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Religious

“People don’t want to just read the responsive reading when they are told to.”
George Barna
“People are weary of all the constraints.”
D’Antonio

Perhaps you are familiar with the famous story told by Peter Drucker: “This reporter stops by a construction site and he interviews three bricklayers. He asks the first bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Well, I’m making a living laying these bricks.’ The reporter says, ‘Oh, that’s great. That’s very noble.’ He asks the next bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Well, I am practicing the profession of bricklaying. I’m going to be best bricklayer ever.’ And the reporter asks the third bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’”
It seems to me that most of us want to contribute to building a cathedral. Trouble is we become so preoccupied with the process of building that cathedral that we forget why we even showed-up for work. Though it is true that the small things matter they can distract us from what its all about – building a cathedral. Of course, the cathedral I speak of is figurative for most of us. Our cathedral may be a meaningful relationship with another, a successful career, a comfortable retirement or purposeful involvement with a charitable and life-changing organization.
           
As disciples of Jesus Christ (or as “members of the church” some would say) we have each pledged ourselves to building the grandest of cathedrals, The Church of Jesus Christ. I’m not talking about buildings but about people – building people in relationship to the person of Jesus. Young congregations do this well, making new followers and multiplying disciples for Jesus Christ. And as a result, lives are transformed (Hear a mission statement in that somewhere?). Young congregations know that together they are building a cathedral. Unfortunately, as many congregations mature (grow older) they become bricklayers. More time is spent writing “Responsive Readings” for worship than making disciples and placing constraints upon people who want to do ministry. Example: Telling someone that before they do something great for Jesus in the church they must first have committee approval and then Session approval. And friends, do I need to tell you that both bricklayers and cathedral builders become tired? Yet, of the two, cathedral builders rarely notice.
If we are going to be effective for Jesus Christ many reading this will need to change their focus and the way they speak around the church. Bricklayers argue about such things as “the worship service is too long” or, “someone is sitting in my place.” Cathedral builders care more about whether lives are being changed.

Joy,

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Religious

“We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality.”
DallasWillard
I have met very few “bad” people in my ministry though defining “bad” with any precision is a slippery slope. Most people I know, and have known, are basically good and decent people. They have been people who belong to churches and people who don’t. Membership in a church is a weak benchmark for identifying the character of people. That conviction has continued to be strengthened by people I meet who demonstrate considerable generosity, both financially and with volunteer time to nonprofits, and have a grace about them that simply blesses all who know them – yet they personally appear to have no interest in the church.
Many of those good and decent people have also shared with me that they intend much more with their lives, greater generosity, greater demonstration of love for others and greater movement toward some identified set of aspirations, core values or moral standard. They want to be so much more than they are now. The difficulty is that identifying a pathway “from here to there” isn’t done. What they “intend” for their life is rarely realized by the lack of a purposeful approach.
For Christians, the primary “intention” for life is to grow in the character of Christ. This isn’t one choice among several. Christlikeness is the intention, it is what “Christian” literally means: to become a little Christ. Naturally, this intention will rarely be realized without a purposeful approach. What is unfortunate is that for some who take a purposeful approach to growing in the character of Christ, they take the wrong road. That road may be marked by profession of perfectly correct beliefs, more study of the Bible or greater participation in the activities of the church. These are certainly good activities but each are insufficient for realizing our intention to be Christlike.
Dallas Willard, perhaps the most influential thinker in spiritual formation today, argues that there are two primary objectives for realizing authentic character development in the likeness of Christ: falling dearly in love with our Heavenly Father, constantly delighting in Him and realizing that there is no condition to His love for us and disrupting habitual patterns of thought, feeling and action that diminish Christ in us. The first is developed through the regular reading of scripture, not for more information but to experience the presence of God and regular worship, private and corporate. The latter is accomplished by developing intentional practices that, over time< become formative of our nature such as the practice of solitude and prayer, expressing gratitude regularly and financial generosity. The life that is pattern by these two objectives will find its way into the embrace of Christ.
Joy
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Religious

