When preparing for mission, begin by learning about “missio Dei,” the mission of God. As you listen and learn, set your focus on the love of God you have experienced in and through Jesus. 

Part of your preparation is helping individuals know that they are “beloved children of God,” and that God has something special for them to do as God’s children. Improve the acoustics so that people can hear God’s call amid the many callings in their lives.    

Make Jesus Your Priority

As you prepare, help people be about God’s business. Make Jesus your priority for living and loving. With the competing voices vying for your attention, it is easy to give into the loudest voices. The default is to depend upon your own goodness and effectiveness. But, when you make Jesus your priority, you focus on God’s goodness and upon becoming who God has created and gifted you to be.   

As a Christ-centered leader, it is your responsibility to model God’s call. It is your responsibility to lead people into God’s mission. As you model what it means to follow Jesus, you begin to reorient your perspectives and thinking, and you gain a clearer focus on what is most important.   

Put God’s Love in Action

So, what is most important? Putting God’s love, agape, into action. When Jesus is your priority, God’s love permeates every aspect of your life. Jesus becomes your reason for living and loving. 

The goal is for every person and every congregation to be a conduit of God’s love. When Jesus is the priority, people begin to love one another as they have been loved. When Jesus is the priority, the church begins to love the people in the community. So, as you prepare for mission, make Jesus your priority.    

Look at how Paul talks about making Jesus the priority in his letter to the Philippians. 

Read Philippians 3:5-14 

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have laid hold of it, but one thing I have laid hold of: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

Reflect on Philippians 3:5-14 

Paul wrote to the church in Philippi in response to teachers who were trying to influence the church by focusing more on themselves and their credentials than on Jesus and what it meant to follow him. 

Essentially Paul is saying, “If I were to enter a bragging contest, I would win. Not for what I have but for who I am.  With my identity, my genealogy, my family tree, my connections, my standing in the community, I win any bragging contest.”  

First, Paul was a Jew.  

With a little study of the scripture, you will find that Paul was proud to be a member of the house of Israel. The Jews had hung onto their faith in God. They had kept the light on when darkness was everywhere. They had given the world the basis for moral and ethical standards like the Ten Commandments, and they contributed the writings that shaped three great religions in the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Paul was born a Jew and was proud to be a Jew.   

Second, Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin. 

His family, Benjamin, was the smallest tribe, but was a productive tribe in Judaism. The first King of Israel, King Saul, was from his tribe. Paul was proud to have been named after King Saul. He was Saul of Tarsus. 

Third, Paul was a Pharisee. 

Different Jews had different views, but Paul was proud to be a Pharisee. It simply meant that he believed in the Bible. The scripture was central to all of life. It was important to know the Scripture, to listen to the Scripture being read, and to obey the Scripture in everyday living. Paul was known to be at the top of his class in learning and knowing Scripture. In fact, he had such passion for the scripture and was so conscientious that he could not stand anyone who distorted it or weakened it in any way. He was blameless under the Law, so he was proud to be a Pharisee. His character, his family, and his genealogy were unsurpassed. 

Fourth, being a Pharisee meant the synagogue was important. 

When the Temple was destroyed, the Pharisees built a substitute called the synagogue. They built synagogues everywhere they went. It was for worshiping God, listening to the Scripture, and keeping the covenant. Paul was proud of his heritage, proud of his faith, and proud of the witness and work of the Pharisees. 

Paul’s Heritage

With all the reasons he had to brag, he essentially says, “I count all this a garbage. My character and my heritage are no longer my ultimate priorities.”  Paul was not a man who lived with regret. He was not ashamed of his past and he was not torn up inside and burdened with guilt. All of his zeal and achievements, all his past and background were good. He did not have bad habits to be given up or guilty actions to be lived down. So why would he say all that good stuff was garbage? 

Look at chapter two of his letter. Paul believed Jesus was with God but did not count being with God or being equal to God something to hold on to. Instead, Jesus emptied himself, became a human being, and was obedient by putting his life on the line, dying on a cross. That is who Jesus is. That is what the anointed one is like. 

Downward Mobility

For Paul, being a follower of Jesus was not about upward mobility but downward mobility. Jesus had come from the presence of God, from all that was good. 

He came from, as the old Gospel song said, “the ivory palaces,” from the throne of glory, from the angels, from God. He possessed all that was good, but he tossed it and became a human being like you and me, obedient even to death. 

Become More Like Jesus

What would happen if, by the grace of God, you reoriented your perspectives and thinking, set these things aside and became more like Jesus? What would happen if you began to love, to care, to give, to serve, to suffer, and to sacrifice like Jesus?” 

Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of me. I do not consider that I have laid hold of it, but one thing I have laid hold of: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” 

What could happen if you became more like Jesus? Remember, who you are is how you lead. 

Respond to Philippians 3:5-14

Paul thought that if you are going to be a follower of Jesus then you should be like Jesus. Here are the questions to reflect upon today and everyday as you set your goal on being like Jesus. 

  • How can I claim to be a follower of Jesus and seek upward mobility?
  • What do I do with my pride?
  • What do I do with my agenda?
  • What do I do with my selfishness?
  • What do I do with my independence?
  • What do I do with my calendar to which I may or may not add a little church?
  • How can I tack on my Christianity around the edges and keep my life intact when this new life is in the name of Jesus, who gave it all up, took it to the heavenly dump, and came down here and became a servant? 

Today, be aware of the moments you insist on your own way. Take note of the times you let people know who you are as a way of getting ahead or as a way of getting what you want. Keep in mind what it means to have Jesus as your priority in all you say, think, and do. 

Be mindful of what you need to set aside or take “to the dump” to become who God has created you to be. 

Prayer

O God, make me aware of the people around me today. By your grace, help me yield a little more of myself so that I may love others as you have loved me in Jesus. Help me be faithful to your call upon my life so that I may be a blessing to someone, somewhere, today. Amen

Return

Give thanks for God’s call to follow Jesus. In what ways were you aware of following Jesus? Of giving up your pride? Your agenda? Your selfishness? Your independence? Your desire to put Jesus second to what you wanted or desired? What did you take to “the dump” today? Who were the people you encountered? How did you experience God’s love? In what ways did you model and share God’s love? With whom do you need to celebrate the love you experienced in and through them? What will you do differently tomorrow?

How do you describe your call to ministry? Usually, a call to ministry involves a deep sense of the presence of God. It is related to an event or experience of deep spiritual conviction. Sometimes a call to ministry is related to a particular vocation. It is articulated as a “calling.” We have made professional ministry a “calling,” as well as teaching, being a nurse, doctor, or lawyer to name a few vocations. 

Your Call

But when focused upon God’s mission, “missio Dei,” how do you describe your call? If the mission is God’s mission, isn’t your call rooted in God’s purpose? Isn’t your call to be about God’s business? 

Please understand, I am not speaking against a particular calling, but I am trying to articulate a primary call. There are no biblical examples of someone being called to employment. Work is not your primary calling. Your primary calling is not to something but to Someone. 

Your primary call is to follow Jesus. God values you for who you are and who are created to be, not for what you can produce or achieve with your work. 

Vocational Calling

Your work, or vocational calling, is a secondary calling. Your primary call is to be who God created you to be. You are a “beloved child of God” gifted for loving and serving the people you encounter every day in everyday situations. Your secondary calling is shaped by your primary call, whether it be within paid employment, your home, or volunteer activities. Secondary callings matter, but only because your primary call matters most. 

As a Christ-centered leader, preparing people for God’s mission, it is important to assist individuals and the church to respond to God’s call to follow. The bible has stories of people who have responded to God’s call. They respond to the invitation to follow God every day and many times in ordinary ways. Let’s look at Matthew 4:18-22 as one example of a story of answering God’s call.   

Read: Matthew 4:18-22 

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishers. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Reflect

The call of the first disciples is the beginning of the church. Matthew uses Hebrew history as the background for his story of the formation of a new community. When he tells the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation, he is summarizing the history of Israel in the Red Sea and testing in the wilderness. Matthew wants us to know that the new community, the church, is being formed in response to God’s action in and through Jesus. 

Context of Matthew

To better understand the call of the disciples, let’s put the story into context. Immediately preceding this story, Matthew sets the context of the call in the Old Testament when he quotes Isaiah, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Isaiah 11:2). For Matthew, Jesus is the great light. A new day is dawning. So, Matthew writes, “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” 

From Matthew’s perspective, there is a great reversal of power and authority. The spiritual darkness of people will be overcome by the dawn of the new age when the ideal king, the Messiah appears. The Messiah, the new authority, is Jesus.   

The word “repent” literally means a “change of mind” or “change of perspective.” For Matthew, this is a reorientation of your life based on God’s acts of grace and redemption, already seen and experienced in the ministry of Jesus. Repentance is not about sorrow or remorse, but a change in the direction of your life. In other words, the call is to a new orientation for living, loving, and acting.   

The Call from Matthew’s Perspective 

Matthew has placed the call of the disciples in a context in which his hearers can understand and respond. So, look at the story from Matthew’s perspective.  

Simon, who is called Peter, is the first disciple. From Matthew’s perspective, that is important. Peter is the foundation rock on which Jesus builds the new community. Matthew uses a play on words, “You are ‘Rock,’ and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18).  

The fishermen represent people who work with their hands to make a living. They are not wealthy, but they own boats, have houses, and employees. They are comparable to middle-class businesspeople of today.   

Reorienting Our Lives

They are already at work. They have something useful and important to do and are not looking for a new life. They do not seek Jesus; he seeks and finds them. The words “As he walked by” are taken from Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:18-25. It refers to the call of the prophets in the Old Testament. 

In other words, Jesus does not fill an obvious vacuum or meet an obvious need in the lives of those being called. But, like the call of prophets in the Old Testament, the call is intrusive and disruptive, calling those who hear to reorient their perspectives of life and work. 

The Called Out Ones

This is what God does to make followers. Here is where “repent” comes in. It is a change of perspective because this is different from what people would have understood a disciple to be. In Judaism, you become a disciple by seeking out a teacher to follow. But for the new community, you are called and invited to become a follower of Jesus. 

The words, “those who are called” refers to the act of God in calling them, not to their own freedom and responsibility of choosing. The word for church in the New Testament literally means “the called-out ones.”  As difficult as it is to accept, you are not choosing Jesus, Jesus is choosing you. You are called out to live and love differently. 

