Contrast

I’ve been thinking for a while now about contrasts: the way things that appear similar but are strikingly different and do very different things. That may be a strange thing to be thinking about, but I have my reasons. For one thing, I roast coffee. The art and science of roasting coffee fascinate me because there is such contrast between coffee beans. While coffeecoffee beans appear similar they roast differently. While a bean from Bali does amazing things at 400 degrees, other beans will burn at 400. Another contrast that has been on my mind is rooted in my experience as a pastor. This contrast involves the way we imagine church.

I have been in ministry since 1992, which is not a long time but long enough. However, I have always struggled with the balance between “disturbing the comfortable and then comforting the disturbed,” as John Stott wrote. Frankly, it seems like all the comforting that pastoral work requires has left very little time for leading the discomforted out of their comfort zones and into the mission of the kingdom. In other words, I’ve spent way more time in committee meetings focused on the business of the church than on the mission of the kingdom (inside rather than outside). I was in one of those internal meetings a few years ago when I realized how lop-sided that is and the utter necessity there is to change it.

A young woman in our church met with me to talk about her concerns regarding her neighbors. They were refugees who had been settled in a few different houses within our community, and specifically her neighborhood. As she got to know them she realized that despite our government’s best efforts there were a lot of things that her neighbors did not know how to navigate very well. For instance, most of them had very little understanding of banking and currency. Because of the variety and abundance of food, many of them were overwhelmed when they went to the grocery store. One woman had no idea how to use a washing machine; she continued to wash clothes by hand in the bathtub. So, this young woman had come to see me to ask what her church could do.

I felt like it was a great opportunity to share the love of Christ and to live out the love of neighbor. I set up a meeting with the person who coordinated our women’s ministry and asked her what we ought to do. The coordinator had a heart for the Gospel and for the needs of women. However, she surprised me with her response. She said that the mission of the church is to worship and teach, “then you let people just go and do.” I remember saying, “that can’t be right.” But, when I met with a few elders from our church I quickly realized that was exactly how they thought of things. A pastor’s job goes hand in glove with the role of the church. We are hired to lead in worship and to teach. That’s what we do every week. When I started thinking about it, I realized how true it is for a lot of churches. Very often a church’s identity is rooted in worship and teaching (discipleship programs).

It is hard to deny the place that worship and teaching have played in regards to significance and identity in church history. After all, worship and teaching are key to the Christian community. What I am suggesting, however, is that worship and teaching are the primary identifying aspect of most churches, at least in the US. That may not be so good and in fact, it may be part of the problem. What happens on Sunday morning and perhaps Wednesday evening drives the church engine, so to speak. Worship and teaching are the mission. Getting people engaged in the life of the church means getting them into worship or a small group. But that endeavor has little to no impact beyond the church.

Churches that focus largely on worship and teaching are what I call worship communities. Of course, that is not to say that worship communities only care about worship but they often restrict the definition of worship to what happens on Sunday morning (per se). A simple list of programs offered by worshipping communities provides ample evidence that churches care about things beyond their doors: mission budgets (conferences, trips), schools, VBS, Celebrate Recovery, Divorce Care, Meals on Wheels, food pantries, tutoring, ESL, etc. Nevertheless, it is difficult to suggest that those programs are the primary focus of any church. In fact, a lot of those programs are done with the hope that it will somehow lead to more people coming to worship or being part of a small group where they will encounter Christ. Thus, the community is usually built around worship and teaching.

Most, if not all, of the churches that I’ve been associated with were worship communities. A real giveaway to that was the way assets were used. The amount of time, money, staff, and effort spent on being outward facing paled in comparison to what was spent on worship and teaching. In one church that projected their worship service on the wall, they spent more on printing the order of worship than on youth ministry. When that fact was brought to the leadership’s attention it was quickly tabled for a future discussion, which to my knowledge has never taken place. Beyond that, worshipping communities can lose their focus and become insular.