“Feelings, as Eugene Peterson once said, are remarkably unreliable guides to the state of your relationship with God, and are indeed seldom very reliable as guides to the state of your relationship with others.”
 Ben Witherington III
I received a discouraging email this week from a friend in Pennsylvania. The email spoke of another friend who has decided to drop out of his weekly Bible Study. The reason was that he simply could not “feel” God. This man was weary of chasing a relationship with a God that seemed absent in his own life. What surprises me about this particular individual is the regular, disciplined approach he took to reading the Bible. His love for the Bible and hours given to its study each week would make most church folk blush. My surprise, therefore, is that given all the time he has spent reading the Bible he must have discovered that it is replete with characters who have felt the absence of God. Chief among them is Jesus, “My God, My God, why have You left Me?” (Matthew 27:46 Common English Bible)
Where did my friend ever get the notion that relationships must be built upon “feelings?” Not from me. I have been married too long, I know better. Certainly, I love my wife. And for most of the twenty-five years of our marriage I have “felt” that love for her. That is to say, of course, that there have been moments where I have felt other things than love. To be fair, there have been more than a few moments when my wife has felt much about me other than love. What has kept us from walking away from each other in those moments is a commitment to the relationship. “Feelings” is simply too fragile of a foundation to build something as important as a marriage. The same is true for a relationship with God.
Ben Witherington III makes another observation I believe is useful to the conversation, love in the Bible is an action word. “It is your ethic, what you do and how you act toward God, others, and self. It is not really meant as a feeling. Doing loving deeds is what the Great Commandment is about. I am rather certain that the greatest loving deed of all time, Jesus’ dying on the cross for all of us, was not accompanied by warm fuzzy feelings. On the contrary, the story in the Garden of Gethsemane suggests that Jesus faced that prospect with icy dread. (Ben Witherington III, A Shared Christian Life, p. ix.)
What I know for certain is that God hasn’t given up on my friend. I have been praying for him since receiving the disappointing email. But my prayer has been less out of worry for him and more from a position of confidence in God. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve hid from God out of shame. Yet, God pursued them. And God pursues us. We all experience those moments when we lose our grasp of God. What we must never forget is that particularly in those moments, when we lose our grasp of God, God does not lose His grasp of us.
Joy,
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Religious

“We are saved to be a community, not a church of individuals.” 
(Brad House)
            Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual formation today is busyness. I have written elsewhere that a basic pathway for spiritual formation, being formed into the character of Christ, is fourfold: intentional formative practices, time in solitude with God, time in community of a small group and time sharing your faith journey with another. Each of these requires that we slow down our lives. There is a sturdy biblical foundation for this. The second chapter of Genesis opens with a declaration that God has completed God’s work in six days and now sets aside the seventh day for rest. As my former teacher, Walter Brueggemann, once commented, we are not to read quickly past this seventh day as if it were a footnote. Here, God announces that there is something of infinitely more value than striving and producing. The remainder of the Bible speaks to this though Jesus states it succinctly for us, love God and love your neighbor. Simply, our primary business is to be in relationship with God and one another.
            Many in the church have forgotten this. God’s seventh day has become a footnote, in very small print, as our lives become marked by ever escalating frantic activity. Lives are increasingly formed by the six days of the Genesis story and the seventh day, if considered at all, is regarded as a luxury or worse, that place where the lazy dwell. Spiritual formation might be the pursuit of some but its pursuit is largely done from a place of exhaustion and is unmoored from a small faith community. Without “rest” we imagine ourselves as more than the God who “rested from all the work that He had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3 NRSV) and separated from a small group, the pursuit is not Christian. As Brad House observes, we are saved to be a community, not a church of individuals.
            If there is to be a recovery of a vibrant Christian church it will be with a recovery of a vibrant experience of Christ by those who comprise the membership of the church. That simply isn’t possible until the seventh day is lifted from a footnote at the bottom of our lives and returned to where God intends, as the capstone to all of our activity. In that seventh day, and I am speaking figuratively here, we pursue not greater output but greater attention to relationships, God and neighbor. Attention to neighbor is optimally and authentically realized through participation in a small group. By planting ourselves in the community of a small group and recovering this seventh day of God’s rhythm of creation, we will train our attention toward God and remain in touch with what really matters in the midst of the busyness and noise of the other six days.
Joy,

