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Archives for 107 – Our Weakness and God’s Power

The gospels, at their best, haunt me.

What I mean, is that they have this way sometimes of lingering after I’ve read them. They echo around in the back of my head. They seem to point to something just outside of my field of vision, as though I could see it clearly if I just turned my head quick enough. The gospels nag me.

One haunting text that has nagged me for some time is in Luke 19:41-44, lodged right between Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and his temple-cleansing action.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41–44 NRSV)

The text invites the reader to join in Jesus’s distress, evoking emotion as Jesus weeps over the old city of David. His “If only” cry speaks to our own experiences of “what might had been”. Adding a bit of historical context sharpens the blow, as we see what Jerusalem will soon suffer at the hands of Rome, and indeed how the city had already suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Seleucids. “If only you could see!” Jesus cries, and I can almost hear it.

Further though, the text invites us to only to lament the ancient disaster, but see its root—the failure of Jerusalem to recognize “the things that make for peace.” This is the bit that haunts me.

I think, given the rest of Luke’s gospel, that “the things that make for peace” probably mean things like God’s willingness to subvert power and honor the humble and lowly (Luke 1:51-53). I think it probably includes things like turning the other cheek and loving our enemies (Luke 6:27-29), or a willingness to repent or to extend forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4). I think it probably is a way of summing up the whole of Jesus’s way of life that ran counter to those who would be power brokers for the future of Israel.

What haunts me about this story is my own blindness to “the things that make for peace”. I can recognize the abstract ethics of peace, but am at a loss for how to bring a moment of it about in the real world. I’m not the only one either, of course. The air is full of violent rhetoric and shows of power, and the anxieties that beg for them are present in the church as well as in the neighborhoods in which we live. I’m at a loss to know how to deal with the spirits of fear, power, and conflict. This is how the gospel of Jesus is nagging at me today.

Of course, in the text, the “thing” that makes for peace ends up being a person; Jesus himself in all his simple glory. Often, I feel like those who met him on the road to Emmaus, whose eyes were opened for an instant, so they could just recognize him for a moment—before he vanished from their sight! I see a glimpse of the Lord, but the image vanishes before I know how to follow. In the end, I pray that the spirit will increase my capacity to recognize him, and teach me how to follow his trail. In that hope, I will immerse myself in his story until I can recognize his call to peace above the din of war. I will immerse myself in his story until I can see him touching the lepers or dining with Zacchaeus. I will immerse myself in his story until his gentle word of grace to the broken sinner drowns out the boasts of the Pharisees at the table. I will immerse myself in his story until I can see his cross in the hands of those grasping for power. I want to be able to see him, everywhere he is at work. I want us all to be able to recognize the peacemaking one.

If nothing else, maybe someday we’ll hear his quiet weeping over us. Perhaps a day will soon come when our eyes will be open and we will see his tears over our addiction to power and fear, and the spirit will move us to join in his lament.

Maybe that will be the start of something new.

We are dust.

We know the weaknesses of our broken lives.

We express our deepest hurts through painful sighs and tears.

This is the human condition in the creation that seems so empty, futile, and useless. Our present lives are an enigma, and they are often absurd. Sometimes there are no words, and often there are not enough tears. And it rarely makes any “sense.”

The creation groans. Embroiled in a process of decay and enslaved to futility, the earth is burdened with weakness.

We groan. Engulfed in suffering, ranging from famines and nakedness to violence and persecution, the present offers little evidence that hope is near. We know our weaknesses; we know how little strength, power, and endurance we have.

So, groanings fill the cosmos….and those groans enter the heavenlies, too!

The creation groans. We groan. And the Holy Spirit groans.

The Spirit, Paul says, “helps us in our weaknesses,” especially in the moment when our own groans reach their limit. When we have no words, the Spirit uses words that are unutterable. The Spirits says what we cannot. The Spirit steps into our brokenness, sympathizes with our pain, and intercedes—speaks—for us in ways that are beyond our capacity.

The intimacy of the Father and the Spirit—their mutual indwelling of each other—means that the Father knows the Spirit’s groans in their deepest sense and meaning. What we are incapable of knowing about ourselves, the indwelling Spirit knows. What we are incapable of communicating, the Spirit shares with the Father.

