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Archives for 106 – Creating a Christ Like Culture

Love. For the past six months we have been drinking deeply from the Epistles of 1-2 John in the rarefied air of the Rocky Mountains. The apostle wastes not an iota on trivia. The teaching that John stresses, in the starkest terms possible, is often barely acknowledged in Christian circles. The eternality of the Incarnation of Christ. The Cross. Love as the litmus test for all things Christian.

Love. People use the language of “love” for nearly everything in our world. Yet it is my observation that the genuine article, unfiltered, unvarnished, unconditioned love is unsettling even for Christians. It is “safe” to love ice cream, movies, cars, and Harleys. It is safe because it costs nothing whatsoever to “love” them. Yet we want to quantify, regulate, and restrict the flow of love precisely because we live in fear.

Love makes things unpredictable. Love makes things uncontrollable. Love makes things vulnerable. Love makes us not in charge. Love surrenders the power of domination. But in the real, genuine, unfiltered and unvarnished love … we are unconcerned with the unpredictability of love.

Listen to John. We know the text but it is the center of our “doctrine” as the apostle John’s?

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4.16b-21)

Many stunning things are in this potent paragraph.  But perhaps most radical is that the apostle John makes obedience to the Greatest Commandment, the exercise of the Second! How often do we find brothers and sisters under the pretense of love and loyalty for God avoiding, withdrawing from, their brothers and sisters. John, not me, says it is a “lie!”

See we turn love for God into the same thing as loving our Harley or ice cream. Such love costs nothing. But John will have none of it (and the rest of the Bible says ‘Amen’). Such love is bogus, fake news, a lie. We meet the image of God in our sister and our brother, our reaction to the icon, the photograph, the holograph of God is how we react to God.

The truth is we do not “abide with our brothers and sisters” because we do not love them. First John addresses this from the first verse to the last. The heretics in 1 John are not just anti-Christs, they are heretics because they disfellowshipped and left their sisters and brothers (1 Jn 2.18-20).

Love does not fear our sisters. Love does not fear our brothers. Love does not fear aliens. Love does not fear socialists. Love does not fear capitalists. Love does not fear Mexicans. Love does not fear African Americans, Donald Trump nor Barack Obama. Love does not fear poor people. Love does not fear someone with a different opinion than me.

We love because he loves us. If you and I are “in” him then the love that is in him will be in us. This is why John points to the Cross when he speaks of loving one another, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another … We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3.14-16). Loving those with whom we differ is, perhaps, the most Godlike action a human being can ever do. Since we know love looks like a bloodstained cross given for our sister and our brother we ought to be able to tolerate each other.

Love. It is the deepest, it is the hardest, Christian doctrine to practice. Unfiltered, unvarnished, sacrificial Love, is the imitation of God. If we loved each other enough to die for one another, John says, we would have far less division. Indeed the apostle says that rejecting part of the family of God is tantamount to rejecting the Father (1 Jn 3.11-12; 4.11-12; 5.1-2). John calls us to stop pretending we love God when we so freely walk away from the gathering of icons of God (1 Jn 2.19). To love one another means we do what our Father does, we suffer for the sake of unity. To practice love we just might get bloodied.

Stop living in fear of each other. Live in love. But we continue to live in fear … Love casts out fear.

What follows is a combined/condensed version of bulletin articles I wrote in February for the Stamford Church of Christ (where I work), when our church was about to start up new small groups, as an attempt to frame theologically what our leadership team hopes small groups will contribute to our context. Those hopes center around three themes: Intimacy, Service, and Diversity. The leadership team decided to call our small groups “Life Circles,” so that is the name that is used throughout this article

Intimacy
The primary purpose of Life Circles is to build community. The importance of community is found throughout scripture. Community is an intrinsic human need; it is part of who God made us to be. God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone and created a companion and coworker for him (Gen. 2:18). Also, we are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27) and God is “community.” In other words, God is Trinity, three in one, working and living together, in mutual love and submission, exemplifying within God’s very being the idea of “unity in diversity.” The nation of Israel in the Old Testament hardly had any sense of individualism; they are the people of God. Their people-hood (community) is set apart by a special story (of God’s redemption of them in the exodus) and special rules (Leviticus).

Jesus knew community was important and surrounded himself with a small group of disciples to minister together with him. And the New Testament is filled with “one another” passages, that is, passages that use a particular Greek word (allelon – “one another”) to describe characteristics of mutual Christian community. Followers of Christ should be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10), honor one another (Rom. 12:10), live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16), love one another (Rom. 13:8), build up one another (Rom. 14:19), accept one another (Rom. 15:7), serve one another (Gal. 5:13), bear with one another (Eph. 4:2), be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32), submit to one another (Eph. 5:22), forgive one another (Col. 3:13), encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18), spur one another on toward love (Heb. 10:24), pray for one another (Jam. 5:16), confess our sins to one another (Jam. 5:16), offer hospitality to one another (1 Pet. 4:9), fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7)…and that is only a small sampling!

Life Circles provide a valuable opportunity to connect with each other outside of Sunday morning worship. Acts 2:46 (in the midst of a section describing what life among early believers was like) says, “Day by day, as they continued meeting together in the temple, they (also) broke bread in their homes and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.” This seems to hint that very early on, Christians knew that there was something important about both corporate worship and intimate relationships based on hospitality. Based on the image of these early believers breaking bread together in homes, we are hoping that Life Circles will be more than just a program or ministry. We hope that Life Circles become a way of life, extending our Sunday-morning relationships beyond our time together on Sunday morning and outside the walls of our building.

