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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for December, 2016

As we leave behind the acrimonious year of 2016, can I make a plea for unity among God’s people in 2017? Paul made a similar appeal in the first century. His letter to the Romans provides us with clear markers for how to get there. In particular, Romans 15:4-13 is a text that summarizes the complex message of Romans. It reveals Paul’s steadfast hope for unifying God’s people.

This passage in Rom 15 has the capacity to literally transform the ways we understand faith, evangelism and the sovereignty of God. To grasp this beautiful and important passage of scripture in its proper light, it’s helpful to comprehend Paul’s two major discoveries shared in Romans. And in the midst of them, I have to debunk the most common misconception in Romans about Paul.

In three succeeding articles, I’d like to outline Paul’s building blocks for creating unity among God’s people. I wish I could affirm that it worked in Paul’s day. During his Christian ministry, he faced the problem of Jewish believers not wanting to accept Gentile believers. They didn’t heed Paul’s words. In the years that followed, however, we see that Gentile Christians were increasingly unwilling to accept Jewish believers. (A warning for us is that in no time the shoe can easily be on the other foot!) They appear to have not listened to Paul either.

The odds of finding unity may be no better today than they were in Paul’s time. But still, we ought to try. And I can think of no better place to begin than with Paul’s two Aha! moments that undergird his efforts for unity two millennia ago. Will you read on with me? In this New Year, I wish you the blessing of rediscovering the Father’s hope.

Nuremberg Funnel: Re-envisioning the work of leadership

In their newly published book Teaching and Christian Imagination, authors David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch present a common image that satirically exposes the limitations of mechanical knowledge acquisition.In Europe – particularly in Germany – the image is called the Nuremberg Funnel.

Imagine a funnel stuck into someone’s head. Through it, a teacher stuffs all manner of knowledge so that the knowledge is passively received into the person’s brain. The image is humorous; it points out the severe limitations connected with thinking that somehow knowledge can be acquired by some sort of cognitive download.

The same can be said for leadership.

Certainly there is much to learn. Books are valuable and conferences inspire us. But the healthy practice of leadership is actually rooted in something else altogether. Learning about leadership and practicing leadership are two different things. Maybe you can recall the scene in the film The Matrix, in which the protagonist Neo asks Trinity about whether she can pilot a helicopter. She replies, “Not yet,” but in a few seconds the pilot training manual is loaded into her brain. She is now ready to fly. It may make for good fiction, but piloting a helicopter requires more than knowledge. It requires practice, coaching and the acquisition of skills.

The same can be said for leadership.

How do we avoid the Nuremberg Funnel when we engage in leadership? Perhaps we begin with a different set of metaphors to help us imagine the development of leadership practices. In Teaching and Christian Imagination, the authors suggest three metaphors to help teachers re-envision the work of education: pilgrimage (journey), gardening and building.

The same can be said for leadership.

What might happen if leaders worked with the following assumptions?

  1. All of us are on a journey, and there are always new things to encounter and learn.
  2. The life of a congregation is like a garden; the task of leaders is provide helpful nutrients and resources as well as remove the weedy obstacles that prohibit growth.
  3. Our congregational life is being constructed into something inhabited by the glory of God.

Such a journey is certainly reflected in the words of Ephesians 2:19-21: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (NRSV).

Could the same be said of your leadership?

May God bless you richly this holiday season!

Carson


[1] David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch, Teaching and Christian Imagination (Eerdmans, 2016).

Let this be the year we forgive a grudge.

Let this be the year we live in more peace and less angst.

Let us construct a bridge where a mighty wall once stood.

Let us love each other without condition.

Let us accept one another unequivocally.

Let us be Jesus representatives on foot and in word.

Let us move compassion to the front burner.

Let us replace a text with a call.
Let us lessen social media interactions and increase face to face communications.

Let us make this year the year of love.

The most effective church growth strategy of the last 50 years has been the church across town messing something up. Inevitably the other churches in town benefit from a misstep, a misunderstanding or a broken relationship due to a decision or direction taken by another congregation.

What do you do with people who come to your congregation out of those situations? There are a few things that need to be considered.

First, there is absolutely a time when people need a fresh start. They have tried to make things work and realize that for their own spiritual well being or the well being of their children it is time to move on. They have done all they can and after all that realize it is time to move on. That can be done healthily.

Second, people often believe that is the case before that is actually the case. It is more difficult to work things out or even submit to things that aren’t your first choice than it is to go someplace you already agree with. So it is easy to think that moving on is right and healthy when in fact the right and healthy thing to do would be to stick it out a while longer. It may be that this person has a hard time submitting or not getting their way and need to learn that. The only way to grow in that discipline is to stay where it is hard to stay.