The Spirit does not simply know our suffering in some mere cognitive sense. Rather, the Spirit is present within us and experiences our suffering as a sympathetic friend, and thus the Spirit groans as well. The Spirit groans with us and for us, and this groaning becomes part of the experience of the Triune God. God is for us not only in the intercession of the Son, but also in the intercession of the Spirit.

Our groaning—yes, even the groaning of the whole creation—becomes part of the life of God as the Spirit groans with us. God experiences our groaning, and God is able to transform our groaning into hope.

Through the presence of the Spirit, our groaning returns to us as hope. We wait, enduring the present sufferings, for the redemption that will liberate us (and the creation itself!) from our weaknesses and fully adopt us into God’s new creation, the new heaven and new earth.

Hope changes everything. Hope empowers waiting. Hope strengthens our endurance. Hope saves us. Hope turns mourning into dancing.

We groan, and as a result the Spirit sympathetically experiences our struggles and shares its depth with the Father and the Son.

The Spirit bathes us in comfort and imparts peace, and consequently we hope.

We groan over the weaknesses, but we hope in the future God has for the creation.

We groan, but we hope.

So, we wait.

Lord, come quickly!

Texts for meditation: Psalm 103:13-18; Ecclesiastes 2:18-23; 3:18-20; Romans 8:18-27; 15:13.

The World Cup’s in full swing in Brazil. To most people, this is the greatest sporting event on earth. Correction: It’s the greatest event (not just sporting) for most of our planet. For what other reason would one billion people tune in to watch 11 guys from Croatia or Ivory Coast?

But it’s unimportant to most Americans. Since we’re not great at it and have never won it, many don’t care about the World Cup. It’s not our game. We didn’t invent it. We don’t have any of the world’s premier players.

Even though more and more Americans follow soccer and care about the World Cup, most US folks still downplay its significance. Stats on global viewership don’t interest us. If we’re not #1 at something, then it must not be important. Or so the mentality goes.

So with all the apathy toward the World Cup, you’d think that no one would bat an eyelid if our national team coach said we can’t yet win it. Yet Jürgen Klinsmann’s comments stirred all kinds of emotions among the growing number of US soccer fans. “We can too win it!” they retorted. Well, of course the possibility of a Cup-winning run always existed for all 32 teams in this year’s tournament. Klinsmann’s point, however, was that US fans need realistic expectations. He was trying to say that success should be measured by something other than trophies.

And this is where Klinsmann’s message fell on deaf ears. Americans don’t want progress. We don’t want to just be competitive. We want to win. Even newly minted American soccer fans want championships. As the basic tenet of our sporting system says, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” In other words, if you can’t win, then don’t play.

This is why we name our own national sporting events “World Series” and call our domestic champions “World Champions.” In our minds, we play to win it all, or we don’t play. And if we play, then we are the best. Otherwise, we’d be losers. And Americans are never losers, or so we say.

Now to my point: This is why Churches of Christ are in such deep water. We’re no longer winning, yet we live in a society obsessed with winning. Our glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s are long gone. In its place, we now have a brand of Christianity that isn’t that attractive, and we live in a society that is increasingly disinterested in organized religion.

“Ah,” you say, “but I know individual churches that have bucked the trend. They are thriving! Ours can win, too!” Yes, a few are doing very well. But those are primarily in Bible-belt pockets where healthy church leaders have yet to make catastrophic mistakes. Or they are churches that have done their best to disguise themselves by removing the brand, bringing out the band, hiring a pseudo-celebrity speaker and going for a revamped version of church that still pulls in a few people.

Good for them. But that isn’t the reality most of us face. Most of us are competing in a sport in which we can no longer win. Oh sure, we can attend a spiffy conference and be sold a bill of goods that will “turn our church around.” But the graveyards are littered with congregations that went from one silver bullet to the next, only to discover that they couldn’t succeed—at least not by our society’s definition of success.

Win or go home. That’s our unique perspective in the United States. And in most of our churches—which are statistically stagnant or dying—people are indeed going home. And they’re not coming back. Church leaders can’t help but feel that they’re losing.

So why don’t we stop “playing church” by society’s definition of success? What if we went back to the Bible (sound familiar?) to rediscover what the church’s mission should actually be? Is it possible that winning, as defined by our nation, is not the same as Scripture’s view of winning?

Oddly, I don’t find any passages in which Jesus said the following:

“And you shall be blessed if your church becomes a major force in your community.”

