous than yourself.
  3. Self righteousness.  Speaking of people no less righteous than yourself, there are no people less righteous than you.  We are all sinners.  All rebellious.  All unrighteous.  When we come to the table with a belief that only the other person is to blame, it is only a matter of time before the gears grind to a halt and repair becomes impossible. They will never live up to the moving standard of slippery perfection set in the mind of the self righteous.  No one can.
  4. Silence. It is not polite nor God honoring to be silent unless you can easily forgive and forget the fault of another. Since this frequently does NOT happen, bringing the issue out, in love and grace, is the only other option afforded the believer. Failure to address the issue will only lead to someone reaching their limit (see #1)

Any other ways that you can think of that would break down a team?

Pastoral Authority and Trust

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I’ve frequently observed to anyone who would listen, that a church works best when the congregation trusts its leaders and the leaders are trustworthy.  If either is failing, the church will suffer and disaster is imminent. If both are failing, disaster is upon you.

The author of Hebrews describes the relationship this way:

17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. – Hebrews 13:17 ESV

Of course, those who’ve spent much time in church have heard, if not seen, abuses by pastors who are not using their authority to watch over their congregation, but for their own worldly desires.  Just as likely, the same people can retell stories that center on the abuses members of congregations have heaped on faithful servants of God.

Still, if you’ve ever been a part of a healthy church, one where the Pastor and congregation treat each other Biblically and carefully, you know that there is no sweeter group of people with which you can journey this life.

Here are a few observations about being a part of such a family:

  • Healthy church relationships are easier to maintain than to regain.  Water over the dam and under the bridge, once a set of relationships become overwhelmed with sin and selfishness, it’s hard for us to reconcile.  Not that we shouldn’t give everything to do it.  We should.  It’s just that, most times, people won’t.
  • Healthy church relationships require correction & humility.  Everyone needs to be humble in order to receive correction when necessary and to have it received from them when the time comes.  Without correction, injustices (perceived or real) fester and trust breaks down.  Humble correction and repentance builds trust and takes relationships deeper than they’ve ever been before.
  • The congregation bears the lion’s share of the responsibility.  True, it is the responsibility of the leaders to correct those who are rebelling against the Lord, but it is also the responsibility of every other believer to correct their brothers and sisters.  Humbly, with love, out of compassion for them and a desire for their good, we must all bear the burdens of correcting those we love.  But practically speaking, if the congregation does not correct the brother or sister who is tearing down the body, it will be assumed that they are all in agreement with the ever growing grumblings resonating from the heart of the offender, whether that offender is pastor or congregant.  In short, what is done in the body must by done by the body, in unity, with humility.

Anything you would add?

The American Church Grieving the “Loss” of American Culture

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I’ve been an engaged observer of the church in America and it’s interaction with the culture in which it is immersed for some years now.  Last week, I watched through news articles and social media as Christians in America convulsed, reacting with deep emotion, ranging from anger, to sorrow, to bitterness, some even to satisfaction all in response to the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Prop 8.

On the other side, as the previously linked article noted, there was jubilation.  One quote I read in the social media wash of commentary was from an advocate of these laws being struck down, and it read something like this: “And now, in respect for our opponents, a moment of silence, as they have lost ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!”

The sentiment struck me as extremely myopic, though I can’t fault the person for being so.  After all, Christians in America have not been overly sympathetic to those with whom we’ve disagreed, nor have we communicated our values or motivations in a way that was easy for others to understand, even if we do differ dramatically.

So, to those outside of our tribe, let me clarify the motivation for the strongly negative reaction of some in the Christian community.  They have lost an American culture that more accurately reflects their deeply held religious beliefs.  This had become an expectation for many. An inheritance that they believed they had a right to pass on to their children.  It feels to them that people have stolen their lives, or at least their lifestyles, and that of their children. And that of their grandchildren.  They grieve the knowledge that their line of descendants will look more like their “opponents” than like them, at least in what they value and accept as “normal.”  They know they’ve lost something significant.

That begs the question, “Do these people have the right to such an expectation?” and of course, different worldviews collide in the answering.  Hopefully in a respectful way, but if history is any indicator, probably not.

So let me now speak to the Christians of our nation, my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Why do you expect that the world not be worldly?  Is it wise or in any way Biblical to expect that those who do not hold your values to act as though they do?