As smaller groups of Christians who already have the larger congregation in common, Life Circles have the potential to be a springboard for even deeper relationships. Smaller groups are a safe space for vulnerability, honesty, curiosity, support, encouragement, forgiveness, laughter, accountability, transformation, connection, and a whole host of other things that – although certainly possible in the larger, worship setting – are not necessarily easy to do in a big crowd. Life Circles are a chance to mentor and be mentored, pray and be prayed for, teach and be taught, laugh and be laughed at, cry and be cried with, a chance to connect with a smaller group of people over months and years, in order to become more like Christ.

Service
One aspect of the membership of Stamford that is somewhat unique to us is our regional distribution. That is, we are a “commuter” church – many of us travel longer-than-usual distances to be together. So when the leadership team was thinking about starting Life Circles again, the regional organization addressed a logistical need: People may not want to travel back into Stamford for a second or third time. Life Circles arranged regionally shorten the distance people would need to travel.

But also, more importantly, we think that Life Circles arranged regionally provide an opportunity for each group to join together in service to its respective community. The group knows best the needs of the community it works and lives throughout the week. Each group can connect with social service agencies or volunteer opportunities in its area. We are hoping this will happen organically, that is, that each group will find a service project or volunteer opportunity that is a good fit for the members of its group. Maybe a member has a neighbor in need of babysitting, or yard work. Maybe a member has a child with a sporting event that the Life Circle can attend to support that child. Maybe a member has a friend, coworker, or neighbor who is intimidated by “institutional church” but would connect well with a smaller group of people. Again, we are hoping that this happens organically, that your Life Circle’s unique passions and opportunities will become obvious to its members, and that you’ll act on those impulses.

Diversity
I mentioned above the importance of “trinitarian theology” (that is, the idea that God is Trinity, three in one, working and living together, in mutual love and submission) for community. Trinitarian theology exemplifies community because within God’s very being there is “unity in diversity.” In that article, it was the “oneness” of God that was important. But the “three-ness” of God is also important; the fact that within God’s being there is “unity in diversity.” So when humans are in relationship with others who are different than them, they imitate the image of God by imitating diversity.

But we humans have a tendency to gravitate toward people who are most like us. There are aspects of this tendency that are beneficial – it is easier to begin a friendship based on things you have in common. Trust and jokes and the other things that make up a relationship come more quickly when you have similarities to draw on. Various aspects of church life lend themselves naturally to “friendship in similarity.” For instance, Bible Classes are arranged by age group, and these age-specific ministries are important. These are all good things! But once potential drawback of “friendship in similarity” is that people are so similar that they do not challenge each other. People see the world in such similar ways, that they are not aware of the ways they may be excluding others.

It is also important for members of the congregation to have relationships with people from different age groups. Growing up, the time that I felt the most connected to the church I attended is when my best friend and I (when we were in high school) started a Girl’s Bible Study for the middle school girls just entering the youth group. Or when another good friend and I started a Skit Troupe for the elementary age kids over the course of a Bible Class quarter. Since there was no youth minister at that church when I was in the youth group, the church arranged youth mentors, pairing each member of the youth group with an adult (who was not their parent). Each of these things is an example of intergenerational connection, giving members a chance to serve and be served, to connect, with people not in their age group.

Life Circles are another way to connect people of different ages, placing them in smaller groups alongside each other, where they can work together and learn from each other. And Life Circles connect people with other kinds of diversity too. Often, Life Circles that are not “assigned” end up developing along homogenous lines. (For instance, “Young Adults,” “Married with Children,” “Golden Oldies.”) The leadership hopes that arranging Life Circles regionally will put us all in relationship with people that we may or may not have been naturally drawn to, people who are different from us, who challenge us, who help us to think about things in different ways. And this “friendship in diversity” makes us more like God, who has “diversity” built into God’s very being.

Change is hard. There was a time when “change” was nearly a curse word in our movement. Taking a quick scan of the Restoration Movement area of my bookshelves I see the word change appear frequently in the titles of some books and in every case it is used negatively and often harshly. We haven’t always had a good relationship with change.

When you talk about “creating a culture”, bottom line you are talking about change. You are implying that things aren’t all that they should be and that there is work to do in order to make things what they ought to be.

A few considerations for those seeking change:

  1. Check your heart. Make sure that any change you are seeking is about what is right and not about your ego. You don’t seek change to become the church known for being cutting edge. You seek change because you are convicted that God is calling this particular group of people to this particular other (notice I didn’t say new…not much is truly new) way of doing things. It is entirely possible that some churches will thrive best in their local context but not being cutting edge. If that is where you find yourself, learn what works in that context and adapt. God may be calling you, the leader, to change moreso than those you lead.
  2. Check with others. If God is calling a church to make a transition in the way something is done or in an underlying value system (which is much harder to change) then there will certainly be other people than yourself who feel or hear the call. If you are on an island about the change…refer back to #1. God has a way of affirming or discrediting ideas and bringing discernment through community. It is valuable, wise and prudent to listen to the hearts of those God has put you in community with. This might keep you from hitting an unnecessary landmine as they may see and know things you don’t.
  3. Check scripture. I don’t mean dig around until you find the one verse that agree with you, ignoring the 99 that don’t. I mean go to scripture with an open mind on the subject and honestly seek the truth on the matter, even if the truth blows a hole in what you already wanted to do. Our inconvenience is not enough leverage to push scripture out of the way and go for it anyway. Your dreams should never be pursued at the expense of scripture (#3) or at the expense of the discernment of others (#2)…if this is just about your dreams then you aren’t starting from the right place anyway. In fact, try to prove yourself wrong and see if your view comes out unscathed. Then you can feel confident that what you are pursuing has a basis in scripture, if it is a scriptural issue. Ultimately this study will have to move from personal study to public study if the congregation is going to accept the change. That is hard thing to navigate…when to start, how to bring people along, and how to engage in discussions with those who will inevitably disagree.
  4. Prayer. It may start with your prayers but changes that affect others need to be prayed about with others. Invite others into the prayer and discernment process.
  5. Diversity is important. As much as you won’t like it when someone disagrees with your position or direction, remember that there can be great value in diversity. If everyone runs the same way with no variation there are often necessary questions left unasked in the absence of disagreement. Disagreement and diversity of perspectives can be a strength rather than a weakness. Learn how to listen into it, value it and work through it. It might just make the direction better, not worse depending on the attitudes that are at work. This can be a headache but it might just be a headache that leads you in the needed direction that you wouldn’t have gotten from the 50 people who agreed with you.
  6. Reliance on the Holy Spirit. Remember, this is Christ’s church…he is the head and we are the body. He sent the Holy Spirit to us to guide us in all truth, to comfort us and to unify us. The role of the Spirit in navigating change is way underplayed.
  7. Understand the affect of limited vision. None of us can see as far ahead as we think we can. As you implement change you can’t predict all the things that will happen that will make adjustments to your direction. You can’t plan for it but you have to work through it. You won’t actually know step 10 until you get to step 7 because you just can’t see that far ahead until you get further through the process.
  8. Consensus is helpful but not always truthful. Just because enough people are saying it doesn’t make it so. Martin Luther King, Jr said, “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus” and I would add…a good leader does that while keeping in mind some of the points on this list. That brings us to the next consideration…
  9. Humility – This is the attitude that must be embraced for change to not blow up in your face.
  10. Admit when you are wrong. Not only will this help you gain credibility…it is the right thing to do. Honestly, there is a repentance that can happen within the change process that is not the repentance we expect when we instigate or navigate change. When we promote change, leaders may be looking for the congregation to repent of their past way when the honest to goodness truth is the leader may have just as much to repent of as anyone else and needs to do so freely when appropriate.

What would you add to this list?

If you haven’t heard, Jonathan Storment recently wrote a book called “How to Start a Riot“. To whet your appetite, here is chapter 4 from the book. This chapter is a call on the church to understand and embrace our prophetic role in the world. The chapter is entitled, “Calling All Prophets”. Comment on this post for a chance to get a copy of the book!

Calling All Prophets

“There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time
when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer
for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely
a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular
opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power
became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians
for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the
Christians pressed on. . . . Things are different now. So often the
contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain
sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from
being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of
the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often
even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Recently, I was driving through a fast-food drive-thru when I saw a bumper sticker on the vehicle in front of me. It was a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”1

I live in West Texas, and Taco Bueno is not normally where I go for profound ideas. Nobody ever says, I’d like a tostada and a side of Socrates. But I very much understand this quote. The dark side of religion, the part we don’t talk about, is that it can be misused by mis-leaders to maintain the status quo. It is, as Karl Marx said, “the opium of the masses.”

When I talk to my friends who are leaving their churches and giving up on following Jesus, I’ve learned that some of them have heard the message that Christianity is basically saying something like: Sure the world stinks right now, but if you just wait until you die, then everything will get sorted out.

For the past hundred years in some theological circles, resurrection has been misrepresented as a doctrine that promotes indifference. Somewhere along the way this core truth of Christianity changed from a revolutionary story to one that maintains the status quo. We started hearing the resurrection of Jesus presented as a way
of saying, “If you just wait ’til you die, things will get better. So don’t rock the boat now.”

But Acts offers us a different idea about what resurrection means. It’s not this idea that endorses the way things are. Instead it is a story about a person, and a hope that what God did for that person is going to happen for the entire world.

Some of the riots in Acts are directly tied to Jesus’ followers preaching the resurrection. Because the resurrection isn’t always seen as a good thing. If the status quo works for you, if the world benefits you, you might not like the idea of a God who is turning the world upside down.

“The last shall be first” sounds great for those who are at the back of the line; but if you are at the top of the food chain, it sounds a lot more like a threat.

The resurrection was, and still is, a revolutionary doctrine. It doesn’t just mean that death no longer has the final word. It is so much bigger than that. Resurrection is about God setting the entire world right. It is the energy that has sustained and fed the people of God for centuries.

Especially the prophets.

The Role of a Prophet
The prophet’s role in the Old Testament was not a popular one. Not a lot of little kids dreamed of growing up to be a prophet. Prophets weren’t exactly the Spiderman of the day. In fact, most prophets were only appreciated posthumously.

But the world needed prophets. And here’s why. In 1 Kings we read about a king named Ahab who lives next
door to a fellow named Naboth. Naboth just happens to have a vineyard, a fine vineyard that has been handed down in his family for generations.

Ahab begins to covet that property. Ahab approaches Naboth and offers him a good price for the vineyard. But Naboth says No.No amount of cajoling will make him sell. So Ahab gets all mopey and upset. That’s where his wife Jezebel finds him when she comes home. He’s sulking like a third-grader. When she finds out what the
problem is, Jezebel reminds Ahab that he is the King of Israel, and tells him “Cheer up! I’ll get you that vineyard.”2

Jezebel’s premise is that a king can take whatever he wants. So she sets up false witnesses to lie and say that Naboth had been blaspheming. Naboth gets stoned, and Ahab gets his vineyard.

