Tag Archive for: God’s presence

This is Part 1 on Hospitality

Read Part 2 Here

As a follower of Jesus, you have an opportunity for hospitality with every person you encounter. Whether family, friend, colleague, neighbor, stranger, or enemy, you have the opportunity to be God’s loving presence in the way you receive them and interact with them. Hospitality is part of God’s mission, and you were invited into that mission when you were claimed as a “beloved child of God, called and commissioned for ministry at your baptism

Explore more: Preparing for Mission: Being About God’s Business and Preparing for Mission: Hospitality is a Lifestyle

Why Does the Church Exist?

With that in mind, think of the church as a community of Jesus followers who exist primarily for people who are not members. As a follower of Jesus, you are an instrument of God’s love for people who do not know or understand the love of God.  The apostle Paul instructed the church in Rome, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). Hospitality is your response to God’s grace, God’s great hospitality offered to you in Jesus.  

Said another way, as a beloved child of God, you love others for the purpose of being who God created you to be. You become an instrument of God’s grace, extending a welcoming heart and hand in the name of Jesus. Hospitality becomes who you are. It becomes the way you live your life. God sends people your way every day. So, reach out and receive them for the glory of God. It is who you are. Love them the way you have been loved by God in and through Jesus.  

The story of the road to Emmaus gives us insight into Luke’s understanding of hospitality. 

Read Luke 24:28-32 

When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So, he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” 

Reflect on Luke 24

Luke’s story clearly reveals his understanding of the resurrection faith being an act of hospitality. It is a story of two Jesus followers, walking to Emmaus, having a conversation about the events over the past couple of days. 

In the middle of their conversation, Jesus joins them on their journey. He is received as a stranger. Luke writes, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This is Luke’s way of saying that being with the earthly Jesus, hearing his teaching, seeing his miracles and knowing the example of his life are not enough apart from an experience of the risen Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, to recognize God’s act in Jesus is not a matter of our human insight but is a divine gift. 

Understanding the Divine Gift

Jesus, the stranger in their midst, asks, “What are you talking about?” The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place over the last few days?” And Jesus asks, “What things?”

The two Jesus followers began to give a summary of what had happened. Their summary was not wrong but, because of his death, they did not perceive that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the anointed one. They recited the correct events but had a different perception of what had happened. The events did not fit their understanding of Messiah. 

One of them said, “We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel.” It is important to understand that Jesus’ followers believed that God was present in what Jesus said and what he did. They believed that God’s kingdom of justice was about to dawn. 

There is Always Hope

Then came the crucifixion and the shattering of their hopes. Their human wisdom said, “While there’s life, there’s hope.” The death of Jesus was the death of their hope. Even though they had his message, his example, and his ministry, the crucifixion meant that Jesus was another failed idealist. They had no reason to think differently. 

Their hope was that God would send the Messiah to restore Israel and set Israel free from oppression. These two on the road with Jesus perceived God’s redeeming work in nationalistic terms. For them, it was over. Hope was gone. 

A Clue About Hospitality

While on the road with the two travelers, Jesus is not recognized as the Christ but only as a weary fellow traveler. The two extend an invitation to food and fellowship. As they offer hospitality, Jesus is revealed to them. It is here we get a clue about hospitality. 

Luke tells us, “So, he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…” Luke 24:29-31. Jesus did not force himself on them, but when invited, the guest became the host. The meal was an ordinary meal, but the words were the familiar words of Holy Communion. The words, “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it…” reflect the language of the liturgy of the Lord’s Table. It was the language of “do this in remembrance of me.” 

Hospitality is Demonstrated

Hospitality was shown in the blessing and breaking of the bread. Blessing in the Greek is the word “eulogy.” To bless was to eulogize God. 

Three times in Luke’s gospel, we get a story of eating with others: feeding of the 5000, last supper in the Upper Room, and with the travelers on the road to Emmaus. In each story, we have the “blessing, breaking, and giving” of bread. Could it be that hospitality is extended in and through Holy Communion?

The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, is central to the life of the Church. In the house at Emmaus Jesus is a stranger, yet a guest. Even though he is the guest he becomes the host. 

It is in the breaking of the bread that the stranger, the outsider, becomes known to them as Jesus himself. 

Hospitality to the Stranger

For Luke, this is the church. To read and understand the scriptures is not solely a matter of human intellect and insight but is a gift in and through Jesus, the risen Christ.

When the Lord’s Supper takes place, there is an invitation to the outsider and hospitality to the stranger. It is in the breaking of bread that the risen Christ is made known to the community.

Even though there were only three at the table that day, the table was large enough for the stranger. 

Respond to Luke 24: Four Ways to Extend Hospitality 

(Read the blog: Extending Hospitality is Offering Hope

Here are four practical ways you can extend hospitality: 

1.      Be Curious and Become a Learner 

 Seek to understand. Jesus was interested in the two walking on the road. He asked questions and listened. His offerings in the conversation were for clarity and direction.   

Seeking to learn or to understand could be as simple as getting to know your neighbors. Learn their names, their needs, talents, and interests. Show an interest in people as a way of building relationships. Soong-Chan Rah writes, “In the household of God, we are called to a humility that places our relationships in a new light.” 

2.      Learn the language of the community.

Although Jesus was the Risen Christ, he took an interest in the two on the road. Even though they did not know who he was, He was able to communicate through their grief and hopelessness. 

Learning the language of the community could mean learning the language of teens and young adults.  It could also mean communicating with a Hispanic population, Congolese, or Vietnamese population. You might consider it could also mean that you are sensitive to different styles of music, and that you learn and participate in different cultural experiences. It means listening to the community and learning to communicate in ways that the people who live in the community understand and appreciate. Attempting to learn the language is a sign of hospitality that brings hope. 

3.      Share a meal together.

Jesus shared a meal with the two. Although Jesus was invited to eat with them, Jesus extended an invitation as a stranger. Jesus was present as a stranger. 

It is around the table, sharing a meal, that you have the opportunity to make room for others, especially the strangers and the outcasts. In the fourth grade, I had a Sunday school teacher who taught us, “There is always enough room at Jesus’ table.” You can always add an extension to the table. 

We extend hospitality when we bring children, teens, and senior adults together. How could you create cross-cultural connections with another congregation or with other groups of people in the community?  What would happen if you offered to provide the food they liked and gave them the opportunity to prepare it for everyone? 

4.      Examine and Evaluate

How are you inviting people to the movement of God’s grace and the mission of God’s love? Within the church building, practice hospitality by offering people opportunities to interact with one another. Even if they know one another, offer opportunities to practice hospitality.  “Welcome one another as God in Jesus has welcomed you.” And remember, your extension of hospitality is always to God’s glory. 

Be aware and sensitive to the practices you take for granted. Make everything you do an extension of hospitality. Do strangers know your routines? Who explains to people why you do what you do? Do the announcements include language that outsiders can understand? Do not assume people know the Lord’s Prayer, how to respond following the reading of scripture, and/or how to pray before worship begins. Just simple acts of hospitality are signs of hope to those being included.

Practice Hospitality

As you are working on the four practical ways to extend hospitality, practice praying, “Lord, send us the people no one else wants” and “Help us receive the people you are sending to us.”  When you do, you will find the above suggestions helpful. 

Remember, we love like Jesus because that is the way we thank Jesus for loving us.  I am convinced that when you extend hospitality, you can expect your church and community to experience the beauty, complexity, and love that comes with recognizing Jesus in the strangers you meet along the way.

Welcome one another as God in Christ welcomed you. Engaging in mission is extending hospitality. And hospitality is a sign of hope. 

Prayer

Lord, send me the people no one else wants and help me receive the people you are sending to me. By your grace, help me welcome others as you have welcomed me. Make me a blessing to someone, somewhere, today. 

Return

As you reflect back upon your day, give thanks for God’s call to follow Jesus. In what ways did you invite strangers into conversation? How were you curious? What questions did you ask? What did you learn about others as you asked questions and listened? Do you learn new ways to communicate with the people encountered today? How will you incorporate what you have learned? Did God send you anyone? How did you receive them? How did you express God’s love? What will you do differently tomorrow? 

As a Christ-centered leader, 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 others. 

The movement of God’s grace and the mission of God’s love is made real in and through your relationships as you interact with the people entrusted to your care.   