Called to Follow

The words “follow me” are significant. Matthew is telling the story to relate to his hearers. Fishing for some was a metaphor for teaching. For others, it meant the work of restoring the people of Israel. The bottom line is, that the image does not mean, in the modern sense, that you are being called to learn how to use the proper bait to win souls for Jesus. You are called to follow, to become who God had created you to be. 

With the words, “they left their nets…” and “they left their father… and followed” show that the call of Jesus has higher priority than the sacred obligations of family and work. Matthew is not just reporting what happened once in history but is presenting a scene of becoming a disciple and the forming of the new community.   

The followers of Jesus are not a volunteer society for promoting good but are those who have been drafted into service. Being called and chosen by Jesus is to reorient your living and loving. Your priorities of living and loving are directed by Jesus, not by work or family.    

Follow Me

Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Immediately the mission of God became their priority purpose in their everyday living. It reoriented their relationships and permeated their lives.   

As a Christ-centered leader, you work with people who are gifted in administration, finance, maintenance, education, etc. Each person has a passion for some form of work, but the primary call is to follow Jesus. 

In relation to God’s mission, you have the responsibility to assist people to first hear God’s call to follow Jesus and second, to live out that call in relationship with the people they encounter each day. Whether family, friends, colleagues, strangers, or enemies, God’s call is to love one another, as you have been loved. 

When you become a follower of Jesus, God’s mission becomes your priority. It not only impacts your personal passions, relationships, and decisions but reorients how you live with and love others. Living and loving are no longer based upon what you think and feel but upon God’s love in every situation and circumstance you find yourself. To answer God’s call is to be about God’s business. In other words, answering God’s call is who you are, and who you are is how you lead. 

Respond

Throughout the day, be mindful of your call to follow Jesus. Be aware of how your call impacts your interactions with people, your relationships, and your decisions. Keep in mind that God is placing people in your life to be loved and cared for. Who are those people? How will you respond as a follower of Jesus?

Prayer

O God, make me aware of the people around me today. By your grace, help me yield a little more of myself so that I may love others as you have loved me in Jesus. Help me be faithful to your call upon my life so that I may be a blessing to someone, somewhere, today. Amen.

Return

Give thanks for God’s call to follow Jesus. 

  • In what ways were you aware of following Jesus? 
  • Who were the people you encountered? 
  • How did you experience God’s love? 
  • In what ways did you model and share God’s love? 
  • With whom do you need to celebrate the love you experienced in and through them? 
  • What will you do differently tomorrow?

This is Part 2 of a two-part blog on Preparing for Mission: What is Mission? 

As a Christ-centered leader, your primary purpose is to focus on the mission and to equip those you lead to do the same. In part one of PREPARING FOR MISSION: What is mission? We explored “mission Dei,” and what God’s mission means for you and for the church. 

Mission: It Matters Where You Start

Fundamentally, when it comes to mission, it matters where you start. The mission is God’s mission. Although we do a lot of talking about it, the mission is not the church’s mission. And even though you are the leader focused on the mission, it is not your mission. To start with anyone other than God is to misunderstand “missio Dei” and is to lead people away from a “loving and sending God” to “how can we get people to do what we want them to do” God. 

It is God’s mission, and we are invited to participate in it. As we explored in Part 1, God’s love is the one true and authentic principle of the church. When the church is loving the people in the community it is fulfilling God’s mission, God’s purpose. The church itself is not only a product of God’s love but is compelled and destined to share God’s love. The mission of God flows directly through every believer and every community of faith who follows Jesus. 

So, a working definition of mission for the church is a community of God’s people who define themselves by God’s love, organize themselves around God’s love, and who become agents of God’s love in the world. 

With God’s mission for the church in mind, let’s look at Matthew’s call to God’s mission.     

Read: Matthew 28:16-20 

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

Reflect 

So, this scripture is Matthew’s way of telling his followers how to live the “holy” set-apart life, the life of love. Jesus is sending his followers out to love others into being his followers.    

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” 

Authority

The biblical definition of the word authority is understood and used to describe the power or responsibility given by God. In this case, it is the power or responsibility given to Jesus. From Matthew’s perspective, that authority was to teach and instruct the way to live before God a “holy” life, a life set apart by loving one another.   

Therefore

Therefore refers back to something earlier.  In this scripture, it refers back to Jesus having authority. In other words, Jesus is our authority regarding “holy living” or the set-apart life. Jesus gives us instructions on how to live as his followers. The instructions are as follows: 

“Go and make disciples of all nations…” 

Go

 The word “go” literally means “as you go.”  It carries with it both presence and movement. The idea here is that wherever you are at any particular time or place is the time and place. For example, as you go (wherever you are) to the office, to school, to the grocery store, on vacation, etc. These are the times and places you are set apart to live a life of love. 

Make Disciples

The word “disciple” means “student.” The word occurs over 250 times in The Acts of the Apostles. Every reference is connected to a person, and overwhelmingly that person is Jesus. So, to make disciples is to make students or followers of Jesus. 

Now, some people misread the word “make” as coercion, but that is not what Matthew means by “make” disciples. Matthew is concerned about the “holy living” as developing healthy relationships. 

So, how do you make disciples? You make disciples, followers, and students of Jesus, the same way Jesus did. You love people. You bless them, help them, and care for them. Just as with Jesus, (agape) the well-being of people becomes your priority.   

You might think of a disciple as a “grace-filled follower of Jesus who puts faith into action.”  You practice the love of Jesus so you might become like Jesus. When you read the Gospel of John, you discover that the followers of Jesus are known by the way they love one another. So, to “make disciples” means to love people as you have been loved.  It is to engage in the love of God in the places you live, work, play, and associate with people. 

Nations

The word “nations” literally means “ethnic groups” or “people.”  It is an all-inclusive word.  It includes everyone. So, wherever you go, you work for the well-being of everyone you encounter. 

As you go

As you go, wherever you are, you love people, you work for their good, so that they will love as they have been loved and grow into becoming “grace-filled” Jesus followers who put their faith and love into action. 

“Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” … 

Baptizing – The words “to baptize” carry with them something more than water baptism.  “To baptize” means to dip or to immerse. As you encounter people, you love them. You dip them, you immerse them in the love of God. 

Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – The words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit refer to the movement of God. We are instructed to immerse those becoming Jesus followers in the movement of God.  We are instructed to saturate them in God’s love as experienced in and through Jesus Christ.  So, wherever you are or whatever you are doing you have the opportunity to love the people you encounter. You have the opportunity to invite people to learn of Jesus and to immerse them in God’s love in such a way they too will love everyone. The movement of God is the agape of God. God’s love made real in and through your relationships. 

“Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…” 

Teaching – The word “teaching” in this place refers to what Matthew wants us to know about “holiness.”  It is what we learn as followers of Jesus. It is what the movement of God is all about.  At the very heart of “holiness” or “righteousness” is relationship, relationship with God and with one another. 

Holy Living

This “holy living” or different living means a right relationship with family, friends, strangers, and enemies.  It includes being proactive in how you treat others.  You act on behalf of others not because they have acted on your behalf but because you have been loved by God in and through Jesus. 

This “holy living” means having integrity. It means being as good as your word. It means you can be trusted when you let your “yes” mean “yes” and “no” mean “no.”  It means that you are not conflicted but integrated in your living.  How you act and relate to others grows out of who you are, from the convictions of your heart. 

This “holy living” does not get tripped up on things but seeks first the kingdom of God. The “holiness” of God is not focused on buildings or furniture, but upon people whether they have money or not. 

This “holy living” means your caring for others becomes so natural that you care for everyone the way you would care for Jesus. You care because that is who you are, a grace-filled Jesus follower who is putting your faith into action. 

This “holy living” means being proactive in forgiveness.  It actually means to forgive as many times as it takes to restore the relationships that are being broken.  It is the relationship that is important. 

To obey

The words “to obey” mean “to observe” or to “pay attention to.”  To obey “these things” refers to the teaching on “holy living.”  To obey these things means to observe or pay attention to this holy living.  It is easy to talk about this “holy living,” but it is not so easy to live it.  To “obey” or “pay attention” means to do or to live these things.  It means to make these “holy living” a part of our daily living. 

“Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” 

The greatest part of this “holy living” is that you are not left alone to do these things. The Risen Christ is with you.  God does not leave you to fend for yourself. The very birth of Jesus is announced as “and they shall name him Emmanuel which means, ‘God is with us.’” The mission of making disciples is God’s mission. You have been invited to participate in God’s mission.  If God calls you, God will equip you. When God calls and equips, God will be with you, even to the end. 

So, the mission of the church, according to Matthew, is that wherever you go, love others with God’s love, invite them into God’s love, immerse them in God’s love, and model God’s love for them.  You make disciples the way Jesus did. You love people. You work for their good. As others experience God’s love through you, they will begin to love as they have been loved. This is “holy” or “righteous” living. It is working for the well-being of all people. It is God’s mission of love.  

This is Matthew’s description of “missio Dei” God’s mission. 

Respond 

Today, wherever you go, be aware of God’s mission in every situation and circumstance. Look for opportunities to model God’s love for those whom you lead. 

Reflect upon this story, told by Spring Bowlin, as an example of a simple act of love. She said, “My heart was warmed at Wal-Mart during lunch. The gentleman, in front of me in the checkout line, had his items scanned and the cashier had given him the cost of his purchase. 

“He took a handful of change out of his pocket and laid it on the counter. As he attempted to count out the coins, he became frustrated when he miscounted. Then, aware of me and others waiting behind him, he became embarrassed. He looked back at me apologetically and with hands and voice shaking he said, ‘I’m so sorry.’   

“The cashier patiently helped him separate his change on the counter, looked up at him and said, ‘No need to apologize, Honey. This is not a problem. Let’s count out the money together.’  

“Although he continued to apologize, both the cashier and I assured him it was okay. With the cashier’s help, he completed his transaction and shuffled away. 

Bowlin said, “I looked at this wonderful woman and said, ‘Thank you for being so caring and patient with him.’ 

“She shook her head and replied, ‘You shouldn’t have to thank me for helping someone who needs a little care and compassion. What’s wrong with our world is, we’ve forgotten how to love one another.’ 

Bowlin said to herself, ‘I want to be more like her.’” 