It generally happens when a church allows worship and teaching to take center stage of everything they are doing – sometimes at the expense of the very neighborhood where they are located. For instance, a large church in a mid-western city had a parking issue. Parking in a city is always at a premium. Congregants often parked in front of the houses in the neighborhood behind the church, which frustrated the church’s neighbors. Their complaint was well grounded; congregants sometimes blocked a driveway or worse took parking place in front of houses on Sunday and Wednesday (weddings and funerals, too). The church tried to work things out by raking leaves and baking cookies; they tried to have conversations with their neighbors. What they didn’t do was no longer park in the neighborhood. Some within the congregation felt that they had a right to park there since it was a city street and they were there for to go to worship.

To help settle things, the city offered a parking lot down the street from the church, but the congregants felt the half block was too far to walk. The neighborhood went the legal route. The church responded by secretly buying up houses in the neighborhood through a dummy corporation set up by a few of the elders; they planned to tear down the houses and build a parking deck on the edge of the neighborhood – despite the protests of the neighborhood. Eventually, the neighborhood appealed to the city council. The city council sided, rightly, with the neighborhood. The Sunday following the decision the senior pastor comforted the congregation, “While the city council has impacted our parking they will not impact our freedom to worship.” He was right, of course. However, while the church had preserved their worship community they had done so at the cost of a relationship with nearly everyone who lived in the neighborhood and with a lot of people in the city. Not that it mattered, most of the people in the neighborhood didn’t attend the church.

While some churches can afford to burn relational bridges, most churches cannot. And yet, a lot of churches are just as insular in their own way; they work hard to maintain the integrity of their worship community because that is what has been communicated. An all too familiar story involves churches in demographically changing neighborhoods. The church, however, eager to maintain its worship community does not change. It isn’t out of stubbornness. Often attempts are made to engage with the neighborhood. However, those attempts are often done with an invitation to be part of what the church is already doing. In other words, the church wants people in the neighborhood to join their thing. While the church may be warm and welcoming they often don’t make an effort to accommodate the cultural differences. Inadvertently the church sends a clear message and simply wants people to step into what is already happening. To borrow slightly from C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, the church is for the church.

Too often in those cases, the church comes to a place where they must close its doors. Through death and attrition, they simply do not have the people to maintain their worship community any longer. The real tragedy may not be that the church closed but rather that no one noticed. What a terrible epitaph. A church closes and no one notices. It was so focused on being a worship community that no one in the neighborhood is even aware that it no longer exists.

For a lot of churches, the idea of being in community with one another is so important that it overlooks the way it interacts with even its closest neighbors. Community, however, is Biblical but maybe it ought to focus on something beyond itself to be healthy. Hebrews 10:24 tells us that we are not to forsake gathering together. The assumption that is often made from that text, however, is that it means gathering together with worship and teaching as the focus. I’m not sure why worshipping communities expect more people to be involved in mission when the clear (if not subliminal) message is that the church focuses on “worship and teaching.” When 20% of the folks do 80% of the church’s work and that 80% is focused on maintaining the community for the sake of the church, well, it might be more of a worshipping community than what I call a mission community.

For the most part, there isn’t anything wrong with being a worship community. However, some people in worshipping communities feel like they need to apologize for not being more engaged in mission. They see a need in the community and they want their church to step in and do something; sometimes that happens. Generally, however, when something happens it is either for the short-term (think responding to natural disasters) or it takes a dozen or so committee meetings before anything is ever done. Worship communities can be frustrating for people who want to see the church on mission. What they are asking is that the church become a mission community.

Mission communities are generally more focused and driven by the needs of the community around them as opposed to international mission work (of course they care about that but they are hyper-focused on their community). While a mission community resembles a worship community in the sense that they worship together and are concerned about discipleship, the major contrast is what drives the congregation. For instance, a mission community takes Jeremiah 29:7 as its core identity and works for the welfare (shalom) of their community. Of course, the greatest need that people have is a relationship with Christ. A mission community goes about the work of sharing the gospel by working for the good of its neighbors out of the love of Christ. Sharing the gospel is by proclamation as well as by acts of service.