Let me share with you when this American culture you value so greatly was lost.  It wasn’t last week.  Though I can not point to a single event or even a string of events, I can easily say that the American culture was lost to the American church when the church began to rest on the expectation that the culture would look like it instead of working to ensure that the culture would actually be transformed by the power of the Gospel.

You see, by and large, we’ve become quite a secluded lot. Not all of us, to be sure, but undeniably most of us.  We prefer the holy huddle of the frozen chosen in our Sunday gatherings.  A smaller bunch than years before, meeting in aging buildings that are far larger than are necessary and falling apart because we can’t keep them up as well as we once did.  After all, we are older, on fixed incomes, and our children have left our buildings.

And those large buildings where some of our children attend are flooded with just that: attenders.  Loads of people who show up, sing, drink lattes and frappuccinos, listen to whatever is being served up this week, and then go home and go about their business.

Again, not all of us are in that situation.  Not every church looks this way.  But to say that the majority of American Christianity doesn’t fit one picture or the other is, to put it not so gently, not really in touch with reality.

Still, I want to offer a word of encouragement to us all.  We believe in something miraculous and transformational.  We don’t have to be the people who simply shout dismay at those who value different things and see the world contrastingly.  We can be the people who offer the Gospel to people who need to know that God does not hate them because they are pushing back against Him, but loves them in spite of it.

The power to change the world, is in the Gospel.  That is not a word commanding conformity to an outward morality.  It is a word of redemption.  That healing can come to the wounded.  That fulfillment can come to the empty.  That those who are in prison in this world can be set free.

If we are failing to speak that to our world, and many of us are, then it is no wonder that our culture thinks we have no stake in this conversation.  They don’t know that they are the stake for whom we are to live and die, because we’ve not told them nor have we showed them.

Leadership and Direction within a church

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There seems to be nothing less needed, in fact, nothing more detrimental to the well being of God’s Kingdom in this world than yet another church started by, planned by, moved by, and sustained by the machinations of man.  Such an entity is a waste of time, energy, and Kingdom resources, only serving to divert those within and without from experiencing the true transformative power of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

The Kingdom and the world are in need of a body of believers whose true leader is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. It must be directed by, empowered by, and satisfied by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The earthly leadership of such a church must come from those who are deeply sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit,  conscious of its dependance on the Holy Spirit, and content in obedience to the Holy Spirit.

Such leadership, in contrast, can not be full of their own ideas, assuming that because they think something that the thought automatically came from the direction of the Holy Spirit.  As Scripture commands, such things must be “tested,” not assumed.  Further, such leadership must understand that the best efforts of men are not enough to move one soul closer to the redemption that God offers through Christ.  The only power available to the church is that given it by God’s presence.  Finally, such leadership must know that obedience to God’s direction will be the only thing that earns the “Well done” of the Father.  No earthly goals or worldly acclaim will satisfy the commission that God has always given to His people, that “obedience” is better than sacrifice.

Four reasons to think about Eternity

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I’ve always had a bit of push back within me toward the idea of “pondering Heaven.”  It seemed to me that I had too much work to do here to allow myself to become “so eternally focused to be any earthly good.” Despite the fact that the idea of sitting on a hillside and awaiting the return of Christ has always seemed like lunacy to me, I’ve recently come to embrace the odd moment or two sitting quietly and looking forward to the time when this world is no more and I am at home with God.

The story of how I got from the one place to the other is a long one and the topic for some other time, perhaps. Suffice it to say that as my understanding of the Gospel has broadened, I see the whole picture of God’s redemption more clearly.  Included in that, of course, is the picture of ultimate redemption pointed to throughout Scripture in such images as the Garden of Eden as that which was lost, yet to be redeemed; hope for dry land from within the Ark; the land flowing with milk and honey, as promised to those delivered from slavery; Jesus’ promise that He goes to prepare a place for us; Paul’s assurance that we will see face to face what we now see dimly, as if through a clouded glass; Peter’s urging that we should walk as temporary residents of this world; and God speaking to John in the Revelation (chapter 21) the most clear picture that we will dwell with Him and He with us and all the pains of this world will be, finally, washed away.

This is just a small list of the many references to eternity throughout Scripture. If the Gospel is so full of this thought, it must benefit us to dwell on ultimate redemption once in a while.