So, today, watch for opportunities to be an instrument of God’s love. Become aware of the people around you and how you might model God’s love in difficult situations and circumstances.

In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is love. When the church is loving the people in the community, it is fulfilling God’s mission. The church itself is not only a product of that love but is obligated and destined to extend that love. The mission of God flows directly through every believer and every community of faith that follows Jesus.

So, wherever you go, as you experience God’s love, remember to share God’s love so that others will want to be like you. Love, agape love, is God’s mission for you, me, and all creation.

Prayer

O God, make me aware of the people around me today. By your grace, help me yield a little more of myself so that I may love others as you have loved me in Jesus. Make me a blessing to someone, somewhere, today. Amen 

Return 

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. With whom did you experience God’s love? In what situations were you able to model God’s love? How did you express God’s love? With whom do you need to celebrate the love you experienced in and through them? 

As you continue to lead through Advent, how are you practicing and improving your leadership skills? This season we have looked at how rethinking waiting and preparing are growth opportunities. With waiting and preparation in mind, have you considered how Advent provides you with the opportunity to rethink your focus on life and leadership?   

Life is not found by focusing on yourself but is found in giving yourself for the sake of others. It is not self-protection but self-giving that opens you to your best self. Effective leadership is not found by focusing on likes and dislikes, but by listening and responding to the hopes, dreams, and desires of those entrusted to you.   

Rethinking with John the Baptist

It is easy to get caught up in our own stories. When you think about the highs and the lows of daily life and add the chaos of disease and distress in the world, it is easy to lose focus on who is life-giving and what is important.   

In an age where the focus on self is promoted as the path to happiness, Advent provides the opportunity to rethink your focus. Today, John the Baptist teaches us to refocus by shifting our attention from ourselves to God and God’s mission. In a culture of weariness, John calls us to discover a different path to life. He invites us to focus on the light in the darkness.    

To help refocus, take a few minutes to read this scripture, John 1:6-8, 19-28. 

Read John 1:6-8, 19-28. 

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but he confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. 

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why, then, are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 

Reflect 

John the Baptist points us toward a greater vision than ourselves. He, himself, embodies a self-giving life. Despite the attention given to him, he keeps his focus on the One who is to come after him. In other words, he refused to claim an identity that would overshadow his mission or that would take the focus off of the light, off of the Messiah, off of Jesus, the One who is coming. 

So, John, the gospel writer tells us, John the Baptist was a witness to the light. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. Why? So, all might believe. His focus was on his mission and not himself. 

A Voice in the Wilderness

Even when the Jews sent priests to question him, John responded, “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not a prophet.” He could have elevated himself to a level of importance, but he kept his focus. They asked, “Who are you?  What do you say about yourself?” 

And he answered, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” He knew who he was and his place in God’s mission. Even though some wanted to make him the center of attention, John kept his focus on his mission and not on himself. 

The Power of Self-Giving

The scripture is clear, John the Baptist’s life is a witness to the power of self-giving. His witness was a light for others, but his light was only a reflection of the One to come, the one true light. John’s life is a model of humility. 

His insistence that he is the voice in the wilderness highlights a profound humility. He is not even worthy to untie the strap of the sandal of the One who is coming. John is directing everyone to the Messiah, the Christ, the One to come, Jesus. Why? So, all might believe. 

The scripture is clear. John’s humility models for us what it means to follow Jesus. 

Respond 

This Advent season, John challenges us to rethink our focus. John invites us to turn our eyes upon Jesus and to place our attention on the mission. He came to point people to Jesus. John is calling us to do the same. 

So, as you listen to John, how are you leading through Advent? Are you focused on the baby in the manger or on the commercial aspects of Christmas? Let me be clear, it is very difficult if not impossible to give your full attention to both and hold Jesus, God with us, clearly in focus. 

Leading Through Advent

So, how are you leading through Advent? Are helping people prepare for the birth of Jesus, and the coming of Christ, or are you lost in the timing of activities and the proper trimmings of the season? Advent candles are good and necessary. They provide a way of telling the story. 

But when you get upset because someone lights the pink candle on the wrong Sunday, where is your focus? When you are more concerned about the poinsettias being delivered and properly placed than you are about the people who only attend worship once a year, with family, at Christmas, where is your focus?   

The Why of Christmas

Advent provides a wonderful opportunity to rethink your focus on why you participate in some activities. How is baking cookies, wrapping gifts, decorating, going to parties, and assisting you in keeping your focus upon “God with us” the savior of the world? They are good activities that bring joy and pleasure, the question is, how do they keep you focused on the “why” of Christmas? 

In today’s culture, we often celebrate ourselves more than we celebrate the One whom God sends to set us free. Because of God’s love for us, God sent John the Baptist to challenge us to rethink our focus. His mission was not about gaining recognition. Instead, he was committed to pointing to the One greater than himself. John the Baptist didn’t seek personal glory. His life was a message, urging people to look beyond their desires to the Messiah. 

Rethink Your Focus

So, as a Christ-centered leader, Advent provides the opportunity to rethink your focus. It is easy to lose focus of the One who calls us and equips us for leading and loving. When we are out of focus, we misunderstand the connection between serving others and the life we are called to live. It is in focusing on others and loving others, that we become more who God created us to be. 

As followers of Jesus, as good as it is, you are not invited to a life of serving others as a way to be and do good. You are invited to love and serve as a way of expressing God’s goodness you have experienced in and through Jesus. You love your neighbors as you love yourself and you love others as God has loved you. As good as it is, it is not about your service, it is about God’s love.   

Undefeated

Maybe this story will help. It is from the Academy Award-winning documentary film, “Undefeated.” 

In 2004, Bill Cortney left his position as a schoolteacher to open his own lumber business. While participating in a small group from his church, he was challenged to volunteer to go into the North Memphis neighborhoods and be a friend to some kids. Through that experience, Bill Cortney learned that the Manassas High School football team needed a coach. Through the encouragement of his friends, he volunteered to be the coach for one year.  

The Manassas High School football team had never won a playoff game. In fact, in 2004, they had only won four games in ten years. Bill Courtney offered to help the Manassas Tigers turn the football team around. 

Are you a Turkey Person?

That first year, there were 17 players on the team. About midway through the season, the coach was concerned about his relationship with his players. He felt he had a good relationship with half of them, but he wanted something more than being the coach, something of greater depth than football. So, he had a conversation with one of the seniors, Jamie, about his relationship with the team. 

The coach asked Jamie, “What is the deal? I am here every day. I’m giving all I have to give. What do I have to do?” 

Jamie responded almost dismissively, “Just keep doing what you are doing, Coach. We appreciate it.” 

Coach Courtney: “Tell me what is going on.” 

Jamie: “Real talk? I don’t want to hurt your feelings. 

Coach: “Straight talk, Jamie.” 

Jamie: “Straight up. They are trying to figure out if you are a turkey person. 

Coach: “I have no idea what you are talking about. What is a turkey person?” 

Jamie: “You know coach, every Thanksgiving and Christmas some white folks roll up into our neighborhoods in their vans and SUVs. They have turkeys, hams, and gifts. They unload them. We take the gifts and the food because we need them. But then, they all get back into their cars, vans, and SUVs and they go back out to the suburbs, and we don’t see them ever again.   

“Now, Coach, are they delivering those turkeys and gifts because they really care about us or are they going back out to the suburbs to tell people how they helped some poor black folks. Are they doing what they are doing because they care about us or just so they can feel good about themselves? 

“Coach, what are you doing? Everyone is trying to figure it out. What are you doing?” 

Loving and Nurturing

For Bill Courtney that was the beginning of six years as the Coach of the Manasses High School Tigers. Through his loving and nurturing of the players and helping them develop their physical and emotional strengths, Courtney coached the team to a winning season in 2009 and their first playoff win in the history of the football program. 

What made the difference? I think it was focus. Bill Courtney kept his focus on why he was doing what he was doing and on the people he was serving. His focus was not on himself but on the character and integrity of the players on his team. 

What is Your Focus as a Leader?

This Advent season provides you the opportunity to rethink your focus as a leader. 

Too often we are absorbed in our own worlds. We do what we do because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Even when it has implications of helping others, we too often are more concerned about how it affects us than we are about how we truly reflect the light of love and care for others.  Our actions are more self-serving than they are of humility and love. 

When you’re focused on yourself, your preferences, and your conveniences, your vision narrows, and your focus becomes blurry. When you keep your focus on Jesus, it is clear who God sends your way to love and serve. 

John the Baptist is challenging you to focus upon the light of the One who is to come. That is who you are as a Christ-centered leader. This Advent season, rethink your focus and become the leader needed for this time and season. And remember, who you are is how you lead. 

Return  

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. With whom did you rethink your focus? What brought you to the moment of refocusing? How do you clear a path for others to rethink their focus? In the future, how will you respond differently? How did you express God’s love today? With whom do you need to celebrate the hope you have experienced in and through them?   

Have you ever felt that there is more to life than meets the eye? That there is more in your past than history can tell? That there is more going on in the present moment than you really know? And that there is more to your relationships with others than you are aware? 

It seems that the more we explore the mystery of our lives, the more we learn about ourselves, and the more mysterious we become. We are seldom content with what appears to be on the surface. We are not at ease because we sense that no matter how full our lives, there is more. 

Preparing to Receive Jesus

Advent is about preparing to receive what is missing. It is about preparing to receive Jesus as the Son of God who delivers us from all the threats that rob people of authentic life. It is about preparing to receive the One who stands with us against the enemies of meaninglessness; of the storms and evils of nature; of loneliness, alienation from ourselves, others, and God; of sin and guilt; hunger; sickness; and the ultimate enemy, death. It is about preparing to receive Jesus who can do only what God can do. 

Advent is about preparing to receive Jesus, who in his weakness and vulnerability, stands with us in the midst of our misunderstandings, misconceptions, and broken relationships. 

Leading through Advent

The question is, how do you lead through Advent? How do you rethink preparing in such a way that people find themselves face to face with the God who has come to be with them in the places they are hurting, suffering, broken, and need healing and hope? 

Maybe it will be helpful to start with an Advent prayer, written and put to music by Charles Wesley. 

Come, thou long expected Jesus.

Born to set thy people free.

From our fears and sins release us.

Let us find our rest in thee. 

How will you rethink preparing this Advent season?   