Third, when I find out someone is visiting from another congregation and that the reason is because things at the other congregation were tough I first acknowledge that it might be time for them to move on and that they are always welcome to attend this new church. However, I also encourage them to first go and reconcile anything that needs reconciled because moving on without reconciliation is harmful and goes against scripture (Rom 12:16, 14:19; 2 Cor 5:18; Eph 4:32, 5:22; Col 3:13, etc). It may be that in their effort to reconcile that they get reconnected with the church they left and they don’t transition to the church I attend. That is actually a win for the kingdom.

When people arrive at your congregation, why did they come? Always be welcoming but be careful jumping too quickly to claim them because they may have some unfinished business to attend to before they are in a healthy enough spiritual state to make that change. Church growth through dysfunction is a ticking time bomb just waiting to blow up in your faith. Let us shepherd people through these transitions and not be greedy. The kingdom doesn’t demand people worship with you and not with the church across town. What is more important is their soul, relationships in Christ and spiritual development and maturity. Let us not become accomplices to unresolved conflict and instead truly embrace the ministry of reconciliation.

The tragedy of suddenly losing my husband and our child’s father left us shell-shocked, tossed and torn. Our boat of three shrunk to two, and the captain at the helm was instantaneously gone. He was only forty and our son was four. What happens when the unthinkable happens and the unsinkable takes on water and begins to sink? How have we stayed afloat, now over three years later, in our shaky little rowboat?

Grief and faith are strange bedfellows. They wrestle with one another constantly. Grief says ‘have faith’ and Faith says ‘why grief?’ Enter a loving Heavenly Father into this complicated conglomeration and the questions compound upon themselves, stacking sky-high. The unwavering truth is no one on this earth knows why these tragic losses occur. So what do we do with that knowledge?

We are reminded, poignantly and painfully, that life is just a short journey. We may feel as if we are in “the prime of our lives” in our 40’s, but no one is guaranteed even one day. We are forced to reckon with the awareness of our own mortality. And as we face these things, we are changed indeed. We see life as unpredictable and able to flip on a dime. We then spend our precious time trying to make a positive difference. We see the world differently with new lenses…lenses that are crystal clear as to what really matters.

People matter. Love matters. Kindness matters. We were never told our lives would be simple. We were not promised freedom from tragedy. Followers of Jesus often experienced daunting life situations, from stonings to imminent deaths as martyrs. His own mother watched her Son die on a cross. No, faith doesn’t guarantee easy living. What it does do is provide an on-call Physician who resides with us in our pain. Faith is a soft place to land, a peaceful space to be still and know.

First StoneThey shove him out of the way and hiss, “Disappear!” Hurriedly they grab her by the arm, push the door open and make their way down the alley toward the temple, disrupting the dawn. Her weeping and their shouting can be heard from across the courtyard. The “legal custodians of conduct” toss her into the middle of the crowd gathered to hear Jesus teach.

Confused she sits in the sand bracing herself with arms behind her. She looks up at Jesus. Her lips pressed. The furrows on her forehead reveal her disgust at such an embarrassing arrival.

She feels shame.

She feels failure.

She feels sickened.

The Pharisees are dressed in their smug self-righteousness. “Adulteress!” We caught her in the act!”

Their statement conjures up images of doors being kicked open and covers being pulled back. This woman has nowhere to hide. She is forced in the most public way to face the shame of her illicit moment. Her act was disgraceful and immoral. But the greater travesty in this moral mess almost goes unnoticed:

1. Two people are required to witness such an act. Question: What are the chances of two people accidentally witnessing this forbidden passion?

2. And where was the other half of this guilty party? Why wasn’t the man brought forward and thrown to the sand with this woman?

The silence is deafening.

The drama intense.

The same finger that engraved the Ten Commandments on rock writes in the sand. What did he write? No one knows for sure. Maybe He wrote the names of everyone holding a rock. Maybe he wrote “Not Guilty.”

At that moment the older men looked to the younger men. And the younger looked to the older. Maybe during this moment each briefly reflected on their own lives. And then all you could hear was the dropping of twelve rocks and the shuffling of feet.

Has no one condemned you?

Jesus and the woman were left alone. The jury is gone. The woman looks into Jesus’ face expecting condemnation. Jesus ask, “Where are your accusers? Is there anyone here that condemns you?”

“No Sir.”

“Then neither do I condemn you, go now and sin no more.”

