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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for 139 – Hospitality in a Strange Land

Last month we explored leadership as relational work – shepherding to nurture emotional and spiritual well-being. This month we turn to another dimension of leadership: paying attention to God. In any group or organization, one of the critical aspects of leadership is asking the important questions, “Where are we headed?” and “What is our goal?” Such questions shape strategic thinking and mission.

However, as congregational leaders, the question is quite different. The difference is critical, and it is one of the reasons why church leaders often find themselves frustrated and uncertain. The usual practices of leadership in organizations do not apply to the big question.

As the church – as God’s people – the big question is not, “Where are we headed?” but “Where is God headed?” This turns the task of vision work and strategic thinking on its head. Great congregational leaders are not necessarily savvy visionaries or brilliant communicators or great strategists, though these are wonderful gifts he uses. Instead, great congregational leaders are first and foremost prayerful disciples intent on knowing his will for their own lives and for the lives of the congregations they have been called to lead.

Because Christ is the head of the church, and because God is redeeming humankind through the witness of the church, the task of leaders is to pay close attention to God’s leadership. One way to speak of this is with the term “interpretive leadership.” To pay attention to God, congregational leaders are constantly engaged in interpretive work – listening to the Word and listening for the Spirit’s prompting so they might follow.

Here are some examples of what interpretive leadership looks like:

  • Leaders spend time in Scripture interpreting the voice of God, first for themselves and then for the church.
  • Leaders interpret contextual realities – what is happening in our town, our city and our culture that 1) creates opportunity for the gospel to be heard or 2) requires the response of God’s grace.
  • Leaders also are interpreting the story and legacy of their own congregations. They ask, “When have we been faithful to God’s will and purpose, and when have we turned inward and been negligent to his prompting?”
  • Leaders prayerfully listen and watch for the work of the Holy Spirit. If God is up to something, then faithfulness requires us to follow along!

If you are a leader in a congregation, I suggest the best and most important thing you could do for your congregation is to commit yourself to being a prayerful disciple. In order to grow – to really grow as teams of leaders – the challenge will be to create space for leaders to find good ways of asking and exploring the questions, “What is God up to in our community?” and “What is God’s preferred future for our church?”

I believe that in times of renewal God will raise up such leaders. Will you be in that number?

Blessings,

Jim Woodell
Director of John 3:17 Ministry
Remmel Church
Newport, AR 72112

Paul was the greatest of the Apostles.  That is if you judge him by the number of books bearing his name in the New Testament canon.  He was a champion of grace.  Several times he pointed out that, it is not works that saves you (Romans 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-9), but grace.  However, he also wrote that Christians ought to be about the work of God (1 Corinthians 15:58). He “abounded” in God’s work.

You cannot read much from the writings of Paul before you realize that he was a sacrificial offering to God Almighty!  If you have not read 1 Corinthians 11:23-27 lately, please do!  Imprisoned, flogged, exposed to death, whipped with almost 200 lashes, beaten with rods, stoned, involved in three ship wrecks, spent a night and day in the open sea, constantly moving, subjected to all kinds of danger from rivers, from bandits, from his own countrymen, from Gentiles, and false brothers.  He “labored and toiled and often went without sleep.” He knew what it is like to be hungry and thirsty and to be cold and naked.   Even after all of this, he wrote in the Philippians 3, “Not that I have already obtained all this or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” He was not depending on his works for salvation.

Paul said, “We carry around in our body the death of Jesus…”  What a testimony! What was Paul’s secret? Why did he suffer such harm and sacrifice?  He wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”  From his Damascus road experience until his death Paul was filled with wonder and amazement when he considered Jesus of Nazareth.   He was motivated by his personal experience with the Christ who was raised from the dead, and the fact that others needed to know what he knew.  Others need to experience the same relationship with Christ that he was experiencing.

Paul gave up religion for a relationship with Jesus (Philippians 3:1-11). Am I missing something? I am challenged by this one man’s sacrificial life. Do I have religion or a relationship with Christ? What about those that I fellowship with today? What’s missing? Could it be the wonder of amazement?

What is it about our brokenness that demands buffers and barriers between us and God?  Throughout the Bible I see a God who seeks to interact with people in intimate and personal ways.  Not in “Special Places” but in a wine press, a ditch, in prisons, and in the workplace.   Yes, God provided forms of mediation, but those are for our needs not His limitations.