“If you love me and faithfully follow church growth strategies, I will make your name great.”

“I’m a winner. If you’re a winner, you too will make headlines in the Christian Chronicle.”

Instead, I read these kinds of passages:

“The least of all will be the greatest of all.”

“Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”

“I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the increase.”

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

I think Churches of Christ are poised to make an impact on our local communities. We have some unique skills, traits and resources that other churches just don’t have. But because we are playing the wrong game—because we think winning means living up to the world’s definition of success—we are too frequently wasting our opportunities to impact the world for Jesus.

Let’s stop playing by our nation’s definition of winning. We’re no longer the hottest ticket in town. But who cares? Since when is that what Jesus asked us to be? Instead of feeling like losers, we should be proud that we can love, serve, bless, teach and lead in ways that could impact hundreds and thousands for Jesus.

Let me be clear. I’m not advocating for reckless behavior from church leaders. Nor am I suggesting that a healthy church is a dying church. But not every church is destined to become the next Saddleback, North Point, Oak Hills, or Ethos Church.

So we could all learn from Jürgen Klinsmann. Try to reset your expectations. Instead of thinking that your church has to become the best, greatest & fastest growing or else you’re a failure, learn anew what it means to win in Jesus’ eyes.

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Jason Locke preaches for the College Church of Christ in Fresno, California. He has been in full-time ministry since 1994, first as a church-planter in Prague, Czech Republic, and then as a campus minister in Morgantown, West Virginia. He organizes the Renew Conference each February and is a regular participant in the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. Jason’s education includes degrees from Tennessee Tech (engineering) and Abilene Christian (MDiv, DMin). He and his wife Julie have two sons, one a freshman at Lipscomb University, and the other a high school junior. You can read more from Jason at jlockeblog.blogspot.com, or you can contact him at jlockeca@gmail.com.

Shepherds-Network-logo

 

The Shepherds Network, which was created in 2011, is an outreach of Harding School of Theology.  Their goal is to encourage church leaders and their wives, while providing additional resources to enhance their service to the local church and the Kingdom of God.  Shepherds Networks have been hosted in Memphis, with the exception of a northwest connection that was hosted in Belgrade, MT in 2012.  The next Shepherds Network will be hosted in Vienna, WV on the campus of OVU from August 1-3.

I first attended a Shepherds Network in Memphis in the fall of 2012 and instantly became a believer in this ministry.  Though HST is my alma mater, that is not specifically what drew me to the event.  Rather, it was the excitement of knowing that there was an event with resources that could help equip us to appoint elders and deacons.  I live in Pennsylvania, where the church situation is generally dire.  Many of the churches don’t have elders or deacons and the decline in attendance is symptomatic of a deeper problem.  We were no exception.  By 2012, our congregation had been 102 years with no elders and the last record of any deacons was in 1916.  Our attendance was plateaued and we weren’t reaching the lost.

We wanted to sit at the feet of experienced shepherds and adopt a healthy biblical method of selecting and appointing shepherds and servants.  If we were going to appoint shepherds and deacons, it was going to be done in a healthy manner.  The result?  In October of 2012 I presented to the congregation an outline for walking the congregation through a healthy process of selecting, testing, and appointing elders and deacons.  In October of 2013 we appointed our very first shepherds along with our first deacons since 1916!  They are godly men and we all joyfully share our ministries together.  The church is growing as a result of healthy leadership and we have a much deeper focus and vision on evangelism and restoring sinners.

Shepherds Network is a great opportunity for church leaders to be enriched and encouraged by spending time with other leaders.  One of the exciting things about ministry is that we are seeing an increase in resources for elders and deacons.  Their ministries are vital to the health of the church, so resources to encourage and equip them are essential.  When Paul had his emotional meeting with the Ephesian elders in Miletus, he equipped and encouraged them when he said, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28 ESV).

You can check out more details, the full schedule, or register for the next Shepherds Network at Somerset Church of Christ’s website or at Harding School of Theology.

As far as I’m concerned, we need to pay more attention to the story of Moses. Most of us are quite aware of the facts of the story though we usually leave out some of the coolest parts (such as Moses single handedly taking on a bunch of nomadic raiders to save the pretty girls at the well) and rarely tell our kids he was a difficult man to work with who could grumble and complain with the best of them). What we need to pay more attention to, I think, is when God called him.

