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Archives for 108 – Vulnerability and Authenticity

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.

FredLiggin

My friend Richard is the captain of a recreated 1600‘s colonial ship in Jamestown Virginia. From time to time they sail to participate in community events. He tells me they are quite difficult to steer especially if the winds blow contrary to the chartered course. He also tells me that if the ship is to stay on course he must steer ever so slightly, literally centimeters at a time. The danger is over-correction, which for a ship of this type can lead them significantly off course and create a number of unexpected problems for both captain and crew to navigate. As if that isn’t enough, it takes quite a bit of time and travel to correct an over-correction. Depending upon the wind gusts an over-correction can take you far off course and behind schedule wearying captain and crew. The moral of the story is that over-correcting an ancient ship is an easy thing to do and causes a variety of unexpected problems.

In an effort to chart a new course for the Church, leaders and equippers often over-correct. They launch new programs or ministry initiatives after “preparing” the Church with a sermon series. This approach is a program-centric attempt at change nurtured by a one-way form of communication from the leaders/equippers to the congregation. No doubt that several private one-on-one conversations may happen, but congregational discernment and listening practices are negated. The Church is expected to change simply because it’s the “right” or “necessary” thing to do. So the new program/ministry initiative is launched with great applause but soon fades away leaving in its path burned-out people, hurt feelings and no transformative change.

So what can we do? This is where “piloting” change comes into play. When I arrived at Williamsburg Christian Church our small groups ministry needed change. There were three groups totaling approximately 25 people, and they were mostly inward-focused. Instead of meeting with group leaders to cast a new vision and preaching a few sermons followed by launching a new “small group program,” I decided to take a different approach. I wanted to pilot the change.

Piloting is an intentional way of exploring a different way of being in the world together with other disciples. If failures or difficulties arise it impacts a small few who are aware of this possibility and are equipped to work through it in a healthy way, rather than the entire faith community. More importantly, piloting teaches a community of disciples how to listen and discern what God is up to in their context.

For my wife and I, the first move to piloting change for our small groups involved inviting others to share in this life and mission with us. We wanted to meet around the table, practice prayer and discern Scripture three weeks a month to learn how to be with God as a community so that in the fourth week we could intentionally join Him in what He was doing in the lives of our neighbors and co-workers. It would require each of us to listen attentively with our ears and eyes to our neighbors and co-workers. Who might God be calling us/me to love? Who might God be calling to love me/us? Who are the single moms among us? Who are the widows? Who just had a family loss or addition? How could we be present with them in this season and serve them in some tangible way? We wanted it to be much more than service projects, we wanted it to be presence; we wanted to extend gracious hospitality and make room for them in our life together by demonstrating tangible acts of self-giving love. As I shared this vision with other families in the Church four of them agreed to join us. So together we began exploring life and mission as one and the same.

We began by sharing a plate of my wife’s chocolate chip pumpkin muffins with the single mom living next door. Eventually she joined our faith community. We shared neighborhood meals, many with my sixty-year old neighbor and his family of seven. We cooked and delivered meals to our sick or pregnant co-workers. We spent a couple of weekends restoring a neighbor’s garden that withered and died after her husband passed away. Each time we were able to join in on what God was doing in their lives we were able to offer good news in some bad news saturated circumstances, and developed surprising new friendships along the way. As the preacher I would publicly share and celebrate these stories with the Church on Sundays. I had to make sure it didn’t come off as bragging about our missional community but about God and how He is always at work among us inviting us to join with Him in ordinary ways and everyday places.

As these stories of good news were celebrated our pastors and elders began sensing an impulse beating within the Church by how people were listening and responding. God’s missionary Spirit was stirring His people to become a part of new stories. Some members wanted to begin their own missional communities while others wanted to become part of one. Soon, the other small groups wanted to re-frame how they explored life together. In only one year’s time three inward-focused small groups multiplied into six missional communities all committed to exploring the gift of life and mission with God as one and the same, neighbor to neighbor, co-worker to co-worker.

What we believed God wanted and sensed Him doing He was steadily and slowly accomplishing. We only needed to organize around the missional impulses already stirring as opposed to creating a new structure with the hope of stirring one up. This is the difference between allowing church structures/systems to submit to the Spirit or asking the Spirit (and people) to submit to our various church structures/systems.

Since church leaders are often concerned about numerical metrics I will hesitantly offer some (though we do not generally attend to these types of metrics any longer). After three years we have nine missional communities gathering in and serving their neighbors. We hope to launch two more by the end of the year. We will continue to create more space in our Sunday gatherings for God’s people to publicly share and celebrate the stories He is writing among them.