Doug

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Religious

“And love, by its very nature, always reaches out.’
David G. Benner
            In my former church I often watched Kevin, an eight year old boy go around the church emptying trash cans into a large plastic trash bag. I looked forward to those evenings when he would come after school to the church to help his mother, our sexton, with her work. He was always pleasant, with a large beautiful smile that was occasionally punctuated with a near breathless excitement to share with me something he experienced that day in school. Kevin and I became friends and he would always brighten the day when he showed up with his mother.
            His mother,  a single mother of two young children, worked hard to provide for her family. The church provided her with ‘flex-time’ so that she could meet the needs of her elementary-aged children and complete her responsibilities for the church. This occasionally meant that she would have to pick her children up from school and bring them to church as she completed that day’s work. What fascinated me was that all she asked her children to do at the church was their school work. Yet, Kevin was compelled to help mom with her work in some way. The vacuum cleaner was larger than he was so that didn’t work. The soap dispensers in the bathrooms were out of his reach so that wasn’t a possibility. And there was no way she, being a responsible mother, would let Kevin near dangerous cleaning chemicals. What remained was emptying trash cans. 
            My fascination was Kevin’s unmistakable love for his mother. He adored her. And love, suggests David Benner, by its very nature, always reaches out. As Kevin “dwelt” in his mother’s love and his love for her, he could not help but to be caught up in his mother’s work. He participated in his mother’s work according to manner that he was equipped and had ability. He emptied trash cans and did so with sheer delight.
            Kevin is an inspiration to me. When I become weary by endless church committee meetings and have listened to innumerable people who always seem to know how to do my job better, Kevin reminds me that I am loved by God, and that I have been invited by that God to be “caught-up” in God’s work in the world. When I remember this, the spring in my step returns and once again I experience delight as a pastor, a pastor that serves our Lord in the manner in which I have been equipped and in which I have ability.
Joy,
Doug Hood
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Religious

“God desires that we become Bible-hearted practitioners, not just Bible knowers.”
Klaus Issler
“…there is a great deal of disappointment expressed today about 
the character and the effects of Christian people…” 
DallasWillard
            Following Jesus is about change. Change in our thoughts, speech and behavior. In fact, that good church word “repentance” literally means to “turn around and go the other way.” It is to change direction. Jesus came to us to show us another way to live. Knowing with considerable clarity what Jesus taught has no value to Jesus – none. That is, none unless it is followed by change.
            The church is populated with people who “know” the Bible. The Pharisees mentioned in the pages of the New Testament “knew” the Bible. Perhaps no one knew the Bible better than the Pharisees. But notice something else. The Pharisees drove Jesus nuts. Certainly they “knew” the Bible but their hearts were unchanged. Consequently, Jesus’ only mention of them was always as an example of what not to be. Klaus Issler is right – God desires that we become Bible-hearted practitioners, not just Bible knowers.
            Bible “knowers” are easy to recognize in the church. They are the ones who are always offering “helpful” criticism to others. The words that come over their lips rarely “grace” anyone – rarely encourages or praises someone. Bible knowers not only know their Bible. They know how to “do” church better than anyone else. Fresh baked cookies for the fellowship hour, never store bought. The music should be softer in worship or the pastor shouldn’t be reading from such a worn copy of the Bible (this really happened!). It often surprises me just how many Pharisees there are in the Christian church. And I stand with Jesus – they drive me nuts!
            If the truth be told there is a little Pharisee in each of us. Each of us has had a moment here or there when we want to offer our opinion – to be “helpful” of course. But the best of us recognize those moments and cringe. We simply do not want to be that way. So we try to be different, to change. The difficulty is that every action, every thought and behavior and word spoken comes from the heart. Unless the heart is changed, willful determination to change will always fail.
            Heart change is the work of God. It is not our work. Yet we do have a responsibility. God’s empowering, formative “heart-work” in each of us is accomplished as we place ourselves in accommodating circumstances. Simply, God requires time with us in the silent places. Jesus demonstrated this for us time and time again. Regular time alone with God reading scripture and prayer and sitting in silence listening for God’s whispers in our hearts accommodates God’s work in us.
            It is well documented that sleep deprivation diminishes our mental clarity and physical health. We simply require sleep. Similarly, “God deprivation” diminishes us spiritually. Willpower alone can never carry the freight of living into the character of Christ. We will always be defeated. Fortunately, we are never asked in the Bible to live by our own strength. God changes hearts. But time alone with God regularly throughout the week is required. If we give this time to God, we will not be disappointed.
Joy,
Doug 
             
           
            
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Religious

“Once we begin to realize that genuine spiritual growth is a continuous and sometimes difficult process, we may be tempted to think that it is an option we can take or leave.’
M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.
“One by one, they all began to make excuses.” 
Luke 14:18a
Clay, in its natural state, has little value. Yet, in a master’s hands, clay has nearly endless possibilities for both function and beauty. The difference is the master’s hand. God tells us in Jeremiah 18 that we are like clay. Each person has been created for useful service for God’s purposes. But until we have been molded and shaped by the hands of the Master we have little value in advancing God’s purposes here on earth. The Master I speak of, naturally, is God.
Spiritual formation is the process by which we participate in God’s molding and shaping us for God’s use. It is a shared activity: our willingness to place ourselves in God’s hands and God’s work in and upon us. Alone – apart from God – we cannot become all that God desires us to be. Without our willing participation in the shaping process, God will not create in us an instrument of useful service. Simply, spiritual formation is something we do with God.
            So how do we participate in the spiritual formation process? In my study of the scriptures, I have observed three patterns of active participation:
  • Time Alone with God in study and prayer.
  • Time in Community of a small group for support, encouragement, accountability and care.
  • Time Sharing our faith journey with another.
Through these three activities we consciously and willingly place our lives in the Master’s hands. What will come from all that activity is left to God. It is no different with clay. Soft, malleable clay in the hands of the master has no say what will become of it. The primary difference is that we know the Master – He is the One Who came to us in Jesus Christ and upon the cross gave His life for us. In such hands we have little worry about what will come of us. We have seen God’s intentions and it is good.
The tragedy is that many in the church are not experiencing transformation into useful instruments for God’s use. One by one, they all make excuses. The demands of marriage, raising children and advancing in a chosen career leave no time for genuine spiritual growth activity. No time for the study of scripture and prayer. No time for meeting weekly in a small group for spiritual nurture and growth. No time to share with other people about one’s personal journey of faith. Of course, if there is no time for intentional spiritual formation, there is no faith journey to speak of.

It seems to me that such thinking is really more of a confession than an excuse; confession that one is really not interested in giving-up control of their life to God. As M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. so brilliantly expresses it, spiritual formation is the great reversal: from being the subject who controls all other things to being a person who is shaped by the presence, purpose and power of God in all things. Churches are populated by members who make excuses. Fortunately, they are also populated by genuine disciples of Jesus who are being shaped by the Master’s hand.   

Joy,
Doug
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Religious

“Do you want more of God? Then shut up and listen.” 
Leonard Sweet
“Be still, and know that I am God!” 
Psalm 46:10
            I know someone who cannot be still. If they are not physically moving then they are seated in front of a computer or mentally engaged with some hand-held electronic device. They are always in motion – physically or mentally. They don’t sleep very well. I’m not surprised. Their mind simply doesn’t know how to shut down and be still. The consequence is that they are always exhausted. Perhaps you know this person. Perhaps this person is you.
            One of the first lessons God teaches us is that we were created in a manner that requires us to be still on a regular basis. In fact, God demonstrates this lesson to us in the opening pages of the Bible; God creates the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. And on the seventh day God rests. To watch some people it would seem that they have more energy than God. They simply have missed God’s intention that we stop occasionally. I wonder if Isaac Newton was making a personal observation when he famously declared that a body in motion tends to remain in motion.
            The person I speak of – and I am thinking of a specific individual – is not only physically exhausted, they often live their life in a spiritual wasteland. They want more of God, they desperately long for more of God but God seems far away. I know because they often ask me how they can have more of God. I haven’t shared with him Leonard Sweet’s elixir, “Then shut up and listen.” That’s another thing with my friend, they don’t listen very well. How could they? Their mind is always racing with one thought or another.
            My friend needs to take baby steps. First, simply stop from time to time and watch people. Notice their behavior, their activity and how they engage with others. Make mental notes, “What do I see?” Naturally, this is still mental activity but activity that notices a world apart from oneself. Once that has been practiced for a period then what is required is actively listening to others. As those in the helping profession would say, active listening is putting aside any thought to a response – it is simply hearing another fully. Active listening frees us from a sense of isolation – another difficulty my friend struggles with.
            Once there is some familiarity with active listening – it is mastered only by the most disciplined – the most difficult step is to read scripture and sit in silence listening for God. Again, quoting Leonard Sweet, if you want more of God then shut up and listen. This isn’t easy. It has often been the most difficult part of my own spiritual journey.
            Psalm 46:10 provides guidance. Placed in the context of the whole Psalm, what we are asked to do is “lean forward” with attentive, expectant hearts for God’s speech to us. This is not an invitation to a passive posture, physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. We are invited to a specific activity – leaning forward to hear a word from God. We wait for something to be revealed to us previously hidden.
            I believe that my friend is sincere in his desire to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. What is required is that the pathway of discipleship be located in a place of stillness before God. If he can find this beginning place – stillness before God, time alone with God – he may discover that his exhaustion, difficulty with restful sleep and loneliness will all be diminished. More, the Psalm promises, what he will know with certainty is God.
Joy,
Doug   
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Religious

“The missional church at the dawn of the twenty-first century 
stands or falls on its capacity to make disciples.” 
Alan Hirsch
The primary business of the church is to make disciples. Preaching, teaching and pastoral care are each important so long as they serve the singular purpose of making disciples. Jesus demonstrated this priority in His ministry. In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples seek Jesus early one morning and find Him praying. With considerable audacity they disrupt Jesus at prayer and tell Him of the urgency before them that day – the pastoral care load was already mounting. Jesus dismisses the disciple’s agenda for the day with another, going to the neighboring towns that disciples may be made in those places. “That is what I came out to do,” says Jesus as if He is surprised that He has to remind the disciples,

Additionally, Jesus told the disciples clearly and directly that the primary purpose of their ministry is to make disciples. At the close of Matthew’s Gospel, the church locates what has come to be known as The Great Commission. Jesus is prepared to depart from His disciples and has one final word for them. Last words or final words are usually chosen with care. The one speaking sifts through multiple thoughts, multiple concerns to locate the one thought, and the one concern that trumps all others in importance. Jesus’ final thought – His primary concern – is that the disciples understand that they have been called together and apprenticed for three years for one thing, to make disciples,

It is curious that church boards often spend considerable time in identifying and crafting a mission statement for their church. One would think by all that effort that the mission is negotiable. Jesus gave no indication that it is. The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus demonstrated this in His ministry and told the disciples that it is to be their ministry. Making disciples is the main thing.

Alan Hirsch is right – the missional church stands or falls on its capacity to make disciples. Beautiful and compelling worship, thoughtful teaching and preaching and excellent attention to the pastoral care needs of a faith community remain important. Yet, if year after year all of that activity is for the same people, the church will have failed to advance the one thing Jesus said was most important.

Joy,
Doug
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Religious

“Ultimately, each church will be evaluated by only one thing – its disciples. If your disciples are passive, needy (“feed me,” “visit me,” “take care of my needs”), consumeristic, and not moving in the direction of radical obedience, your church is not good.” 
Neil Cole
“The unseen culture of a church powerfully shapes her ability to grow, mature and live missionally.” J.R. Woodward
The wonderful Presbyterian pastor, Craig Barnes has advanced – with considerable force – the singular notion that “It’s not about you.” A popular speaker at leadership conferences and as a guest in churches of every size, Barnes has crafted his “stump speech” around those four words. Thousands have heard those words enumerated in various and imaginative ways but the message remains: the work of the church is not, has not and never will be about “you.” What remains, of course, is the question, “Just what is the work of the church about?” Simply, the work of the church is about the Missio Dei – the Mission of God.
Unfortunately, something of a heresy has infected a great number of churches in North America. I limit this observation to North American churches only because my personal observation and reading has been so limited. The heresy of which I refer is a change of culture from the one that shaped the church of the New Testament; a change from the New Testament church’s self-understanding that it existed to advance the work of God in the world to the present North American understanding that the church exists to provide religious goods and services to it’s privileged members. As someone once observed, the Sunday morning offering has become membership dues and those that pay expect certain privileges. The church has become another club.
There is good news. Emerging in the last two decades is a recovery of the original charter of the church – the church exists for God’s ongoing work in the world. Church members, rather than being “club members” who demand goods and services are now identified as “disciples” who accept personal responsibility for God’s mission. Widely, this recovery is referenced as the “Missional Church.” Quite simply, this fresh understanding of the character and mission of the church is a movement from “What can the church do for me?” or even the more noble question, “What can I do for God?” to discernment of where God is presently at work and joining that work in a meaningful way.
Churches who are now possessed by this new culture are renouncing the heresy that once held the church captive. Abandoned are the artifacts of a culture that seeks to meet the personal needs of members. This old way of thinking about and being church is experiencing a New Testament rebirth that calls all church “disciples” to ministries appropriate to the spiritual gifts that they have been so endowed by God. Anything less is now recognized as idolatry – “me” before God.
How might a “membership” culture be changed into a “discipleship” culture?  Reams of paper have absorbed gallons of black ink orchestrated by those seeking to address that question.  Many helpful insights have been provided. What many have discovered is that specific tactics and strategies vary from region to region and church to church. Cultural change in a specific church is difficult work and requires more the careful hand of an artist than the blueprint of a strategist. But there are two biblical principles that drape over all tactics and strategies like a sacred canopy: repentance and prayer.
The Book of Jeremiah is instructive. In the eighteenth chapter, God has Moses tell the people – who are on the wrong track – that if they “turn from their evil,” then God’s response will be, “I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring.” What God is speaking of is “repentance,” by both the people and God. Simply, if the people turn and go the other way – the meaning of repentance – then God will also turn and go the other way. Many Christians are often surprised to learn that God has invited us into a dynamic relationship with God. And that relationship is sustained and nurtured like all relationships – through regular and substantive conversation. Such conversation with God is commonly called “prayer.”
Any cultural change within a particular congregation must begin with the leaders acknowledging that they are “going the wrong way.” Ministry that has been designed to serve the people and all their perceived needs must give way to a fresh commitment to the mission of God. Then leaders must do what leaders do – lead the people to a fresh encounter of the scriptures and understanding of the dominant theme found there – God’s mission in the world. Naturally, all leadership must acknowledge a dependence upon God for hearts to be changed and people mobilized for ministry. That is what will shape the content of their prayers.
This is not to say that people’s needs do matter to God. The church only has to point to the cross of Jesus to demonstrate God’s concern for God’s people. What scriptures do say is that ministries to the needs of the people is to be done by the people of the cross-shaped community – not necessarily by the leaders, ordained and elected. Leaders direct the people into meaningful participation in the mission of God and the people minister to one another as the larger mission of God is advanced. This is what the Reformed Church has called “the priesthood of all believers.” 
Neil Cole is right. Each church will be evaluated by only one thing – its disciples. Attention to the expectations and behavior of any particular church will reveal whether it is a church that functions as another club in the community or a missionary force for God’s purposes.
  
Joy,
Doug Hood