It wasn’t when he was forty and fit. He was ready to rock and roll way back then. He was outraged at the treatment of his brethren – and contra the Prince of Egypt cartoon, he always knew he was a Hebrew – and he stepped up and struck down a slave driver who was beating a man unmercifully. That sounds great! Let’s rally around him and rebel! Except…

…that’s not what happened.

God or the bulk of the Hebrews or both weren’t ready for Moses when he was ready for them. Instead, God sent Moses away to hide in the desert. Far, far from the glories of Egypt he made his life as a shepherd (he married into the business) and things pretty much stalled for the next forty years.

Then…God reached out and told him it was time to move. When he was eighty.

No offense to any readers who are eighty years old or older but, seriously? It would seem to be an inopportune time to lead a slave rebellion and challenge the mightiest nation in the neighborhood.

I think that might have been the point. And do you want to know why? Because when Moses was about to run out of reasons that God had the wrong guy, God supplied him with…a stick.

A stick. We don’t even know if it was a pointy stick but I’m assuming it wasn’t since it was his sheep whacking stick.

So God grabs an 80yr old shepherd with a non-pointy stick and points him toward Egypt and says “sic ’em!”

I get this story. I love it. I embrace it. Because I’m living it.

I recently spoke at IMPACT, a youth event at Lipscomb University. The team that puts the event together are awesome, creating an alternative world the kids walk into when they enter Allen Arena. Twelve hundred kids are transported to a new time and place with the sets elaborately staged, the drama that unfolds a story bit by bit, and by the worship and (one hopes) speakers like myself. As I entered the outer area of the arena teens ran up to me, squealing with delight that I was there. They wanted pictures taken with me, signatures from me, or just some time and a hug from me.

Whaa??? From me? Don’t they know who I am? I am a 57 year old refuge from the farthest right edge of our tribe who wrestles with God, wrestles with his own sins and weaknesses daily, and who often gets grumpy, offended, and testy. I’m an introvert in an extrovert’s job. I’m a minister with no theological training (critics helpfully remind me of this via email almost weekly) who is wading his way through the swamp of life and getting lost from time to time.

I shared that with a friend who looked at me and said, “Patrick, that’s the point. They know that. You share that with them. You are open and honest about your failures, your mistakes, and how you are one of God’s problem kids. They relate.”

Nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me.

In case you’ve never heard me say it, let me say it again, officially: I am not qualified for this job. I don’t have the education or temperament for this job. While I sincerely love the kids, their parents, and my neighbors I prefer loving them from a distance. I see a vast distance between me and Jesus when it comes to personality and priorities and that distance isn’t narrowing anywhere near as fast as I thought it was supposed to narrow as one ages. I shake my head in wonder and disbelief every single time someone emails or calls me asking me to come speak for them. Why would they want that???

So…I’ll go. I’ll do the work, but only if you know ahead of time that I live life out loud. I will share my struggles with whomever I speak to. For I don’t do this job because I am strong but out of gratitude to the One who saved me where there was absolutely no reason to do so. There was nothing in my character or education or history that would lead God to think “That’s my guy!” No, He saved me so that, as Paul put it, His strength would be made evident by my weakness, His wisdom made evident by my ignorance and folly.

I’m an eighty year old guy with a non-pointy stick. And half the times I use my stick, I end up running from the result (see Moses’ first try). And yet…He loves me, uses me, and saves me.

And that thought takes me to West Virginia. For nearly 9 years we lived on a mountain outside of Morgantown. One day, a new family moved in below us so I took my son and primary dog (we had a backup dog in case the primary dog ever failed to function) down to say hello. As we drew close, the screen door opened and three attack Chihuahuas leaped off the porch in “kill” mode. Later, we would find out that each of them was over 10 years old. One was blind. Another had epilepsy. You can’t make this up, people.

We had some time to discuss this because the wee dogs were struggling trying to get through the tall grass of a drainage ditch that marked the edge of our property. My son looked at me and asked why the little dogs thought they could hurt us – and my 100lb Labrador mix might have giggled. I’m not really sure if it was a giggle or a snort. I told my son that there was much in the world I didn’t know, but I knew dogs and we should stop right where we were. And…sure enough…the door opened again and two HUGE dogs came out. One was a Newfoundland and the other was maybe a Clydesdale (It was BIG, okay?). They sat down and watched us. I turned to my son and said…

“Now you know why they think they can kill us. They have backup.”