You offer Christ, God’s agape, by the way you receive and care for people. Your action of agape is a greater invitation than your words. You become so immersed in the love, the movement, the mission of God, that all you say and do invites others to love as they have been loved. 

The Invitation to Love

So, as a follower of Jesus, you have an opportunity to offer Christ to family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies, by the way you receive and interact with them. The invitation to love is part of God’s mission. As a baptized follower of Jesus, you were been invited into God’s mission when you were claimed as a “beloved child of God” and called and commissioned for ministry at your baptism (Read Preparing for Mission: Being About God’s Business)  Offering Christ, God’s love, is who you as a follower of Jesus.  

As a Christ-centered leader, you have an opportunity to offer Christ as you model God’s love in your leading. In and through your relationships with people, you are inviting them into God’s movement of grace and God’s mission of love.

There are two examples of “offering Christ” found in John 1. The first is when John the Baptist points out Jesus to two of his disciples. “When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’  When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus” (John 1:35-37). The second is when Philip invites Nathanael to “Come and see,” when he tells Nathanael that he had found the one Moses wrote about in the Law (John 1:43-46).

But the example I want to use is found in Matthew’s good news.

Read Matthew 9:9-13 

9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Reflect

Here is where the blog “Preparing for Mission: Answering God’s Call” can be helpful.

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. 

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.  

Just like Simon Peter, Levi is already at work. He is a tax collector. He has something useful and important to do and is not looking for a new life. In verse nine, the words “as he walked by” are taken from the same encounter as the call of the fishermen along the lake. Just as with the fishermen, Jesus does not fill an obvious vacuum or meet an obvious need in Levi’s life, But, like the call of prophets in the Old Testament, the call is intrusive and disruptive. Levi is being called to reorient his life and work.   

Reoriented to the Mission

When Jesus said, “Follow Me,” Levi got up and followed him. The mission of God became his priority and purpose. The mission permeated his living and reoriented his relationships.

When Levi followed Jesus, it impacted his personal passions, relationships, and decisions. He began to relate to others in a different way. His orientation was no longer upon himself but upon the people around him. Verse 10 tells us that Levi is having a dinner party with other tax collectors. Among them was Jesus and his disciples. Levi offers his friends and colleagues an opportunity to meet Jesus and to experience the love and acceptance he has experienced.

Levi offers Christ to his tax collector friends. He introduces them to Jesus and to the people whose priorities have been reoriented by following Jesus.

It is important to understand that the people invited to the party were tax collectors who were widely regarded as thieves, liars, and traitors.  The others were sinners, those who violated the biblical and traditional purity laws. They were ceremonially unclean. Matthew wants his readers to know the objections the religious leaders had of the early followers of Jesus. In other words, why does the church violate the biblical and traditional standards of God’s holiness by “eating with tax collectors and sinners.”

Offer Them Christ

Here is where “offer them Christ” comes in. When Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” he is adapting a proverb to express the mission of God. It is the healing power present that overcomes sickness. It is healing and not sickness that is contagious. So, the holy love of God present in Jesus is not contaminated by his association with sinners but overcomes the brokenness and sin. It is holiness as right living and right relationships that are contagious.  

Jesus came to break down barriers and restore relationships between separated groups of human beings, and between human beings and God.  

So, this story of Jesus calling Levi to follow is an example of who you are is how you lead. Being called and chosen by Jesus is to have your priorities of living and loving directed by Jesus. It is to offer Christ at all times and in all places with all people. The offer of Christ is not based upon another’s worth; it is based upon God’s love. You have the opportunity and responsibility to offer Christ where you are and with whomever you encounter. Why? Because God’s love is always at work in the lives of people you meet and whom you introduce to Jesus.

Sharing God’s Love

Let’s take a moment to reflect upon a similar story. Think about another tax collector who followed Jesus. Luke tells of a time when Jesus was traveling through Jericho. “A man was there named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector” (Luke 19:2). He wanted to see who Jesus was, but he couldn’t because of the crowd. So, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus (Luke 19:3-4).

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).

My question is, did Zacchaeus met Jesus at a dinner party at Levi’s house? And when he heard that Jesus was coming to Jericho, did he want to see Jesus for himself? Could it be that when Jesus saw Zaccheaus, he told him to come down out of the tree because Jesus was ready to call another tax collector and sinner to reorient his life and to follow?

As a follower of Jesus, you are a channel of God’s love to others. Who is Jesus inviting to follow because of your offer of God’s love? Offering Christ is who you are as a follower of Jesus. And who you are is how you lead.

Respond

Today be aware of the opportunities you have to offer Christ. Who might Jesus be calling to follow because of your offer? Take notice of each person and your response or reaction to offering Christ. Be mindful of the impact of introducing people to God’s love in the way you receive them and respond to them. Be aware of what you think and feel about each situation and circumstance. Begin to be intentional in offering Christ in the ways you live your life.  

Prayer

O God, make me aware of the people around me today. By your grace, help me be an extension of your love in the lives of the people you send my way. 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

As you reflect upon your day, give thanks for God’s call to follow Jesus. In what ways did you offer Christ? With whom did you share God’s love? How did you invite people into God’s movement of grace and mission of love? Where did you notice others offering Christ to strangers, outsiders, and to those considered unworthy? With whom do you need to celebrate the love you experienced in and through them? What will you do differently tomorrow?

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

Have you ever had a member of your congregation approach you and say something like, “I’m not being fed”? Most of the time it comes out like this, “My family and I are leaving because we just aren’t getting what we need here. We are going to go to a church where we can get what we need.” 

The underlying assumption for such statements is passive consumerism. “I am not being fed” are code words for “I’m not getting what I am paying for.” 

Vicarious Spirituality

We have cultivated a culture of performance where people show up to be entertained, delighted, or made happy. If the entertainment, whether worship style, quality of preaching, or the temperature in the gathering space does not meet their expectation, then there are better places to get what they want. 

We have narrowed our responsibility down to paying the pastor/leader and staff to do ministry for us, which has cultivated a vicarious spirituality. As long as we feel good about what is going on at our church and the pastor/leader is providing leadership and care regarding our preferences for ministry, we feel good and faithful, whether we participate or not. 

Discipleship has been reduced to showing up for worship a couple of times a month, attending a study to gather information about topics of interest, and maybe participating in a fellowship gathering at particular times of the year. 

Caught in Christendom

With all of that being said, the expectation for you, the leader, is to attend all the administrative, social, and spiritual meetings because your presence validates the purpose of the meeting or gathering. And because it is a church, you do all it in the name of Jesus. 

I know it feels like I am being overly negative and that I have overstated the current reality of many of our churches, but what I have stated above fits most of the congregations still working within a Christendom model of ministry. 

In fact, it is not a stretch to say that many leaders, as well as people participating in the life and ministry of the church, feel caught in a system that is burdensome and unproductive…and that is just the local church. 

Enslaved to the Way Things Have Always Been

So, I think it is fair to say that many leaders feel enslaved to the way things have always been done. Whether it is because of dwindling funds or fewer people, you are being told that you are responsible for the decline. The members like you, but you aren’t bringing new people in, and please don’t make any changes, we don’t want to lose the few dollars and people we have left. 

I have just described what I call the enslavement of many of the churches in our culture. We find ourselves in a new missionary age while living in the old Christendom mindset. Although most of us still believe we live in a Christian culture, we can no longer assume the church has the interest or influence it once had. A new way of living out the mission is emerging. 

Let’s use our pattern of READ, REFLECT, RESPOND, and RETURN to discover the hope God is offering us as we shift from the Christendom mindset to a missionary approach.   

Read Isaiah 43:14-24 

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: For your sake I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation. I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army, and warrior; they lie down; they cannot rise; they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals, and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

Reflect

Isaiah wrote these words to the people who have been enslaved by Egypt. They have been separated from what they held important: family, community, country, religion, etc.  They felt overwhelmed and hopeless, because of their enslavement, lack of trust, and the circumstances beyond their control.  Isaiah reminds them that God created them, that God cares for them, and that God has been with them through the trials of their uncertainty and separation.  

God Makes a Way

Isaiah announces to them that God is going to set them free from their enemies. “For your sake 

I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.”  In the midst of their situations of slavery (hopelessness), God is making a way for them. 