Here are four benefits I’ve found to doing so:

1. It lends perspective. When faced with difficulties, we often blow them out of proportion.  It’s a first world habit I’m prone to indulge and, if you are reading this on your internet capable home or office computer,  or even smart phone… you are too. No matter what our problems though, Eternity face to face with Christ causes all of them fade in importance.  Even martyrs throughout the ages testified in their death that the ultimate redemption was enough to see them through.  (This requires that you are prone to find your satisfaction in Christ, of course.)

2. Perspective calms me. Frazzled by a hectic world, recognition that my citizenship is in Heaven helps me to care less about the things that I can not control and are of (come on and let’s be honest, now) lesser importance. They mean less and I worry less.

3. It strengthens my resolve. I am in this world, however, with all of its trials. Big and small, I face them all… but with the knowledge that I have a task to do, and that task has a time limit. I am not free to wait for eternity ignoring all that will spend their eternity apart from the God that promises me such fulfillment.

4. It grants me peace. I know that the God that has authored the narrative of history is not leaving loose ends.  If I can trust Him with my eternity, I can certainly trust Him with my temporality.  Is that a word? It is now. Just coined it.

 

The True Meaning of Love

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A high school classmate of mine (Bellaire, 1985), Greg Stanford, asked me to write an article on the true meaning of love.

The concept of love is such a mess in our world.  It’s hard to get a handle on it.  Teens and even pre-teens fall in and out of “love” while adults tsk tsk their seemingly frivolous relationships, talking about how “love is a commitment.” All the while we burn through divorce lawyers at an alarming rate.

We won’t get much farther in our understanding, either, until we understand that our love and inclination to love is an echo of the God who made us in His image.  When we understand what it means to Him, we will stand a chance at applying it to our world in a meaningful way.

The Bible defines love pretty clearly:

1 John 4:7-12

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. 10 Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [sacrifice of atonement] for our sins. 11 Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us.

[sacrifice...] – mine, emphasis – mine

God created everything and made humanity in His image as the centerpiece of creation and we, all of us, turned away from Him. So for God, “Love” is that He pursued us and sacrificed of Himself to redeem us.  That we love God is in response to Him loving us first and demonstrating that to us.  He has wooed us with sacrificial redemption.

Sacrificial redemption. We need to apply that to our relationships and see what happens.

When we sacrifice ourselves in order to redeem others we woo them into a mutual love.  This is the image of God in us.

I know.  You were expecting me to quote 1 Corinthians 13 in discussing the meaning of love.  That passage is great at describing how true love acts.  1 John 4 describes what true love is.

But, so that you aren’t disappointed…  If we seek to redeem through self sacrifice, it should look a lot like this:

1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends.

Listening for the whisper

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A few weeks ago, following a sermon series through the book of James, I preached a sermon called “Elijah, a Man with a nature like ours” as a clarification of James’ claim that we all come from the same stuff and that God might use any of us like He used Elijah, if we were willing. The text was 1 Kings 19:9-18. If that doesn’t ring a bell, and you don’t desire to follow the link and read the Scripture, it is the story of Elijah in the cave, after the showdown with the prophets of Baal.  God told Elijah to go to the mouth of the cave, where Elijah expects to hear from the Lord.  At the mouth of the cave, there is a fierce wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but God did not speak to Elijah in any of those things. Finally, there was a still, small voice and God was in the voice.  Elijah recognized God’s presence, pulled his mantle over his head in a sign of reverence and listened.

Like us, Elijah’s problem, the one God was addressing with this parade of big, empty things, was that he was prone to take off and do something before listening to God.  In the scene before Elijah journeys to the cave, He is seen calling down fire from heaven and calling Israel to the Lord.  The people respond, reject and kill the prophets of Baal and turn to the God they had only heard did great things like this.  The main difference in the journey toward the showdown and the journey to the cave is that God had sent Elijah to former, but Elijah took the latter on himself.

Imagine a life of constant communion with God, but where God only speaks through enormous actions.  Your average day would be fraught with near misses and calamities on every side.  That’s not what God desires and the scene at the mouth of the cave was a teaching moment to Elijah.  Remember, the first words from God in Verse 10? “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  As in, who told you to do this?  Not me… Must’ve been you.

Here are 5 things that can help us to live lives that are increasingly attentive to the still, small voice.  Lives that are more powerfully used by God.

1.  Stop inundating ourselves with meaningless media.  God has to use big things to cut through the blare of white noise that are our lives.  Technology is not evil. Media is not evil.  Giving massive amounts of our time and attention to both train us to listen carefully to them, ignoring more important things, like the Holy Spirit.