I might be an 80yr old man with a non-pointy stick. Or I might be a 13yr old blind, epileptic Chihuahua. But I have backup.

And I have found that being open about my struggles – for the name of God’s people, which he gave them, was Israel: he who wrestles with God – has opened far more doors for me in the hearts of people around me than my education or speaking ability or stunning good looks ever have.

Okay, I don’t have stunning good looks. Told you I struggled.

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This article originally appeared at patrickmead.net. If you don’t read Patrick’s blog you should have a look. His posts are insightful, thoughtful and chocked full of honesty.

PowermadeperfectThis month’s theme is “Our Weakness and God’s Power.” It’s a vital topic, and how the church should relate to politics is particularly important for today’s church.

The Churches of Christ, as a denomination, have long avoided politics, being heavily influenced by David Lipscomb’s Civil Government. Lipscomb, who lived through the horrors of the Civil War in Nashville, argued that the Kingdom founded by Jesus is entirely separate from federal, state, and local government, so much so that Christians should not serve on juries or be government employees. They certainly shouldn’t be lawyers! Moreover, Lipscomb was a pacifist, as were many other Church of Christ leaders of his day.

Attitudes have changed dramatically in the last 50 years, but there remains a culture of separation of church and state in the Churches of Christ. Preachers do not, as a rule, preach on political questions. However, often the membership is, like Americans generally, highly politicized. Read more »

In my Gospel and Cultures class while at Rochester College, Mark Love often reminded us that the gospel is born on the margins of society. Jesus was born in a barn to a “lowly” woman. His ministry begins in Galilee, not Judea. He chooses blue collar workers to join His movement and later lead it. He shares a table with thieves and whores, the broken and poor, the forgotten and abhorred. Finally He dies a criminal’s death. So yes, I think Mark is on to something.

And just as the life-giving, society re-arranging gospel is born on the margins, so it is with congregational renewal. Instead of offer a theological treatise as to why I believe this to be true, let me tell a story.

Three and half years ago when I arrived at Williamsburg Christian Church they were what some would call a “dying” church. Neck deep in “outreach programs,” the people had life, heart and a strong faith, but they were tired and shrinking in number. They were postured for something more than church as usual but their orientation was programmatic and activity-driven.

One Tuesday afternoon after only eight months with WCC, a stranger walked into the church building. Now, like any good wanna be missional guy I usually do work at the local coffee shop. But for some reason, not that day. This stranger began telling me his story. He lost his business due to a down economy and now he, his wife, their single daughter and six month old grandson were homeless. His story resonated with me for three reasons. For one, homelessness is an authorizing narrative in my life. Growing up my family spent several months homeless. Unlike this man we had family to turn to. Two, I’ve walked with many homeless friends helping them transition from homelessness to self-sustainability and shared in the joy of witnessing most of them enter into God’s kingdom. Third, over and over again I’ve met Jesus in my homeless friends. So I had to do something. I told him that if Jesus were sitting here, and He was, I didn’t believe He would let them go back to the streets and neither could I. I also told him that this was in no way a reason for his family to feel obligated to “come to church.” He needed to know that Jesus isn’t about instrumentalizing relationships in the name of “doing good.” He does good simply because He is good. As His disciple I was only following His lead.

My wife and I began walking with this family in a meaningful relationship. We grew to love them. As their needs became overwhelming I asked my shepherds and staff to join us. They did. Together we shared in their day-to-day needs, like car rides and helping with job searches. We also wrote many checks to cover their hotel room. At this point the family was yet to dawn the doors of the church building on a Sunday.

Even though the grandmother and single mom found work, it takes more than a few cents over minimum wage to make ends meet in our city so leaving the hotel was not an option. As our relationship with the family grew over time, so did their needs. I reached out to Donna, a woman dear to me who leads a ministry devoted to providing meals to people in our congregation suffering from sickness or loss of a loved one. Immediately she orchestrated a team of 30 families to hand deliver groceries each week, including baby items. Eventually almost the entire church was involved in their lives. Walking with this family affected the entire life of our congregation. Even my sermons were shaped by this ongoing narrative because we needed to understand what it meant to be a people of self-giving love living on mission with God.