A mission community is on the lookout for the broken places within its community and takes it as their responsibility to bring the hope of the gospel to bear. It works for the restoration and renewal of its community. Rather than being insular, a mission community is constantly orientating itself toward the welfare, the shalom, of its neighbors.
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Worship communities could say the same, except for the fact that a mission community doesn’t try to start its own thing. For instance, a lot of churches will start their own food pantry rather than work with one that exists in other churches or one that the city has put together. Sectarianism does a great deal of harm to the mission of the kingdom and shows a real lack of spiritual imagination. A mission community, however, often looks for ways they can engage in what is already happening in the community and figures out ways to get involved with the work that is already being done. That allows those who are engaged in the mission community to build relationships and work for good. Mission communities start their own work when there is a gap that needs to be filled.

In one community, the school system has been working diligently to increase literacy among its elementary students. One mission community approached the school system with an offer to provide volunteers needed to launch the program. In the process, they began asking others, outside of the mission community (and not involved in worship communities), to participate in helping kids. In other words, they invited people to participate in the mission. They didn’t expect those folks to participate in worship and discipleship before they could work for the good of their community. The hope was that they would be able to build relationships with people beyond their church walls. A mission community invites people to see the gospel at work in the lives of its people and on display in the community.

There are not many churches that are mission communities. The reason for this is quite simple. It is tough to change the DNA of an established worshipping community. It requires change and most churches, like people, would rather face “ruin than change” (WH Auden). Not only that, but change often leads to conflict and most pastors and church people are conflict avoidant. Additionally, pastors may not have the leadership skill needed to navigate change or conflict. Nevertheless, it is my belief that if worship communities do not start becoming mission communities they will become obsolete and insignificant in their communities. There may be more churches closing soon if they do not move toward the needs of their communities.

That goes for church plants as well. Very often church plants start off with the idea of being missional, focused on the welfare of their community. Over time, however, they begin to take on the shape of a worshipping community – complete with all the specialized ministries that go with the territory. Every so slowly, their focus shifts from being outward facing to being attentive to “comforting the disturbed” to the point they have little time to shepherd folks to think of others as more important than themselves. Eventually, the pastor finds himself enmeshed within inner-church issues, and the budget reflects they have settled neatly into the rhythms of a worshipping community where 20% do 80% of the work. Ten years into a church plant and many of them are no different than any other worshipping community.

It is difficult to maintain a mission community because it is so different, but it is exactly what the church needs and exactly what communities need. Though they may look the same, though they may both be called a church, there is a striking contrast between a worshipping community and a mission community. The former can easily become insular and concerned with its own interests. The later, while not perfect, as least has the needs of the others as its highest end, which after all is closely connected to the way Jesus fleshed things out.

The essay was first published by Tactical Faith where I serve as a Pastoral Fellow (https://www.tacticalfaith.com/pastor-fellows-2/).

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Captive

 

hands boundOver the last week news outlets have buzzed with the fallout surrounding the “alleged” racists comments of Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling. Everyone from former NBA players and coaches to the President have contributed to the discussion. Even non-profits who have benefitted from Sterling’s wealth are weighing in – some returning his donations and others refusing to receive any further money from him. Sterling’s alleged remarks have left some wondering how this sort of thing could still be with us in 2014 after all we know how horrible racism and bigotry are. We have seen how it can lead to violence and that it also shows up in apathy and neglect. What we may miss, however, is just how captive we may personally be to racism and bigotry.


john perkins 2John Perkins understands how racism and bigotry enslaves humanity perhaps better than most people. Perkins experienced the violence of racism first hand – with the murder of his brother and welcoming justicehis own brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement in his Mississippi hometown. However, as Perkins lay recovering from near death he realized that if he returned the hatred that is inherent in racism he would be captive. He realized that racism and bigotry cuts across the intent of the Gospel. On recovering, Perkins continued the work that he had done earlier but he also began the work of reconciliation. He realized something incredibly important which is at the core of his life work. In the book, Welcoming Justice, John Perkins wrote, “No one ever put a chain on another human being without tying the other end to himself. We know this. But it can be hard for white folks to see how race continues to hold them captive.”