Read Mark 1:1-8 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight,’”

4 so John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

Reflect 

Mark’s story does not begin with Jesus, and not even with John. This story is part of a larger story of God’s unfolding plan that began at creation, continued through the Old Testament prophets, comes to its climax in Jesus, and continues after the resurrection in the followers of Jesus, including you and me. 

The good news according to Mark is “God sent Jesus to oppose the evil, pain, and suffering in the world.” To announce the good news, Mark starts with John the Baptist, who is seen as connecting the message of the prophets with Jesus and the preaching of the church.    

John ushers in the new age, a new order. For Mark, what is important is not John’s bizarre appearance, nor his ethics, nor his message, but the fact that the story of Jesus begins with him. John is a figure of hope. His appearance marks “the beginning of the gospel” as a continuation of the message of the prophets. He continues the story of the in-breaking of God’s new order. 

The Good News in Mark

The people who received Mark’s good news were in the midst of persecution. The followers of Jesus were tortured, crucified, and killed as insurrectionists. They were seen as people in opposition to the Roman government. So, for Mark John came announcing the coming of Jesus, God’s way of opposing the evil, pain, and suffering in the world. 

In verses 2 and 3, Mark sets the context for the new order by calling upon the memory of his readers. He has them remember the exile and homecoming of the Hebrew people. Then, he focuses upon the work, the person, and the words of John. 

Baptism is an Act of Grace

The work of John is to baptize (verses 4-5). Baptism is an act of grace giving access to the new order, God’s new day. It is an invitation to and an act of transformation. It leads into public ministry, which is seen in the work of the followers of Jesus opposing evil, pain, and suffering in our communities and neighborhoods. Baptized followers of Jesus are related to their communities and working the good of all the people living there. 

For John, baptism is identified in two ways. The first is through repentance, the turning away from the old age and all its loyalties and values and turning toward God’s new order. The second is through forgiveness, which brings with it the release of indebtedness that keeps people from freely participating in God’s new order. 

Rethinking Preparation

With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. One example of rethinking preparation might be John’s message of repentance which brings with it the challenge to give up our participation in the cultural consumerism that enslaves us. Another example of rethinking preparation might be John’s message of forgiveness of sins which brings with it the release from systems that dehumanize people and effect the way we relate to one another, especially the people we identify as different from us. 

The person of John is characterized as an outsider, as one who comes from the wilderness. Not only is he geographically an outsider but he has kept his distance from the seductive good things of his culture. He comes speaking of a new order which calls for an end to conventional loyalties and attitudes. He comes speaking of a new freedom that brings a different perspective regarding relationships. 

Embracing Uncertainty

With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. It is an occasion for embracing uncertainty, understanding ourselves and others differently, and making decisions that facilitate hope and the future. Keep in mind, as you rethink preparation, that the culture will resist any changes you make. It will want you to be well-fed, well-dressed, and well-housed so that you do not depart from old loyalties. John is reminding us that there is a greater way of living in this world.   

The words of John point beyond himself and beyond the dangerous moment in which people are living. He is like Moses pointing across to the new land. He anticipates the One who is to come, but he does not name him. Christmas is the time for naming Jesus. Advent is a time for waiting and hoping. John might not know the name of the One to come, but he knows that the work of the Spirit will bring a newness that transforms. 

Make a Difference

With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. It is not only a time of spiritual reconstruction but a time to make a difference in the community and the neighborhood in which you live. It is a time to stand with people as they face adversity, pain, and suffering. 

Leading through Advent means you will offer hope amid people being dehumanized and misplaced, amid cynicism about trusting God’s way in Jesus, and amid people sensing there is more but not knowing what it is. The time is right for rethinking preparation. It is right for you to announce, “God with us. There is hope for all who are changing the way they have been thinking and living and are ready to receive and to follow. Prepare the way of the Lord.”  

Respond 

John’s message is clear regarding preparation. There can be no pretense or deception. You come as you are, vulnerable and unencumbered 

The novel, The High and the Mighty, was made into a movie several years ago. It was about the passengers on an airplane that are flying over the Pacific Ocean into California. The plane began to have engine trouble which caused it to run low on fuel. As the flight continued, the news got worse and worse for all the passengers. 

One passenger, a woman, was well-dressed. Her makeup was impeccable. Her jewelry included a diamond necklace, bracelet, ring, and earrings. She sat and listened to the captain as he gave updates regarding the plane’s location and situation. Then she heard the captain say, “It looks less and less likely that we will arrive at our destination. It looks like we are going to be meeting our Maker before this is over.” 

As she listened, she began to remove her jewelry. She took off her rings, her necklace, and her earrings. She removed her eyelashes and mascara. When she removed most of the cosmetics that covered her skin, she revealed a scar on her cheek. She had decided to be who she was. She was coming clean. She was going to meet her end real and true, without deception, without pretense.  

Well, eventually, the plane landed safely. And through the ordeal, she had learned something about herself. 

Come Clean

The plot of the movie reflects the story of John and the response of the people who heard his message. John offered people the opportunity to come clean. He used some wonderful images that caused people to see clearly what he was talking about.  He said, “This moment in history is like an ax being laid at the root of a tree. If the tree has not borne good fruit, it comes down.” 

He said, “This moment in history and in your life is like the moment when a person has harvested the grain, but it is still full of chaff. And he takes a large fan and while the grain is being poured from one container to another, the fan is used to blow away the chaff. This is repeated several times until all the chaff is blown away. The grain is saved but the chaff is burned.” 

“In other words, there is one coming after me, I’m not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal. He is so much stranger than I; he is so much greater than I. He is coming. And one thing that he will do is cause the truth to come clean and clear. No more deception, no more pretending.” 

Preparing for the One Coming

After hearing John, people began to prepare for the One coming. They confessed to their life deceptions, distorted values, loss of priorities, and irresponsibility. They came clean and were baptized for the forgiveness of their pretentiousness and they began a new way of living. 

John the Baptist is presenting the message of the scripture. It comes in several figures of speech. Sometimes it is called a New Creation where everything is new. Sometimes it is spoken of as a New Birth. John the gospel writer refers to it as being born from above or born again. 

Sometimes it is presented as a New Life or a New Page of a notebook. And at other times the Bible uses the image of a new beginning. That is what John preached.  

New Life as a Christ-Centered Leader

What does this new life, this new beginning, look like for you as a Christ-centered leader? What does rethinking preparation mean as you lead through Advent? 

Come Clean

First, it means to come clean. It means to scrape off all the pretense and fear of what others might think and come as you are, a beloved child of God. It means that you lead with courage anchored in God’s love and grace. 

Hold the Past and Future Together

Second, look at John. He understood his present role as keeping continuity with the prophets, with Jesus, and with the church. Even though he has all the qualifications for being first, he did not give into the temptation of assuming that his contribution was better than anyone before him or greater than anyone who came behind him. 

So, as a leader, take your place as one who holds the past and future together. As you prepare for the future, do so within the context of who and what has brought you to this moment. Then ask the question, “Who will help lead us in taking the next step on our journey?” Walk with them. Be who God has created you to be for them. 

Submit to Jesus

Third, John submits himself to the greatness of Jesus. Imagine being born and prepared for a singular moment when you stand on the banks of the River Jordan and shout, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” One sentence summed up his life and ministry. 

John found his joy in Jesus and by giving up his self-serving right to happiness. Sooner or later, you learn that happiness is neither a right nor an end in itself. For the followers of Jesus, the word is not happiness but is joy. It is used in the context of submitting to the greatness and the glory of God. 

God’s Love and Joy

So, as a leader, give yourself to God’s love and receive the joy given to those who serve in love. Receive God’s love for yourself and then share God’s love with others. It means putting others first as you work for their best and well-being. It means being generous with others, allowing them to be who they are, and space to grow into who God created them to be. 

It means that you lead with grace, modeling the new order. John baptized people showing the new order was not based on ancestry, religious affiliation, or national citizenship. It was a conscious choice to turn away from the old and turn toward the new. It is coming clean so you can enter into the new life, the new order. 

So, Advent is preparing to receive what is missing in your life. So, rethinking preparation will help you become more who God created you to be by receiving the One who can and will make your life complete. Remember, who you are is how you lead. 

Return  

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. Where did you come clean today? What brought you to the moment of coming clean? How did you respond? How did you express God’s love today? With whom do you need to celebrate the hope or the love or the new life you have experienced in and through them?    

Prayer

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart. 

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

What motivates and empowers you to lead in the midst of the cultural changes you are facing today? How do you move forward when friends, family, colleagues, and others seem to be losing heart, giving up, and walking away?  

There have been volumes written on what you need to do to be an effective and successful leader. There are lists of characteristics, research, and more advice than any one of us could follow in a lifetime. For the most part, it is all good and all needed. But what motivates and empowers you as a Christ-centered leader is something that cannot be reproduced or measured. As a follower of Jesus, you have been given something, someone, who assists you in imagining a better future and who provides you with the faith to move forward into that future. 

The apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 

You have been given hope. Hope, not as wishful thinking, but hope as the agency to navigate the barriers and obstacles that stand in the way of God’s plan of love and peace. What is unusual about this hope is it is not something that you or any other leader can obtain. This hope is only in being found by the One who gives it.   

Read Matthew 14:22-33 

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Reflect

Matthew tells a story of an experience that the disciples had with Jesus. The disciples are in the boat trying to make their way across the sea, but they were not getting anyway. They were rowing but the wind was blowing against them. Just before dawn, Jesus comes to them walking on the sea.

In ancient times, the sea was the place of evil. The enemy to all that was good was in the water. In this story, the water is a symbol of all the forces that are against us.

Jesus comes to the disciples on the sea. In other words, in the midst of all that is against us, God is with us. There is no power, no storm, no wind, no force in the world that God cannot conquer, no evil over which God is not superior. The message here is, there is nothing that can destroy your life because God loves and cares for you.

I am

Now, this story is not a miracle story. It is deeper than that. Jesus comes in the storm on the sea and says, “Take heart, I am.” These words are translated, “It is I” or “I am he.” What Jesus actually says is, “I am.” The name for God. God came to them in the storm in the person of Jesus.

They cannot believe it. At first, they say, “It is a ghost.”

But as Jesus gets closer, Simon Peter says to him, “Lord, if it is you” …or “if you are, tell me to come to you on the water.” These are the same words used in the wilderness by the devil, “If you are the son of God…” The words of Simon Peter are the words of the tempter. In other words, Simon Peter is putting Jesus to the test.