After a year’s worth of challenges, disappointments and joys both grandparents were baptized into Christ and they began sharing in life with us from a different perspective. We celebrated as they renewed their wedding vows in light of their renewed life together. As a church we were finding our place in God’s mission.

Just two and a half years later this church of just under 150 is now a family of just over 300. We continue to walk with others living through homelessness toward self-sustainability within the context of relational community and God’s sufficiency. We are currently leading a 21 church interfaith collaborative and teaching them how to do the same for the last, least and left out in our city. By the grace of God working in the hearts of people making them more gracious, we are experiencing renewal as a church and have become a part of a city-wide movement only God’s missionary Spirit can create and sustain. Today we are growing as a multi-generational church filled with both the rich and poor, the housed and homeless, the bruised and healing.

What was once a homeless family drowning in the waters of bad news became a housed family rescued by the rushing waves of good news–of gospel. What was once a struggling church organized around “outreach programs” became a church organized around God’s mission. We used to say we introduced this family to Jesus. But as time goes by we are convinced it was actually the family that introduced us to Jesus.

I agree with Mark, the gospel is born at the margins. But now I know that at the margins a church can find rebirth. This makes sense to me because Jesus can always be found at the margins.

No doubt this isn’t the sum total of how missional renewal happens but for us it is where it began. In part 2 I will share how this experience allowed us to identify other missional impulses and detail how listening, piloting small movements, and public congregational celebration leads to cultural change and missional renewal.

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Fred Liggin’s bio:
I am a follower of Jesus, husband to Alison Glenn, daddy to my little man Ian and one day soon our adoptive child as we await his or her arrival. I am a multi-vocational pastor for Williamsburg Christian Church, ethnographer, activist and justice seeker, founder and president of 3e Restoration Inc, Mid-Atlantic Coordinator for Mission Alive, and prematurely balding. I received my B.S. in Ministry/Bible at Amridge University and Masters of Religious Education in Missional Leadership (MREML) from Rochester College.

As God’s people waited for the Messiah, their expectations rose, especially as their situation grew worse with occupation of Israel by Rome.  They began to dream of a Messiah who would lead powerfully in the same manner as King David, the warrior who slew his tens of thousands, and in the manner of his son, Solomon, who built the grand Temple in Jerusalem.  They dreamed of a leader who would put Israel on the map again – not as a military outpost for Rome – but as a people with their own power, wealth, land, and status.   They wanted peace and security for themselves and their families, and they expected peace to come through a military-minded giant of a man who could defeat Caesar and give them the stuff that was rightfully theirs.

But, instead of a powerful giant, after all their waiting and anticipation, they got . . . .

. . . a baby.

. . . a baby?

. . . .a baby, born to a poor family, from a town with no prestige.  They got a baby born into the equivalency of homelessness, placed in a manger, and saluted by shepherds. They anticipated a powerful leader in a palace decorated with ivory and gold, but instead, they got the nativity.

Their expectations for the way to peace were so grounded in worldly ideals that they didn’t recognize peace when he was born.

My family was blessed to visit some of the great art galleries in the world several years ago.  The Louvre in Paris, The Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, The London Museum.  Standing in front of the greatest works of art in the world was moving beyond words.  And of all the works we experienced, my favorite was the one pictured here – Michelangelo’s depiction of the Holy Family.

I didn’t know to expect it as I toured the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, nor did I initially know who had painted it, but when I saw it, I knew that I loved it.

Michelangelo Buonarroti – The Holy Family with the infant St. John the Baptist (the Doni tondo) – 1506

We usually associate Michelangelo with his work as a sculptor, The David, or with his unbelievable masterpiece on the Sistine Chapel.   This painting of the Holy Family is actually his only surviving easel painting.

So, here’s why I love this painting: Just look at Mary – look at her biceps!  She is depicted as a strong woman, not passive, not mindless.  I imagine that Mary was strong from fetching her own water.  I imagine that only a strong woman could survive a donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant.  I imagine that only a strong woman could withstand the sword that would pierce her soul  (Luke 2:35) when she watched her baby boy suffer on the cross.  In some artistic renderings of Mary, she appears mindless and weak.  Not in this one.  Here, Michelangelo shows us Mary’s physical, mental, and spiritual strength.