Sounds like a happy ending, right?

But Ahab and Jezebel have not counted on one thing. A prophet named Elijah. Elijah comes to confront Ahab, telling him, “God is about to wreck your world for what you did to Naboth.” Which probably sounds normal to us. If a king acts unjustly, God enforces justice. But that’s not the way it used to be.

When a king did something in ancient times, it was the job of the gods (at least, the job of that king’s god) to legitimize it, to justify it. (This is why they used the blasphemy charges to get the vineyard.) But the God of Israel is a different kind of God, and he is trying to set humanity on a different path. One where those in power don’t lord it over others. This God doesn’t exist just to legitimize existing power structures; he actually calls them to be accountable.

To some people, that’s a new idea, even though it seems as if it should have been around forever. In fact, according to the Scriptures, if you are in power, God holds you more accountable. The prophets exist to remind us that God is larger than our power structures. When we humans get too big for our own britches, the prophets remind us that we answer to someone else. One more thing about Naboth: He is the only person in the Old Testament who is stoned unjustly. But he isn’t the last just man stoned in the Bible. In Acts 6 and 7, we find a story that kind of parallels Naboth’s. It’s about a man named Stephen.

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”

So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him
before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against
this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:8–15)

I know this story sounds weird. This guy gets backed into a corner and his noggin starts glowing. Which is unusual. Bible characters
don’t often transfigure into Tinkerbell. But one of the things going on here is that the Jewish people in power are worried that they are going to lose their power.

So they start claiming that they are the true Jewish faith and this group of Jesus’ followers are imposters. Specifically, they claim that Stephen is speaking words of blasphemy against Moses and God. That’s when Stephen’s face starts glowing. Which is like an
immediate conversation stopper, because these people know their Bibles. They know about the time in Exodus 34 when Moses had
been up on Mount Sinai with God. You may remember that strange story. When Moses came down off the mountain, he looked like a glowworm. His face was so shiny that the people he was leading were terrified.

Stephen’s enemies know this story, so they probably understand what God is showing them here. They are accusing Stephen of being against Moses, and suddenly he starts looking like him. But they just keep on attacking Stephen.

The Story of Subversion
They ask Stephen if their charges against him are true, and Stephen responds by saying, “Once upon a time . . . .” Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?” To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.” (Acts 7:1–2)

When I was fourteen, my parents sent me to stay for a week with some of our extended family in Russellville, Arkansas. Which
is about ten miles from the edge of the earth. To give you some kind of context, I grew up on a farm with goats and sheep and well-water, and these particular relatives called us “city folks.” They are great people, though. They raise horses and live
on a huge tract of land.

At one point that week, they decided they were going to have some fun with me. They were going to teach me how to ride a horse.
So they put me on this one horse that looked kind of gentle but had apparently been secretly possessed with an evil spirit. About five minutes into the ride, I suddenly found myself flying through the air and landing flat on my back. Not being one to give up easily, I climbed back on my bucking bronco to show this mare who is boss. Apparently that was her agenda, too. Not thirty seconds went by before I was back on the ground, wheezing for breath and wondering why cows are the main ingredient in hamburgers.

While that was not a pleasant experience, it did make a great story. When I got back home, I told all my friends about getting off
this massive beast of a horse. But what I failed to tell my friends, and what I haven’t told you yet, is that the horse I had been riding was actually . . . a Shetland pony.

The way I told the story to my family, they would have thought that I had been bucked off Sea Biscuit. We all tell stories with a slant. We emphasize certain things and minimize or leave out others. That’s exactly what Stephen is doing. He retells the story of Israel, but he tells it in a particular way. He is going to emphasize Abraham, and then Joseph and Moses and David. And here’s why.

Stephen is being accused of blaspheming the Temple. Stephen reminds them that in their own history, God showed up to people
and in places outside of the Temple. God is not confined to expensive, elaborate buildings. God does just fine revealing himself in
burning bushes or deserts.

The second point Stephen makes is even more powerful. He retells the story of Israel, but he emphasizes times in their history
when the so-called religious leaders of the day rejected someone through whom God was actually working. Joseph was rejected by
his brothers. Moses was rejected, twice, by the very people he was trying to lead out of captivity.

The point Stephen is making here is huge! He’s telling them their own narrative and letting them know that they are playing the wrong parts. This may explain why he ends his sermon the way he does. He calls them stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears, which in my experience is not a good way to endear yourself to the audience. And then he asks one of the most provocative questions in the entire Bible: “Was there ever a prophet that your fathers didn’t persecute?”

Did you know that, except for a few isolated incidents, prophets always were sent to the people of God? Prophets were sent to let them know they had wandered off track somehow. And it hardly ever went over well.

Religious people did not usually respond, “Okay, you’re right. We’re sorry.” Instead, they figured out that the best way to silence
the prophets was by killing them. And they did. Jesus refers to this in Matthew 23:29–30 when he is talking to the religious leaders of his day: “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’”

Modern-Day Prophets
After Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he was immediately blacklisted by the FBI as the most dangerous black man in the country. They suspected he was a communist.

Today we celebrate his birthday as a federal holiday.

We decorate the tombs of prophets. But it’s not the wrong action of the government in those civil rights days that disturbs me so much as it is the inaction of the church. Dozens of times I’ve read Dr. King’s letter to white clergy, a letter written from his Birmingham jail cell, and every time it haunts me. I’ve often wondered why the people of God so easily accept and maintain the status quo.