For them to be set free, they are challenged to set the past aside, to reframe their future. God is doing a new thing, a new work in their midst, and they are challenged to see it.  He reassures them that they can trust God because God is able to make a way in the wilderness and a river in the desert. Isaiah is offering them hope.

God is Offering You Hope

As you reflect upon this story, could it be that Isaiah is offering you hope as well? In the midst of what you have experienced over the past several years, the isolation, disconnectedness, political polarization, being stuck in old ways, etc. it would be natural to feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and even enslaved.

But God is doing a new thing so that you might declare God’s praise. Speaking on behalf of God, Isaiah tells the people that God is not only making a way for them in the wilderness and providing a river in the desert, but God is giving them water to drink because they are his beloved children, created to declare God’s praise.

God is With You

When the going gets tough, remember, you are a beloved child of God, created for the purpose of bringing God praise by living, loving, and leading as God has gifted you.  Even when you feel alone and are thirsting for love and connection, God is with you, providing for you. 

Your connection to God is the heart of being a Christ-centered leader. Your work is to help others know of God’s love and presence in the midst of the chaos and disconnection. When people feel hopeless and entangled in behaviors that keep them from moving forward, look for what God is doing in your midst to set you free.

God is Doing a New Thing

God is doing a new thing. You are no longer being sent to other places to be a missionary. God has gifted you to love and serve right where you are. Your mission field is no longer limited to faraway countries. There are people hungering and thirsting for love just outside your door, in your community. God has created and gifted you to be a missionary just by stepping out the door of your home or leaving the church building. 

You are a missionary wherever you encounter people in your everyday life. It is in and through your interaction with people that God is setting you free, releasing you from the burden of doing to and for people. God is making a way in the wilderness for you by sending people to you who need love and care. It is in your response to the people God is sending your way that sets you free to become who God created you to be.

Teach and Model God’s Love

This is your work as a Christ-centered leader, to follow Jesus out the door of your building and into the community. As much as people want you to meet their preferences or demand a better performance, your work is to teach and model God’s love.  You love people by learning and understanding where they live, by meeting their families, and discovering what is important to them. You love people by becoming aware of their traditions, needs, and giftedness. 

As you follow Jesus and learn about your context, you develop relationships, by listening, learning, and responding. You bring praise to God by the way you love people. The larger community will know that you are following Jesus by the way you love and care for the people around you. You will be transformed by God’s love as the community is transformed by God through you.

The Time Has Come 

God is doing a new thing. As much as passive consumerism has enslaved the church, God is making a way for you to lead people into positive actions of love. The day of preferences is ending. The day of insisting on what you like, being the center of your church participation is over. 

The time has come to give yourself in love and service to the people around you. Be open to new ideas and approaches to ministry. There is no longer time or energy to cling to traditional methods that are no longer effective. God is doing a new thing, so let Jesus set your agenda and let his agenda become your new preference for ministry.

What is God Already Doing?

You might think of it this way. God is doing a new thing. The shift is from “How do we get people to come to our church?” to “What are people doing that we need to know about and join in with them?”

As a Christ-centered leader, you are responding to God’s grace. God is setting you free to declare God praise by loving and caring for God’s people in the places you live, work, and play.  

Respond

Just as the people of Israel were challenged to set the past aside, as a Christ-centered leader, you are being challenged to do the same. God is doing a new thing, a new work in your midst and you are being challenged to see it. Just as Isaiah reassured the people that they could trust God, you are being invited to trust the One who has created you, who loves you, and who called you to this work. 

Be The Leader God Has Created You to Be

Become the leader you have been created to be. God has given you strengths and gifts for leading in a challenging time. Are you able to recognize what God is doing in your life and leading? What must you set aside to see and participate in what God is doing?

What I know is this, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” It is difficult to change course when all you know is what you are doing.

But what I believe is this, “the answer to being the leader God has created you to be is already within you.” You have what is needed to be the leader God has created you to be. It is seen and experienced in your faithful response to God’s love where you are living, loving, and leading at this very moment.

Two Questions

So, here is what to do to strengthen your faith and to equip the people entrusted to your care. These two questions, by God’s grace, will assist you in making the shift needed to experience what God is doing. Start today with the leaders of your congregation and ask the following questions for reflection and discussion: (For more details see the blog: Who or What is the Church Today

1.      Where have you seen/experienced God in the past week? 

2.      How are you living out the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?”

Seriously reflecting upon and answering these two questions will help you strengthen your identity as a follower of Jesus. You will fall in love with Jesus again, love the people around you more deeply, and learn to love your community. In other words, it will help you see and participate in the new thing God is doing in you, your community, and your church. 

So when you are facing difficulty leading in this new age, remember you are a child of God, loved and gifted by God, to lead with love the people of God. Yes, iIt is difficult to be a Christ-centered leader in the midst of chaos and disconnection, but God has put within you the gifts and strengths to lead people into the new thing God is doing.

So remember, who you are is how you lead. God is doing a new thing, Even in the midst of the difficulty, now is the time to participate. 

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

What comes to mind when you hear the word “church”? A building where you worship? An organization of which you are a member? A place you work or volunteer? A community of believers who gather for Christian worship, fellowship, and learning? What comes to mind?

How often do you hear or say:

  • “I am going to the church?”
  • “I am a member of First Church,”
  • “I attend worship at Good Shepherd Church?” or
  • “That used to be a church?”

What is the Church?

The exact meaning of “church” varies based on the context in which the term is used, as well as the experience of the person using the term. So, who or what is the church to you?  

Throughout history, the church has been defined and understood in different ways. It has been most effective when it has responded to and addressed the needs and concerns of the community or city in which it is located. It has been less effective when it has turned inward attempting to protect itself from theological challenges and cultural changes. 

As we have said, it matters where you start. Whether being vulnerable in moving outward or in preservation moving inward, the church has usually entered an identity crisis when it has moved away from its purpose. That is why I am asking the question, who or what is the church today?

What Shaped the Church

Before answering the question, let’s take a look at what has shaped the church as we experience it. This is a much too simple overview, but it will help with context.

The early followers of Jesus found their identity in his mission. They understood themselves as evidence of the resurrection and that they became part of the loving, healing, feeding, serving, and dying of the Risen Christ. Their witness was seen in their loving, serving, and caring for the sick, the prisoner, the widow, the fatherless, and the poor. 

They engaged the world and witnessed the work of Jesus in the midst of a hostile environment. Whether it was living in tension with the established religion (Judaism) or being persecuted by the government (Roman), they did not withdraw from the world or forsake their mission.

Baptism was a powerful symbol of new life in Christ. It symbolized death to things of the world and new birth in the way of Jesus. Through baptism, believers knew they had been called and commissioned by Jesus to carry out his loving service. How they lived out their call and commission was determined by their context. They were driven to ask “Who are we in relationship to those around us? To whom are we sent?” They struggled with their answers as they worshiped week by week and listened to the stories of Jesus and his mission. It was out of their daily experiences in relationship to the people around them that their understanding of mission emerged. 

They put their lives on the line for Jesus as they witnessed God’s love across boundaries of race, nationality, and economics. The mission field was at their front door.   

The Early Years

Loren Meade in his book, The Once and Future Church, called this initial stage of the church the Apostolic Age. Along with his book, you can read stories of the emergence of the church in the New Testament, especially in The Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of Paul. 

Then, with the conversion of Constantine, the church shifted in its identity and mission. It shifted from being a voice and force in a hostile culture to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. The mission moved from the front door of the congregation to areas outside the boundary of the empire. Over time, the life of the empire and the mission of the church became so intertwined that to be part of the empire made you a Christian.

Shifting Landscape

The responsibility of a Christian moved from witnessing in a hostile world to being a good, law-abiding citizen, who paid taxes and supported both religious and secular institutions, which in turn was supporting the empire, the government, or the culture. 

Unity was no longer centered upon Jesus but upon theology, administration, and politics. The shift moved the church from being a community of convinced, committed believers supporting one another to an organized hieratical structure with believers working, at times, in competition with one another.

The demand of faith was uniformity. Loyalty and obedience were primary virtues. Discord within the church became the enemy of the church. When there were disagreements, people started their own churches and even denominations.

Baptism shifted to a rite of passage. It affirmed what was already a reality, you were born into the church. A call to follow Jesus became a professional decision more than one of dynamic faith and transformation.  