Is it difficult for white people to see how race holds them captive? Is it difficult for you to admit, to acknowledge racism and bigotry in your own life?

Here is an exercise that might be beneficial (or perhaps not).

  • If you are white, does it bother you that an African-American in Mississippi said this about white people? Why?
  • If you are African America does it make you feel good that Perkins says this about white people? Why?
  • If you are neither white nor African-American, how does this statement strike you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m not a racist but…?” Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t have a problem with gay people but…?” Did it come from your lips? Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you? Or why did you feel comfortable saying it?
  • Would you rather not have certain “types” of people for neighbors? (I once had people react because they didn’t like the idea of living next to a pastor and his family).
  • Does race influence where you eat, shop for groceries, drive, live, or send your kids to school?
  • Does it influence where you worship?
  • Last week a man was sharing with me about where his kids would have to go to school if he didn’t send them to private school. He actually said, “it is a little dark over there – if you know what I mean.” Seeing my reaction he quickly followed up with, “I’m not racist but…” as if that would cover him. How would you have reacted? What would you have said? (I’ve wondered why he felt comfortable saying that to me).

Perkins is spot on and perhaps the Sterling debacle highlights how race and bigotry continue to hold people captive. Here we are in 2014, we have made all these advances in regards to equality and yet it is still with us. Why? Because racism and bigotry do not live in bans, fines, policies, legislation and even in electing an African-American President. Racism and bigotry live in the fertile soil of the human heart where they are planted, take root, bear fruit and harvested. Perhaps we need to ask what is within our hearts.

Perkins could have returned to his bitterness and anger after being beaten. It was certainly an option. It was as much a part of his heart as yours or mine. Instead he went the opposite direction. How?

John Perkins is not the hero of his story. Perkins points to one who triumphed thru him. In the New Testament Gospel of Luke, Jesus, we are told, entered a synagogue and a scroll, from the Prophet Isaiah, was given to him to read. He unrolled the scroll and found what we know as Isaiah 61. He read these words, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As a Christian, it is the image of “liberty to the captive…those who are oppressed” which captures my imagination, especially as it relates to racism and bigotry. It was Jesus that helped turn Perkins away from the captivity of racism. It was Jesus that transformed his life and heart and keeps transforming it.  And yet, as much as I would like to say that racism and bigotry do not exist within a Christian context I can’t without lying. Sunday morningsslavery_hands_chain are often called “the last segregated hour.” Church folk do not always do what Jesus would have them do.

Nevertheless, I believe, as Perkins states so well, that Jesus “came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen.” That is one thing that Jesus does – he pushes against even the hidden places of the human heart – the places where the seeds of racism and bigotry are planted – and brings good things to bear. It starts with something difficult – admitting, at least to God and ourselves – that we simply do not love all cultures and all people.

Perhaps when we are ready to admit some things about our hearts, the way we believe and think, then we can look to Jesus – even if you are not a Christian – and see how he interacted with people. Look at where Jesus traveled (Samaria), whom he engaged (prostitutes, tax-collectors, rich, poor, religious and self-righteous). Take a look at Jesus’ life and see how it differs from the way we make decisions about where we go, shop, eat, live, and especially the way we treat other people who are very different from us (Jesus, after all, was very different from the people interacted with). Perhaps Jesus will help us see the ways we are held captive by racism and bigotry. Perhaps he will help us the way he helped John Perkins – who in turn has brought good to bear in so many places. Perhaps Jesus will help you and I to become more aware of the ways that we are held captive to race and bigotry.

