W’s Q’s #4

wesleys questionsPart of John Wesley’s genius, as the founder of the Methodist Movement, was the way he organized to make disciples. He established small groups everywhere he went. When these small groups met, they would go through a list of questions at each meeting. The questions were designed to guide the group members into a deeper walk with God.

Here is the fourth question:

  1. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work , or habits?

 

Wesley knew better than to think that spirituality, or following Jesus, was simply a matter of spending time each day in prayer and bible study. He knew that following Jesus would affect every area of our lives: including the way we dress, our choice of friends, where and how we work, and habits we hold on to.

But the wording of this question reminds us that neither is following Jesus only about shopping at different stores, befriending a different group of people, etc.  The beginning of the question is as important to the disciple of Jesus as the ending: “Am I a slave…?”

In John 8:31-32 Jesus said “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Following Jesus sets us free from all matters of bondage, including things like clothing, friends, work, and habits.

Perhaps the most basic way this question challenges us to grow is in facing the truth that everyone who follows Jesus doesn’t look exactly like us. They won’t all dress the same, have the same friends, work the same jobs, or have exactly the same habits.

I’m reminded of a story told by a deeply faithful Free Methodist college Professor.  His young adult daugther was in a relationship with a young man of the Dutch Reformed tradion.  Unlike the Free Methodists, Dutch Reformed do not carry the same social taboos on alcohol and tobacco.

Knowing the young man to be a committed Christian nevertheless, this professor told me how he and his wife sought to reach out across such different practices. If their daughter was serious about him, they would make every effort. They invited him to join them at the symphony.

The young man graciously declined. “While I very much appreciate the invitation, I would never dream of doing such a thing on the sabbath,” he told them.

When we find ourselves enslaved to some social particulars, we might set up barriers that keep us from fellowship, and that can poorly represent our Lord.

Dress, friends, work, and habits matter. They matter deeply.  But they are not lord of our lives. That place is reserved for Jesus.

W’s Q’s #4

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”

W’s Qs #2

wesleys questionsPart of John Wesley’s genius, as the founder of the Methodist Movement, was the way he organized to make disciples.  He established small groups everywhere he went.  When these small groups met, they would go through a list of questions at each meeting. The questions were designed to guide the group members into a deeper walk with God.

Here is the second question:

  1. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?

Many congregations have at least one of these people, but in one church I served her name was Esther.  Esther believed that she should always speak her mind, no matter who it hurt along the way.

I read in a Chuck Swindoll book of that same era that “honesty is a virtue, but it is not the highest virtue.”

I think this misconception of honesty – sharing my opinion no matter the personal or relational cost – is exactly what this second question of Wesley’s small groups intends to address.

Notice it asks, “Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?” (emphasis added) I think honesty in our actions will sometimes cause us to limit the words we use. Honest actions make us choose our words more wisely.

So, “Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?” Is a great question for any of us who would follow Jesus to consider regularly.  Additionally, we are most likely to grow more honest in acts and words when we hold ourselves accountable to someone else.

I believe that, at its best, honesty in acts and words means consideration for one’s own worth and that of others.

W’s Qs #2

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…

You Don’t Preach Right!

“You didn’t begin your sermon with the reading of the scripture text. You are always supposed to read the scripture as the beginning of your sermon.”

This is a very close approximation to something a colleague of mine was told recently.  This colleague is soon to go before the Board of Ordained Ministry for commissioning – a major step towards ordination.

Part of the qualifying process is submission of a sermon – both manuscript and video recording.

My colleague asked for my insights as to whether such a particularity could, in fact, derail his quest.

I shared that I cannot remember the last time I read the scripture text as the beginning of my sermon.

For me, anyway, this rarely if ever happens in part because our liturgist reads one of our texts immediately before I stand to preach.  Re-reading the scripture myself would give in to the notion that preaching is not really a part of the worship service as a whole, but rather a stand-alone event thrown into the midst of a worship service.

I encouraged my colleague to continue to preach the Word, and to preach the text for the service, whether or not that scripture text was written into the sermon.

A much larger concern for me is that someone would suggest so simple a component done differently would disqualify a sermon altogether.  What I think really happened was an incident of either

  1. “You didn’t preach the way I was taught to preach” or
  2. “You didn’t preach the way I like to hear someone preach.

Are there specific mechanics that you believe are absolutely essential to the successful preaching of a sermon? Do Jesus’ and Peter’s and Paul’s preaching always follow your rules?

You Don’t Preach Right!

A Quiet Verse

About a month ago we started offering a GPS in our weekly worship guide.  GPS stands for “Grow, Pray, Study.”

Today’s scripture reading is Philippians 2.  I preached on a passage from this chapter yesterday, but today, reading the entire chapter, it got real for me as a reader and student of the bible, not just as a preacher.

This is what really caught me this morning: Philippians 2:13 says

God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

I am stuck on this verse because at the moment it seems to me to unlock the very future of the church in the US!

Ask any pastor, and he or she will likely tell you that one of the greatest frustrations for pastors is the general cultural attitude most succinctly represented by this bumper sticker

The frustration is NOT that this doesn’t convey some truth about God’s grace. The frustration is that so many use this as a cop-out to miss out on the transformative power of God that is available with and by grace!

Sure, Christians aren’t perfect. Fine.  No argument.  But if you find yourself using this line as an excuse to refuse to change your behavior, that’s a problem.

If you claim the “Christians aren’t perfect” bit to fight learning to forgive others, that’s a problem.

If you throw down “Christians aren’t perfect” to justify the fact that you are no better a person, no more like Jesus, than you were a decade ago, that’s a problem.

This change God offers – God promises – is not on you!  It is on God, and God is stepping up to the plate.

And God will deliver. God will enable you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes!

Yes, you will have to make some changes, but God provides the lead and the power, the direction, and the ability.

And the God who offers this, provides this, is the God who made you and who breathed life into you.

Let this singular, quiet verse soak in for a while today, and see what God can do with it!

A Quiet Verse