So, Matthew is telling us that in his attempt to put Jesus to the test, Simon Peter ends up testing himself. It is Simon Peter who does not believe. In other words, you don’t test God. Jesus got in the boat, and everything was all right. The storm was quieted, and the disciples fell to their knees and worshiped Jesus.

You are Never Alone

Matthew was telling the story to the church. It was for all the followers of Jesus, in all their little boats, in all of the storms, trying to make it alone. The disciples were never alone, but they were trying to make it alone, and they couldn’t.

The lesson in this story is, you are never alone. The church is never alone. God is with us. But we are never exempt from the temptation to try to go it alone.

So, we are all in the boat. We can give pep talks to one another. Some of us can bail while others of us will sing. But the truth is that without trust in God, we are not going to make it to shore. But, if we trust God, “we are more than conquerors through him who loves us… and neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So, what does that story have to do with being found or with leading with hope?

Respond 

In the church, it is not uncommon for us to urge each other to give a witness to our faith. Sometimes we assume that sharing stories of faith is easy. I must confess that I have found it incredibly difficult. Although I do regularly as a preacher, it is tough to talk about things so deeply meaningful and profoundly intimate. 

Several years ago, a young father called me about his church membership. He and his family were actively involved in programs and activities of the church. In our conversation he said he was tired of searching for God and that he and his family were leaving the church. He said he was tired of searching for answers and needed to be in a church that could provide some answers. As I listened to him, I tried to understand his dissatisfaction. We talked about his work, his family relationships, and his contentment with his life. During our conversation, he said, “I feel like I’m running the bases, but I never reach home.” Then he said, “I am not sure I really believe in God.” 

God Believes in You

My next words to him were words I had used before.  I had heard them as a teenager in a Sunday school class.  It was there they had taken root in my life and began to shape my understanding of God’s love. Because they were meaningful to me, I had offered them to others through sermons, bible studies, and conversations along my faith journey. 

So, I offered the same words to him, “At this moment, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not.  God believes in you.” I said, “I know you are searching for God.  But have you ever thought that God is also searching for you?  Can you imagine that God believes in you so much that God is searching for you?” 

I remembered words that had profoundly shaped my understanding of God’s love.  They were words of one of my instructors in seminary.  At that moment, I offered them to this young father.

I will come for you

“When our parents, Adam and Eve, left the garden of Eden, God whispered in their ear, ‘I will come for you.’  Adam and Eve didn’t understand God’s word as a promise.  They interpreted the word as a threat.  So, they ran and hid. 

As human beings, we have been running and hiding ever since.  But God has come searching for us.  God has come as a fragile, vulnerable baby, growing up with the comforts and restraints of home, family, community, and culture. 

As he grew up and matured, he worked hard. He experienced both joy and exhaustion. He learned what it was to love and be loved. He experienced what it was like to have people betray him. He had a dream of making the world a better place. His dream was rejected. He experienced the pain of having his friends turn against him. He suffered and died for his dream.  That is how God has come searching for you and for me.” 

Being Found By God

I wish I could say that my words made a difference. I did not hear him say to me, “I never thought of it that way before,” Or, “Now, I know that God loves me and my family,” Or, “Thanks Pastor.” The reality is, all I could do was to tell him a story of Jesus, “I AM” walking toward him on the water, in the midst of his search for answers. 

What would happen if you and I began to tell our stories of “being found” by God? What would happen if we took John Wesley seriously and began to “Offer them Christ” as we developed relationships and talked about what was deeply meaningful to us? 

Offer of Hope

What I know is this, to offer Christ is an offer of hope. The offer is more than sharing “spiritual facts” which lead to a mental assent to correct understanding and logical decisions.  You don’t experience hope as a form of indoctrination. 

The offer of Christ is not, what I grew up hearing, “closing the deal” for Jesus.  You and I don’t experience hope by being manipulated into saying “yes” to carefully worded questions.

The offer of Christ is a two-way process of honest interaction. Because you and I simply do not see everything the same way, we develop a friend-to-friend relationship.  So, the offer of Christ is not a single encounter.  It is an extended relationship of mutual respect and care.  It is within the relationship that hope is developed, experienced, and lived out. 

As important as it is, the offer of Christ is more than inviting people to worship or to participate in the programs of the church.  To offer Christ is to create a space where people can talk about their discontent and dissatisfaction in their search for God, and then embody the hope they need to experience the love of God that will never let them go. It is in and through our relationships that we can share our experiences of God searching for us. It is in and through our relationships that we share being found by God’s love in Jesus. Hope becomes a sign of who you are, and who you are is how you lead.

T. S. Elliot wrote, “the life we seek is not in knowing but in being known, not in seeking but in being sought, not in finding but in being found.” It is in being found by God that you are empowered to lead with hope. 

Return

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. Where do you experience hope? What happened? With whom did you share hope?  How did you express being found by God’s love in Jesus? With whom do you need to confess your struggle with hope? With whom do you need to celebrate the hope you have experienced in and through them?   

Prayer

O God, be my guiding light that I may have clear vision for the days in which I am living. You are my wisdom, strength and guide. In you I find my joy and peace. You are my true goal. Only you can satisfy my soul. Help me be your love in human form. As people are quietly quitting your church, help me develop true relationships of love that bind your people together, so that the people I encounter today and tomorrow will experience your love and grace through me. I am grateful, O God, for your love and hope in Jesus. Amen. 


Distrust has become a serious problem in our culture. Watch any news program, peruse any social media platform, and you will become aware of the distrust that is informing our thinking and behavior. The lack of trust has become so serious that it now shapes the way we interact with one another in our communities and in the church.

Distrust’s Impact on Communities and the Church

Distrust has become such a problem that we treat people outside our circles with so much suspicion that our circles of trust are getting smaller and smaller. It is undermining the very foundations upon which we build relationships. It is destroying friendships and is causing psychological harm.

Statistics on Trust: A Troubling Decline

Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age, points out that there has been a 40% decrease in trust in 50 years. In the late 1960s, half of the people in the United States said that most people could be trusted. Today it is less than a third. In the 1960s over 70 percent of Americans said they trusted the government most of the time. That number has collapsed to below 20 percent today. Even politicians don’t trust each other. Whether Republican or Democrat, 70 percent of both groups said they distrusted anyone who voted for the opposing candidate.

Root Causes of Distrust

The major underlying factors seem to be administrative policy, attitude, and control. We have become suspicious of anyone and anything we cannot control. Leaders are looked upon with suspicion, distrust, and fear because of the confusing cries of assumed theological and doctrinal changes.

At the very heart of distrust is the fear that we have placed our faith in the wrong place or person, revealing we are unsure of the grounding of our faith. As a result, our trust in God, God’s truth, and each other has broken down even while we deny it has happened. Distrust is seen in our fear of being hurt, misled, or looking silly.

Biblical Insights on Distrust: Genesis 3:1-7

There is a story in the scripture that gives insight to the distrust so prevalent in our culture today.

Read: Genesis 3:1-7

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took off its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Understanding the Origin of Distrust in the Scripture

Having set the experiment of joy into action, God showed the man and woman how things were meant to be in the garden. God said they were free to eat the fruit from all the trees of the garden except one tree. It was the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God said the fruit of that tree was poisonous to their systems. It was placed there to serve a religious purpose rather than a nutritional purpose. 

God was pleased and saw that it was good. It was at that point the snake entered the picture. The snake addressing the woman asked, “Did God put you in the beautiful place and then prohibit you from eating all this fruit?” Notice the overstatement and false characterization. 

The woman replied, “Oh no. We can eat everything in the garden except this one tree. God said it is poisonous to us.” 

The snake shook his head and said, “That old scoundrel. God is threatened by you. God knows that if you eat that fruit, you will be like God. You know God cannot stand that. You were created to feed God’s ego. Holding you down builds God up. If you know what is good for you, you will call God’s bluff. You will eat the fruit and take over this place.”

Carelessness Brought Devastating Results

That one conversation put creation into a whole different light. There was no indication that such suspicion had ever entered their minds. There was no evidence for such an attitude of mistrust. Nothing up to that point had God done to give the humans reason to believe the snake’s accusations. So, without checking things out or going to the source trying to get the truth of the situation, the first humans bought into that unfounded suspicion. For no good reason, they embraced the rumor and began to act as if it contained the truth about God. Such carelessness brought about devastating results. 

That is the point of this story. Our forebears took the word of a snake over the word of God the creator when it came to interpreting life. Because of their carelessness, the world became a conspiracy rather than a creation of joy. God became a foe rather than a caring parent of love. This is the story that explains why we humans continue to take life apart and try to put it back together in ways that do not work. 

Culture of Distrust

The first humans drank the poison and got sick. That is how God got a bad reputation. It is based upon a flimsy accusation along with some sloppy careless assumption work. We humans, to this day, continue to build our assumptions in the same way. We have created a culture of distrust.

I confess that my earliest impressions of God were negative. I thought if I became a Christian, I would be giving up all the fun things in life. In my earliest impressions of God, I was convinced that if I did not live a certain way, God would send me to hell. The result was that I attempted to change my behavior, but my heart remained unchanged. Deep within, God suffered from bad press. I developed a culture of distrust in my heart.

So, how has God responded to our careless attitudes and distrust? Did God blow up in rage? Did God become defensive or strike back? Was God revengeful? No. The single most creative thing God could have done is heard in the words of Paul to the Romans, “God did not spare his own son but gave him us for us all,” It is while we are yet sinners, missing the point of God’s love and joy for us, that Christ died for us. It is in the midst of distrust that God’s love comes to us with its greatest force.

Reshaping Assumptions and Attitudes through Jesus

My assumptions were reshaped, and my attitude changed when I encountered God in and through Jesus. John Killinger said, “Jesus is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation.” In Jesus, I began to see and understand God’s love for us and God’s joy in sharing creation with us. It was over and against this confusion and suspicion, that God sent Jesus so we could see what God looked like in history and understand what God looks like every day. 

Can you trust a God like you see in Jesus? If so, will you let Jesus reshape your assumptions about God and your distrust of the people you encounter each day? To put it another way, are you willing to take the action of God, in Jesus, seriously enough to let it do its work in you? Will you allow the image of Jesus to penetrate your distrust so your attitudes will change? 