2. Spend earnest time tending to our hearts.  Spiritual Disciplines, Prayer, Scripture Memory, Bible Study, and honest Introspection are necessary to the heart of the growing believer.  We don’t have to prove anything to God.  This is not a burden to carry.  If we want the joy of a deeply personal walk in connection with the Holy Spirit, though, we will pursue God.

3. Be obedient. If God speaks, don’t say no.  Why is God going to continue to speak to a heart that is periodically being hardened?  He is not going to reinforce bad behavior. If we have a point of known disobedience, we must immediately go back and make it right.  If He says go, we must go.

4. Crucify the flesh.  We are constantly tempted away from a life of obedience to God.  Victory is not dependent on us, but on Christ. Nevertheless, our acceptance of Grace is participation in the Crucifixion of the flesh and is formed in obedient cooperation when the Spirit points out what must be pruned.  “The fruit of the Spirit is Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faith, Gentleness, Self Control.  Against such things there is no law.  Now the one who belongs to Christ has crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we walk by the Spirit, we must follow the Spirit.  We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” Galatians 5:22-24.

5. Meditate.  Spend time being still and quiet.  Our world works against this at every turn.  If cutting down on media is the first step, this is the last.  This would be other side of the coin, so to speak.  I’ve learned how to do this a bit in the last year.  It is a powerful thing to still your thoughts and simply focus them on God.

Why is it?

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Why is it that after a prolonged absence, we feel the need to explain where we’ve been to the odd half dozen or so folks who still check in from time to time?  Really, most of the traffic (I still get some, can you believe it?) comes from search engines that are funneling folks to specific articles I’ve written in years past.  A few still hit my home page, lately to find my last article from October 31, 2011.  Yes.  8 months ago.

It almost begs an explanation, though I recognize that I’ve already published several over the last couple of years.  The only thing to do is ignore it or come clean.  Never one to miss an opportunity to over share, let’s go with coming clean.

Several things have conspired to to keep me from writing.  Among them

1) Discovering an emptiness in the topics of political observation within the SBC.  Old news and no reason for further comment.

2) Busy-ness within the responsibilities of the Pastorate that kept me from managing this blog and my church responsibilities.  I was new to the pastorate in 2006 and new to my church as well.  It takes a while to become fluent with the minutiae of any job and I had plenty on my plate.  Add to that the changes that we were working through and I was tired of writing.

3) (This is the coming clean part…) I had several church members that were frequenting my blog, often misconstruing or just misunderstanding what I had written (sometimes years before) and then repeating their misconstruction/misunderstanding to others at the church.  It’s no secret that change is rarely embraced readily by all and we had all our plates could handle moving through ours.  When some were adding the misinformation coming from others claiming this blog as the source, it just wasn’t worth it.  So I quit writing to remove a source of misunderstanding.

I should add that I am not accusing everyone from my church who read my blog of misrepresenting me to garner political support within our church.  I think that was actually quite rare.  Nevertheless, any stream of misunderstanding that can be removed, should be.  I prioritized the church over this blog and I doubt anyone would second guess that decision.

So what’s changed? Several things!

I’ve had a personal spiritual growth like I’ve never experienced before.  Call it a Gospel Awakening.  I’m sure we’ll get to that in the near future.  For now, simply consider that God, in His mercy, considered it His pleasure to crush me in order to shape me in an image more like His Son.  For this, I am grateful.  Honestly, “grateful” doesn’t cover it.  Even for an aspiring writer, I have no words for how I feel about this.  I consider it worth everything.  More later.

The church has come to a place of peace.  We still have some issues and we honestly need to move forward in some areas, which means change.  Small ones, but still…  Nevertheless, Earlier this year, God wrought a situation that allowed us to finally air our heart in a loving way.  It has brought a tremendous peace on the church and we gather together without fear of dissension breaking out.  We are praying for Spiritual Awakening and have been since the Spring.  We are beginning to see the fruits of it and have enjoyed God moving among us significantly over the last couple of months.

With my life and the church in the throws of burgeoning renewal, the desire to write as presented itself once more.

And since I’m paying good money to host this blog, I thought I would be a better steward of that opportunity.

If you’d like to subscribe to an email notification, there is a box at the top right to let you do that.  Every time I write a new article, it will let you know and should give you a preview of what’s here.

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