My sons are 11,9, and 3.  At this age they do not fully know and understand all that goes on in the worlds of their parents.  In many ways we live in very different worlds.  On the surface, my youngest son is focused on things that have little to do with my interest. However; several times a week we cuddle together at watch his “vidgios.”  These times watching his “vidgios” allow him to connect with me and allows me to engage him.  These videos serve as a form of mediation…a point of contact.

Now someone may think it’s just about watching “vidgios.”  But what is going on in those weird “vidgios” is the least of my focus.  When I can surrender my selfishness and be available in the moment, something much deeper happens.  I find myself enjoying holding him in my arms, watching his eyes light up when he sees something cool.  I love when I feel the rigidness of his muscles from his frenetic pace melt into me and relax.

At some point, this boy who seems to always be on the go will turn to me at say, “Dad, we’re cuddle buddies.”  And in that moment it is not about the videos, but real relational connection.  How unfortunate it would be if he thought our time together was all about the “vidgios.”  And perhaps he does.  But reality is that I use the “vidgios” as a way for him to engage me at a relational level…they are a form of mediation.

As a response to the rebellion and divorce between humanity and God in the garden, God in his infinite grace and wisdom knew/knows humanity needs forms of mediation to engage Him and to come to know him.  But one of the consistent problems in humanity’s brokenness is we mistake the form of mediation, for Him, and the gifts given to bring us into deeper communion with God, often become buffers.

This allows us to determine, often unconsciously, the perimeters of our relationship.  Amazingly, and unfortunately, God honors those boundaries…for now.  In my journey I have limited God to practices, times, dates, and places.  Embracing a secular and spiritual divide, which allowed me to place boundaries on Him.  Often believing our uncommon creator would not be honored in my common places.  But inviting God into our “common” places is where we discover  the depths He is willing to go to commune with us.  And the more we invite Him into the corners and shadows of our lives…we begin to discover that there is nothing “common” about us.  That the creator and sustainer of all life, wills to do life with you.  He wills for you to discover that all creation points to Him.

And perhaps while watching a sunrise, a flower bloom, hear the rain fall, feel acceptance from another person, or reading scripture, you will discover that those moments are more than the focus of your attention.  But that their is something more going on in that space.

It is in that space God is drawing you to Himself, and in the peace born out of the perspective that only awareness of His presence can bring…you turn to your Father and say…. “Were cuddle buddies.”

“It’s not our ability that will make a difference in the lives of others. It’s our availability.” -Phil Sanders

 

I was blessed to spend a week in Mexico recently.  My group of seven from Western Kentucky joined with a group from the Sunset International Bible Institute’s Adventure in Missions program (my all-time favorite ministry within the church). We worked with local Christians in Central Mexico by serving orphans, cleaning homes and properties, and loving on people we may never get the privilege of seeing again. We, along with the young missionaries in the AIM program, passed out over 5000 fliers inviting folks to learn English at the Metropolitan Church of Christ located in downtown Mexico City.  We experienced beautiful hospitality from local missionaries as we converged on their home every morning and evening for breakfast and devotionals.

And as we traveled in and around Mexico City, I continually saw signs with the word disponible. For two days, I tried to sound it out. It was quickly becoming the word that I would remember the most about this trip and I didn’t even know what it meant.  I saw it on billboards, pay phones, benches, and bridges. It was on overpasses and freeways. It was everywhere and I was terribly curious but by the time we would arrive at our destination I would become too busy to ask.  Finally, after a couple days I started snapping pictures whenever I saw it, probably missing ancient Aztec ruins behind me while I focused on a word that had me captivated.

I was at the Tuloca Church of Christ building (a couple of hours from Mexico City) a few days into my trip when I remembered to ask a friend what it meant and he replied casually, “Disponible? It means available.” And that’s when I teared up a bit and remembered the quote from one of my favorite preachers. “It’s not your ability… It’s your availability.”

Many people would say it’s just a coincidence that the word that has influenced me the most in my walk with Christ is plastered around a country I didn’t want to visit in the first place and they might be right. It probably means nothing that I had to make myself leave America again. After losing my friend, Roberta Edwards, while she served in Haiti, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be willing to travel outside of America. In fact, the thought of going was too painful. But I made myself pack anyway even while refusing to research the country and where we would be staying before I left.