When you are shaping your assumptions about God, politics, race, gender, health care, etc., will you do it carefully and realistically? 

Jesus is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation. Will you let God do his redemptive work in you?  

Respond 

How do you respond to the distrust permeating our culture and church? Be a healthy, courageous, and competent Christ-centered leader who will encourage and sustain diverse conversations and communities. Be a trustworthy leader who will create environments of trust where promises are kept, and people feel safe to engage in conversation regarding faith, hope, and the future. 

In this time of polarization and distrust, model your commitment to be a follower of Jesus. Sit down across the table with those with whom you disagree. Drink coffee, tea, or Diet Coke with one another. Even though there might be disagreements, help people be encouraged and supported by the love and peace we know in Jesus. Be a model for the community of Jesus followers who are the evidence of God’s love and wisdom. 

Cultivating Trust in the Role of a Leader

So, as a Christ-centered leader, create a space, an attitude, a lifestyle where honest disagreement in love and care can take place. The writer of James said it this way, “First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts” (James 3:13-18). 

As a follower of Jesus and a leader, you are called to cultivate trust. Promoting trust and stopping the constant decline into distrust is not easy. It will require critical reasoning and judgment. You are leading with love, just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). 

Model God’s redemptive work taking place in your life so that those around you will learn to trust God and God’s love for themselves and for others.    

Return: Giving Thanks

Give God thanks for the day and for the people you met and encountered today? In whom did you encounter God? How did you show your trust in them? What were your underlying assumptions? How were they formed? With whom do you need to confess your distrust? With whom do you need to celebrate God’s presence and love?  

It is my prayer that you will allow God’s love in Jesus to replace your attitudes of distrust with trust and compassion. Your trust and attitudes shape your leadership. Who you are is how you lead.

Prayer

O God, I am grateful for your grace when it comes to my careless distrust and attitudes toward you and toward the people you send into my life. In Jesus, I have experienced your extravagant love. Again, by your grace, help me let Jesus do his work in me so that I take more seriously the work of building and shaping trust in my life. By your grace, help me become more the person you have created me to be and become a conduit of your love and joy to be people entrusted to my care. I offer myself to you in Jesus. Amen 

As a Jesus follower, you have been called and gifted to be a Christ-centered leader. You have a responsibility to live and lead as God has created you to live and lead. The question is, “What does it mean to live and lead as a Christ-centered leader?

The Role of a Christ-Centered Leader

Your first and primary task is to be faithful to Jesus. So, your first task is not a political or social one, though you will certainly make an impact politically and socially. Your first task is to be shaped by God’s love so you can be who God created you to be. It is to live and be the truth of God’s love in everyday situations and circumstances.

Your goal is not success in terms of bigger and better or more people means more money. Your goal is to demonstrate that Jesus makes possible a new order based not upon what works or competing self-interest, but upon the truth of God’s love.

Living Out God’s Love in Everyday Situations

This is not a withdrawal from the world. God’s love invites, leads, and drives you into the world to work for justice and peace. You must take seriously the political processes that change systems and structures. You develop relationships with political leaders and assist them in working for the common good.

But you don’t put your hope in the political systems that serve self-interest or in societal norms of personal preference. As you live and lead you offer an invitation to the people entrusted to your care to confront the world. In obedience to Jesus’ invitation, you are first focused upon who you are by responding to, “Come unto me,” and “Do this in remembrance of me,” and then upon living as you have been created to live, “Follow me” and “Go into all the world.”

Balancing Belief and Behavior

As a leader of the people of God, you serve the church and the community. Your service is not in running errands but in providing light. You lead to provide an imaginative alternative to the culture. As you model leadership, you are providing hope for people who are struggling to create the structures and alternatives that the world cannot achieve through governmental power of self-interest.

You might wonder if your leading is worth the hassle. Here is where your courageous leadership comes in. Keep your eyes, heart, and mind on Jesus. When you feel your living and leading are ineffective, remember that Jesus appeared ineffective in the world. Then remember that his power was the truth of the nature of God and not power, strength, and violence within the culture.

Modeling Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Modeling God’s love will always be more radical than the world can provide. Legislation cannot serve the poorest and most powerless. The best policies can do is to give the less powerful a little more power and call it justice. The world cannot give dignity to the young, the old, the sick, the disabled, the marginalized. All it can do is hand out a few meager rights and call it compassion.

For the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick, there must be hope that is not dependent upon public policy but upon the promise that God’s love is stronger than death, and that nothing can separate them or any of us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. You living into your call and giftedness helps bring that about.

As a Christ-centered leader, your living and loving help develop and provide a radical hope that forms a community of faith around the truth of God’s love as experienced in and through Jesus.

So first be faithful to Jesus.

Putting Faith into Everyday Action

Your second task is to live your faith in everyday relationships, encounters, situations, and circumstances. It is important to put belief and behavior together. As a leader influenced by John Wesley, you balance personal piety and social holiness.

In the scripture, proper behavior is a response to faith in God who is acting on your behalf. God’s requirements are always preceded by God’s actions. In the Old Testament, belief and behavior are brought together, “Hear O Israel: The Lord your God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). That is the belief. Then follows the response: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). So, to be faithful to Jesus is to live your faith in everyday relationships, encounters, situations, and circumstances.

The Ten Commandments begin with the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). That is faith and belief. The commandments represent appropriate behavior in response to God’s acts of deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

The Good News in the New Testament

In good news according to Mark, Jesus walked along the lakeside announcing, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). That was an invitation to faith. It was an invitation to believe that God was bringing a new world. Then comes the appropriate response, “Repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). All of Jesus’ demands, from “Come follow me” to “Take up your cross,” from “Go sell all you have and give to the poor” to “Turn the other cheek and go the second mile” are rooted in God’s invitation to love.

Paul in his letter to the Galatians writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). That is belief. Jesus has set us free. Then comes the invitation to respond, “Stand firm, therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters” (Galatians 5:1, 13). Then Paul offers the expected behavior, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5:13). So, to be faithful to Jesus is to live your faith in everyday situations and circumstances.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (II Corinthians 5:19). God acted in Jesus to reconcile us to God, to our true selves, and to others. In other words, God has acted in Jesus so we can be who God created us to be. The question is, what is the behavior to be balanced with this good news? Paul answers the questions for us, “And entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (II Corinthians 5:19-20). Your response to God’s reconciling love is to model through your leading the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Leadership Role of Gratitude

At the heart of your faith and action is gratitude for God’s faith in you. Gratitude transforms obedience from a dreaded duty to a joyful expression of love. We simply enjoy doing what we do out of gratitude and love.

I remember a friend of mine telling me about his wife being on a business trip and what his children did to surprise her. On the day she was to return, my friend said he tried to persuade his son and daughter to help him clean the house before she arrived. He said they grumbled and procrastinated because they had other things to do.

As he served them their lunch, he said to them, “You know, Mom has been very good to us. She works hard and long, and she loves us very much. She will come in the door tonight with a hug and a gift for each of us. That is who she is. We are lucky to be loved so much. Why don’t we give her something as a gift? Let’s give her a clean house.” The children agreed. After lunch, they helped clean the house and even had fun making a game out of it.

I remember thinking that a clean house became a grateful response to a loving parent. That is behavior linked to belief. What a beautiful expression of faith in Jesus lived out in everyday situations and circumstances. That is what it means to lead as a Christ-centered leader. First you are faithful to Jesus, and you live your faith in everyday relationships, encounters, situations, and circumstances.

The Impact of Leadership

As a Christ-centered leader, why do you put your faith in Jesus into everyday action?

Several years ago, I read a story of a Canadian photographer by the name of Yousaf Karsh. The only portrait he took of a person’s back was taken of Pablo Casals in a small French Abbey in 1954. Karsh said he was setting up his equipment when Casals began playing Bach on his cello. Karsh was so taken by the music that he said he almost forgot why he was there. He took his portrait of Casals with the musician bent over his cello, frozen in time against the plain stone wall of the chapel. Karsh said that he took it that way to capture the loneliness of the truly great artists and the loneliness of the exile.

You are God’s Masterpiece

Years later, when the portrait was on exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, another old man came day after day and stood for long periods of time in front of the portrait. The Curator of the Museum noticed him, and when his curiosity got the best of him, he went over, tapped the man on the shoulder, and asked him why he stood so long before the picture. The old man, with obvious irritation, turned toward the curator and said, “Hush, young man. Can’t you see I’m listening to the music!”

Karsh watched Casals play his cello and presented a picture. The old man, looking at that picture, could hear the music.

You have been called and gifted to be a Christ-centered leader. You have a responsibility to live and lead as God has created you to live and lead. As a leader, you are God’s model, God’s picture, God’s music of what God wants your community, your neighborhood, your city to be.

As a Christ-centered leader, when you live and lead with God’s love you provide a radical hope all people need. Your music, your leadership, will permeate the whole of life and people will listen to you and follow you to Jesus.

Remember, who you are is how you lead!

May I state the obvious? We are living in a time of great division in our country, our communities, and even our churches. Whether it be political divisions caused by particular agendas or a cancel culture perpetuated by social media, there is a tension that leads to fear and a lack of trust. 

There are no easy answers on how to lead through divisiveness. One of the first places I go to is to the scripture. But we have just come through a time in the church when scripture has been used to separate people. It has been painful to experience. Something like this has happened: If you and I don’t agree on the interpretation of certain scriptures then there must be something wrong with you or at least one of us. Because of how scripture has been used as a weapon, it is hard to trust the truth that leads us to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus. 

Don’t Confuse Your Understanding of Scripture

At other times people have confused their political views with their understanding of scripture. Because we have made scripture more about morality than we have reality, people use scripture to support their views more than allow scripture to transform their lives. There is a culture of fear growing around the understanding of scripture. I think of it this way. You start talking about God’s love for all people and an old snake will come crawling out from under a rock to scare you away. 

So, let me put it into context and then we will explore a scripture that can be helpful in meeting the challenge of divisiveness. 

The Word Made Flesh

As Christians, we believe in the Word made flesh, not in the Word made words. The scripture points us to Jesus, God’s love in human form. Following Jesus is more than a set of beliefs. It is a way of life. Following Jesus is about loving one another, especially those who are strangers or who are different from us.    