The Christendom Church

The church became a business more than an instrument of faith and cultural change. Over the years it has aligned itself with governments, movements, and philosophies. Because of its alignment with governments, at times the church has been used as an excuse for rivalry and warfare. Most recently, some forms of the church have aligned themselves with capitalism which shows up in different forms of consumerism. Programs and preferences have become the prevailing reasons to include people in the church.

Even attempts to move the church back to effectiveness use the very alignments that have moved the church away from its roots. This stage in the life of the church has been commonly known as Christendom. All of us, in the church today, are products of the church formed in Christendom.

Where is Your Faith?

I know my brief synopsis sounds negative, so I will let you answer the question regarding your own faith. Is your faith in Jesus or in the systems and structures designed to help the world know Jesus. There is a difference.

So, who and what is the church today?  A simplistic answer is the church is part of both the Apostolic Age and of Christendom.  A more realistic answer is the church is in the midst of an identity crisis. 

I am sure we want to thrive as a vital witness in the world, but we are struggling to survive as an organizational institution. The struggle to be faithful in the midst of hostility still exists in the DNA of the church. The shift has been from facing cultural hostility to creating hostility within our internal structures. In other words, the church is no longer at odds with the culture but is fighting within itself. Again, I know that sounds negative and hopeless, but I believe there is hope for the church.    

A New Missionary Age

Part of the struggle is, we are in a new missionary age while living in the old Christendom mindset. Although most of us still believe we live in a Christian culture, we can no longer assume everyone is Christian or assume that the community is part of the church. A new way of living out the mission is emerging. The mission field is, once again, just outside the front door.

So, what does that mean? Let me illustrate with a story.

Our Town

When I was a freshman in high school, the junior/senior play was “Our Town.” It was a story/play written by Thornton Wilder. It was that play that drew me into drama class and into participating in drama productions in both my junior and senior years of high school. I apologize for my reminiscing.  

In the story “Our Town,” A young woman and wife, Emily, dies in childbirth. Given the opportunity to return to one special day of her life, she chooses to go back to a birthday she remembers as a child. She sees her family, her loved ones, going about their ordinary routines. They can’t see her or the beauty visible to her from beyond the grave. It is painful and disturbing for Emily. She watches for a short time and then returns to where the pain is at least bearable.

Wilder has given us a portrayal of what it is like to be awakened in a new paradigm and the difficulty of communicating with those still living in the old one. Emily could not stand the pain. As I reflect upon it, the younger generations of today might be suffering a similar painful contradiction. They are born into a new paradigm and are unable to communicate with those of us who inhabit the old one. 

According to Loren Meade, our situation may be even more desperate than Emily’s. We are losing our home in Christendom and have little clarity about how to be at home in the turbulence of what is emerging. As much as we want to lay blame either on what has been or on what has gone astray, the real truth of our situation and our hope lies within our own hearts.

Who and what is the church today? 

I believe the answer is within you and is experienced in and through your faithful response to God’s love in the community in which you live.

Here is what I want you to do to strengthen your faith and to equip your church for ministry in this new missionary age. These two questions, by God’s grace, will assist you in making the shift needed to impact the world. Start today with the leaders of your congregation and ask the following questions for reflection and discussion:

1.      Where have you seen/experienced God in the past week?

Ask your church leaders to join you in praying for the next 40 days. Pray for a pure heart, because “blessed are the pure in heart, they will see God.” Make every meeting, study, gathering, a prayer meeting focused upon recognizing God’s activity in your life and the life of your neighborhood, community, or city. 

After 40 days, begin every meeting, study, or gathering with the question, “Where have you seen or experienced God since we last met? Note: it is important that you pray together for 40 days before asking the question. This is not a program of prayer. The point is to pray for 40 days. You are not seeking results. You are praying, asking God to help you recognize God at work in your community, neighborhood, or city.

This seems simplistic, but when you begin to see God at work you can join God in God’s work.

2.      How are you living out the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

After your 40 days of prayer, have your church leaders and congregation decide if they want to offer HOPE to the people of your community? If the answer is “No, we do not want to offer HOPE to the community,” please continue to pray to see and experience God in the places, you live, work, and play.

If the answer is “Yes, we want to offer HOPE to the community,” then take every program, project, activity, committee, and ministry of your church and evaluate them by this pattern of HOPE for making disciples of Jesus. This is a pattern based upon Paragraph 122, “The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission,” in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Think of the statements in the paragraph as HOPE: reaching out and receiving as Hospitality. Introducing others to faith as Offering Christ. Nurturing people in the faith as Practicing faith. And sending people back into the community to serve as Engagement.

Use HOPE to evaluate your congregational ministry.

Hospitality: How does this program, project, activity, committee, or ministry help us reach and receive new people? How does it help us relate to people in the community?

Offer Christ: How does this program, project, activity, committee, or ministry help us introduce others to Jesus or to the Christian faith?

Practice: How does this program, project, activity, committee, or ministry help us grow and mature in our faith?

Engage: How does this program, project, activity, committee, or ministry help us engage our community? Build relationships with the community? Engage resources to meet needs in the community?

When any program, project, activity, committee, or ministry is not helping with the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world, or is not offering HOPE to your community, then ask the question, “Why are we doing it?” Then decide how you can reshape the ministry to meet the mission of making disciples.

Identity and Hope

This process will first help you with your identity as a follower of Jesus. You will begin to shift your focus from protecting a building, institution, and theology, to focus on loving people. 

Second, it will help you fall in love with Jesus again. You will become more of a follower, being transformed as you look for Jesus in the lives of the people you meet each day. Third, it will help you fall in love with people. You will discover that the people you meet each day, in whatever context, are helping you become the person God has created you to be.

Fourth, it will help you fall in love with your community, neighborhood, or city.  You will begin to meet Jesus in the lives of the people you encounter, and you will want to be where Jesus is, in the community, involved in the lives of the people.

Who or What is the Church?

Who or what is the church today? The answer is within you and is experienced in and through your faithful response to God’s love in the community in which you live.

Now that you have finished reading this blog post, what comes to mind when you hear the word “church?” Remember, you are living in a new missionary age. So, when you walk out the door of your home, your office, or out the door of any building in which you encounter people, you are entering the mission field where people need a kind, caring, supportive, and encouraging word. And God, by grace, has given you the word needed in and through Jesus. The joy and peace of this life comes from sharing what you have received. So, wherever you are, be at peace and experience the joy in the name of the God who loves you in Jesus and who empowers you to be an impactful missionary witness by the Holy Spirit.

Let me tell you who comes to mind when I hear the word “church.” You come to mind. You are a beloved child of God, gifted to live God’s love with the people you meet each day. You and I are in the church together. And remember, who you are is how you lead!

This blog is Part Two of It Matters Where You Start and the conclusion of the series, “Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry.” Although Part Two can stand on its own, it might be helpful to read Part One for greater context.

Read Part 1 here

Thanks for joining me on this journey of reflections on ministry. I hope you discover them to be effective and fruitful in your ministry as a Christ-centered leader. 

Another important thing I have learned over my years of ministry is people tend to put more faith in the Bible, the written word of God, than they do in Jesus, the living Word of God. Both are important, but one is a written document and the other is a living person. 

The Word of God

It matters where you start. It is one thing to say, “The bible is the word of God” and go no farther, and it is another thing to say, “The Bible is the written word of God that shows us the living Word of God, the Word made flesh, Jesus.” 

The distinction is subtle, but the difference is a matter of who or what you trust. As a Christ-centered leader, your life is transformed by God’s love in and through Jesus. Your response to God’s love is a response of faith. Where you place your faith impacts who you are as a leader.  Who you are is how you lead. 

As far back as I can remember, the Bible has been important to me. I learned a lot about the Bible and its importance through my formative years. From the influence of my grandmothers to the lessons of my fourth grade Sunday School teacher, to the devotions I led or experienced in youth fellowship, the bible became an anchor in my faith.   

Faith in the Bible or Faith in Jesus?

I was in my first year in college when I experienced my initial crisis with the bible. Up to that point, my faith was anchored in the bible. In my freshman year, I had an “Introduction to the Bible” course. Without going into all the details, my faith was tested. Because I had put my faith in the bible, and not in Jesus, any questions of faith related to the bible, challenged my faith. With the assistance of a trusted friend and mentor, I came through my initial faith crisis. What I learned was, I had put more faith in the bible than I did in Jesus. 