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Resources:

  1. http://www.jvmpf.org/
  2. Marsh, C. and J. Perkins (2009). Welcoming justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community. Downers Grove, Ill., IVP Books.
  3. https://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/policysocial-context/24114-some-nonprofits-keep-donald-sterling-s-money-others-send-it-back.html
  4. http://www.esvbible.org/Luke%204/
  5. http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2008/dec/17/radical-faith-the-revolution-of-john-perkins/
  6. http://www.esvbible.org/John%204/
  7. http://www.esvbible.org/John%203/

 

 

Falling From Grace

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I sat across from Jacob[1] as he stared into his coffee. We spoke a few days earlier on the phone and arranged to meet. He shared little with me on the phone except that Trish, his wife, had urged him to call. Trish is the friend of a friend who thought Jacob and I should talk. Though we were strangers we had attended the same seminary a few years apart and we were both pastors. Perhaps I would understand. We sat in a coffee shop in St. Louis Jacob trying to frame his thoughts and me wondering how on earth I could be any use to him.

“A few days ago,” he started, “I gave serious thought to ending my life. Schindler’s List and a picture of my family stopped me.” The clatter of the coffee shop with its ironic, retro-music was a strange but oddly comforting backdrop. “I can’t believe I am in this situation – can’t believe it. The church thing sucks but to make it worse…it turns out that Jesus hasn’t shown up like I thought he would.”

He took a sip and hid half his face behind the cup. “I knew being a pastor would be tough – I’m not naïve. But I didn’t expect to be picked apart by a church that I had given so much of my life to. The worst part is that I felt my faith slip away – in the church and in Jesus. Through no fault of my own I’ve fallen from grace.”

I knew he needed someone who understood, but I wasn’t sure how I could really help him. The story he told was too familiar. He longed for Jesus to show up in a real way, to comfort and assure him in the midst of a dark time, his wounds were deep and perpetrated by the bride of Christ. As painful as it was to be wounded by those he had shepherded for years it was far more severe to feel abandoned by God. “For decades,” he said, “I’ve been telling people Jesus always shows up, brings comfort, healing and hope. But I’ve got to tell you I’m not sure any longer and that terrifies me.”

Sometimes – but not always – the church while preaching grace, mercy, love, and gospel actually embodies judgment and exclusion[2]; it is painful to experience that, especially as a pastor. Jacob dipped a cookie in his cup and bits of it loosened from the whole and floated around the surface. I said little, letting Jacob talk. As he looked up from his polluted cup I hoped he would find the look of a friend who understood.

“It’s hard not to dwell on the past when the future is uncertain – in every way. I mentally replay every conversation, every event to see what went wrong. I confess every sin I can think of. Still there is no relief. I sat in my living room praying, crying out to God. I was wrestling with what it would be like to give up on faith, on the church – on Jesus. I was staring at this picture of my family and I at the beach. We are all laughing. I remember when we took that picture. Then I thought of the scene in Schindler’s List where a woman stops someone from ending her life by saying something like, ‘this is not how your story ends.’ Was God in that for me? Was he in that moment saving me? Or was that just me trying to make God fit into something?”

Jacob’s voice trailed off as he looked out the window of the nearly empty shop. He gathered himself and carefully laid out all that had happened to him. I listened to him for the next several hours. I wondered how to help Jacob – wondered if I could do more than suggest counseling and quietly praying for Jesus to show up.

I have been where Jacob is – felt as if God disappeared – felt the ground give way beneath my feet and all that I thought I knew to be true vanish. Imagine that happening; imagine something that was seemingly solid giving way – only to return stronger than before.

Jacob’s gaze returned from the street. He asked, “What now?” The heart and soul of this pastor had been laid bare; nothing trite was going to bring him peace; no promise to pray for him was going to bring healing. Telling him my story wouldn’t help either. God was going to have to show up or not (though I believe he would). I encouraged him to do as a friend of mine had encouraged me. I said, “Let everything else fall away that can fall away and speak the same words to God that Jesus spoke when he felt God turn away: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).