According to the scripture, the world will know that we are followers of Jesus, God’s love in human form, by the way we relate to, interact with, and love one another. When I start with that perspective, I am convinced that Scripture provides a way to lead through divisiveness. 

Read Acts 17:24-25 

For the total story, read Acts 17:16-34

24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  

Reflect

The apostle Paul found himself in a new world. His old world in which all questions had clear, precise answers had been shattered by his Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Christ. 

He had to sort out that experience and its impact on his perception of himself, his tradition, and what he believed. He needed direction to begin his mission of love and acceptance of the Gentiles. Before his experience with Jesus, he had considered the Gentiles beyond mercy. Now, he was an ambassador of love to the Gentiles. 

New World Required New Tools

He traveled to Athens, a center of Greek culture, where new ideas, competing values, and diverse philosophies were the norm of the city. Sharing the gospel of God’s love in that setting demanded that simplistic answers to difficult questions would not suffice. 

The new world required new tools. So, Paul had to learn new ways, understand his context, and earn respect to deal with the new world that was thrust upon him. He had to take what he knew and what he was learning to meet the demands of faith in the pluralist environment in which he found himself. 

How did he respond to the demands of the new environment? What tools did he use to meet the challenges of the new culture? 

Leading Through The Lens of Scripture

One of his tools was his grounding in the Hebrew scripture. In this story, he is surrounded by a different worldview. He was dealing with people who were more familiar with Zeus than with Yahweh. Their heroes were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle rather than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Paul saw the situation through the lenses of scripture. The Old Testament’s emphasis on belief in one God and its warning against graven images shaped Paul’s perception of and response to the Greek world. His grounding in scripture shaped him and provided a framework for approaching a different culture. The scripture provided a foundation upon which his new faith in Christ was built. 

The shifting sands of our world today, with its conflicting values and diverse relationships, call us to reexamine the primary tool for discerning God’s presence and purposes. The Bible has always been our primary witness to God’s revelation and loving activity.   

Use the Bible for Illumination

John Wesley dealt with the changing social currents of eighteenth-century England with his faith firmly rooted in scripture. He was so steeped in the biblical story that every personal and societal issue he faced was shaped by the bible. 

The Bible remains the primary tool we use to approach the issues of our time. The question is, how do you use the truth of the scripture to address the challenges of our day? William Sloan Coffin, former chaplain of Yale University and senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City, once wrote, “Too many Christians use the Bible as a drunk does a lamppost, more for support rather than for illumination.”   

Instead of scripture providing a light to help us navigate our way through conflicting values, it is being used to support our political and theological perspectives. Instead of scripture being a framework for approaching cultural change, it is being used to separate and divide people. 

How Do You Read Scripture?

As I have written before, it matters where you start. If you start from the perspective that scripture supports your point of view, you will use scripture as a weapon to get what you want. If you start from the perspective that scripture gives you direction on loving and relating to people, you will be transformed to love others as God in Jesus has loved you.   

Paul used his grounding in scripture to shape his understanding of people and the culture in which they lived. The scripture became his framework for approaching a different culture and a foundation upon which his new faith in Jesus was built. 

The Tool of Tradition

Another one of Paul’s tools was tradition. As a respected Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, Paul was accustomed to interpreting and applying Jewish tradition to new situations. He knew the Torah and rabbinic literature. He drew upon his tradition when confronting the alien gods and philosophies of the Greek world. It is obvious from Paul’s speech to the philosophers that passages from the Wisdom of Solomon, from Isaiah 42, and from Psalm 74 were in his mind and heart. 

He not only drew upon his own tradition, but he took the tradition of the Athenians seriously. He quoted from their philosophers and called attention to their heritage. He saw connecting points between his own tradition and those of the people whom he confronted in Athens. 

Responding to Cultural Change

When confronted by personal tragedies as well as new challenges in the form of cultural change you must not only stay in touch with your values and traditions. You must also learn about and understand the values and traditions of others. 

You need to be clear about who you are in order to stand firm when the ground starts moving. But if you are aware only of your own tradition you will not be able to develop the relationships needed to address the complex challenges when the ground is moving. 

Claiming Tradition and Relating to Others

Please continue to learn about and stand upon the tradition of historic creeds and liturgies, the great stories of faith, the bloodstained examples of the martyrs, and the heartwarming sermons and hymns of our ancestors. They are part of who you are as a follower of Jesus. 

But, at the same time, don’t forget that those to whom you are trying to relate have their own creeds and liturgies, great heroes of faith, and heartwarming stories and songs. Remember, it is God’s love for you in and through Jesus who is at the heart of your tradition. 

The Power of Experience

For Paul confronting the Athenians, scripture and tradition were not enough. He had to call upon another tool in order for the gospel to be relevant in a new setting. Paul met the Athenians at the point of their experience. 

He acknowledged their desire to know the Divine. Rather than put down their experience, he affirmed their genuine search for the ultimate. He accepted the validity of the insights of their traditions and heroes. Rather than introduce them to God, as if they had no experience of the Divine, Paul named that which they had experienced but had labeled unknown. 

The Validity of Experience

Here is a clue to courageous and faithful leadership in a world of conflicting voices and values. If there is validity in your experience, then you will allow others the validity of their own experience. As a follower of Jesus, you know that God is present in and with every person and in all of life. 

In other words, God is not present with some absent from others. All persons experience the reality of God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But, not all persons, know that it is God whom they experience.  

In Jesus, God has claimed each and every one of us. You have been claimed as a member of a loving household and called to be a giver of God’s grace. The scriptural story is a story of God’s love for all persons, but not all people know they have been claimed by God. Your experience of God’s love is a tool to connect with the experience of others and to identify the intersections of God’s grace and their experience. 

Love as You Have Been Loved

Just as Paul with the Athenians, it is your task as a Christ-centered leader, to be open to God’s presence in others and to hold the common experience in the light of scripture and tradition. God often comes to us from the experiences of those whom we assume do not know God. 

So, keep in your heart and mind the command to love as you have been loved. It remains at the center of what it means to be faithful to God. In the world in which we live, many complex realities are before us. The fundamental question remains the same, “Where have you experienced the presence and reality of God? 

The Tool of Reason

Notice that Paul did not stop with the Athenians’ unnamed experience. He connected their experience to the Risen Christ, who is the shape and source of authentic love. Scripture, tradition, and experience were resources used by Paul as he stood in the Areopagus. But he had one more vital tool, reason. 

The Athenian philosophers worshiped at the altar of reason, so Paul met them there. Drawing upon the insights of their philosophers, Paul attempted to connect the Greek culture to the God made known in Jesus. Paul told the Athenians, “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth” (Acts 17:26). He then quoted their own thinkers and poets: “In him we live and move and have our being…For we too are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). 

Reason, motivated by love, under the banner of faith, can be fertile ground for eternal truth to grow and mature. In 1768, John Wesley wrote a reply to a theologian at Cambridge University, “To renounce reason is to renounce religion…for all irrational religion is false religion.” 

Reason as a Path of God’s Presence

When I was in Peoria, there was a young man, a physicist, who had difficulty believing God’s love for him, especially in and through Jesus. He spent hours reading, researching, and asking questions. Eventually, he took a step toward God. 

He found the universe to be full of mystery and wonder. He made his way to worship. In the liturgy, he found a way to express his sense of praise and adoration toward a reality he called God. Through many conversations and reading the writings of theologians, he was challenged to read the scripture with a fresh openness and to recite the creeds with integrity. Reason was a path of God’s presence for him. 

Ask Your Questions

I know a pastor who tells the story of receiving a letter from an eleven-year-old member of his congregation. Here is part of the letter: 

In the Bible, it says that several days after making the earth God made Adam and Eve. But in science, it says that no one lived before the dinosaurs or while they were living. How could dinosaurs have lived for millions of years before people if God made Adam and Eve seven days after the earth was made? …I hope you won’t be mad at me, but sometimes I have trouble believing…but I still believe in God. 

The pastor encouraged him to ask his questions. Somewhere this bright and articulate eleven-year-old got the notion that to use his mind was outside of having faith. Because he asked questions it meant he did not or could not believe. On the contrary, through reason, he and many others have come to glorify the God who is the source of all truth. 

Scripture, Tradition, Experience & Reason

Paul used the tools of scripture, tradition, experience, and reason to relate to the Athenians and to introduce them to the God who they had labeled unknown. These same tools are instruments by which God comes to us from that world out there beyond our church walls. They are the means by which God transforms the world through us. 

Respond

As a Christ-centered leader, how will you lead through the divisiveness of our culture? Here is something to keep in your heart and mind as you navigate the separation and pain of our day. 

  • It is not scripture, tradition, experience, or reason that creates the hostility we experience today. It is fear. So, as you lead with courage keep this in your heart. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). 
  • It is love that banishes fear and prejudice, which allows us to grow in understanding, freedom, and compassion. It was love that made Jesus draw to himself those who the world abandoned. It is love that will assist us to do the same. 
  • In the midst of the divisiveness, be who you are supposed to be. Love as you have been loved. Learn from Paul’s response to the challenges he faced in Athens and lead as you were created to lead. Be who you are because who you are is how you lead. 

Return

Give God thanks for the people you met today. Where did you see God? What new thing was taking place? Who from the community did you meet? What did you learn about them? How can you best develop a relationship with them? Through whom did you receive love and care? What will you do differently tomorrow? Give God thanks for the opportunities you had to love others as you have been loved.

Prayer

O God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear you in the lives of the people entrusted to my care. Create a pure heart in me, because I have learned that the pure in heart can see you. With my pure heart, and open eyes and ears, help me experience you in the people I meet tomorrow and every day. In the name of Jesus. Amen

As a Christ-centered leader, you have the awesome responsibility of holding and leading the mission of the church. There is no greater work than equipping people to follow Jesus and to lead them into the community to love others. There is no greater work than to love others as God in Christ has loved you. 

I know I am not telling you anything new, but over the past several years, it has been difficult to stay focused on the mission. Because of several cultural shifts, the church is shifting as well. Without your courageous leadership, the church will lose focus on the mission and drift astray. 

As a Christ-centered leader your work is always to assist people to follow Jesus, but how you assist them is shifting. Your work is shifting from developing programs of preference to engaging people in loving others as God is Jesus has loved them. The shift is from a full calendar of activities to equipping them to pray, study scripture, and share life together. The shift is from bigger and better to “what do we need to do that no one else is doing?” 