I love how God pursues his children. He reminds us that he made the world available for those who follow him to step into and make a difference. Not by what we can do, but by what he’s already done. If we are willing to make ourselves available and hospitable to the poor, oppressed, marginalized, the lost and searching, he will do great things. He always has.

The world is available to us to love and serve. Are we available to go and witness the hospitality of those who speak another language? Are we making ourselves, our homes, our country, and our God available to those in need here? That’s not only our mission, that’s the plan for our lives.

When Jesus told his disciples both that he was going away and that he would prepare a place for them so they could eventually come and abide with him (John 14:1-4) Jesus did not at that time tell them that the road to “going there” was the cross. He said that earlier (Matthew 10) but not in this moment otherwise Thomas wouldn’t have responded the way he did in 14:5. In order for Jesus to go and prepare a place for them the going would take him straight to the cross.

The last thing Jesus says before Thomas interjects is that they “know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas chimes in saying they don’t know the way to which Jesus responds they do know the way because they know him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the way and the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. How can Jesus say they know the way already? First because they know him as was just stated and stated in reply to Thomas and second because Jesus has already gone over this with them. Jesus’ response to Thomas is really no different than what he already told them in Matthew 10:38 where he tells his disciples that the way to follow him is the way of the cross, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” The next thing Jesus talks about is hospitality (Matt 10:40-42),

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

How are the cross and hospitality related? The only reason we can eternally abide as recipients of Jesus’ eternal hospitality it the path that leads through the cross. In order to be truly hospitable…even unconditionally hospitable we have to be cross bearers. We have to crucify our whole selves in order to make our whole selves truly available to the other person. What parts of your inner you make it difficult for you to practice hospitality as Jesus practiced it?

Gates, moats, and parapets are not ideal ambiance for hospitality. Most castles don’t have signs to the king’s chamber nor do they tell you where the gold and valuables are stored. In fact, many castles were designed to give the advantage to residents and put the newcomer ill at ease.

One of the tricks they used in building castles was to make the steps of varying heights throughout. Those familiar with the castle would go up the steps with ease, knowing by habit which steps were higher and which steps were lower. An enemy in the gates would have to judge each step one at a time giving the advantage to those who had lived in the castle for a great length of time.

Castles are designed to be easy to enter for those who familiar and who belong inside and quite difficult to get in for those who aren’t supposed to be there. When you see gates and a moat you realize that a castle by nature is hospitable for those who belong and menacing for those who do not and everyone knows which category they fit in.

Churches can be similar to fortresses in this regard. The one glaring difference is intent. We don’t typically have newcomers to church who are there to pillage and wreak havoc. And yet some of our churches feel like fortresses to the newcomer while the same facility feels like a hospitable home and place of belonging and familiarity to someone who has been there for some years. Those who make the decisions of how the facility looks are those who already feel at home there and by default aren’t seeing things the same way as a new person would. One way to involve a visitor is to ask them for help on this.

There are churches that are as hospitable as a fortress. Those facilities aren’t designed with a newcomer in mind. In fact, those facilities can be quite intimidating for a newcomer. You don’t know where to go, how to get in or which steps are significantly higher or lower than the others. Everyone else seems to know – the gap between them and everyone else is more than obvious. The likelihood of their return is greatly diminished.

If we are to practice true hospitality then we need to make sure we are ready to receive people who are unfamiliar with where the gates are and how high the steps are. We need to lower the high places and raise the low spots in order to eliminate unnecessary barriers to the gospel. Hospitality views things with new people in mind. Hospitality gives us an eye to anticipate the experience of the other person and make preparation in advance for their arrival. If our churches feel more like a fortress than a living room we have an issue. If we don’t anticipate new people arriving we have an issue. If we expect God to send people to us but we haven’t taken five minutes to consider how we are going to receive them and bless them when they arrive then we have a problem.

Let us practice hospitality, not just in our homes but in our church buildings by anticipating the experience of someone we have never met. The next time you drive up to your building pretend like it is your first time there and see if you don’t experience things in a new way. Pretend you don’t already know the answers and see if the questions you would have are easily answered. See if the website, facility, the signage, the greeters (or lack thereof) all point you the same way. Let us do our best to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks from the seekers path so they can experience genuine hospitality when they are in our company. Something tells me most churches could turn the whole thing around by taking a few lessons from Chic fil a!

I have defended the Christian freedom to celebrate Lent elsewhere so I will not do that here but Genesis 1.14-15 (TEV, NJB, etc) and Romans 14.5-6 are sufficient for people who accept the authority of Scripture.

In the Hebrew Bible, the people of God often recognized the Spiritual need to lament individually and corporately. So powerful was this urge that over half of the Psalms are lament.

Israel has a day of mourning or lamentation called Tisha B’Av or the Ninth of Av. On this day the whole Book of Lamentations is publicly read as Jews lament the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC, AD 70, and the sin that led to such horrific destruction.

She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously
with her,
they have become her enemies

(Lam 1.3)

For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevailed

(Lam 1.16)

Look, O LORD, and consider!
To whom have you done this?”

(Lam 2.20)

Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we
may be restored;
renew our days as of old –
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us
beyond measure

(Lam 5.21-22)

Lament is not simply about “complaining.” Rather it is about coming clean before God about the state of things and finding grace, shalom, healing, and renewal.

Renewal. Making things new. Healing the hurt of the world. This is what we seek. There are many things I can take responsibility for in my life and confess to God and beg God’s forgiveness.

But like Jesus lamenting on the cross mumbling the words of Psalm 22 we can confess that the hurt of the world is bigger than me, bigger than my sin.

So in the season of Lent, which reminds us of the power of repentance, it is totally appropriate to lament. We are messed up despite our best daily efforts. Our would is in such pain and such misery. And the Bible forces us to recognize the world’s hurt not just our own. So lament fills our world as people thrash about looking for answers.

Thus the rock group Nine Inch Nails powerfully gave utterance to lamentation. But it is in Johnny Cash, who covered the song, the pain is nearly unbearable.

I hurt myself today
To see if I can still feel pain
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real

The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything …

I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liars chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair

This is the Hurt of the world! Often times it is of our own doing. Many times it is not. Our culture teaches us to hide it all away. To bury it inside. To deny the pain and the hurt. And we die a little more as a result.

Sadly, churches often participate in this evil plot. It is weakness. It is a lack of faith. It is un-American. But it is profoundly biblical! It is in the lament that we let go and let God. It is in confessing the hurt of the world that we join the entire human race before the Creator God desperately in need of his renewal and his healing.

Lent provides us a specific “appointed time” where we can tell God we hurt. Here we can come clean over the failed marriages. Here we lament the broken promises as parents. The moments of selfish greed that wrought hurt. The times we have failed to love and cherish those that mean the most.

We can also, finally, lament the suffering, abused, and starving children around the globe. We can come clean to our failure to love our neighbor as God himself does. We join hearts with the moms whose tears, as in the Book of Lamentations, are their food. We lament that the powers of this world would rather build weapons of mass destruction than make sure their citizens have food to eat.

The world is hurting. Its people. Its animals. Its trees. God’s world is crying (Rom 8.18-24). We ourselves have hurts so deep that to even acknowledge them produces tears pain.

But in lamentation God’s Spirit works profoundly. In it we become dependent children trusting in our Abba that he not only will but IS somehow already healing the world itself and ourselves along with it. We join Jesus as he prays Psalm 22,

O LORD do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!”

Lament opens us up to not only healing but renewal. The Psalmist, and Jesus, gain divine strength to believe in a new future. Thus the Psalmist says (Jesus),

I WILL tell of your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I WILL praise you:
you who fear the LORD, praise him!”

and

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations
.

Somehow our hurts are mixed into the Messiah’s. Somehow the Messiah’s hurts are representative of the world’s. And as the Messiah joins us in our lament the miracle of God’s healing and renewal comes to all creation.

The Gospels point to the Cross as that moment of the Great Lament and the Great Renewal. It is there that the Messiah said to Israel, I am one with your Lamentations. It is there that the Messiah says to Johnny Cash, I am one with your Hurt. It is there that I join Jesus in lamenting the hurt of the world … and discover God’s New Creation.

During this season, this appointed time, take time to learn the language of biblical lament. Include the hurt of the world in your time of reflection.  Here the Holy Spirit works even in the hells of our own making and brings renewal to our world through the Messiah’s lament hanging on the Cross. His lament is everyone’s lament because at that moment the Jewish Messiah is every human that has ever hurt.