This line from Jesus is one of the most convicting things Jesus says to me. I’m religious. I’ve grown up in church. I love the Lord
and believe the Lord loves me. And that’s exactly the crowd Jesus is talking to in Matthew 23. To them, to me, Jesus doesn’t just say your ancestors did this, but he points out that they would have probably done it had they been alive. For the last few years a question has haunted me. I wonder what I would have done if I had been alive in 1960. And if I’m honest, I think I would have fought against civil rights.

Because I know me. I know how easy it is for me to play the wrong character in my own story. That’s why we need prophets, even
though we don’t always appreciate them.

Notice the way the story of Stephen ends:

When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:54–58)

I love this. They cover their ears and start yelling! How mature. What’s next? I’m rubber and you’re glue? And tucked in the middle
of their murdering is a little detail about Stephen seeing Jesus. Being a prophet has lots of downsides—like being hated and disliked,
even being murdered. But for all the negatives, the one profit to being a prophet is that you get to see God. Think about it—Ezekiel,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and now Stephen.

The heavens open up and Stephen sees Jesus. It’s a heavenly court scene. And that’s significant, because Stephen is currently in
court. He’s on trial for his life.

At the moment of condemnation by that earthly court, however, Stephen gets a vision of that heavenly one. One in which he is
loved and commended. In the middle of a ton of scowls, he knows he’s made God smile. This is something the prophets know that we tend to forget—that if God is smiling at you, all other opinions are inconsequential. The life of a prophet may be hard and short, but it’s worth it to get to see God.

That’s what I think gives Stephen the power to end his life on a note of grace and faith.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59–60)

Stephen has just seen Jesus, the embodiment of resurrection, so he’s not concerned about what they can do to him. As Dr. King said
before he died, there is a certain kind of fire that no water hoses can put out.

Did you see the way that this story ends? Luke tells us, “He fell asleep.”

Prophets Never Die
This is the point of the resurrection. Prophets never die! Can you see the power that Stephen has found here? He knows that even if God allows him to die, it will not be in vain. And it isn’t, because right there in this murderous crowd is a guy named Saul.

The very guy who is going to spread the gospel to the entire world, we first meet while he’s participating in a murder. If you have read Acts, you know that he later will be named Paul, and he’s going to write more about the resurrection than any other New Testament writer.

He first sees the power of it right here. Years later, in his letters, when Paul refers to the saints who have died in Christ, do you know what his favorite term is for death? Sleep.

Death is so final and injustice is so permanent, unless you believe in the resurrection. In that case, death is just a nap.
Archeologists have discovered a first-century sign in Jerusalem that warns people not to steal bodies from graves. I can imagine why that was necessary. If one guy missing from his grave causes so much ruckus, they don’t want it ever to happen again. But they couldn’t stop it! The fuel for the book of Acts is the undeniable fact that death had been defeated.

And that is still the fuel for the church.

I love the last public words Dr. King ever spoke. On the night before he was assassinated, in his final speech, he said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming
of the Lord.3

That’s remarkable. He feared no one. This was the last speech Dr. King ever gave; he was shot in Memphis the next day. His reward for living a life that was not dominated by fear. But in so many ways, the influence of his life was just beginning.

The same hope and faith in the risen Lord that sustained Stephen in his final hour gave peace and calm to Dr. King on that last day. The resurrection is still what animates and sustains prophets everywhere.

This dangerous idea doesn’t belong just to apostles and visionary civil rights leaders. The heart of Acts is this grand message that the hope and strength of resurrection are God’s gift for everyone.

Calling All Prophets
Do you know who Stephen was?

Right before the Acts 7 story of his death, we read about a time when the apostles feel overwhelmed with people needing help.
Widows need to be fed and food needs to be distributed, and the folks in one minority group are fussing because their widows don’t
appear to be getting their fair share.

The apostles tell the complainers it’s not right for the Twelve to stop preaching the gospel to wait on tables, so they pick seven guys
to deal with the feeding and the fussing.

Stephen is one of them. He is, in the words of the apostles, a waiter.

You’d probably never have known his name, and people wouldn’t name their little boys Stephen if this had not happened. But Stephen wasn’t just a waiter, and you’re not just a soccer mom, or a mechanic, or a member of the quilting club.

You’re a prophet. At least you can be, if you accept the opportunities the Lord opens up for you. This is one of the main points of
Acts. Peter’s first point in his first sermon tells us this:

This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:16–18)

This point, in a patriarchal society, is huge. No longer does God’s Spirit rest only on a select few. Now, through this new thing God
is doing through Jesus, the Spirit empowers young men and old women, seventh-grade girls and sixty-year-old truck drivers. All of
us can be God’s servants. His prophets.

At the church where I preach, we have a senior saint named Ruth who goes to the jail every week and teaches people art. Because she hopes that if she gives them a healthier way to express themselves, they won’t find themselves back in the vicious cycles that got them locked up.

She teaches art in the name of Jesus. Because God is on the side of justice, and our dear Ruth is on the side of God.

Another woman at our church, a woman named Susan, is a quiet, joyful servant who hates being in the spotlight. But every week you can find her at inner-city schools teaching at-risk kids how to read.

She knows what a difference this will make in their lives. God is on the side of justice, and Susan is on the side of God.

A couple of college students from our church named Jason and Steven have recently started going to some apartments across town
to try to make a positive difference in the lives of some refugee children. Jason and Steven have started a soccer league for these kids who wouldn’t be able to play otherwise.

Jason and Steven know God is on the side of justice, and they are on the side of God.