I also love the painting because Jesus looks like a real child, a handful, a bit cantankerous, and this reminds me that Jesus was a real human being.  For centuries after his life and death, it was debated how Jesus could have been both human and divine.  But somehow, mysteriously, he was.  He came into this world the same way we all do – as a powerless baby dependent on his mother and father to care for his every need.  Jesus was a member of a real family from a little-known town called Nazareth.  Mary and Joseph, country people, stand in contrast to the regal nude figures in the background of the painting, who appear to be more like stone statues than real flesh and blood.

Jesus is the real story of God’s work in history, and this painting brings him into focus.   Jesus was human.  And this painting celebrates his humanity. And God’s view of power.

When we read Luke, we are supposed to realize that when God broke into the world, there was a reversal of what was expected.  God’s people hoped that their peace would come through a military king like David, but they got ordinary, human, baby Jesus.

And as an adult, he would spend time with ordinary, marginalized, poor people.  And his kingdom would be about ordinary acts that seem weak in contrast to the world’s view of power.

Like taking care of his friend’s sick mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39).

And touching people that no one else would touch (Luke 5:13).

And eating dinner with people that the religious set preferred to avoid (Luke 5:27-32).

And extending kindness to one of the lowest members of his society, a widow who had lost her son (Luke 7:11-17).

And defending a sinful woman against hypocrites who judged her (Luke 7:36-50).

And stopping to pay attention to an unclean, desperate, woman who needed to be seen and heard and touched (Luke 8: 40-56).

And telling a story in which the most hated, least likely person is cast as the hero because of his compassion and kindness (Luke 10:25-37).

And spending time with children who others want to exclude (Luke 15-17).

And accepting the hospitality of a wee, little, sinful man (Luke 19:1-10).

The kingdom of God is about ordinary life:  hospitality, mercy, forgiving people who hurt us, sharing meals, prayer, nonviolence, and extending a hand of peace.  When we contemplate how God brought peace through Christ, we should realize that peace did not come through the expected means of military efforts or hoarding of power and resources.

When God broke into this world, it was in the form of a powerless baby with no power or prestige.  It’s not how the world expects peace to come, but we have to submit to God’s plan – like Mary did, like Jesus did, like the disciples did.  We have to act in ordinary ways that seem weak in contrast to the world’s view of power.

It’s through submission to God’s way – and not our way – that we will mysteriously learn what real power is.

Church leaders have a hard time admitting their weaknesses.

I suppose everyone does. No one likes to have their vulnerabilities exposed and their misalignment with God uncovered. Church leaders, though, have a few distinct reasons:

1. Many people in the pew like the idea of a flawless pastor – or at least one whose flaws are minimal, like s/he overeats at potluck.
2. It helps with book deals and speaking gigs to be well thought of rather than honestly thought of.
3. Some church folks use it against a minister if s/he confesses who they really are.

As genuine as these reasons are, they are shadows of the actual reason pastors, leaders, and generally everyone you know, stops short of admitting their weaknesses. The truth? We don’t actually believe the Bible!iStock_000012442006Small

Here’s my proof: The Apostle Paul makes one overarching point in his second letter (or third, for folks who know) to the church in Corinth. That point? God’s power is made perfect in weakness!

Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul refers to his own weaknesses and the myriad ways he’s been accused of not being the best pastor in the world. He’s no speaking tour, mega-church, huge podcast, leadership conference speaking, book-writing, superstar. So Paul writes 2 Corinthians as a response to the various ways he’s been criticized (none of which he denies being true).

After arguing his case for a while, the apostle detonates the message he has received from God; “But he (God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

As beautiful – and quoted – as this passage is, few of us believe it.

The next time you’re flicking through TV channels take note of how many TV preachers are ministering from their weaknesses. At the next large “leadership” conference listen to speaker introductions and see how frequently the strength of the presenter (great leader, incredible communicator, cultural architect, entrepreneurial leaders, etc…) and the strength of their church (read: numbers) is mentioned. When you peruse the bookshelves at your local Christian bookstore, notice how many bestsellers are written by folks who are writing about how God works through their weaknesses rather than their strengths. At many churches, when you join their ranks, they’ll even give you some kind of “strengths finder.”