 

[1] This is a work of fiction…

[2] Allan Gurganus – http://williamgiraldi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/gurganus.2.pdf

Education, Reform and Shalom: Something to Consider

kids in class circa 1900

One thing that I am very proud of is my family – and not only my immediate family. My extended family, like my immediate family, is filled with brilliant, creative and wonderful people. One person in-particular consistently points me toward great articles and challenges me to think outside the box. I’m certain I’ve never told her that – or thanked her. Nevertheless – she has done it again by pointing me toward an insightful article from The Atlantic.

FINL0001The article, by Anu Partanen, is entitled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. It is insightful as well as challenging. Partanen points out that Finland’s success is counter to most everything we do in the US.

For instance, Finland has no standardized tests. Instead Indian Schoolteachers are trained and given the responsibility to “assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” In fact, in Finland “all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.” If a teacher is not a good teacher the principal deals with that situation. Oh – and a person must have a master’s degree to teach.

One thing further, there are no private schools. The reason for this goes back to Finland’s understanding, years ago, that their system needed reformation. So, according to the article, “Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”

I am certain that a lot of counter arguments can be made about Finland’s system (of course their results seems to shout down most arguments). What stands out to me isn’t so much their results but the “main driver” within their systems. From my perspective, what is driving their system (equality) sounds a lot like Jesus’ call to love neighbor – or shalom.

I think a lot about the mission of shalom and or love of neighbor. Primarily because I believe it is the clearest way Christians are actually Christ-like. Years ago a pastor in New York helped me to understand the concept of Biblical Shalom (loving neighbor). He said, “It comes down to this. If I want my kids to be safe, well feed, well-educated, healthy, free from harm, I should also want it for my neighbor’s kids as well.” In fact, not only should I want it but I should also work toward that mission. That is part of what Jesus calls His people to do when he calls them to love their neighbor.

Finland’s education reform is a powerful example of loving neighbor (whether intended or not). Their reform is something that the US needs as well. Inequality is clearly seen in education (just visit a large city like Saint Louis). However, there are a lot of people trying to do something about it it is in the US – although not in an overt way.

As I read this article in The Atlantic I could not help but think of a number of efforts that are being made by Christian men and women in relationship to public schools. There are churches that provide tutoring and after-school help. There are churches that give meals for kids and their families on the weekends. Churches are trying to partner with public schools by doing painting, landscaping and providing school supplies. Churches offer ESL to help immigrants and refugees. There are also private Christian schools (including where my kids attend) that are making efforts to bridge the gaps as well. Some churches are even trying to establish charter schools in partnership with public school systems in depressed areas in an effort to break the grip of poverty and inequality.

Believe it or not these efforts aren’t so much about proselytizing as it is a concern for children getting a good education. In effect, it is the mission of shalom. Christian people have been about this sort of thing for a very long time – a very long time. 

It is a mark of Jesus’ people to step into places of brokenness and attempt to bring mlk_smilewholeness and hope. The clearest example of that is in Jesus himself. Just look at the way that Jesus treated people (but take note that he overturned tables and drove out people out to ensure justice at the Temple). But it has also been that way throughout the history of the church. Look at Mother Teresa, The people of LeChambon during WWII. And of course, the fact MLK was not only an African-American working for Civil Rights but also a Christian and a pastor.

There are a lot of examples of churches across the US that have realized the need to do something about inequality in education. There is much more that can be done. Partanen’s article presents a challenge – and not just to the public education system in the US. The challenge comes to the local church as well – in whatever setting. Churches and Christians should ask what role the Christian community can play in furthering equality in education. They should also be asking about ways Christ’s people can help bring reform and then do it.

I am certain that is something worth considering.

OtherResources

http://m.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

Reflections on a Woman

 

dirty sky-city-street-berlin-rain-dirtyI was thinking about that woman again this morning. I’ve thought about her a lot, actually. I am drawn to her. I can’t help myself. There is something so attractive it is difficult for me not to dwell on her.