Missional renewal and congregational change will not happen by sermon alone where change is gently or forcefully dictated from the leadership to the congregation. Missional renewal and congregational change happens when a congregation develops a posture of listening to what God is doing among them and are invited to discover ways to join Him there.

One way to begin developing this posture is by piloting change and celebrating the stories God is writing in and through the piloting community. If you are a leader or equipper in your Church, piloting change should begin with you. If you lead this way, you will be postured for deeper theological reflection as the stories you invite others to celebrate will have both personal and communal integrity. You will move from issuing marching orders toward change to inviting others into what God could already be doing among the entire community as witnessed by your piloting community.

Finally, and I believe this is key, you will move from preaching about practices to preaching what you already practice in the context of intentional community—your piloting community.

What impulses are stirring in your congregation? How could “piloting” change bring about lasting systemic change within your congregation?

Who within the Church do you personally connect to? Do they have the capacity and character to join you in a piloting community? What are some ways you might pilot change within a piloting community in order to make identified missional impulses flourish?

Share with us what you’re thinking and let’s keep the conversation going.

A woman came up to me recently and told me she really enjoyed my sermons but “I wish you weren’t so negative about yourself. You cut yourself down too much.” I’m not so sure she had a valid point (in churches, as in stores, the customer is not always right) but I knew to what she was referring. I use humor in every lesson but I also make it a point to assure the congregation that I am a fellow traveler on the same journey they are on. Whatever tempts them, tempts me. What struggles they face, I face. I do not live on a church stage behind a plastic podium; I have a real life with real issues and real struggles.

Why do I go to great pains to make sure they understand that I am a man of sin and struggles, just as they are? Two reasons come to mind. I can remember sitting in church pews when I was a boy, hearing the preacher thunder against our sins and questioning our very salvation or integrity…but I don’t remember him sharing his. Even as a boy of seven or eight, that bothered me. The second reason is this: I do not believe that a fake wall of separation between the preacher and the pew is safe or good for either party. I think it is healthy for the preacher to struggle openly so that no one is surprised when they see him struggle privately.

For those who think the ministry is not only a calling but a role to be played out for the benefit of the faith of others, I would remind you that that sounds perilously close to the definition of “hypocrite” – an actor on a stage. I would also direct them to read scripture more often, ignoring the chapter and verse designations that often break up the story and make the Bible look like a law book. Just read the stories as they come, one right after the other. Look at what God included in His book! There’s the Tamar story, the one about a prostitute in Jericho who lied and was blessed by God for it, a speech from Rabshakeh where he taunted the Israelites and told them they’d be drinking their own urine soon, and I certainly would not have put the Japheth story in there or a host of others…but God was not reticent in sharing the weaknesses of the people in His story.

The songbook of the Jews for hundreds of years was the Book of Psalms – and 61 are entirely songs of lament. Many others contain lament as well as affirmations of the writer’s weaknesses, lack of faith, and personal struggles. Look at the Book of Jeremiah, or Job, or the entire Book of Lamentations. Ecclesiastes has some less-than-peppy parts, too.

Scour the scripture and you will not find a health and wealth gospel or a shiny, happy gospel but a story of people who wrestle with God (which is, of course, what the word “Israel” means…and God named them that) and who very, very, very often get it wrong. Terribly wrong. Tragically wrong.

We see Peter go from champion to racist to preacher to an also ran whose story peters out (sorry) when Paul comes along. And we see Paul’s work crash near the end of his life when he laments that “all those in Asia have turned against me.” The second half of Hebrews 11 – the famous Faith Chapter – casually mentions the fact that a whole lot of folk who followed God ended up dying in quite nasty ways.

Even the heroes make us squirm. Abraham sells out his own wife a couple of times, mistreats his secondary wife, and causes problems we are still dealing with on our nightly news. When told he is going to have that son of promise after all, his wife laughs and they name the kid “laughter” or “Isaac.”

And my story is that of Isaac. There are many people of great faith in scripture but Isaac is not really one of them. It might have had something to do with that whole Mount Moriah thing. When your father’s religion almost guts you on top of a mountain it can sour you to that whole religion-thing. [Side note: a few rabbi friends of mine tell me that there is an ancient tradition that says Isaac was 37 years old at that time. That changes everything. If your son is 37 and still living at home…]

Most think Isaac was in his late teens at the time of that horrible trip up Mount Moriah. All I know is that for the rest of his life he never works great acts of faith like his father or his son and descendants. Instead, he sits on the other end of the pew from God. He got close to God up there and the whole experience might have just soured him enough to consider it not a great idea to wrap his arms around Yahweh.