A few years ago I asked my non-Christian friends a simple question. “Tell me a couple of things that come to mind when you hear someone mention ‘Christians’? The two top responses:

1. They go to church more than I do.

2. They are judgmental.

Sometimes I think we forget the truth about ourselves.

I have another friend.

He has a rock mounted on a plaque with the inscription, “First Stone” (John 8:7). He keeps it on his desk as a reminder.

I don’t know what happened to the woman in John 8. Maybe she went back to her husband. Maybe she became a close follower. I don’t know. But what I do know is grace arrived and loved this woman in the middle of her failure and shame.

When you get to heaven you will likely view
many folks whose presence there will be a shock to you.
But don’t be astonished, do not even stare,
doubtless, there will be many folks surprised to see you there.

As I sat in college Bible classes, I daydreamed of what I’d be doing in ministry.  I heard professors tell us students cool stories of being missionaries overseas.  For the first time in my life, I was in the heart of the Bible Belt where the church was thriving.  And it was awesome!  I logged many hours at the feet of amazing, passionate men of God who have influenced and inspired so many–men like Jimmy Allen, Jack Lewis, Jerry Rushford, and so many others.   I had dreams of being a church leader who, through the Holy Spirit, would experience God breathing life into his anemic church in the Northeast where I grew up.  Then in 2011, just barely 2 years into my role as the preacher at my childhood congregation, those dreams were shattered when a victim disclosed to me that she had been molested for years by my father.

My world came crashing in on me. I had no idea the burden that God was about to place on my shoulders and the radical shift I was about to take in ministry.  Nor would I know the price my family would pay for the sins of my father.  My mother and I reported my childhood hero to the police.  We both trembled in fear, not knowing what would happen next.  My father, who ministered for decades at the church where I still preach to this day, is serving a 30-60 year sentence for sex crimes against very young children.

I still preach full time at the Somerset Church of Christ in Pennsylvania, about 15 miles from where hijacked United 93 nose dived into the ground on 9/11 and 5 miles from the Quecreek Mine where 9 trapped coal miners were rescued the following year.  In 2015, I co-founded Church Protect, Inc.  It is a non profit ministry that provides specialized training in the prevention and detection of child sexual abuse within churches.  We also routinely consult with churches where allegations of abuse have surfaced and we walk those church leaders through the process of ministering their churches though it.  It’s not as simple as suspecting abuse, reporting it, and going back to life as it was before.  Once a report is made, lives and the course of the church are changed forever.  Because I am wading through the carnage left behind by my father, we have a vested interest in helping churches and families prepare for the impact.

Abusers are incredibly skilled at grooming and molesting children, are tedious at covering their tracks, and are often the people we respect and admire the most.  In fact, almost every church we’ve consulted with have had as their abusers the most trusted and well liked church leaders–preachers, elders, deacons, youth ministers, missionaries, Sunday school teachers, and leaders of Christian camps.  While there’s never an excuse for protecting an abuser, I understand why most people deny that someone they know is raping children even when we repeat the facts back to them.  This is the biggest reason we suggest churches hire professionals to consult with.  Since my colleague and I usually don’t know the perpetrator personally, we can be far more objective and we have zero interest in protecting or covering for the abuser.  The temptation to defend the offender is far too great when church leaders are forced to report their best friend.  It creates a major conflict of interest for most people and it’s just good practice to have fresh eyes from an outsider.  As a good friend recently said, “Justice is no longer blind if a judge is giving a sentence to a good friend of his.”  Walking a church through the aftermath of abuse, especially when there are victims within the congregation, is an incredibly delicate process and must be handled with extreme care.  There are so, so many variables that need to be considered.

Church Protect has a growing online Survivor’s Support section, where churches can send people who were once victims of child sexual abuse.  These services are 100% free and confidential.  The majority of abuse victims we speak with have either been ignored, excluded, disfellowshipped, forced to forgive their abuser, or were verbally (and sometimes sexually) abused by church leaders.  This is revictimization at its worst and, sadly, it happens far more often than not.  We felt that survivors needed a safe place to share with one another, so it was a natural progression to develop survivor support for survivors of child sexual abuse that is led solely by survivors.

In recent months, it is rare that a week passes without several congregations contacting us about allegations of abuse.   I had another call just yesterday concerning a child rapist in a local church.  Today there was another.  Predators have enthusiastically infiltrated the church and are destroying the souls of our children in mass numbers.  Peter was exactly right about wicked men who prey on the innocence of others: “Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord.  But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed. . . They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime.  They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you.  They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin.  They entice unsteady souls.