Equipping People to Follow Jesus

Over my years of ministry, the shift has been from providing programs that would bring people into the church building to equipping people to follow Jesus into the community to love others as Jesus has loved them. 

To lead through these shifts is not easy. It means having a clear understanding of identity. “Who are we as followers of Jesus” and “What does being a follower of Jesus have to do with the church?” 

A Fable

There is a Hindu fable about a tiger cub who was separated from his mother and fellow tigers. He was adopted by goats who raised him as if he were a goat. So, instead of roaring with a voice that shook the forest, the tiger bleated softly in sounds heard only by his adopted family.

Instead of eating red meat, the tiger grazed on the soft grass and ate bark from tender saplings, which caused him to lack the robust strength characteristic of well-fed tigers. Instead of roaming the lofty peaks and leaping the treacherous mountain crevices, the tiger, who thought he was a goat, roamed the paths of the lowlands. 

He didn’t know who he was. His only image of himself was taken from the world around him, a world of goats rather than of tigers. He was less than a tiger because he had no understanding of what it meant to be a tiger. He had been cut off from his true identity.

An Uncertain Identity

The church suffers from a similar situation. We are unsure of our identity because of our broken connection with our biblical and theological roots. Our failure to stay in daily contact with the images of the church found in the scripture has blurred our identity. Because we are unclear about who we are, we have turned to images of the world around us to provide models of being and doing. 

The business world, civic clubs, and social and political organizations have become our patterns. Because of our lack of clarity, the church is treated as an institution among institutions. The church has become an organization among many organizations to which we belong, in which we find fellowship, and in which we engage in endless activities. 

The Result of Lack of Identity

The result is that we wander around on the smooth, well-worn lowland paths, grazing on tasty but unnourishing pious junk food. No one trembles at our blah messages or pays much attention to our bleating pronouncements. We hear the echo of a distant roar which temporarily strikes a responsive curiosity, and we have a vague hunger that is not satisfied by pious platitudes.

Occasionally we catch a glimpse of a Christlike image that gives a nudge to being more than we are as a church. We go through the motions, but our hearts are elsewhere. We know deep down in our souls that there is more to church than going to meetings and promoting an institution. 

Effectiveness of the Church

In every age, the church has wrestled with its identity. John Wesley, in his sermon titled “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” raised the concern that Christianity, and particularly the Methodists, has not been more effective in transforming the world. One reason he gave is that so few understand the basic doctrines and beliefs of the faith. 

According to Wesley, before the church can be effective, it must know the doctrines, practice the disciplines, and give itself sacrificially in obedience to Jesus Christ. In other words, the church’s effectiveness requires that we know our true identity and live out that identity in the world. (The Works of John Wesley, Albert Outler). 

Our Identity is Rooted in Jesus

Let me be clear, our basic identity is rooted in Jesus. However the prevailing understanding of the church today is rooted in sociology. Rather than images like “people of God,” “Body of Christ,” or “community of faith” being the images for our life and work together, we have given into images like buildings, budgets, conferences, meetings, boards, committees, agencies, and programs.  Instead of prayer, searching the scripture, and life together being our main focus for carrying out our mission, we have adopted management by objectives, strategic planning, marketing techniques, organizational structures, and institutional maintenance, as our mode of operation. Please hear me, I am not saying any of those things are wrong, but they are not the root identity of the church. 

Prayer has been reduced to a functional way to open meetings. Bible study often is nothing more than an attempt to find biblical quotations to support our self-absorbed and programmatic preferences. Worship has degenerated into an ecclesiastical performance of a variety show. 

Transforming the World

When the world gives us our identity, the mission is defined in terms of strengthening the institution rather than transforming the world. Evangelism is equated with church membership rather than loving others in word and action. Ministry becomes a profession, a career to be cultivated and promoted, rather than a calling to be fulfilled. And pastors function more as institutional CEOs rather than as spiritual leaders or as visionaries of a new heaven and a new earth. Church leaders look for the next best program for renewal rather than look to the theology of personal and social transformation. 

Being Faithful Followers of Jesus

Since I am on a roll, while Jesus dies on the cross for a broken world, his new body, the church, is preoccupied with its attractiveness to the world. While Jesus lives and serves among the poor, the addicted, the imprisoned, the wounded, and the sick in the community, the church is at the beauty shop trying to become more appealing to the masses. It is at the public relations firm working on a new slogan, brand, and marketing technique. It is in a boardroom developing a strategy to stop the downward slide of its membership. 

Again, let me be clear, it is not about the survival of an institution. It is about being faithful grace-filled Jesus followers who put faith into action. It is not our identity as a social institution that transforms the world. The world needs us to fulfill our identity as a community of God’s faithful people who are motivated by God’s love to move into the hurting places of the world. 

The New Testament is full of images that define who we are. 

Read Matthew 5:13-14 

13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” 

Reflect

The good news according to Matthew was written a generation after Jesus’ death. Members of the new community of Christ were in danger of losing their identity. Matthew sought to keep the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus before the community.  He knew that only in doing so would the community remember and fulfill its true identity. 

So, he chose two images from Jesus as reminders. “You are the light of the world,” and “You are the salt of the earth.” 

“You are the light of the world; a city set on a hill cannot be hid.” So, we, as the church, are a light to the community. We live God’s vision for the world. In our personal lives and our life together, we are to model for the world God’s presence and purposes. 

Our Guiding Light

Bishop Kenneth L. Carder tells the story of serving a church that was in the flight pattern of a regional airport. The spire of the church was lit at night. It could be seen by the pilots as they made their approaches to landing or as they took off. He said that one Sunday morning a pilot attended worship. After the service, he told a few worshippers, “For years I have been using the lights from this church to get my bearings in the night. I’m sure glad you keep your light beaming.” 

As a Christ-centered leader, you are to be and hold the light by which others can keep their bearings. As a Christ-centered leader, you are to equip Jesus followers to be and hold the light in the places they live, work, and play. 

Our True Identity

Do you remember the story of the tiger cub who thought he was a goat? One day the king tiger approached the herd of goats that had adopted the tiger cub. The goats scattered, leaving the tiger alone with the king tiger. The king tiger confronted the cub who thought he was a goat with his true identity, but he didn’t understand. 

So, the king tiger took the cub to a stream. There he saw his likeness to the king tiger, but he still did not feel or act like a tiger. Then the king tiger gave him some red meat. At first, it tasted bitter, but soon it satisfied his deep hunger. It was then that the tiger roared his first roar, a roar that shook the whole forest. 

Jesus Shows Us Our Identity

Jesus has come to show us our true identity. In him, we see that we are beloved children of God. He feeds us the often-bitter meat of divine truth, but our hunger is satisfied with nothing less. We are to be the body of Christ in the world, by which bruised and alienated people are led to the living water where they see themselves as made in the divine image.  Through our relationships in the community, the people around us can taste the bread that satisfies the hungry heart. 

God’s light, in and through us, exposes the evils and heals brokenness. It nurtures us and invites us toward new horizons. It pushes back the darkness of despair and opens the curtain of a new day. That’s who we are. We are a sign of God’s reign breaking out in the world. We are a community in which God’s future invades the present. 

The Church is a Preserving, Nurturing Community

“You are the salt of the earth.” Salt preserves and gives taste. The church is a light, a mission, but it is also a preserving and nurturing community. 

As the salt of the earth, our identity is known through love. We are not a cozy fellowship of nice people trying to be nicer. We are a community of compassion loving one another, friend and stranger alike, with the love of Jesus. As the church, we are the conscience of the community, where love, just like salt or red meat, can have a bitter edge to it. We come together because Jesus, who died for us, has invited us to gather and to serve in his name.

Because we are followers of Jesus, who love like he loves, the barriers of gender, race, and class are not present in the community. Everybody is somebody. Our worth depends upon to whom we belong. All are treated with respect and dignity, like daughters and sons of God, like sisters and brothers of Jesus. 

As a Christ-centered leader, you help equip the followers of Jesus to model God’s love in the places they live, work, and play. 

Respond

What would happen if everyone who entered the church building was treated with dignity and value? And that every time they entered the sanctuary they felt as though they were being hugged by God? 

What would happen if every time the followers of Jesus left their homes, church buildings, schools, and places of work, the people they met were treated with love and dignity? What would happen if everyone you met felt as though they were being hugged by God through you? 

Our Identity from Acts

Jesus is the identity of the church. Here are the characteristics that help shape identity from the Acts of the Apostles: 

Devoted to Apostles Teaching

The early followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching…  The word for “teaching” is a dynamic word. It means that they persisted in listening to the apostles as they taught.  

Related to One Another

They were related to one another. The word “koinonia” means having something in common or in fellowship. There is no true fellowship without Christ’s Spirit in us and between us. Jesus Christ is what we have in common. He is our common bond. That bond is greater than anything or anyone else. He draws us into oneness and loves each of us through each other.  

Praying Together

They prayed together. Life together was described as the breaking of bread and prayers. For people to be one with Christ and one with each other, it takes time to be together to listen to each other, to care for and be for each other. Praying together becomes the time of communication with the Lord in which we are replenished in God’s Spirit in order to continue unselfish and non-manipulative concern and caring for each other.  

Worshiping Together

They worshiped together.  They had “gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God.”  Praise became an outward sign of the indwelling of the Spirit. It continued to be an outward sign as Jesus lived in them and in their fellowship. They could not praise God enough for what God had done for them in and through Jesus.  

Attracted by Joy of Community

People were attracted to the joy of the community and wanted to know the source of it. People wanted to be with those contagious, praising followers of Jesus and have what he had given them. 

Gathered in Homes

Because there were no established church buildings, the people met in homes. As they gathered in homes they continued to gather in the temple. When they gathered, they broke bread together and praised God with glad and generous hearts.  

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” 

Return

Give God thanks for the people you met today. Where did you see God? What new thing was taking place? Who from the community did you meet? What did you learn about them? How can you best develop a relationship with them? Through whom did you receive love and care? What will you do differently tomorrow? Give God thanks for the opportunities you had to love others as you have been loved.

Prayer

O God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear you in the lives of the people entrusted to my care. Create a pure heart in me, because I have learned that the pure in heart can see you. With my pure heart, and open eyes and ears, help me experience you in the people I meet tomorrow and every day. In the name of Jesus. Amen