Let me say that in another way. Faith in Jesus and faith in the bible are not the same thing.  The written word of God points us to the living word of God. Over my nearly 50 years of ministry, I have learned that most people conflate the two, the written word is not the living word. Jesus is the living word in the flesh. The Bible is the written word that points us to Jesus.

Living Word and Written Word

I am sure I have said more than enough to create some anxiety, so let’s move to our pattern of READ, REFLECT, REPOND, and RETURN to focus on the living Word as he is talked about in the written word. 

Before we move to scripture, there are two things to keep in mind with each scripture reference and reflection. The first is context. Each gospel writer is addressing people in a specific context. So, we want to look at the scripture from the point of view of their context. The second is the understanding of “to believe.” The word believe in the scripture means to trust and obey. It is an action of trust and obedience as opposed to a passive acceptance of a list of beliefs. 

All of that is to say, it matters where you start. 

Read Matthew 28:18-20 

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

The good news in Matthew is “God sent Jesus to teach us how to live before God.” So, to believe in Jesus, to trust and obey Jesus, is to live a life of righteousness. When you read Matthew’s story of Jesus, righteousness is not the purity of living as much as living in right relationship with God, “Love the Lord your God…” and right relationship with others, “love your neighbor as yourself.” 

When Jesus says, in what we know as the great commission, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” he is referring to living in a loving relationship, working for the well-being of, neighbor, stranger, and enemy. Jesus is referring to the way you make promises and commitments to the people around you. Jesus is referring to forgiving others as you have been forgiven. 

Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew writes for a Hebrew Christian community. The people in his community know the Laws of God, but there has been a shift in their faith. They have placed their faith more in the Law than in the God who gave them the Law. So, you have Jesus teaching them, “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…” 

It matters where you start. When you start with Jesus, people and relationships are a priority. To believe is an active response of trust and obedience in developing healthy relationships, working for the good of others, and living with integrity. 

Read Mark 1:21-27 

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 

Reflect

The good news in Mark’s Gospel is “God sent Jesus to oppose all the evil, suffering, and pain in the world.” So, to believe in Jesus, to trust and obey Jesus, is to oppose the evil, suffering, and pain in your communities, neighborhoods, and the world at large. A close read of that scripture implies that there are opposing forces and views at work. 

Mark is writing to a community whose life has been disrupted by persecution. He is offering hope in the midst of suffering and pain by telling stories of Jesus restoring relationships. When Jesus heals a man with leprosy, he is restoring the man to his family, to his community, to his synagogue, to his job. When Jesus encounters a man with demons in the cemetery, he frees the man from living life as if he were dead, trapped in the evil of his living. 

Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

Over and over in Mark’s story, Jesus is facing and overcoming evil, suffering, and pain. Half of his story is about Jesus’ own suffering and death. The question is, “Did Jesus overcome the conflicting forces in the sanctuary?” Did he overcome evil, suffering, and pain? 

It matters where you start. In the story, the unclean spirits know who Jesus is, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” There is no change of behavior. No love of neighbor or enemy. Just a disruption of the life of a man, who knows who Jesus is, but who does not live in trust and obedience. 

Yet, over my years of ministry, I have experienced hundreds of people who have given hours upon hours of their lives to relieve pain and suffering, to work for mercy and justice. Again, with his response to the evil, suffering, and pain did Jesus win in the sanctuary that day? 

The answer to the question is found in your own living, in your own heart. When you start with Jesus, people and relationships are a priority. Your response of trust and obedience makes a difference in opposing the forces that separate people from God and one another. To believe is an active response of trust and obedience in developing healthy relationships, working to address evil, pain, and suffering in whatever form they present themselves. 

Read Luke 4:14-21 

14 Then Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding region. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Reflect

The good news in Luke is “Jesus not only possessed the Holy Spirit but offers the Holy Spirit to his followers.” So, to believe in Jesus, to trust and obey Jesus, to have the power to communicate across the barriers of race, nation, gender, and culture. When you read Lukes’s story of Jesus, you read stories of the Holy Spirit moving the church past theological, cultural, and marginal differences. 

When Jesus says, “let the children come to me. Do not hinder them…” he is addressing the need in the church to accept persons who have little to offer, and who are not candidates for ministry. When he says, “If they are not against us, they are for us,” he is addressing the concern that there are persons outside of the group of disciples who are working for the good of others. 

Jesus in Luke’s Gospel

Luke tells stories of Saul of Tarsus, who we might say was theological and religiously misaligned with the new community of Jesus followers, he is telling his community that Jesus is greater than the barriers of theology and religion.  When he tells the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, he is telling his community that Jesus cares for those who have been pushed to the edges of society, cut off from the community of faith, and who are not taken seriously. When he tells the story of Simon Peter visiting Cornelius and his family, he is telling us that Jesus is greater than cultural norms and religious laws. 

Luke helps his community understand that even Peter, the leader of the whole movement, had to learn that God does not create anyone to be profane. The power to overcome the barriers comes from the Spirit who is in Jesus, who is in the church, and in you as the followers of Jesus. 

It matters where you start. When you start with Jesus, people and relationships are a priority. God provides the power and insight to navigate the barriers that separate people from God and one another. To believe is an active response of trust and obedience in developing healthy relationships, working to overcome the barriers that separate us from one another, and living with integrity. 

Read John 4:5-9 

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. 

Reflect

The good news in John is “If you have seen Jesus, you have seen God.” So, to believe in Jesus, to trust and obey Jesus, is to trust and obey God. When Philip says, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” he is speaking on behalf of all of us. humanity. Just show us God, that is all we need to trust and obey. Jesus responds by saying, “Have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me?” 

John tells his followers that they see God at work in and through Jesus when he feeds 5000 people with loaves and fish, when he heals a woman pushing her way through the crowd, when he relieves a boy of seizures, when a man returns to his family after being healed of leprosy, when he washes their feet, and when he dies upon a cross. John’s good news is experienced in Jesus saying, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” 

The implication is that the work of God is seen in the work of Jesus. The work of God’s love is seen in the way Jesus loves. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen God. 

Then, as if to turn things around, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, to trust and obey Jesus is to live the life of Jesus, loving people the way Jesus has loved you. 

It matters where you start. When you start with Jesus, people and relationships are a priority. To believe means you will be loving others through your feeding, healing, loving, and serving. To say you believe in Jesus is to love others the way God in Jesus has loved you by developing healthy relationships and living with integrity. 

Respond

Over my years in ministry, I have learned that making assumptions is an essential part of leadership. But, when you fill in the gaps in your understanding with unchecked and unexamined assumptions, you set in motion a set of chain reactions of bad decisions and miscommunication. 

Your unchecked assumptions pertain to the scriptures as well. I have experienced gifted leaders who have been fairly accurate in their assumptions. I have also experienced gifted leaders who have alienated themselves from the people they are serving because their assumptions were not accurate. 

The tricky thing about assumptions, especially regarding the scripture, is that you don’t always know when you are relying on them. You are designed, as a human being, to develop shortcuts and to eliminate excess mental processing. The problem is that once your assumptions have been established in your mind, they tend to be enshrined in your heart, never to be questioned again. 

When it comes to the interpretation and understanding of scripture, inaccurate assumptions are blind spots that lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings. When you place your faith in misconceptions and misunderstandings, you cause unnecessary pain and anxiety. The pain and anxiety can be cured through healthy self-awareness and a clearer focus on the living word, Jesus. 

It matters where you start. As a Christ-centered leader, you start with Jesus. It is Jesus who makes you who you are, and who you are is how you lead.   

Return

Give God thanks for the people you met today. How did you experience placing your faith in Jesus? How did the scripture point to Jesus? In whom did you experience God’s love? With whom did you share God’s love? Who is helping you grow as a leader? What will you do differently tomorrow? Ask God to give you the faith to be the leader God has created you to be. 

A

A Final Note

Again, thanks for the opportunity to share a few reflections on my years of ministry. As you already know, a few weeks of blogs does not reflect a lifetime of ministry, so watch for more reflections on ministry. 

