Putting Jesus “First”

“Put Jesus first.”  I feel like I hear this a lot.  The scripture that has informed our current sermon series, Colossians 1:15-20, supports this directive.  It says, after all, in verse 18

He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.

But what does “putting Jesus first” look like?

In our society, people who “get to go first” don’t have to stand in line like everyone else. They receive protection from all the normal people; they can have guards and gates and get ushered to the front row or the luxury boxes.

Not only was Jesus NOT treated this way; there is no indication that Jesus ever sought to be treated this way.  In fact, I’m reminded that he said that “Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave—  just as the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Matthew 20:27-28)

Jesus WAS the head, the firstborn from among the dead. He DOES and WILL occupy the first place among everything.  He was also so secure in his relationship with God that he felt no need to act like it, or to show it off. In fact, he emptied himself, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8)

May you and I, and all who are trying to follow Jesus, be secure enough in our relationship with God that we, too, might not seek to be recognized as first, or as more important than others. May we follow the way of Jesus – and, in doing so, we’ll find we are putting Jesus first.

Putting Jesus “First”

The Hatefulness of not playing favorites

I’m a terrible person.  Or so I am tempted to believe as a result of a phone conversation that ended a few minutes ago.

Of course, I can think of all kinds of reasons he was wrong, but all  of these reasons are playing less loudly right now than the reminder of his voice.

“So, you hate veterans?”  He hung up before I could answer.

Of course I don’t hate veterans!  But, while I could have shot this simple statement out before he disconnected, I didn’t even mutter these words because that wasn’t an answer to what was actually happening.

He didn’t really care if I cared about veterans.  He cared if I cared about him.  Making things even more difficult than that, the only way I could prove to him that I cared about him was if I gave him exactly what he was asking for.

He did what he was supposed to do, right?  His best play was the card he had that could most likely win; his best card was the “veteran” card. He had already played the “my grandfather was a pastor” card, and that hadn’t worked.

In that moment, he wanted me to play favorites. More accurately, he was hoping I would both play favorites and that he, in one category or another he had presented to me, was in my list of favorites.

At this point it would be easiest for me to call up the “God is no respecter of persons,” which is how the King James version translated it.  The Common English Bible renders it “God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.” (Acts 10:34)

That’s where most of us go to fight playing favorites. There are plenty of other places in the scripture we could go, if we wanted to. Matthew 19:24 and Matthew 25:31-46 come to mind quickly.

So was I playing favorites by choosing that verse?

Are we are always choosing to play favorites, one way or another? Is it really a matter of being honest with ourselves and with others about how we choose favorites?

I am left with the story of the starfish.

White finger starfish and seashells
White finger starfish and seashells

However it is that we play favorites, may we realize that in helping one, any one, we at least offer help to that one. Whether or not we change the world in doing so, we might hope to be part of the change in that one’s world.

The Hatefulness of not playing favorites

But it’s in my DNA…

Blaming things on DNA is so 1990’s.dna.jpg

You’re going to need a better excuse.

In church work and leadership, it’s still a big thing to talk about identifying your church’s DNA. Of course DNA is a metaphor in this case.  We use this metaphor we we talk about a congregation’s origin story and significant points in that story that define it or limit it for the rest of the life of the congregation.

For instance,  in the late ’90s, I  pastored a church that had moved to its current location in 1925.  For the ensuing 75 years, this congregation perceived itself as a church that struggles financially.  It makes a lot of sense for a church, which relocated and built just 4 years before the Great Depression, to come to understand itself in such a way.

This insight is helpful. Defining as DNA, however, might not be.

Way back in the 80’s, when I was in college, all the psychology classes included some time for discussion on the “nature v nurture” debate.  What caused or most contributed to a person’s behavior, attitude, intelligence: the intangibles (DNA) one was born with, or the environment in which one was raised?

The answer was always some combination of the two, but we were pretty sure of one thing,: that DNA held deterministic power over the “nature” side of the argument.

But what we knew and what we know are always in a dance together, and this dance has changed.

Sure, genetics, or DNA sets some baselines, or some expectations.  But we now know that genes can be turned on and off during one’s lifetime. My favorite study – maybe because it is the only one of which I know any particulars. In a long-term study, rhesus monkies genetically prone to anxiety, when raised by non-anxious, ‘super-nurturing’ parents, had the gene indicating for anxiety turned off.

The DNA of the anxious monkeys didn’t condemn them to lives of anxiety.  In fact, the expression of the DNA was changed by nurture.

Takeaway:  You are not enslaved by your genes.  I believe this is especially true for any of those settings where DNA is used as a metaphor.  It can be helpful in understanding some of the primal forces that brought you, or the institution, or organization, to where you are today, but there is no good reason to let it limit or determine the paths who walk from this day forward.

So: “What’s in your DNA?” might be a good conversation starter, but it is not a conversation ender nor is it more ammunition for blame games or excuse making.

But it’s in my DNA…

Leadership Meadership

I had a sadly disturbing conversationleadership recently.

I did much more listening than talking in this particular conversation, but that’s not what made it sad or disturbing.

I was visiting with someone considerably older than I and someone who is close to death. This person is aware that death is near, and is, for the most part, at peace with this knowledge.

So I listened to quite a few stories.  Like most of us, this person tells stories about success and accomplishment. This person has quite a history of leadership.

This person also has quite a history of brokenness.  Raised by parents, various counties, and extended family, this person fought through this adversity to, as the stories tell it, successfully raise 4 kids.

I really wanted to find a story of healthy relationship or hope, so I asked, “You’re obviously quite a leader.  Where did you learn your leadership abilities?”

It didn’t take 2 seconds before a rather sharp, strong, “Myself!” was blurted out as an answer.

Which really saddens me.

I don’t know exactly where I rank on any leadership scale, but I know the value of leadership. I’m pretty sure I’ve learned and grown a great deal in my leadership abilities since my first ministry job in 1984.

A lot of that learning and growth has been pushing and stretching and trying and failing.  Myself.

But almost everything I’ve tried and failed (or succeeded) and most everything that has pushed, pulled, or stretched me has some source outside myself.

I believe recognizing this makes me a better leader.

Whatever leadership I have gained, it has all come in knowing that I am, at the same time, following someone else.

So, while there is an “I” in leadership, there is no “me.”

I hope I find the grace to offer this the next time I have a conversation with this person.

Leadership Meadership

Meaning missing

Easter is less than three weeks away.  Let the advertising onslaught begin!

risen ChristIt seems to me like way too many of these Easter ads emphasize the wrong image, and thus miss the meaning of Easter.

And if you think I’m referring to bunnies and eggs, think again.

I refer, friends, to the cross.

The cross is not the central image or focus of Easter.

Do an image search for Easter and you’ll get a bunch of bunnies and eggs in pastels, but you’ll also get a lot of crosses.

I am not anti-cross!  I am deeply appreciative the cross and all that it represents.

Valuable – no, essential – as the cross is to Easter, the cross isn’t the main point of Easter.

Easter is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection!  Easter tells us that death – even death on a cross – is defeated by what God has done in and through Jesus.

So, enjoy your bunnies and eggs.  Ponder and reflect on the cross and all it says and means.

But please, this Easter, remember, and celebrate, the resurrection of Jesus!

Meaning missing