A woman named Linda was a flight attendant for thirty years. But she quit this job that she loved to start a non-profit agency called
Eternal Threads. Linda now goes all over the world equipping girls whose only options to make money tend to be pretty dark. She
teaches these young women how to make crafts to sell. She is giving them a way to eat that doesn’t involve selling their souls.

God is on the side of justice, and Linda is on the side of God.

It is inevitable that if you do this kind of thing for long, eventually you’ll bother people who don’t understand. You may even have to speak against some things they like. But that goes with the territory, because you’re a prophet.

God is calling all prophets, and in this sense we’re all called to be prophets. Stephen’s story is our story. This is the message of
Acts. The resurrection can turn cowards into apostles, and waiters into prophets.

It did in Stephen’s day. It still does.

A few years ago I heard the well-known preacher Tom Long tell the story of Flora Miller. Flora was a senior saint who lived during the heart of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. She was a white, third grade Sunday school teacher in a conservative, all-white church.

At one point, the civil rights workers in Atlanta adopted the strategy of sending African-American Christians to white churches
to force their hand on whether they would be as inclusive as the gospel requires. Flora’s church found itself in a predicament. They
knew their congregation might be “visited,” so the leaders of the church met to decide what to do if someone of color showed up at
their church.

One Sunday morning the leaders announced their decision. They stood up and told their people that, after much prayer, the elders of the church had decided that they would allow African-American guests to join the assembly “so long as space provides.” They repeated that statement, slowly enunciating each word: “So long as space provides.”

If you looked around that morning, you would have noticed that space was not an issue for this church. They met in a spacious
building that could accommodate hundreds of other believers. This statement was not an earnest decision to stand against the racism of their day. It was a public relations stunt. It was a sham, a front.

Then they said it one more time, just in case anybody didn’t understand the unspoken message. “They will be welcome, so long
as space provides.”

That’s when little old Flora Miller, who had been at that church most of her life and had served and loved these people for decades,
girded her loins and stood up. Right in the middle of the elders’ stinky announcement, this sweet, elderly, Sunday school teacher said, “Well, if we happen to run out of room, they can have my seat.”4

To most folks she looked like just your average Sunday school teacher, but Flora Miller was a prophet standing against religious bigotry.

Even though it was far from popular and even though it might have cost her valued friendships, she spoke truth.

The biblical word for that is “prophet.” Stephen found out that choosing to be one may put you in a grave, but the resurrection
assures us that prophets never die.

I find myself in another argument with God.

I wish He would be reasonable.

Some days I just don’t “get” it. Or Him. And I’m pretty sure He doesn’t “get” me on those days.

Oh, He “has” me and I know I’m saved and all that but…

My best friend is having surgery…

Again.

Fourth time, in fact. The cancer grew again.

We’ve thrown chemo at it, radiation, surgeries, and all kinds of medications – proven and experimental.

And we’ve thrown thousands and thousands of prayers at it, too. In fact, we threw prayer at it before we threw anything else at it.

We surrounded him time and again and prayed and truly, truly believed that we were heard. We expected good news. We expected a healing.

That was well over a year ago. Since then…it seems things have only gotten worse.

So, lets talk, God.

God, if you want us to pray, remember that we need to be tossed a bone every now and then.

And if you get tired of us harping on this remember: it’s your fault. You told us to pray. Your son gave us that story of the judge and the widow and the friend with unexpected company to encourage us to keep pounding on your door.

He knows you. He told us to not quit bothering you.

So, it’s me again. Pounding away.

You know what makes this worse, God? Lots of stuff does. Seeing evil people like those Boko Harum thugs using your name to steal girls from Christian homes and NOT dying of cancer. That makes this worse.

Do we have so many sweet, wise, loving Christian men that we can lose them but we have to keep Islamofacists alive?

And, Father, while we work this out between us, could you do me another favor? Could you please keep your other kids away from me? You know who I’m talking about, those who always harp on cheerfully about this all being part of your wonderful plan and how “God is good all the time, all the time God is good.”

I KNOW you’re good, Father. What I DON’T understand is why that goodness doesn’t act like I think it should act.

And I’m not buying that this is part of your wonderful plan. I find myself saying the same thing about my friend that Job said to you in his misery – you’re going to miss him when he’s gone.

Or maybe not. Maybe we don’t sleep for any time at all and maybe that beggar and Lazarus story reflect reality and my friend might be carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom…but what about us?

What about those of us who listened to your call to pray – and prayed, prayed, prayed?

What are we supposed to do?

So I’m back again, God.

I’m not letting you off the hook.

I’m not going to stop pounding on this door.

We may never agree about what should be done on earth about my friend.

But I’m not done kicking this door.

And I’m not done with you.

Oh no, you aren’t going to get rid of me even when we disagree.

And I know you’re good and that you are God.

But remember those of us down here who see so little and understand even less.

Lord…hear our plea.

Post originally appeared at travelingmead.net

Way back in 1982 when the earth’s crust was still cooling and the T-Rex walked among us, Amy Grant recorded a song called “Fat Baby” on her epic Age to Age album. It was a playful rebuke of Christians who constantly take in spiritual food at church with a constant craving for more, but who never do anything with it. It portrayed some believers as perpetual spiritual infants who sit in high chairs to be spoon fed by clergy. Rather than the church being a people living out a mission, this song pictured the church as an overfed, underworked, developmentally-delayed infant by choice.

Well, that song may have been something of an exaggeration, but many of us who have served in congregational ministry have had similar thoughts. When church gatherings become a passive experience people attend for their own enjoyment (i.e. to “get fed”) instead of equipping events for living out mission, we should not be surprised when we end up with a lot of petulant, puffy, Peter Pans.