They have hearts trained in greed.  Accused children!” (2 Peter 2:10-14 ESV).  There are an estimated 42 million people in the United States alone who have horrific stories of adults repeatedly molesting them when they were young children.  Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in our churches and homes.  And it’s happening a lot.

In order to be effective at what we do, we have to know exactly how predators think, plan, and manipulate everyone around them.  Because victims are young, are threatened if they tell, and have no vocabulary to describe what has been done to them, very few ever tell anyone.  Gathering enough information to even make a report to police is incredibly difficult to accomplish.  Most investigators, in our experience, shrug off reports of abuse even though most states mandate that church leaders report reasonable suspicion of abuse.  It’s not that investigators don’t care, it’s that they are overworked.  Sadly, investigators wear out from uncooperative reporters who give the bare minimum amount of information.

We work hard to help churches gather enough information to make a solid report but we work even harder to keep children safe from abusers.  We can’t rely exclusively on the justice system.  People often say that we need tougher laws to help the abuse epidemic.  My response is that child sexual abuse is a felony in all 50 states.  We can’t make it any more illegal to abuse a child.  We don’t need more laws, we need more trained protectors.  In the end, it takes all of us working together to keep our children safe.

I routinely enter into the “underworld” of the church–the place where predators reside, think, plan, and molest children.  We call this our “special ops” ministry because few have the stomach for it.  The conventional wisdom has been to teach churches to look for “signs of abuse.”  We flip that completely on its head and teach churches not to look for abusers, but to look at ourselves through the eyes of a child predator.  When we are able to do so, the wolves no longer look like sheep.  Their cover has been blown and we can prevent abuse before it ever happens.

I recently developed a powerful 30-60 minute walk-through tool that I use when I train church staff and parents.  The purpose is to get into role and demonstrate how predators are looking for opportunity to abuse children and what specific methods they use when they are abusing children in the churches.  I will walk through the building and identify the most vulnerable areas and follow up with a report detailing how the church can improve those areas.  I’ve visited churches that have incredible protection policies and I still, without exception, identify lots of vulnerable areas.  The reason is that people underestimate how bold, willful, and persistent abusers are.  Most people don’t believe that abusers are molesting children in the church building during worship (especially if we implement policies) and they falsely believe that we would be able to recognize abuse if it were going on.  But our experience is that abusers intentionally abuse children during church services, they do it often, and unless we think like perpetrators we will almost never recognize abuse.  We are shifting the culture in this area and our mission is simple–prevent abuse before it happens and put people in prison who have already abused children.

Children should not have to live in perpetual fear because of being repeatedly molested, threatened, and made to believe they are worthless.  The irony is that abusers are most fearless once they’ve entered into the life of the church.  It is, hands down, the safest place for abusers to molest children.  We believe it’s time to turn the tables and have child rapists lose sleep because of the real threat of being caught.  We are committed to work tirelessly to convince churches to lead the way in showing the world that children are the planet’s most precious resource.  Children deserve to have a community of adults who love, respect, and protect them.  Let’s be that community for them.

fatehagoodErnie Johnson is a sports anchor and television personality on the show NBA on TNT. He was profoundly affected by the past presidential election and voiced his opinion on politics and religion as it pertains to the president elect, Hilary Clinton, voting one’s conscience, and approaching this with a Christian worldview.

I listened to Ernie Johnson’s profound and encouraging take with mixed emotions. It was life affirming and proposed a healthy, Christ-centered, road forward. But it was too soon for me to hear . . . although I agreed with almost everything he said. My emotions still hadn’t reached a proper equilibrium.

I have never, ever, felt embarrassed that a person was president. Never. Until now. I’ve disagreed with every president on something… crap… on many things. I’ve even disliked some! But NEVER felt embarrassed. I disagreed with President Obama on many things. And I disagreed with George W. Often. But I’ve never felt embarrassed that either was my president. So, though I agree with Ernie, my emotional response is to feel a huge disappointment in our country.

I grew up loving the ethos of patriotism and the myth of America. Somewhere, deep in my core, is an abiding sense of pride for being African American… not black only . . . but African American. Many people will interpret that as being fearful that, as an African American male, I won’t be able to prosper under this next administration. That’s not the case at all. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and have experienced racism and prejudice first hand. From being called “nigger” by what looked like someone’s elderly grandma from a passing car to being physically assaulted and battered by 5 white men “because you’re black!” to being handcuffed for DWB. Racism isn’t some boogieman waiting to jump out because of a new president for me. It’s my daily existence.