Other Posts in the Series, Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry:

It Matters Where You Start, part 1

The Difficulty of Prayer

The Grace in Gratitude

Words are Powerful

The Importance of People

Well, we have reached the fifth blog in the series, “Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry.” So, enough is enough. I have been at this work long enough to know that you have been gracious with this old guy. As you might guess, I have more to share. It will come later. You’ll find the previous posts linked at the bottom of this page.

This blog will be in two parts. Part One this week and Part Two, which will conclude the series, will be next week. I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight and emphasize what I have learned to be important for Christ-centered leaders. I hope you have found this helpful and fruitful in leading people to become who God has created them to be.

It Matters Where You Start

One of the major learnings of the past 50 years is “It matters where you start.”  Early in my ministry, I came across a cartoon of a man who is intoxicated. He’s forgotten where he parked his car. He is leaning against a lamppost on a city street. His only hope is to call his wife and to ask her to come and get him.

When he calls, she is disappointed but sympathetic. She asks, “Where are you? I’ll come and pick you up if you can tell me where you are.”

The man looked to find the street name and replied, “I am at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk.”

If you don’t know where you are when you start, the chances of giving misinformation or moving in the wrong direction are highly possible. It is difficult to get to where you are going if you don’t know and understand your starting place.      

How are you making decisions?

When you, as the leader, make decisions based on reliable information, communication, self-awareness, and examination, you are effective and courageous. When you make decisions based upon incorrect assumptions without research and communication, not understanding why you think and act the way you do, the consequences can be disturbing for you and for the people entrusted to your care.

Where you start makes a difference. All of us have internalized thoughts, behaviors, theologies, and practices that need to be examined and refined, if not transformed. If you start with your assumptions, values, and point of view, you will work to help people see your point and come over to your way of thinking.  If you start from a particular political position like progressive or evangelical, conservative or liberal, traditional or postmodern, you will spend your time and energy trying to get people to see things your way.

Faith or Politics?

Please hear me, I am not questioning your values or your point of view. But in a time when people are confusing Christian faith with political positions, our politics is informing our faith more than our faith in Jesus is informing our politics.   

It shows up in why people attend worship and participate in the life of the church. When you start with how the church can contribute to your professional life and financial success, you spend your time working on your preferences, trying to get what you want to your advantage. 

When you start with your personal preferences, whether theological, political, or social, your preferences are informing your faith more than your faith in Jesus is informing your preferences. 

Start with Jesus 

It matters where you start. When you start with Jesus, your values, point of view, and preferences are shaped by his influence in your living. When you start with Jesus, your values, point of view, and preferences can be transformed. May I say it this way? Your view is not as important as God’s view. Your preferences are not always God’s preferences. As a Christ-centered leader, as a Jesus follower, you start with Jesus. 

To start with Jesus means that Jesus informs who you are, what you say, and how you act. I am sure you are with me at this point.  But, over the years I have learned that people misunderstand what it means to believe, to have faith, or to live their lives in response to God’s love and acceptance.

Dynamic Faith

I have learned that people have replaced dynamic faith with a passive belief in beliefs. They have shifted their starting place from faith in Jesus to a list of what they believe about Jesus. Although the shift seems subtle, it reveals itself in the way people relate to one another. In reality, because of that shift, we are experiencing some painful consequences today. It matters where and in whom you place your faith.

As a child, when I did something to hurt one of my brothers, be disrespectful to my parents, or misbehave in some way, it would upset my mother. She would discipline me and tell me how disappointed she was. After a little time passed, I would apologize and say, “I love you, Mom.” And she would say, “I love you too. But, if you really love me, show me in the way you behave.”

Live What You Believe

Here is the key to believing. You show what you believe in the way you live your life. Think of it this way, when you say, “I believe in Jesus,” you are saying that you not only believe in the existence of Jesus, but that you trust and obey Jesus to be the leader of your life and living.

What you believe is important and reciting and remembering what you believe with creeds like the Apostle’s Creed, or the Nicene Creed are helpful in keeping you focused. But believing in Jesus is more than a belief system or adopting a creed. There is a danger of allowing what you believe to become passive. Passiveness creeps in when believing becomes intellectual acceptance. Again, hear me. I am not questioning your intentions, but when you take believing and make it a static list of propositions you are no longer talking about faith in Jesus. Your list of beliefs becomes your object of faith.

In the scripture, the word for believe and the word for faith come from the same word. To believe is to have faith. To believe Jesus, to have faith in Jesus, is to trust and obey Jesus. 

John Hendrick, in his book, Opening The Door Of Faith, defines Christian faith as a personal, relational, centered, response involving trust and obedience.

Christian faith is: 

Centered

Centered because it has a particular object. According to the scriptures, the object of Christian faith is the living God revealed in Jesus, whom we call the Christ, Messiah, Son of the living God.  This means that Christian faith is not faith in general. It is not a philosophy of life about which we speculate. It is not a system of ethical ideals about which we may argue. It is not the object of a set of doctrinal beliefs to which we might agree.   

Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The implication is, if you have seen Jesus, you have seen God. Jesus is the way to understand the way, the truth, and life of God. 

Personal

Personal first because it is centered in a person, a living person, Jesus. The resurrection is true. It is not merely an event that happened over two thousand years ago. It means that Jesus is alive right now Second because it requires a personal response. Each person must own faith in Jesus for themselves. 

Jesus says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” The implication is, in Jesus you and I can see who God is and what God is like. 

Relational

Relational first because it makes possible a right relationship with God. Second, because it properly relates you to your neighbor. You cannot be properly related to God and improperly related to your neighbor. And third because it establishes a right relationship with yourself.    

Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The implication is, you and I love others as God has loved us.

Trust and Obedience

A response involving trust and obedience.  Life is transformed by God’s love in and through Jesus. Your response to God’s love is a response of faith seen in your trust of God and in your relationship with the people you encounter each day.

The Foundation of Faith   

The foundation of faith is not based upon your feelings toward God or upon what you have done for others as much as it is upon what God feels toward you and what God has done on your behalf.  The foundation of faith is not about your promise to God as much as God’s promises to you. Your commitment is a response to God’s commitment. It is a response that involves your whole being: heart, soul, mind, strength, and will.   

So, it matters where you start. The question is this: do you start with a list of beliefs of what you are supposed to believe, or do you start with Jesus, the presence of the living God? Let me say it again, starting with Jesus means there is a dynamic transformation that shows up in your relationships in the places you live, work, and play. Starting with Jesus means life changes as you trust and obey.

I want to love Jesus, but…

One of the writers who has influenced my ministry over the years is Henri Nouwen. In his reflection on the story of Nicodemus and the words “you must be born from above” (John 3:7), he wrote,

“I love Jesus but want to hold on to my own friends even when they do not lead me closer to Jesus. I love Jesus but want to hold on to my own independence even when that independence brings me no real freedom. I love Jesus but do not want to lose the respect of my professional colleagues, even though I know that their respect does not make me grow spiritually. I love Jesus but do not want to give up my writing plans, travel plans, and speaking plans, even when these plans are often more to my glory than to the glory of God.”

Nouwen realized that he wasn’t all that different from Nicodemus. He wrote, “So I am like Nicodemus, who came by night, and said safe things about Jesus to his colleagues.”

It matters where you start. And if you start with keeping Jesus at a distance and controlling your beliefs, whether focused upon him or not, there will be little or no transformation and little or no quality leadership.

Sharing the Love of God

It matters where you start. Tom Long, while teaching homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, attended a nearby Presbyterian church that prided itself on being an academic, intellectual church. He said early on he went to a family night supper and sat down next to a man, introduced himself, told the man he was new, and asked, “Have you been here long?”

The man replied, “Oh yes. In fact, I was here before this became such a scholarly church. I am probably the only non-intellectual left. I haven’t understood a sermon in over 25 years.”

Tom asked, “Then why do you keep coming?”

“Because every Monday night a group of us get in the church van and drive over to the youth correctional center. Sometimes we play basketball or play other games with the kids. Usually, we share a Bible story. But mostly we just get to know these kids and listen to them.

“I started going because Christians are supposed to do those kinds of things. But now I could never stop. Sharing the love of God at that youth center has changed my life.”

Then the man said, “You cannot prove the promises of God in advance, but if you live them, they’re true, every one of them.”

Over my 50 years of ministry, I have learned that it matters where you start. So, when you say you believe in Jesus is it intellectual acceptance or a response of trust and obedience?  Only you know. 

Part Two of “It matters where you start” comes next week. Until then, know that I am praying that you always start with Jesus and, as a Christ centered leader, who you are is how you lead.

Other Posts in the Series, Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry:

This is the fourth blog in the series, “Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry.” You can find the previous three blogs linked at the bottom of this page.

How often do you pray? Do you have a particular posture? Do you say particular words? What is your focus when you pray? Who taught you to pray? What is prayer anyway?

Over my years in ministry, I have discovered that one big assumption is people know how to pray.  The reality is we have difficulty praying. We have learned to pray short prayers publicly for dinners or special occasions, but few of us have a pattern for prayer.  Our difficulty in praying is not that we don’t have time, or that we lack discipline. Our difficulty in praying reveals that we do not know how to pray, what to pray, or even why to pray.

Heartfelt Prayer

In the tradition in which I grew up, I experienced prayer as heartfelt, genuine, and spirit-led. People prayed extemporaneously from the heart. They just let prayer flow because what just flowed was more genuine. They didn’t think about what to pray. 

What I remember is, what flowed naturally was what was on their minds and in their hearts at the moment. Too often they were not thinking of the conditions of the world or of the people beyond their own families or community. Their prayers were genuine, but the brokenness of the world and the pain of others beyond themselves did not automatically flow. 

As a teenager, I attempted to follow what I had experienced by watching and listening to others.I even went through a time of thinking that real prayers were unrehearsed prayers. In other words, the written prayers, whether in liturgies or offered by worship leaders, were not “real prayers.”

Understanding of Prayer

I certainly am not saying I know how to pray today, but as I reflect back upon my years of ministry, I have matured not only in my understanding of prayer but in my practice of prayer. Prayer is no longer something I do. Prayer is interwoven into who I am.

My prayer life has matured and deepened through several seasons of life. During each season there have been certain individuals, resources, and experiences to help me grow in faith and practice.  I am grateful for each person, resource, and experience, but early in my ministry, I was introduced to E. Stanley Jones through his book How To Pray.

Much of what is recorded in that book is true today. He wrote, “If I were to put my finger on the greatest lack on American Christianity, I would unhesitatingly point to the need for an effective prayer life among laity and clergy.”

“If I had one gift, and only one gift to make to the Christian Church, I would offer the gift of prayer, for everything follows from prayer. Prayer tones up the total life.” 

“Prayer, in the curriculum of living, is the required subject. We do not graduate into adequate human living without it…the difficulty comes in the how of prayer.” *

Prayer is Bigger than Anyone of Us

One of the difficulties of prayer is that it is bigger than anyone of us. To not give thought to what to pray makes prayer small. To not give time to prayer makes prayer insignificant. Not to pray keeps you from becoming all who God has created you to be.  

I think the disciples had not given much thought to prayer until they experienced Jesus praying. Other than observing Jesus, their only experience of prayer was with John’s disciples. They had seen the power of prayer and they wanted their prayers to make a difference. They knew that John had taught his disciples to pray and now they wanted to pray.

I find it interesting that the disciples did not ask Jesus to teach them how to tell a parable, multiply the loaves, or heal the sick. They asked him to teach them how to pray. And when asked, Jesus taught them a pattern of prayer. 

Let’s use our pattern of “Read, Reflect, Respond, and Return” to focus on prayer.   

Read Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”  

 So, he said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, may your name be revered as holy. May your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything out of friendship, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So, I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for a fish, would give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asked for an egg, would give a scorpion? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Reflect

Luke has Jesus praying at important points in his ministry. His pattern is to go off to a desert place or a lonely place to pray. It was in those times of prayer that Jesus kept his focus on the ministry God called and commissioned him to do. 

Through prayer, Jesus not only received his call and commission for ministry, but he also sought direction for his ministry. When he experienced success in his ministry, he prayed. He prayed to check the desires of his heart, “Do I go with the crowd, or do I go to the cross?”

It was through prayer he chose twelve apostles out of all the disciples who followed him. He was seeking those who, in the present, could hold together Israel and the emerging Christian community. 

In the feeding of the 5000, Jesus was feeding those who are hungry as the sacrament of Holy Communion. In relation to Simon Peter’s confession, Jesus prayed because Simon Peter and the other disciples misunderstood his suffering and dying as a contradiction of who and what they understood the Messiah to be and do. 

In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus prayed because his identity and purpose as a suffering Messiah did not match the images of the people who loved him and who followed him. In the mission of the 70, it is in prayer that Jesus gives thanks to God for the faith given to his followers. 

Teach us to Pray

Now, when he returns from his time of prayer, his disciples are asking him to teach them to pray. They knew that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray, so when Jesus returned from prayer, they took advantage of the opportunity, “Lord, teach us to pray.” 

They have been present with him through each of these experiences of prayer and they have not prayed. Jesus has been praying to keep his focus on God and what God has called and commissioned him to do. Are the disciples now asking for the same focus? 

Persistence in Prayer

Luke gathers Jesus’ teaching material on prayer in chapter 11. Immediately following what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Luke tells a story of persistence or perseverance in prayer. This teaching is to reassure believers that their prayers are heard and answered. 

If a grouchy neighbor awakened from sleep will respond to an urgent request for bread, how much more will God respond to our prayers? The story is not about praying harder or longer. Luke is encouraging his community to persist in prayer because to pray is to stay focused upon God and God’s call and commission to ministry. 

Jesus’ pattern was to go to a lonely place to pray and then come back to engage in ministry. His time away to pray was to keep his focus on God’s call and to test his desires in response to God’s call. Luke’s encouragement to persevere in prayer is to keep your focus on God. 

Perseverance in Prayer

Next to persistence in prayer, Luke places the “ask,” “seek,” and “knock” sayings. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” He teaches perseverance in prayer.

In Chapter 10, Luke tells of Jesus sending the disciples out, his instructions on what to take with them, and how to respond to those who accept them and reject them. The “ask,” “seek,” and “knock” material was adopted by the early Christian missionaries as an encouragement to live out their mission, depending only on friendly supporters along the way. Luke uses the sayings in relation to prayer. Since God is eager to hear and respond to the believer’s prayer, we may confidently ask, seek, and knock, no longer on human doors, but on the gates of heaven. 

Luke concludes the teaching material with, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

The Focus of Prayer

So, the difficulty of prayer is seen in the persistence and perseverance of staying focused upon God and God’s call to ministry. Focused prayer involves preparation. There are times when your mood may not be right; an irritated or anxious temper may get in the way. Or perhaps the preoccupation with work and family may be clouding and crowding your thoughts. 

A dozen different demands and pressures make special preparation an absolute necessity for real prayer. So, remember this: To pray is to focus on God and God’s call. To pray is to live in God’s presence and to receive God’s power.

Prayer is who you are as a Christ-centered leader, and who you are is how you lead.

Respond

We are not sure what brought the disciples to the point of asking Jesus to teach them to pray. But as I think about it, motivation is not as important as participation. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus was ready to provide them with direction. He did not ask them about their motivation; he provided them with a pattern for participation. 

His pattern was to pray, so he could engage in ministry. His time away to pray was to keep his focus on God’s call and to test his desires in response to that call.

Pray to Stay Focused on God

As a follower of Jesus, called and commissioned as a leader, you pray to keep your focus on God and to keep the desires of your heart in alignment with God, as you have experienced in and through Jesus. 

To learn to pray, practice focusing your prayers. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What would happen if I walked through the neighborhood focusing upon my neighbors as I prayed? 
  • What would happen if I educated myself to think naturally of children, poverty, gun violence, prejudice, hunger, or homelessness in my neighborhood, community, or city? 
  • What would happen if I listened to the news or read news stories in preparation for prayer? 
  • What would happen if I became more aware of the politicians, the first responders, the teachers, the medical personnel in my neighborhood, community, or city?  

Asking Jesus to teach you to pray means that you prepare yourself to focus upon more than your thoughts and feelings. As a Christ-centered leader, focus your prayers to become more than “just how I feel” prayers. Praying extemporaneously is important, focused prayer is what makes the difference. 

The difficulty of prayer is experienced in actually praying. When prayer becomes a part of who you are, you begin to participate in your prayer. So, I offer this caution with prayer, when you pray be ready to act, because God will empower you to be the answer to your prayers.

Prayer helps make you who you are, and who is are is how you lead. 

Return 

Give God thanks for the people you met today.

  • When and where did you pray?
  • In what ways were you assisting others to pray?
  • How were you exercising leadership when you prayed?
  • What did you learn about yourself and about your feelings and actions toward prayer?
  • How did you experience God’s love?
  • With whom did you share God’s love?
  • Who is helping you grow as a leader?
  • 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, as I open myself to you, I am asking you to teach me to pray. Keep me focused on you and your direction for my life. Keep me mindful of the world around me so that I may pray for the well-being of the people around me and the community. By your grace, continue to make me an instrument of your love and peace so others might know of your love and acceptance. Thank you for the opportunity to be one of your leaders at this point and time. I do believe you created me and gifted me to lead for such a time as this. I offer myself to you in the name of Jesus. Amen*

*How to Pray, by E. Stanley Jones, first published in 1943. Reprinted by the E. Stanley Jones Foundation 2015.

Other Blogs in this Series

This is the third in a series of Reflections on 50 years of ministry. As I reflect back upon the years, I have decided to share some things I have learned. So, over the next several weeks, I want to emphasize what I have found important for Christ-centered leaders to know and act upon. 

The first blog in this series focused on people. You will find that blog at Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry: The Importance of People.  The second blog in the series focused on the power of words. You will find that blog at Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry: Words Are Powerful  – Transforming Mission.  Here is the third in the series: Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry: The Grace in Gratitude.

So here it goes. 

The Gift of Gratitude

If I could give one quality gift to you as a leader, I would give you the gift of gratitude. I have found gratitude to be the fundamental value of the Christian faith. It has the potential to transform your life, impact your relationships, and to change the world. If I could have God do anything for you, I would ask that God make you a grateful person. 

Here’s why.  The words “grace” and “gratitude” have the same root in Greek. In other words, if there is no awareness of the grace of God, there is no gratitude. And there is no gratitude without an awareness of the grace of God. Over my years of ministry, I have never known a person who was grateful, who was at the same time bitter, hurtful, mean, or vengeful.   

Words of Gratitude

As I began my first appointment, I was introduced to the song “My Tribute.” Andre Crouch, who wrote and recorded the song, put words to what I understood to be my call to ministry.   

How can I say thanks for the things You have done for me?

Things so undeserved yet You gave to prove Your love for me.

The voices of a million angels could not express my gratitude.

All that I am and ever hope to be, I owe it all to Thee.

To God be the glory. To God be the glory. To God be the glory.

For the things He has done. 

Gratitude in Everyday Life

As I have matured in my faith, I have grown to understand that gratitude is more than something I simply express with words. Gratitude is woven into the fabric of everyday living, relationships, perspectives and assumptions, and the way I see the world. 

As I have searched the scriptures, I have found that the Bible emphasizes the importance of gratitude from “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus…” (I Thessalonians 5:18) to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1). 

In the scripture and in the Christian community, gratitude is seen as a virtue that fosters a positive and humble attitude, acknowledging the blessing of God in people and all of creation. 

Let’s use our pattern of “Read, Reflect, Respond, and Return” to focus on the grace in gratitude. 

Read Luke 17:11-19 

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus[a] was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with a skin disease approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’s[b] feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? 18 Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” 

Reflect

Leprosy was a physical condition that had broad implications. It was an incurable disease that separated people from one another. It was a living death. Individuals with leprosy were required, by their religion, to stay outside the boundaries of the community.  

If you had leprosy, you were physically, as well as socially, isolated from family, friends, synagogue, and all that gave meaning and purpose to your life. To have leprosy meant that you had no quality relationships outside of the diseased community. Your only means of living was to beg for handouts. And not only were you isolated, but you had the responsibility of announcing your condition to everyone who came close. In other words, because of your condition, you were marginalized, ostracized, and humiliated.  

In the story, as Jesus walks by, it is not clear whether they were begging or if they had confidence in Jesus’ power to cleanse them. But as Jesus passed, they cried out, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Although they did nothing to get leprosy, they have no rights to which they can appeal. Healing is not owed to them.  

Jesus directed them to “Go show yourselves to the priest.” The priest was one who could announce that each of them was cleansed of the disease. What is interesting here is Jesus gave each of them what was needed for healing and wholeness. His direction was an act of grace. 

They followed his direction. Their action of going to show themselves to the priest was their response. On their way, they were healed of their leprosy. They did not first simply believe and then go to the priest. They followed the direction of Jesus. As they followed his direction, they discovered they had been restored to health. Each of them received the same direction, the same grace, and were given hope of a new life. 

No Gratitude Without an Awareness of Grace

There is no gratitude without an awareness of grace. In the story, ten individuals experienced God’s grace. Each of them returned from the world in which they had been isolated. Each of them experienced a new life. Even though they each received grace and did what Jesus told them to do, there was no requirement to return. Yet, in a completely spontaneous expression of gratitude, one returned giving thanks and praise to God.  

Gratitude is a response to experience grace. It is the fundamental value of following Jesus. 

Respond

Effective leadership starts with gratitude. Who you are is how you lead. So, how will you express your gratitude this week? Below are several things you might do to cultivate gratitude in your life. 

Saying Grace 

First, may I suggest that you start today by saying grace over your possessions? Bow your head and say a word of thanks over the things you possess. By giving thanks, you live more by the God who holds you than by the things you are trying to hand onto. 

Saying grace over your possessions is the final test. Because gratitude is the central virtue of the Christian life. There is no other virtue like it. Let me say it (write it again). I have never known a person who was grateful who was at the same time, mean or small or bitter or hurtful. 

Make gratitude a Way of Life

Secondly, when you express gratitude, you weave gratitude into the fabric of your life. When you are a person of gratitude you lead with gratitude. Who you are is how you lead. 

You can explore more on gratitude being a way of life through the resources below: 

Make Time to Be Grateful

Third, if you are ready to become a more effective leader, another way to express your gratitude is:  

Over the next 5 days, make time each day to think about being grateful. Notice the people who inspire you. What do you see that makes you smile or to notice their actions? Keep in mind that no person or experience is insignificant. From the person who started a friendly conversation to the laughter of children, they are all part of what makes you who you are. The small joys are just as valuable as all the others. Give God thanks for the people you encounter each day.

Think about what makes your life easier. Is it the alarm that reminds you to get up each morning? The water in the shower? Your car, umbrella, cellphone? The list goes on. For what are you grateful at this moment? Give God thanks for what makes life easier.

Consider past relationships. Upon whose shoulders are you standing? What did the person do to make life better for you? Why are you better off for having known that person? Give thanks for the toughest relationship of the day. On my best days, I have come to experience sincere gratitude, even for difficult people, by looking for the good in my encounters with them. Give God thanks for the people who have gone before you, who are mentoring you, and who are helping you grow more in grace and generosity.

Add yourself to your gratitude list. You might feel uncomfortable. Most of the time you quickly focus upon things you do not like about yourself. But, when you practice gratitude, you can alter that negative cycle. What would happen if you, instead of focusing on your flaws, paid attention to what makes you most proud of yourself? Make a list of the talents and strengths God has given you. Now, give God thanks for those gifts and how God is using you to make a difference in the lives of the people entrusted to your care.

Finally, remember, who you are is how you lead. Effective leadership starts with gratitude.  

Return 

Give God thanks for the people you met today. 

  • Did you say grace over your possessions? Why? Why not? 
  • How did you notice that gratitude is woven into the fabric of your life? If it is not, what will do to cultivate gratitude in your living and leading? 
  • What did you learn about yourself and about your feelings and actions of gratitude? 
  • How did you experience God’s love? 
  • With whom did you share God’s love? 
  • Who is helping you grow as a leader? 
  • What will you do differently tomorrow? 

Ask God to give you the faith to be the leader God has created you to be. 

Prayer

O God, I give you thanks for the people and things in my life that make life meaningful and easy. Help me remember that I can let go of the things that hold me captive and trust you for meaning and purpose.  I give you thanks for my friends and colleagues who, through their gratitude, are helping me become more who you created me to be. I am grateful. Amen.