“Going to church” can feel like getting stuck in the 5th grade forever. How many times can we study Genesis or Romans before we move on to doing something? The missional move has been a needed corrective and we do need to get people out of the building in service. But, what is less often considered is that we need to change what we do when we gather as well. We still tend to over-teach our people and under-train them.

The typical highly involved church member gets lots of Bible study, but they tend to get it at a surface level. They get a lesson in Bible class, another in the sermon, and another at mid-week in a class or small group. Then they likely have a women’s or men’s group and often their own personal Bible reading. However, the typical church does not align their teaching or sequence it in any way. There is no developmental aspect or tying it together with a larger purpose. Even more rare is the church that provides any meaningful training to their teachers. It shows. We just assume more Bible will produce better believers. Yet, experience shows us that information rarely leads to transformation without some form of imitation. That means working it out deeply with others in reflection and practice.

What we need is less surface Bible study and more in-depth encounters that lead to practice. One way this can be done is to align the preaching, Bible classes, and small groups so that they cover the same material but in different aspects and take the church through an in-depth journey together. The preacher who is studying to prepare sermons can easily write curriculum for Bible classes that takes the study to a deeper level (with staff help). He uncovers far more material than he can fit meaningfully into a sermon anyway. That is why he typically preaches too long. If the classes are extensions, he can trust some of the background people need will be covered there and speak more about relevant application. Then small groups can process what people are doing during the week to obey what the church is learning together. It can be practical confession, reporting on progress, sharing of wisdom and experience, and community forming as it builds on the assumed learning happening on Sundays.

To make this workable, Preachers have to be released from preparing additional classes on other subjects. They have to be viewed not just a feeders or expert speakers but as trainers. We need to teach people to feed themselves and feed others. In this model, the preacher becomes an equipper of teachers and small group leaders who can lead training classes for Bible class and prepare the materials for people to process. Then instead of people learning 4 or 5 unrelated things each week, all of which are soon forgotten because there is no means of application, the church learns a few things well together and the door is opened wide to visible, obvious means of putting what they learn into practice in real and meaningful ways. Now we have something to come back and celebrate and that celebration feeds into the mindset that we learn in order to do rather than learn in order to learn (Ephesians 4:11-16)!

There are numerous challenges to making this switch. First, churches must accept that they need to do less and do it better. It means churches must study fewer topics but study them deeper. It means releasing the preaching minister and related staff from other duties to be an equipper and not just expert proclaimer to passive listeners. Finally, it means that we create the expectation that our teaching will lead to obedient action which we can then process together, pray over in small groups and celebrate as a congregation when God uses us to do His will in the world. When the teaching ministry is aligned in this way, we can get past the Fat Baby syndrome and better prepare our people to live out the gospel by deeper training.

One warning: Many churches have a value system that will scuttle any such move. Because we often value a traditional way of doing things, we carry that value out to the neglect of 99 other more important things. Or, because we value “sound doctrine” so much we don’t even give room to put our faith into action in meaningful ways. This is likely one of the reasons why so many young people leave the church…we have made little to no attempt to connect what we are talking about with what is going on in the real world or how they can be a part of something meaningful and self-less.

The key here is giving up on the old modern notion that insight is cure. It is not. One distinctive insight from the Gospel is that until truth assumes flesh and takes action in the world commensurate with that truth, nothing meaningful happens. We are embodied creatures who believe in resurrection. Our teaching needs to get out of our buildings and take form in the world. The way we do that teaching should be commensurate with that belief. That means, how much we know is less important than how much we do with what we know.

second-chance

Creating a Christ-like Culture?

Talk about that too much and the next thing you know, we might again start spouting initials everywhere!

Maybe you’ll remember WWJD?

What Would Jesus Do?

Indeed. A Christ-like culture kind of gets started when we do things like Jesus might have done them.

But changing a culture from the outside in is hard work. I can modify some of my actions without ever changing my heart.

Have you ever heard the story of little Johnny? He was always in trouble in class–mostly for being out of his seat and talking all the time… One day he got paddled. After the tears and wailing were over, he was sitting in his seat quietly when he raised his hand to speak. The teacher asked what he wanted and he replied: “I may be sitting down on the outside, but on the inside I am standing up!”

The old heart’s a pesky thing, isn’t it?

Where the Church is called to be salt and light begins from within individual hearts within the church body itself. Being a part of a local body of believers is like participating in a practice game or an in house scrimmage. Our first opportunity to make a real difference can usually be found within our relationships among the church.

I would love to exist within a universal church culture where the idea that we shoot our wounded is unheard of at best and obsolete at worst.

However, creating a Christ-like Culture has to flow from the concepts of mercy, grace, and redemption.

Even though it is disputed in some circles, I love the story of the woman caught in sin from John 8. If authentic Jesus material, and I have faith that it is, it teaches us an aspect of what a Christ-like culture looks like:

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.

Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

How different than ours does Jesus’ response look?

Seriously. That’s a real question.
How different than ours does Jesus’ response look?

What Jesus said didn’t negate her mistakes.
What Jesus said didn’t sweep it under the rug and act like it never happened.

Everybody there was fully aware of her sin.
Instead of condemnation and self-righteousness (and if anybody had the right to condemn and be righteous, it was Jesus), she was offered mercy, grace, and redemption.

Do you know what mercy, grace, and redemption add up to? Second chances.

Jesus is the Lord of Second Chances!
A Christ-like Culture will embody the second chance nature of Jesus!