When she entered the room everyone noticed. When she stooped down and began washing Jesus’ feet with her tears their tongues began to wag. They knew her – some perhaps better than others. Certainly Jesus knew her. He knew all about her.

She was broken, a woman of the city. They called her a sinner. “How could he let a sinner touch him,” they said. Which is funny – nothing but sinners had ever touched him. After all – even some guy in the Psalms could ask, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, ESV).”

People still struggle with this woman because what she did seems to happen more than once. They act surprised. How can this happen more than one time? There are some scholars who get wrapped around the axle – trying to figure out which story is the real story – as if the writers got the details wrong or some such thing.

Actually I’m surprised this sort of thing didn’t happen to Jesus all the time. I’m surprised more men and women didn’t bust open their most prized possessions and pour them out at Jesus’ feet (this woman did and folks did in Acts 2:42-47 as well). I’m more surprised by how seldom people said “thank you Lord!” and how seldom people begged to be with him after he healed, forgave, redeemed them.

alabaster jar

But I’m not surprised by the way the “self-righteous” responded to the broken – the sinner. I turn her story over and over in my mind, trying to glean every detail. She walked into the room, a place she was not invited and did not belong. She saw his feet. Perhaps it was that they were dirty. The dirt from the road was no doubt clinging to him. Despite custom and ordinary hospitality, no one had offered water or oil for his feet.

She did. She offered her tears, her hair, and the contents of a precious alabaster jar. Most likely it was all she had to give and she poured herself and her gifts out to him. Those watching were horrified but Jesus was honored. They knew what sort of woman she was. So did Jesus. They called her a sinner. He called her redeemed. She was forgiven much; she was given what they all needed – peace with God, peace within her heart and soul.

In the Bible (and even now) people who are forgiven much and realize it are weird – especially in their devotion to Jesus. They tend to be a bit over the top in their passion for the Lord – in their desire to make his goodness known. They tend to make people who don’t think they need forgiveness – folks who believe they have been “good” enough- uncomfortable.

But then – how should a person act when they have been forgiven much? Much like the woman who couldn’t care less what the “self-righteous” think.

 Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

We Can Do Better…

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Sherry and I have a friend and, as it turns out, the church she attends is looking for a pastor. They were talking some time ago and our friend said to Sherry, “I just hope we get a pastor who believes in a big Jesus. I believe in a big Jesus and people need that. I’m tired of people making Jesus small.”

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As you can tell, her remark has stayed with me. For one thing it has made me think through the ways in which people attempt to make Jesus small, and ways I have done that as well.

Of course, there are those outside of the church – outside of the Christian community who exert great effort in an attempt to make God and Jesus small. But the trouble for me is when it happens with those who, like me, profess to believe in Jesus.

Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, in recent years has done significant research focused on religion within teenage and young adults in the United States. While his research looked at religion from a broad perspective he and his colleagues provided insight on the American Church. He has discovered that something he calls Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism –is actually “supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in American churches.” The research, while focused on teenagers and young adults, points out that these teenagers and young adults were influenced by the faith practices of their parents and their churches.

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Soul SearchingMoralistic, Therapeutic Deism, according to Smith, suggests the Christian life is “focused on living a good and happy life…being a good, moral person…being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful.” That is in contrast to what to it being “a life of repentance, built upon prayer, worship, seeking the Lord’s will,” and being more concerned with God’s interests in the world than our own.” In essence being a Christian has come to mean “feeling good, happy, secure, at peace…about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”

In fact, Smith’s research suggest that within American churches teenagers and young adults (20’s and 30’s) suggest a believe “that God created the world…” but do not think or live as if He is “particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”

If Smith is correct, and I am inclined to agree with him based on my experience, then it is little wonder that people outside of the church see little reason to believe that Jesus is little more than a guru. The trouble is what is being passed off as Christianity isn’t Christian – because it doesn’t have the greatness of Jesus at its core – if it did then it would impact more than just the individual but their families, work-places, communities, relationships, well – everything.