I have often considered myself Isaac. My father was a champion in our corner of our religious tribe. We occupied a far right position that was quite noisy, very insistent, and completely assured of our correct posture before the Lord. Champions of that sub-set of our tribe often came to our home and they all treated my father with respect, talking late into the night concerning who was wrong and why. Even as a boy of 8 or 9 I knew that there was no place in the kingdom for me. I didn’t think like they did. They intimidated me with the fire in their eyes and their confidence in their correctness.

For I already knew me. I was not holy. I was a sinner. It was drilled into me that I wasn’t there for me, but for the Kingdom. We didn’t play games in our house except for a few times. We were there for the kingdom. I memorized the Jule Miller filmstrips and would stand and narrate them as my father flipped the lever for the next slide (we didn’t use the records – I did everything but the ding). Nights were filled with being quizzed on scripture, doing flashcards on Hebrew and doctrine and facts about the Bible (how many verses in the Bible? Which version? Yes – it differs), and accompanying my father on “cottage meetings” or going off to any gospel meeting within 40 miles of us — if it was being held at a faithful church and had invited a speaker we agreed with.

When I left home, I ran as hard as I could. Getting close to God burned me, shattered me, and left me afraid of my own sinfulness, full of shame, knowing that I would never be able to keep the law I had been taught was my only way out of the coming flames.

Every man (and woman, before I was baptized at the age of 11) who taught me was sincere. They believed what they said and they were passionate that others believe it as well. However, the effect of that legalism and certainty was not positive in my life except in one way: it taught me that I was a sinner. And that was something I needed to know.

I never intended to be a minister or even return to any church but God brought me back and that is a (long) story for another time. Seeing what God was doing, able to read the trajectory of my life and seeing it included church and pulpit, I told Him several things that I would and things I would not do. He has not chafed at such declarations from me in the least. I told Him that if I served Him I would have to be able to ask any question and question any answer. If He is God, I told Him, He’s big enough to handle it. And so He has proved, again and again.

I also told Him I would not play games with my life and that of others. I would not hide and act like I understood everything or that my life was in order. I would be open about my struggles with temptation, my brokenness (seriously, there are days someone should just shoot me with a dart gun, put a tag on my ear or a radio collar on my neck and release me into the wild, thereby saving polite, genteel society from the likes of me), my doubts, or the lack of love I find in my heart when others need it most. God took that bargain and has used my weakness to show the world that He is a good God.

He once used the jawbone of an ass to accomplish His will. Since I am alive, I must assume He is doing the same through me.

For He has saved me anyway. I am Isaac. I don’t understand those with the gift of faith, who listen 24/7 to sermons and Christian music, and who think the art in Christian bookstores is exactly what the world needs. I’m a mess. A saved mess. And the people who come to churches I serve are messes, too. Some of them are a lot better than I am at this whole Christian thing but all of them know I love them and that I will not hide what I am from them: a man who needs a Savior.

That troubles some and I get that. I might not be the minister they need. I think shiny, happy people (shout out to REM there) have the right to worship God and sing “girl with a guitar Jesus is my boyfriend” songs but I’m a man who even back in his teenaged days couldn’t sing “Blue skies and rainbows and sunbeams from heaven” without becoming nauseous. I’ll be the minister for people like me – the broken, the troubled, the inconsistent…God’s problem children.

Those who wrestle with God.

Sometimes, they call us Isaac.

But God calls us His children.

____________________

This article originally appeared at Patrick’s personal blog – patrickmead.net

There are many “one anothers” that we hesitate to practice because we don’t like tension, anxiety and uncomfortability that comes with making yourself vulnerable in front of others…expressing your true/authentic self. As much as we are about doing things in Bible ways it is rare that you find churches openly confessing sins one to another. To some, church might just feel like the least safe to be authentic…and that is a shame. So here is the question and let’s really discuss this and share practical ways to work through this,

What will it take for churches and church leadership to give more space to vulnerability and authenticity in congregational life and worship?

I just completed my first full month of preaching at the Lake Harbour Drive Church of Christ.

I still find it hard to imagine. After all the pain, hurt, anger, frustration, and humiliation, I find it so hard to believe my current situation is real.
And yet here I am.

On the last Sunday of the month, June 29, 2014, I stood at the back doors of the auditorium to greet church members and visitors alike as our worship time came to an end. I love this old time-honored tradition of shaking hands and giving and receiving hugs. (And for new preachers, who understand, secretly playing the game called Guess That Name!)

At any rate, as I was standing there pressing the flesh, one sweet lady in particular stood out. Yes, I guessed her name wrong and after we laughed a bit about my obvious struggle to remember names, she made a really strange comment.

“Thank you for being vulnerable.”
My immediate response was to say thank you. And then my brain kicked into a higher gear.

She was thanking me for being broken.
She was thanking me for being vulnerable.
She was thanking me for not wearing a mask or pretending all is well.

Truthfully, I don’t intend to be that forthcoming. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I don’t want to have anything in my life to be vulnerable about.

Being vulnerable isn’t something I willingly choose.
No, I’d rather be a turtle with a hard exterior shell. I’d rather be able to pull myself inside–to hide away from those who might seek to exploit my vulnerability or pain.

Being vulnerable isn’t something very pleasant to see.
No, I’d rather not have weaknesses or faults or struggles.
I’d rather be able to thumb my nose at the world and never let them see me sweat.

Being vulnerable isn’t something I want to acknowledge.
No, I’d rather not have my brokenness exposed.
I’d rather pretend to be whole and complete, untouched, unfazed by the brokenness of this world.

I want you to see strong, fit, and able.
I want you to know me as capable, challenging, and engaging.
I want you to see me as a preacher at the top of his game—a guy who can wax elephants better than most.

But the truth is simple.
And harsh.
And sometimes quite ugly.
No, almost always ugly.

I am a broken man.
Broken.
Busted.
Banged up.
Flawed.

And since many of you know of my heart-breaking past, you might be tempted to cut me a little slack or give me a little grace. When you’ve been through such a life-altering, reality shaping tragedy, how can you not be broken?

Do us both a favor and don’t go there.

Do.Not.Go.There.

Nope. Don’t go there.
The last thing we need is anybody trumpeting our brokenness. We don’t need folks displaying an affected brokenness as some strange way to connect with people—to wave and holler as if to say, Hey, look at me!

It’s not a mark of honor.
It’s not a badge of courage.
It’s not a symbol of strength.

It’s my reality.
It’s where I have come from.
It’s where I still am.

Yep.
See yourself in this picture yet?

It’s our reality.
It’s where we have come from.
It’s where we still are.

Vulnerability is not about using some weird Christian pick-up line.
On the other hand, being vulnerable is about honesty, need, and dependence.

It’s about being honest with our self, each other, and God.
It’s about being truthful.
It’s about shinning light into the dark corners of what we say, what we think, what we feel, and how we act.

Being vulnerable is being honest about our need.
It ‘s about recognizing our own inability to affect the answers.
It’s about recognizing our dependency on God for what is broken and flawed.

I don’t want to go to church where everybody is a mess.
But I do.

Vulnerability demands we recognize we don’t have all the answers and we aren’t all that well put together.

The quicker we acknowledge our brokenness while being truthful about our struggles, the sooner we will be able to sing…

I can barely stand right now.
Everything is crashing down,
And I wonder where You are.

I try to find the words to pray.
I don’t always know what to say,
But You’re the one that can hear my heart.

Even though I don’t know what your plan is,
I know You’re making beauty from these ashes.

I’ve seen joy and I’ve seen pain.
On my knees, I call Your name.
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

With nothing left to hold onto,
I raise these empty hands to You.
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

You know the things that have brought me here.
You know the story of every tear.
‘Cause You’ve been here from the very start.

Even though I don’t know what your plan is,
I know You’re making beauty from these ashes.

I’ve seen joy and I’ve seen pain.
On my knees, I call Your name.
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

With nothing left to hold onto,
I raise these empty hands to You.
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

When all is taken away, don’t let my heart be changed.
Let me always sing Hallelujah
When I feel afraid, don’t let my hope be erased
Let me always sing Hallelujah.
Let me always sing Hallelujah.

I will always sing
I will always sing
Here’s my broken hallelujah.

(A Broken Hallelujah!)

I love the fact that this church called a broken man to preach. I love the fact that they recognized long before I did that we are all broken. And I am so glad that together our vulnerability shows…

Here I am bowed, beaten, gimpy, and broken.
It’s not a mark of honor.
It’s not a badge of courage.
It’s not a symbol of strength.

It’s my reality.
It’s where I have come from.
It’s where I still am.

Broken.
Vulnerable.
And yet, very, very happy.

When we embrace our broken nature, healing begins. That’s a message all churches might consider.

How vulnerable are you?

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Lake Harbour Church of Christ
Ridgeland, MS

Paul tells us something in Romans 15 that I believe is central to why we have lost our young people,

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”[a] For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 15:1-6

Paul tells stronger (more mature) Christians that they need to bear with the weak (less mature Christians). He says that we do this not to please ourselves but to please our neighbors for their good…building them up. He says that through this we might have “one mind and one voice” to glorify God and Christ Jesus.

My experience has been that in many churches it is the other way around from what Paul says here. We have a developed a way of “doing church” that excludes and isolates our younger, weaker teenage Christians and then when it comes time for transition those who are “strong” implicitly demand that the young come over and do things that are the preferences of the stronger Christians.

We have done such a thorough job of making nearly everything a non-negotiable, right/wrong issue that there is no longer any need for weak/strong distinctions because you don’t have to yield if something is a sin. But Paul still talks like there are some issues that are negotiable and it is wise that we take him seriously on that. Not everything is black or white (see Romans 14).

Without actually saying it, we have communicated that the stronger more mature Christians are actually the weak ones, while expecting the real weaker brothers and sisters to be the strong ones. Again, we would never say that (although I have actually heard it said in order for one older Christian to get their way by actually claiming to be the weaker brother on just one occasion) but it is how many churches operate without ever thinking about what is actually being communicated here.

There is an attitude that once teens graduate out of the youth group that if they want to be a part of “big church” that they have to toe the line…they have to do everything the way it has always been done and play by the rules. The way it has always been done means to the liking of the older “more mature” Christians. I don’t think Paul would agree. Actually, I know Paul wouldn’t agree as he points us to the example of Christ and says “do what you see in him…embrace the attitude you find in him…follow the example of the one who didn’t exist to please himself but came to encourage others.”

I believe Paul would tell the older crowd that they need to take their role as the stronger brothers and sisters seriously and yield on the negotiables (yes they exist!) to the weaker Christians. You won’t always sing the songs you like. The sermon won’t always be addressed to you. There may not be a Bible class that is exactly what you need…well guess what, stronger Christians won’t be bothered by any of that but should be mature enough to recognize that there are plenty of other people benefiting from it all that their personal preference is not as important as those on the fringe. If you have been a Christian for decades and not getting your way bothers you, it is time for a checkup. Maybe we just haven’t done a good job growing believers to maturity in their faith and in following Christ and now we are reaping what we have sown?

Being the stronger Christians is a recognition of leadership and responsibility. Often people just want the first. We are losing people every day over this and those who are more mature have to take on the responsibility of leadership…that often means service and yielding to others.

In what ways have you seen the weak/strong issue being played out in church? How have you seen it used for good? How have you seen it manipulated? What is it going to take to take what Paul said seriously in the churches and what would happen if we did?

In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 Paul writes,

“But he 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. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Over the last six months the desire to share Christ’s power found in our own weakness has been transformational for me. At the Port Orange Church of Christ we present ourselves as “A Church for Messed Up People.” This is a key factor in engaging with people who don’t attend a church.  Even those who aren’t even looking for a church resonate with how we have begun to view ourselves.  We are not saying our church family is designed to meet the needs of people society deems “messed up.”  We are saying that WE (the Christians who gather at Port Orange) are messed up. We are having victory as Jesus leads us through our weakness.

Viewing ourselves in this way has made us aware of issues with how we have traditionally done things. One of those areas is involvement. When someone decides to serve a local congregation they typically identify areas they would like to serve that match their strengths. While this is a great way to plug people in the problem is that as they mature in Christ this approach may limit their ability to experience God’s perfect power.  I have recognized over the years that God has gifted me in areas of relational reconciliation, sales, motivating others, and story-telling. It hasn’t mattered if I was living in rebellion, working for a brokerage firm, coaching, or as an Athletic Director, those skills have always been present.  Now there is no doubt I have experienced God by serving him in those areas, but I know in the back of my mind that I am good at those things.  The result is being forced to battle pride.

A second weakness I have also found with this approach is that for me creates a tendency to appear strong even when I am privately struggling.  Or not asking for help as quickly as I should when I am struggling.  I have an incredible accountability network, but it seems like I lacked congruency with being my authentic self and what I projected at church. Now I have always been very transparent about my past but I have not always been honest about my present.

I used to follow the model where, if I focus on my strengths enough, then my weaknesses would become diminished as the Holy Spirit transforms me.  As if my strengths would become so developed through God’s power that my weaknesses would be more than compensated for.  I have seen player development that follows this model in athletics.  If an athlete has a weak spot in their game, they focus on perfecting what they are naturally good at.  By developing those areas as a priority, their weaknesses become diminished by comparison to their strengths. Now a part of that process is spending a small amount of time addressing the athletes weaknesses but only to the point where they are no longer a hindrance to the players strengths.  So the coach accepts and accommodates that player and puts him in a position that covers his weaknesses.  As a result, a player’s weaknesses and strengths can coincide without much detriment.

We know that this is not the case with sin.  It doesn’t matter how productive you are for the kingdom, you cannot ignore your consistent struggles.  Even though we are intentional about walking in the light, those sins will eventually emerge.  It seems to me that once Paul discovered that Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness, he immediately shifts to his weaknesses as his primary power source for ministry.  He writes his new paradigm, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  A statement that I have always taken to mean that if we are dependent on Jesus, we will have his strength.  Much like an athlete accepting and acknowledging that he needs the coach.  That is a good and true statement, but my recent experiences from looking at this passage again have transformed the way I experience God, the way I approach people in our community, and the way I view my weaknesses.  The fruit has been undeniable which has reinforced this theory.

Staying with our athlete analogy, I would never consider drafting a player for his other weakness.  I wouldn’t list my greatest struggles first on a resume.  If anything we do the opposite.  We inflate our strengths.  This way of viewing this had carried over to the way I talk to people about our church family.  I would say we are a place for messed up people.  I would tell them about my recovery from addiction to defuse any negative comments about churches being filled with hypocrites. But beyond that, I would share things that I thought revealed that we are a great church because of the things we are so great at.  Given the unique nature of our congregation and where we meet (in a school), I would name careers of members in our congregation, money saved, etc..due to an inferiority complex about us not being a “real church”  and overcompensating.

This approach didn’t yield very much growth for me or our church family.  Since there is nothing about our congregation that would attract anyone outside of the Church of Christ, I did an inventory of the local seekers that have visited and continued visiting.  The entry points for 8 of the 12 were directly through personal weakness.  Not in them, but in me.  One couple contacted Amber after hearing our story on the radio.  Her husband had the same issues as me and they have been coming at least 3 out of 4 Sundays for over a year.  The other is a neighbor whose kids would come over and play, but their father never wanted to talk about church.  Eventually I decided to go and ask him if he could help me get back in shape (he is the neighbor who cant wait to take off his shirt picking weeds.  Ripped at 44).  Asking him was so hard due to my pride and my body was now 39 % body fat per the doc.  He was willing and I joined his gym.  Within 5 months his family decided to visit.  Now they are regulars when they don’t have a conflict.

Was it my vulnerability/weakness that opened the door…that I asked him to be the teacher first, so God could shape is view of me and allow his word to gain credibility through our interactions?

After realizing that, one of my mentors was led to revisit 2 Cor 12:9-10.  Could it be that I have denied myself greater access to Jesus’ perfect power?  What would happen if I began praying that God would use my deepest shame?  The fact that I didn’t use to be an addict, I am an addict and deal with the impulse to use every day.  That shift is huge, even for people who are closest to me.  It makes things so much easier and people feel so much safer if I allow everyone to think I am “cured.”  Not that I ever said that, but it was absolutely implied and I never protested.  So as I decided to be more aggressive regarding what I considered my greatest shame I began to attend NA and AA meetings.  The opportunity came up for me to share something I heard in an AA meeting during Bible class.  I revealed that I start my day with AA meetings at least 4 days a week.  I do it because I want to address my greatest struggle head on.  As my wife asked, “What are you willing to do to make sure you never have a relapse?”  The truth was that until 6 months ago I had accepted the impulse would always be present which did create anxiety, doubt, and fear within myself.  So I began to focus on accepting that I am an Addict, not someone who got addicted to drugs several years ago.

From that point until now the fruit in my life and our church family has been nothing short of amazing.  Almost 70% of the community contacts I have are now through my addiction in one way or another.  Relationships with strangers have been accelerated by attending meetings that address my struggles. And amazingly we’ve already had 42 people that we consider to be in our “Seeker” category (individuals who are local, are not affiliated with any Church of Christ, and have been coming at least 2 out of every 4 weeks) the last 6 months.  This is after having 2 families in that category the previous 18 months.

We have made a lot of other changes too, but operating through this approach allows me to have dialogue that shifts power to them.  Now I thank them for encouraging us.  They are serving by coming and it is our job to make them feel welcome, not their job to earn our welcome. By communicating personally that we are so thankful they came, they seem to become more invested and don’t feel like they are being judged.   I could go on and on but this change has altered my relationship with God, myself, marriage, personal life, and has begun to take hold within our church family.  One example is college student who decided that porn should no longer be an acceptable struggle for him just because he is a guy.  He identified that he and his peers at school are powerless over it.  This is his area of greatest weakness.  So we went to a Sex Addiction Anonymous meeting.  It was interesting battling my own prejudice going in.  However, once I started hearing the stories then I realized I belong in there too.  Personally we are being proactive in areas of weakness instead of waiting until it may cause crisis.  These meetings are a great supplement to the other components we use in personal spiritual warfare.

I realize the social ramifications for this, but it is amazing the way people in those meetings become attracted to the Spirit’s presence in you.  And relationships develop quickly since our connection is common weakness.  When they hear about my marriage, personal growth, etc..they cant help bur want that too.  Then I just point them to Jesus.  We are now considering these groups as an essential part of our walk.  Like they say in AA, the meetings aren’t to help you get sober, they show you how to live sober.

In my experience God is using our greatest weaknesses as the most effective tool we have.  But that dynamic does not work unless people know you aren’t there with hidden motives.  It has to be because you share a common struggle and also want help.  We are always praying for God to let you join him in what he is doing in people’s lives and our city.  In time He prompts people to ask what I do for a living.  Or they can tell I attend church from what I share and will ask where I go to church.  Most of the “unchurched” in our area don’t really care about doctrine.  They want to go to a place where they can understand the language, feel welcome, the children don’t hate it and get something from it immediately.  I know that many are looking for a reason not to come back, but if they get a sense that they can be their “authentic self” that is a unique trait that sets us apart.

We are a place for messed up people and if you think you’re in the wrong place just stick around and you will realize you belong.  We share that we are honest seekers of truth.  We acknowledge that we have the ability to be wrong and not know it.  This is key because it is congruent with the personal interaction/relationship that prompted them to come.  We make it clear there is no hierarchy.  Our leaders are but trusted servants.  I had one man through AA who brought his family and didn’t know I was the preacher until I got up to preach.  They have been coming faithfully.  This approach was not planned intentionally but God has molded us as a congregation.

A year ago I don’t think we were healthy enough as a congregation to be a place where seekers would stay.  I know they weren’t even coming so staying wasn’t an option.  We are more intentional now about speaking Millennial language.  At this point the key elements seem to be congruent.  Seekers ask to visit or I ask if they could visit to provide much needed feedback on our “visitor experience.”  I know our culture is so different from what they think church is, once they experience it, it will stay with them.

Almost everyone who has come once since January has come back.  When they do come they meet people who are so glad they are there and have accepted the term “messed up.”  A worship service that blends old and new heart languages.  Hopefully a practical, simple lesson from Gods word.  And get the sense that these people love each other and really want to be there.

I am not sure where it is going and this is even the first time I have tried to communicate what we are experiencing on paper, but at this point I am so blessed.  His blessings have been flowing…One day at a time.

Spirituality and spiritual growth thrives in environments where vulnerability and authenticity are fostered. While not every single environment can or should be purposed for times of things like confession or accountability, the problem is, many churches don’t emphasize or provide any space or a culture where vulnerability and authenticity are safe or encouraged outside the invitation (more on that in a minute). In this issue of Wineskins we are going to explore the value of vulnerability and authenticity in the life of Christians and in the life of the congregation.

There is obviously a lot of fear and concern that comes up when we talk about how to create more open and transparent cultures in our churches because that means we are going to have some uncomfortable conversations and things won’t always be predictable. The problem is, in our effort to control the outcome and create predictable events that aren’t likely to deviate from our plan or “order of worship,” we may inadvertently push out creativity, confession, and the vulnerability that is required to foster any sort of meaningful spiritual intimacy. The result is a surface spirituality that has a hard time connecting with people on a deeper level and a feeling that the church is out of touch with what real people are really going through.

The perfect example of this is the “invitation”. At the end of the sermon we ask people to who have sin in their lives or want to become a Christian to come forward for prayer or baptism. In many churches it is rare to get much of a response. Why is that? I would argue that much of it is due to the ethos or environment that has been created on Sunday morning. That space/event has not been viewed with authenticity in mind. Instead, the Sunday worship experience is viewed with an eye toward pragmatism…how many chairs can you get in the room trumps meaningful interpersonal connection. How small can the bread and cup be in order to serve X number of people. Otherwise, we would face each other and interact with one another and eat together. The way we arrange things speaks to the values that influenced the structures that we have created. So people don’t respond to the invitation due to the environment but also due to a lack of a deep sense of community within the congregation. That is obvious because people fear what will be thought of them. People fear what others will say. So the very event that is geared toward getting some sort of response falls short…not because we don’t offer it but because it isn’t “safe space” to be real.

All of this points to the lack of a culture of openness and safety in transparency that would encourage people to be authentic in worship. If we are going to be prepared to engage future generations (and even current ones) we are going to have to stretch our comfort zones and not just encourage more confession…it will happen on its own if…we intentionally create healthy environments where we can get beneath the surface and go deeper than shallow and loose connections with other Christians in rooms full of hundreds or thousands of people. It is going to take intentionality. It is going to be down right scarey at times. But it is necessary and is going to take strong leadership that, ironically, is going to have to show how weak it really is…weak in and of ourselves but strong in the Lord.

Let me close with this question…what does the church expect from its minister in being authentic with their own weaknesses? We have conflicting values here. On one hand we expect our leaders to lead from the front…so if there is going to be confession it should start with the leadership. On the other hand the last thing the church wants to hear is a minister or elder confessing sins…it shows they are human. It shows they fail. It shows they have weakness. The thing is…all of that is true but we just don’t want to acknowledge it. So we leave our church leaders in an awkward position of asking the congregation to do things (like confession) that they themselves don’t feel like they have the liberty to do without losing their job or position.

So let’s discuss both practical ways to build vulnerability and authenticity into the things we do as Christians and as congregations…but let us not stay on the surface level of just what to do. Let’s dig deeper under the surface and discuss healthy and unhealthy church culture and how we might embrace a better, more biblical value systems that these things would more naturally flow out of.

Thoughts?

Life Work comes on the heels of Harris’ previous works, “God Work” and “Soul Work.” Just as “God Work” was wonderfully helpful in connecting our theology to the local church context, and “Soul Work” aptly invited Christians to dwell with God through spiritual disciplines, now “Life Work” provides a framework for building a way of living rooted in honest discipleship.

Harris ultimately wants to convince his readers that they should live out an ethic that is formed by scripture and Jesus, but he smartly begins his book with a broader understanding of how ethics are formed by worldviews, ethical theories, principles, and questions. He provides the construction of this outline in order to help his readers understand how their existing life ethic has been formed. These first few chapters make perfect sense to the logical, analytical thinker.

The only glitch in the process is that while Harris admits to trying to convince his readers that the ethical stance to which he holds is the biblical (and best) way, one of the seven major tenets of his pluralistic deontologist way is autonomy, or the practice of respecting others’ decisions. One might think that the principle of autonomy could preclude the persuasive argument of declaring one ethical system to be the best. Nevertheless, Harris uses his conversational writing style, dotted with intriguing ethical questions and humorous stories, to walk the reader through a process of thinking through her life ethic. Somewhere in those first few chapters what the reader knew in her gut to be good and decent becomes solidified in logic and conviction.

Having established a theoretical minimally decent ethic, Harris then asks how Jesus might practically shape that ethic for His disciples. Harris injects cross-shaped principles into that ethic which turn the power structures of the world upside down. Through stories and everyday examples, Harris invites the reader to join Jesus and his community of followers to not just treat others decently, but go out of their way to bring God’s love and light into the lives of others. Moreover, Harris challenges Jesus followers to not remain stagnant in their practice of this way of living, but to be continuously maturing into non-anxious presences in the world. To that end Harris offers rich, practical strategies from other followers of The Way, that will help lead to a full and enduring peaceful life.

This book is a gem for honest thinkers who are struggling with pairing up their understanding of Jesus’ teachings with their day to day way of living. Harris uses his typical dry humor and transparency to open up the hearts of believers, before helping them to see the all too often incongruity between the claim of following Jesus and actually submitting to the Sermon on the Mount. The reader who doesn’t want to think deeply about his own discipleship and is content in not maturing in the ways of Jesus should probably stay away from this book, because once you crack this book, you can’t help but be challenged to take following Jesus more seriously.

[Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy]

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Eric Livingston is the Community Life Minister at the Otter Creek Church of Christ. He is passionate about helping followers of Jesus share life together in ways that make the Kingdom of God on earth just a little bit easier to see. Eric enjoys making his wife, Dixie, laugh and playing outside with his three children. He and his family have the great pleasure of rooting for the best team in basketball, the San Antonio Spurs.

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