What’s more, how many of us blog, tweet and speak in order to “build a platform” (confession)? And isn’t building a platform simply a fancy way of saying, “building strength”? You will find some pastors and preachers sharing honestly, but not most. When we do, our talk of weaknesses are simply humble-brags; “I can’t believe I speak to 6,000 people each Sunday after struggling with a speech impediment as a little boy….”

We are strength addicted! Our deeply held conviction is the same conviction at work in all of American life: Strength is always better than weakness. Those of us working in and leading churches project the same false machismo and pomp we see after a wide-receiver scores a touchdown. We thump our chest and scream to the world, “Look at me. Look at me. See how strong I am.”

We actually believe strength is better than weakness even though the Bible expressly tells us otherwise. While the scriptures call us to open our weaknesses and allow God’s power to flow through us, we have knotted the hose keeping the Spirit from cascading through us.

What would happen if we actually believed that God’s power is not just useful in weakness, but made ‘perfect’? What might happen if the next time we saw a church leader carting a truck full of accolades and more franchises than McDonald’s, we became suspicious of whether or not s/he was walking with the Lord as Paul did or was just Donald Trump with a 3-point sermon? What would happen if we accepted the fact that the cross and suffering of Jesus was the Spirit’s most powerful moment.

The cross was a moment of seeming weakness; a tiny organization of unsure followers yet that’s when God’s strength was most on display. What if for something to be of God it had to look like weakness to the world? What if it looked like weakness to us?

What if we have strength and weakness all wrong?

In the words of the late Rich Mullins, “we are not as strong as we think we are…”

This issue is dedicated to humility in our weaknesses and the certainty that, although we talk a good game…when we get on the field we aren’t nearly as adept as we would like to think we are. And here’s the good news. That’s when God steps in. When God steps in that’s when the impossible becomes possible…not because we were so good or skilled or brave but because God was gracefully enough and loving enough to see through our mess and make something beautiful out of it all.

This theme is a thread that runs from the 3rd chapter of the Bible to the 1188th chapter of the Bible…that God takes our brokenness and makes us new (Revelation 21:5)…God takes our hurts and brings healing. God takes our “half-ness” and brings us wholeness in and through himself. We only find our identity through recognizing our profound need for the One who can make our life right again…not of our own good works but by the grace of God (Eph 2:1-9).

We catch this in Acts 4 when Peter and John, by the power of the name of Jesus Christ, just healed a lame man. The now ambulatory man runs celebrating through the temple courts causing quite a stir. Peter and John get hauled into temple court (which would make a great reality TV show) where they are questioned and commanded to stop doing these things in the name and power of Jesus Christ. Luke notes for us in 4:13, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” They didn’t have the background or schooling to be able to teach this way. Something was different about them and that something wasn’t their own study or confidence but the grace of being present with Jesus and now with the Holy Spirit. The lame man didn’t walk because Peter said the words just right. He walked because of the power of God.

Paul said it like this in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25,

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

In the very next chapter Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that,

I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” – 1 Cor 2:3-5

That is just the New Testament…if you turn to the Old Testament you will find many more examples of this…just look up Abraham, Moses and David to name a few.

What does this mean for us?
First what it means for insiders…those who are already Christians. It is important that we are organized in our ministries but it is also important to leave room for the Spirit to work. We can get so organized and programized that it might appear that we don’t expect God to have to even show up for things to work out. What if the church positioned itself in ways that without God showing up, the wheels fall off. Maybe that would change our prayers. Maybe that would change our giving and willingness to sacrifice. Maybe that would change our hearts, our lives, and our communities.

Last, what does this mean for outsiders? It means we have to be honest about our shortcomings and sins. We live in a world that will not accept hypocrisy but that values honesty and authenticity. Authenticity among Christians means being really honest in dealing with our problems. We aren’t on a pedestal looking down on the world…instead we must empathize with a broken world because we too know what it means to be broken. I am convinced that this is one of the core reasons many of our young people leave the faith and that we aren’t attracting non-Christians is because people haven’t been able to find room in the institutional church to express themselves authentically in their brokenness and be received safely and in complete love. Reconciliation assumes brokenness comes first. If we are too uncomfortable to deal with awkward situations, hurt, pain, grief, sorrow and all the things that result from sin…then we will lose our saltiness.

This starts with a church leadership that is openness about its imperfections and that chooses to partner with broken people rather than shoot their wounded.