A fundamental claim of the Bible – a foundational aspect of the Gospel – is the Greatness of Jesus. One such place that makes that clear is a book in the New Testament, The Gospel of John. This text makes a striking claim: Jesus is God.

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It says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Later on in that same chapter, John 1:14 & 17 it becomes clear that John is writing about Jesus. He writes, “And the Word became flesh (physically, literally) and dwelt among us… For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

In a few simple, somewhat poetic lines in John 1 we are confronted with a claim to greatness that it is difficult for us to wrap our heads around. John is stating boldly that Jesus is God and that Jesus was not only eternal, but present at creation, and not only that, but also all things were made through him.

Paul's Journey MapIn another part of the Bible, a letter written by a man named Paul to his friends in Colossae, we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).

Leon Morris, a theologian, said, “We often behave as though we can do as we like with God (with Jesus)…We say wonderful things about him. We say that he is great and wonderful and mighty. But then we act as though he were subject to our control. We even determine how he is to be approached and, of course, arrange things so that he is not going to be hard to get along with.”

And yet – that is exactly what a lot of church folk do – including me. I’d wager that a lot of Christian folks live as if Jesus is quite small. After all, if I can control and manage God how great could he actually be, surely not great enough to really have any impact on my life or neighborhood. I think some professing Christians – church folk – attempt to make Jesus small when we:

  • get sucked into Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. That’s not the Christian life because it has nothing to do with the Biblical Jesus.
  • try to keep Jesus as a small part of our lives. If we profess that we believe in Jesus – that He is indeed God – then it would stand to reason that what He has said about the way we are to live should consume us.
  • fear the darkness. When we cower from broken places and broken people – or when we believe that our besetting sins can’t be overcome. John tells us that Jesus  – the Light of Christ – still SHINES – and the darkness can’t overcome (John 1:5).

The truth is, Jesus is great and awesome. He is intended to consume the life of the Christian. In fact, it is his love (for us, for humanity, for God, for God’s interests) that is to compel (2 Corinthians 5:14) every facet of the Christian life. No we can’t live this out perfectly – but that is part of Jesus’ greatness as well. He is able to work through broken busted people – like me – to bring about good in the world.

There are some folks who really get this (and I wish I did a little bit more). For one thing history is filled with the people who have been impacted by the greatness of Jesus and the compulsion to live and love as He commands. More than just churches have been constructed by those men and women. Hospitals, orphanages, clinics, schools / universities, shelters, have been constructed and ran because men and women have been consumed by the greatness of Christ. Marriages and families have been restored. The hungry have been feed, the homeless sheltered and clothed  – and not just for the tax break.

I think of women like Mother Teresa and her work among the poor and dying. I think of things like the International Justice Mission and their work to help free those who have been oppressed. In fact their website puts things into perspective. It says:

IJM-Logo-Black-Background-350x350“In the tradition of heroic Christian leaders like abolitionist William Wilberforce and transformational leaders like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr., IJM’s staff stand against violent oppression in response to the Bible’s call to justice (Isaiah 1:17): Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

IJM seeks to restore to victims of oppression the things that God intends for them: their lives, their liberty, their dignity, the fruits of their labor. By defending and protecting individual human rights, IJM seeks to engender hope and transformation for those it serves and restore a witness of courage in places of oppressive violence. IJM helps victims of oppression regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or gender.”

There are more examples. There are Christians living in every community who recognize the greatness of Jesus. Usually they live it out in small ways, as best they can. But, like my friend said, there are a lot of people who profess faith in Jesus who attempt to make him small. But the Bible claims clearly – and firmly that Jesus is Great. What a difference it would make if more of His people lived in light of that reality.
Resources:
There really are folks who understand that Jesus is great – and as a result they are doing great work. We can do better – there needs to be more and more of this – but here are a few:
Check out my friends blog – http://praytoendtrafficking.wordpress.com/