By now you may know I have a new ministry. After several years of struggle and heartache, I have been given a second chance to work in a full time ministry position again… It happened because God is a God of Second Chances–and he provided a very special group of leaders and saints at the Lake Harbour Church of Christ in Ridgeland, MS that are living proof.

No, I was not caught or compromised by some moral failure. But through tragedy, I had to learn how to love God all over again. I had to learn how to put my anger and pain in the right perspective. I had to learn how to live within the lifelong process of being a person of faith and trust.

Yesterday, I picked up my favorite preaching/ studying Bible. I bought it brand new on July 28, 2011. Less than four months later my family would be devastated by the double murder that will rock our lives forever. This particular Bible was hardly broken in—a process I am blessed to begin even now in this new ministry.

As I thumbed through it’s pages, I came across a passage of scripture that was underlined. The only such passage in this still relatively new Bible. Along with those underlined verses was a simple sentence written at the top of the page. I don’t have any idea when or where or why I wrote those words. I don’t know if I was listening to someone else or studying on my own.

But what I found gave me chills. It was as if the old me was planting a message of hope for the new me to find.

Here’s the scripture:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5 NIV)

And then these words written above the text:

Perseverance and grief give us a new voice!

A Christ-like culture embodies, encourages, creates, and celebrates second chances.
A Christ-like culture gives rise to a place where new voices can be warmed up, stretched, and brought to a full throat roar of praise and celebration.

People make mistakes.
People make mistakes with sometimes grave consequences.
But the lost can be found again.
And those who grant, create, and give second chances of mercy, grace and redemption are the physical embodiment of a Christ-like culture.

Shouldn’t it begin with me and you?

Les Ferguson, Jr.
May 9, 2014

This month’s issue of Wineskins is on “Creating a Christ-like Culture”. To kick off this issue I want to share a few thoughts on how church culture works: what it is, where it comes from, how it shows up and how it is formed. So bear with me as this is not a traditional theme-kickoff post but I think is an important starting point in discussing how we can continue to shape churches to have a healthy culture.

One of the fundamental laws of the way churches and organizations work is that culture is constantly being created. Whether we like it or not and whether we are intentional about it or not…culture is being formed. If you want to ignore the importance of what kind of culture your church, ministry and leadership is creating, that creates a culture of its own…one where people don’t know what is going on or where the church is going. If you want to be intentional about the kind of culture that is being shaped, intentionality also breeds and feeds a certain culture…one where people know what to expect and where purpose and direction in ministry are highly valued. Culture is always being shaped and what you are experiencing in ministry now (for the good and the bad…as a volunteer or paid staff) is often a product of years of a certain kind of culture being formed by those who came before you (some of whom may have left and some may still be around).

Driven by Core Values
Culture formation is driven by our core values. The values we have drive the culture that is formed. For example, if your leadership values an absolute, exclusive strangle hold on the truth that will produce a culture of exclusion, alienation and arrogance…where people are fearful of being wrong, hesitant to ask questions and who eventually learn to take on a co-dependent position to not rock the apple cart. If you value transparency and openness, the culture that results will encourage people to share and investigate matters of faith openly…where they can ask their questions and express their doubts in an environment that is safe to do so. The things we value have a direct relationship to the culture we create.

Expressed in practice
The practices we perform perpetuate the cultures that we produce and continually reaffirm the values that we hold most dear. For example, if tradition is a core value of a congregation (let’s say…they might not say it is but everyone knows it is the case) then the things you do (practices) must perpetuate the traditions of the church (core value), maintaining a culture that is comfortable to those “in authority”. In that instance, if communion has only been passed one direction (front to back) then that is the only way it can or will ever be passed, not because scripture speaks to that (or that it even matters) but because tradition is highly valued. If you change the practice (pass back to front) the reason so much anger can be generated over such an insignificant decision is not because the practice is that important but because by implementing the change, you brought the underlying value system into question – and people don’t like their core values to be under the microscope (especially when they are weak to begin with).

How culture is formed?

Here is how J.R. Woodward explained how culture is formed in his excellent book, “Creating a Missional Culture” (p.32),

According to cultural theory, culture is largely made up of artifacts, language, rituals, ethics, institutions and narratives. In other words, the language we live in, the artifacts that we use, the rituals we engage in, our approach to ethics, the institutions we are a part of and the narratives that we listen to have the power to shape our lives profoundly. As we look at the culture around us, here are some questions to help us understand how we are being shaped:

  • What is the guiding narrative of our host culture?

  • Which institutions most shape our lives?

  • What ethics are we developing in light of the stories and narratives that bombard us from every side?

  • What rituals, practices and liturgies are we engaging in that shape our desires, our idea of the “good life” and the kind of people we are becoming?

Creating culture is complex and multifaceted. It runs the gamut from the power of our meta-narratives to scripture’s meta-narratives to the institutions that currently exist to those that previously existed (early church culture) to our language and ethics and practices. There is a lot that goes into the culture that we currently live within and a lot that must go into any future culture we believe the church or a congregation needs to shift toward.

Culture formation is slow, painstaking work. It will take years to work out with no guarantee of success but it is essential that we continue to try to move our congregations to be healthier. My generation of 30 somethings ministers can get easily distracted when things don’t go quickly or when success is not assured…we don’t like beating our heads against the wall and will quickly move on to something else or someone else who is more willing to go the direction we believe is necessary. We must be mature. We must look to the generations who will follow us and the values, cultures and practices they will inherit from us. Those in church leadership bear a heavy burden in the legacy they will leave to those who will come after them. We must be wise and part of that wisdom is being in tune with the culture that exists in your congregation.