The hope that our country represents is important to me… Today I’m feeling that my only hope is in The Lord. Now, I’m aware that many hyper-spiritual and churchy rhetoricians will be quick to point out that, The Lord being our only hope, has always been the case. I am fully aware of that. But for me, America is still an ideal that represents hope. Alexis de Tocqueville’s book “Democracy in America,” written in the 1830’s, calls our system of governance “the great American experiment.” Alexander Hamilton also called a government formed “by the people, for the people” a grand experiment. There’s this sense that if we could just get out of one another’s way, this “experiment” might be proven viable. That, indeed, there can be liberty and justice for all. This brings hope. That in some way, in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., even the children of former slaves and former slave owners, can transcend the character flaws of our nation’s founders and embrace the core message of equality and freedom, gives hope.

I felt, maybe naively, that we were moving towards a new paradigm for the American franchise. Tony Stark in the 2008 Cinematic production of Iron Man said, “I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries.” I hoped that maybe, just maybe, we were at the place where we’d attempt to change the franchise reputation from “just making things that blow up,” to something more hopeful.

I have seen none of that “hope” in the rhetoric of the president elect, and it disheartens me. I have heard, if not blatantly racist, then racist adjacent, or at least racist “wink-wink,” comments, from the human figurehead of our country, and it embarrasses me. I have witnessed white supremacist domestic terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan have a victory rally and openly celebrate the election of their candidate, and it demoralizes me. I have seen many Christian evangelical brethren, who happen to be white, overwhelmingly support, to the tune of 81%, a person who is adored by almost every racist organization in America. Granted, that doesn’t mean they’re racist, but it does demonstrate their priorities when it comes to policy and ethics.

Yet, I am still encouraged by the words of the prophet Isaiah. He proclaimed in his introductory statement to a glimpse into the throne room of Yahweh, “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” (Isaiah 6:1). This gives me hope that regardless of who sits upon earthly thrones, the throne in Heaven is not vacant. That whether our president elect is Hitler part deux or truly “makes America great again,” that my “citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” So I cling to the same God Of Hope who’s kept me through Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama. So don’t worry Ernie, I’ll get there. It’s just too soon.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

Hey 40-somethings, 50-somethings, 60-somethings. All you guys closer to my age than my kid’s age. We need to have a chat. Get off the young people’s backs. Quit using the word millennial as a derogatory term. Stop it. Stop sharing articles about how terrible they are. Stop criticizing your younger brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s a sin and Paul warned Timothy about people like you (I Timothy 4:12).

If you really care about the church and want to help the next generation win, then go out and meet them. Have a cup of coffee with them. Hang out with them, mentor them, and love them. Let them see how much you love the Lord. Get out of your comfort zone but be advised, we find out who we really are when we do and that may scare you a little bit but that’s a good thing.

The millennials I know are in places you wouldn’t even dream of going telling others about Jesus. They are on the front lines of this Kingdom, courageous, and on fire for the Lord. They don’t have time to criticize the other generations because they’re too busy making a difference in theirs.

I really don’t understand how we can treat a group of people the way we have and then turn around and wonder why, in some places, they’re leaving the church. So stop that and start sharing the love of Christ.

The church has enough criticizers. Be one of her cheerleaders. Quit complaining about others. Quit pointing fingers and start building bridges. We’re all in this together.

He sent a baby.
Didn’t see that coming.
Oh, we knew He would send something, or someone.
And it was going to be awesome…
And terrible.
Truth be told, we deserved “terrible” more than “awesome.”
For thousands of years we gave lip service
And not much else.
We worshiped ourselves, did our own thing.
We hoped for a king who would destroy our enemies
While overlooking the fact that our sins were just like theirs.
But sending a baby?
What was He thinking?
We wanted a sword swinging
Curse flinging
Doom bringing
King on a big horse.
We got a baby
Born to a not quite married girl
In a nowhere town
In a shabby room.
Maybe we weren’t the only ones who didn’t see that coming.
The devil didn’t seem ready for it either.
I mean, none of it really makes sense.
Baby, nowhere’s-ville, father goes absent
Twelve unemployed guys as his posse
Religious people opposing him
Nailed to a tree, naked, humiliated
Right in front of his mother
AWOL from the tomb a few days later.
He came as a baby.
One of us.
Walked with us.
Ate with us.
Loved us.
Told us to do what he did.
And then he told us we’re good. He can boogie now.
And so he did.Straight up.
What a story.
Not what we were expecting.
But exactly what we needed.
That baby was God and King and Savior.
Who knew?
Not me.
Didn’t see it coming.
Thought He come with fire and all cheesed off.
We deserved no less than hell.
He gave us heaven.
That baby. Wow.
He was more than a baby.
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth.