Category Archives: 48. Together

Together (Sunday)—John 13:31-35

Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately. Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come. A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:31-35)

Dear family, I am preparing to share my story this morning at the 2012 Eufaula Kingdom Summit. Perhaps what is coming to your mind is an auditorium, numbers of people, a PA system and a keynote speaker. The truth is, this is just a big name ( a facetious one I made up) for a little gathering. We are just eight guys who have intentionally pulled off the busy freeway of life and ministry. We have downshifted into a gear where we are no longer just a blur to each other. Even though the venue is small, it feels big to me.

In light of verses 34 and 35, it’s a wonder our ministerial yardsticks are laid out in people numbers on one side and dollars on the other. (Oh yes, good evangelical ministries also have a souls saved yardstick.) However, if you are a leader, you will eventually be asked the following questions: “How many people have you got coming out?” “What does your budget look like (especially missions)?” To clarify: these are not the questions we are asking today at the Eufaula Kingdom Summit.

The simple premise of this retreat was to create a safe space for men to be themselves and hopefully feel comfortable enough to tell their stories. We didn’t come to fix each other up. We just came to identify and affirm the master builder’s handiwork in each other’s lives. Amazingly, without a single prepared message from the Bible, without a worship center or a bulletin, without any titled religious professional presiding, the Spirit has been moving—drawing us toward each other and toward the Father.

When the conventional yardsticks are left at home, people are free to relate to each other differently. I feel privileged to be a part of something that may resemble those New Testament gatherings where each person had something to contribute, where words of encouragement were given to build each other up, where the obligation of leading and teaching were shared. For the purposes of this gathering we will give each other permission to “Be yourself, tell your story because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” (That sentence is not in the Bible; it is a Jack Taylorism – the spiritual father who inspired this gathering. In fact, he would be leading this retreat had he not crashed an ATV and injured himself.)

I believe that gathering, as we have in Jesus’ name, ultimately makes a contribution to the structure God is building. As living stones, our size, our angularity, and certainly our degree of hardness vary. Yet, with sufficient differences to split eight churches, we are enjoying an edifying and civil give-and-take, which is bringing clarity as to what manner of stones we are. I believe we will depart later today with a better understanding of how we are to fit into the larger structure God is building.

The Master Builder has positioned us strategically in our relationships to the stones around us. His love will ultimately prove to be the mortar holding us together. We will not always be independent piles of dissimilar rock. A Master Architect has conceived of a structure which includes us all. By God’s astonishing grace, we will one day find ourselves polished and fitted together to people we had mislabeled. We will have been glued side-to-side to souls we may have deemed offensive. One of the great wonders of God’s kingdom will be the glorious structure He has built with us—such raw and questionable material. It is good to recall that we are the habitation of God and, for a time, will be (individually and collectively) under construction.

Our group is from different generations, backgrounds, experiences, and theologies. Upon arrival (because of our flawed yardsticks), we may have seen each other as unlikely stones. However, as we intentionally drew near, apart from our busy and more familiar contexts, we gave love a chance. We listened to each other, discovering the unique ways God has been transforming us from inert stones into living stones. All we have done is create a safe space by listening to each other describe how Father has been building. Our joint-exploration into God’s love is proving to be a powerful way of being together—something worth replicating.

The Message quotes Jesus saying, “You are going to look high and low for me.” Since 1976, I too have looked high and low for Jesus. I had followed but I hadn’t found. To clarify, what I didn’t find was the Jesus I had preferred or the one I had anticipated. He didn’t save that business I claimed would not fail (or the two I prayed would not). He didn’t automatically heal people, including me, when I asked. He didn’t prevent those church schisms. He didn’t offer any quick fixes to my relationship disasters. He didn’t quickly lead me out of my vocational box canyons. He didn’t speak to me in the prophetically acceptable ways considered to be the gold standard by my tribe. He didn’t overwhelm me by His Spirit in ways my immediate co-laborers recognized as His authentic presence. So…I quit looking for Jesus around 2010.

I am still seeking the kingdom, but In the Middle with Mystery is an account of the hope within me, which I attribute to having ceased looking high and low for Jesus. The Blue Book led me to a quiet place where I have made a habit of not looking for Him. The friends God has given me are also places I regularly quit looking for Him because I have found, in these places (and all places), Jesus is, and has always been, waiting for me. Looking for something you already have is a tragic waste of energy and a certain pathway to disillusionment.

Holy Spirit, we acknowledge Your rightful place in the center of our beings and our gatherings. We give You continual permission to fulfill Your mission through us of drawing men toward You and toward each other. May they see You preparing us and fitting us together so that all men may see and believe. Help us to make time and space for the relationships You have given us. May Your love bear fruit in us for Your kingdom. Father, please show us the off ramp. Amen.

 

 

Together (Saturday)—Luke 10:25-37

When the learned man stood to test Jesus, his motive, as a lawyer, was to expose contradictions in Jesus’ testimony and thereby discredit Him. I picture Jesus, totally unthreatened, saying, “Thank you, I’m glad you asked.” At this point the lawyer may have even thought he had lulled the country boy to sleep with his feigned deference to Him as “Teacher.” Jesus replied with words this man had known since he was a child: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.

At this point, the lawyer may have been the one disarmed. This familiar command, coupled with Jesus’ authentic respect, may have moved this man’s heart. Jesus then plies His trade, exposing the lawyer’s heart, and ours, saying: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Our lawyer, caught off guard, yet still nimble of mind, managed “Yes, but…who is my neighbor?”

The story Jesus tells in response is familiar to us. A man is waylaid by a band of robbers and left alone to die. Both a priest and a Levite (God’s men) “pass by on the other side,” leaving the victim as they had found him. But a Samaritan (a religious and social inferior) has compassion and cares for this man. The Samaritan takes ownership of the man’s health, making what resources he had available until the victim regained his health.

I could picture a tribal man from some remote jungle, after observing our culture, returning home and reporting, “They are a people who pass by on the other side.” He might then add, “At high speed!”

The pace of our busy lives does not allow us to slow down enough to see the waylaid souls around us. In western culture overdrive, we are just a blur to each other, as far as our hearts are concerned. While we are progressing technologically, are we not in decline socially? Do we see our bondage to this materialistic, production-oriented culture? Oh well, at least at high speed we can keep our resources for ourselves. (Sarcasm intended.)

The lawyer thought he had cornered Jesus, but Jesus had cornered the lawyer—and us. Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, it is anyone we encounter who has a need or a burden we can relieve by sharing of ourselves and our resources. As members of God’s family on earth, our obligation is to assume ownership of one another’s well-being until we are all whole.

Our culture is not going to voluntarily slow down. Individually, we are going to have to exit the freeway of our own accord. We are going to have to downshift from over drive into a more efficient gear. At our new pace, our neighbors will no longer be a blur. We can ask them, with sincerity, “How are you doing?” Perhaps as we do, like our Samaritan, our compassion will be awakened. By really listening, we create safe spaces for others. In this secure place, they can discover who they really are and the extent to which their souls have been robbed or are being robbed. And perhaps, in the process, we will see what has been robbed from us.

Communities are safe spaces of connected people who, by nature, ward off the isolation that give robbers opportunity in the first place. If we are to pass Jesus’ test, we will discover that we are each called to become our brother’s keeper. As His friends and children, we are to take ownership of the space around us for the sake of His kingdom.

Father, may Your love triumph. May we discover the nature of our oneness. May we learn to defer to one another and consider the needs of others above our wants. Give us the courage to slow down and really look at those around us. Awaken our compassions and transform them into those many deeds, which you have prepared beforehand that we might walk in them. Amen.

 

 

Together (Friday)—John 17:20-26

The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; that the world may know … (from John 17:22-23)

Most of my Christian life has been lived as a devoutly religious person. After discovering God’s love for me, which was a pure gift, I devoted myself to living in a manner I believed would please God. I studied the Bible. I memorized scripture. I witnessed. I fellowshipped. I prayed. All these things I did diligently. Voila! Spiritual formation. (or so I thought)

However, an unexpected thing happened. As I ascended along this well-trodden pathway to Christian maturity, my heart, I discovered, was in decline. To my horror, my initial joy was overtaken by depression. Many of my key relationships were either strained or broken. I was struggling privately with sin and I was angry and scared. I had been doing my best to stay on the straight and narrow path. How could it be that I was privately doing so badly?

In the darkness of my valleys I would stage little revival meetings. I would come to the altar and rededicate myself to the spiritual disciplines. However, I was losing confidence in this drill. These little rallies were compounding my guilt. I could never study, pray, or witness enough to overcome the shame that was becoming normative to my heart. My guilt and shame had become my cross to bear. Yes, I was depraved, but there was an upside. I was now a humble man. (Sarcasm intended.)

I believed depravity was the domineering force of my life. I knew I would be wrestling with it (and losing) until the day I died. Sure enough, my heart was just like the Bible said; it was desperately sick. The only thing I could find comfort (and a bit of pride) in was the fact that Paul and I each understood we were the chiefs of sinners. Even though we concurred with the law of God at one level, we were really prisoners to the law of sin on another. How much more humble can you get! (Major sarcasm intended).

Yes, it turns out, my heart was sick, but it was not with classic debauchery. I was a prisoner of another more subtle yet no less deadly aspect of my depraved nature—its predisposition toward religion. I am using the word religion with a negative connotation because of its roots in pride and the alienation it creates between God and man. My working definition of religion is: “any system of thought or practice whereby the thinking or the doing of it causes me to think that I have gained the favor of God.” (Thank you, Gene Griffin).

In my fixation on fallenness, humility meant I had to keep my sin ever before me (thank you King David). Humility meant reminding myself that, in Adam, I was a monster of iniquity (thank you Paris Readhead). I was taught that my entire motive was to live independent of God’s rule. It was just just who I was (thank you most every evangelical teacher I had been exposed to).

I was running my race as a fallen man, working overtime on humility. I humbled myself with zeal, devotion, and deep conviction until I hit the wall somewhere around 2010. It was a physical, emotional, and spiritual splat. The Good News? My definition of humility was about to change. (No sarcasm whatsoever.)

My weakness and pain was fertile ground for the Holy Spirit. Laborers in the harvest (the real one) pitched in, helping me to see I was not who I thought I was. There was more to me than depravity. I was a new creation in Christ. I had got this memo 35 years ago and even memorized it, but religion had diverted it from my heart. Today, humility is simply that state-of-the-heart in which I agree with God regarding my identity as His son. I’m not just a tolerated stepchild. I am His beloved and He is mine. My conversion as a sin-addicted prodigal produced a dramatic transformation; my conversion as a religion-addicted elder brother has been no less dramatic.

I am also God’s friend and a younger brother to Jesus; therefore, I am a co-heir with Christ. I am a new creature. The old me was crucified and buried with Christ. A new me was resurrected in Christ to eternal life. I can now stand in God’s holy presence with boldness and great joy. For me, maintaining this perspective is what it now means to: “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord.”

I am not sure which burden was heavier, blatant sensual sin or devout religious flesh—so prideful and blind it could imagine itself qualifying for God’s love. As a man who has been twice converted, I believe the deception of religion is greater than licentiousness.

But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:23)

It can be very great! Religious light is darker because it can look great. It is honored and promoted. It is put in charge and consequently misleads multitudes! It cannot lead out of love because it does not feel loved. That is why it is working for God’s approval. It is working out of insecurity and obligation, compensating for its misunderstanding of God’s heart.

Jesus’ finished work on the cross was intended to relieve us of the workload of making ourselves acceptable to God. Working for God’s approval gives off a light, but it is a cold, dark one. This was the light I gave off as I attempted, not so humbly, to carry my cross by fighting an un-winnable war with my flesh.

Father, may Your glory become apparent in us. Expose works-religion for the satanic snare it is. May all Your prodigals and elder brothers grasp Your love, which we have so badly misunderstood. Release us into the freedom Your cross was intended to produce. May we experience the unity You intended, that the world may know. Amen.

 

Together (Thursday)—Colossians 3:12-17

In the first two chapters alone of the letter to his beloved Colossians, Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” 15 times. He knows the revelation and realization of this mystery is essential if he is to succeed in presenting everyman complete to the Father. He also says Jesus Christ is God’s mystery and that He must richly dwell within our hearts.

How comfortable is western culture with mystery? Can our mighty society conceive of building anything on something so mushy as a mystery? Western culture is barreling full steam ahead, powered by selfish ambition and technology. It has little room for transcendence (although it flirts with it vicariously through fantasy. How else do you explain our fascination with zombies and vampires?). Will the citizens of this kingdom be able to transfer the weight of what they are building onto Jesus Christ, Who is the only foundation that will withstand the shaking that is to come? Will members of this earth’s kingdoms be capable of seeing themselves in the narrative of an invisible kingdom that is still unfolding? The answer is “no,” not unless there is a revelation of Jesus Christ – God’s mystery.

The name of this blog, In The Middle With Mystery, has confused some. They say, “What’s the big mystery? I believe Jesus is the Son of God, He died for my sin, and I’m going to heaven. What’s so mysterious about that?” At this point, I propose that salvation is a larger idea than getting men to heaven, that it involves the communal-process of getting heaven into man. This is a central feature to the good news, as Paul understood it. Achieving this is how he envisions the gospel spreading: “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.

The conduct Paul is referring to is simply resurrection life being manifested through us. When he spoke of salvation, he was never thinking (as we do) of a singular decision that results in life after death. To Paul, salvation was a process where the life of Christ in us is always being worked out in our every day eating, drinking, playing, and working lives. He understood that we are each preaching some version of the gospel at all times. This is why he says, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

What does resurrection life look like anyway? Our passage explains:

 As those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. (Colossians 3:12-17)

To present every man whole to God, Paul must convey that this salvation process is not a solo affair. We have each been grafted into a single body and are now members of one another. This is why he said working out our salvation includes fear and trembling. He understood salvation does not happen without the messy, high friction dynamic of being together. This is why “one another” is mentioned 100 times in the NT.  This was Jesus’ idea:

 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. Love one another as I have loved you.  John 13:34-35

It is daunting to see that the love-relational bar has been set at such an impossible height. Who can love like Jesus? No one can unless Christ lives in himLoving one another like Christ can only be done as we embrace the reality that we have died in Christ and have been raised in Christ to newness of life. We can only clear the bar in Christ and “all” things are possible with God.

I do see hope in Jesus Christ—God’s mystery in us. I do see us living in a hope-filled narrative that is still unfolding. That we do not know the particulars or the timing of the next chapter is a mystery, but we do know that Jesus prevails. A future chapter includes all knees bowing before Him, all tongues confessing Him as Lord. All things are possible to Him. Camels do find their way through the eyes of needles. Jesus (not the religion of Christianity) is going to conquer every kingdom. Will it be upon His return? Will it be after we have left these bodies?

What if, by God’s grace, we were awakened to our bankruptcy outside of Christ, and we asked God to intervene, showing us how salvation is worked out in Christ, in the here and now? In the presence of overwhelming odds, I recall Abraham, taking a bold approach with God – his friend, and negotiating for the salvation of Sodom. Perhaps we should reconsider how God sees us and begin praying, in that spirit, for our nation and this world with the same chutzpah that only a friend of God would dare.

No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)

Father, as Your friends and children, who are caught up into a great Mystery, help us to transfer the full weight of our existence upon You. Only You know how we have hedged our bets. Expose us that our hearts can return to childlikeness so we might see the unseen and trust You in the presence of our imperfect understanding. Amen.

 

Together (Wednesday)—Romans 12:1-21

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, that you might prove what the will of God is, that which is good acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

At the age of 25, I was a zealous young disciple who had memorized this verse and was busily memorizing others in a systematic way. Along with inductive Bible study, that was how I would manage my transformation. It felt good to be on the cutting edge of authentic Christianity—oblivious to Paul’s council in verse 3: “Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought to think; but think so as to have sound judgment.

A lesson I hope I continue to learn is that God’s intentions involve bringing our minds and our hearts together. While the mind can acquire truth, it’s the heart that must live it. While I had inscribed the first two verses of Romans 12 on my mind, it was the remaining 19, having to do with relationships, that God would use to inscribe His words onto my heart. Here is a summary of those verses:

 So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of the other; be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; bless those who persecute you; be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation; if possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

I think of truth as a seed. When I memorized it, I would like to think that it had been planted in my heart and was now a part of the renewed me. In truth, though, as the seed was stored in my mind, it was really just resting on the surface. It had no roots and it certainly didn’t have any fruit. I had no idea that my response to the one another—relational commands of verses 3-21 would determine if the hard shell around that seed would deteriorate, germinate, and grow.

One of the ways we are conformed to this world is the way we see ourselves. In Adam—in our flesh—we are predisposed toward selfishness. Here, the devil and the world conspire to keep us in competition with each other so that comparison is second nature. This is ground zero for the transformation God has in mind.

 When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding. (II Corinthians 10:12)

Certainly we differ, but our differences have more to do with our place in the Body of Christ and the gifts He has entrusted to us. God is inviting us into a kingdom without class-distinctions, as we know them. In this counterintuitive realm, we must embrace one another, especially the #10 grit one anothers. Our transformation depends upon it.

Jesus is Lord and He is faithful to provide us with others (often abundantly) who will rub us cross-grain. In this dynamic friction, we have peak opportunity for truth to move from our minds to our hearts where it becomes part of the kingdom’s government—influencing our motives and, ultimately, our actions. If we will listen and obey in the ruff and tumble of relationships, the hard shell of the seed will break down and truth will be birthed, the Word will become flesh, the Light of the world will be seen, love will prevail and the gospel’s claims of freedom will be validated. I can’t help but think of a Suzy Derkins line from Calvin and Hobbs: “And while I’m wishing, I’d like a pony, too.”

By the time I was 35, I had amassed a lot of Bible knowledge, but I had also amassed and afflicted tons of pain on my one anothers. I blush in this confession, but even while I was duking it out with God’s agents of grace (code for my family), I was trumpeting propositional (memorized) truth from the housetops with conviction. I was blowing with all my might, but the sound fell to the ground as a heavy and lifeless religious noise— kind of like a gong. One of the great milestones in my journey occurred when God confronted me with Paul’s words, from our passage: “If possible, be at peace with all men.

This may be difficult to understand, but I knew specifically what I was to do with this verse. God was asking me to forgive someone. On my list (and I had a long one) this particular one-another qualified as #10 grit sandpaper. If you are unfamiliar with sand paper grades, #10 is the one made with shards of glass. My knees buckled when I grasped what God was asking me to do. Welcome to the kingdom of God.

A very familiar part of me violently opposed this plan, but what was I to do, I had given Him permission to use His Hebrews 4:12 sword on my heart. This was an OMG moment; I was discovering what it really meant to be a follower of Jesus. The story is too long (and too personal) to post, but I chose to follow Jesus. Again, this may be difficult to understand, but the moment I sided with God on this matter, grace literally poured into my life and into my relationships. And, all I had done was acknowledge that, as far as it concerned me, it was possible (because of Christ in me) to be at peace with all men.

It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it resulted in an amazing transformation in me and, consequently, in my family. I came away with the understanding that God has called His children to embrace this dying-living-loving process as our kingdom way of life. Our light shines brightly in these 7×70 (Matthew 18:22) – moments because in our dying we are being transformed into the image of Christ.

Prior to this watershed event, I was at serious odds with people very close to me. I was certain that a jury of my peers would vindicate me on all counts if they could only hear my case. I was certain of this. I just knew, if truth and justice were on the job, the real perpetrators would be exposed and punished. I was dead certain.

A few of my memorized verses were slipping (with no shortage of pain) from my head to my heart. I now knew for sure that God’s ways were very different and much higher than my own. It became crystal clear (and heart breaking) that He was not in the least bit interested in my jury idea. Can you believe that! In fact, as far as He was concerned, my attitude toward difficult people was the only item on the docketAgain, welcome to the kingdom.

I knew in my heart that if I didn’t let go of this, God and I were going to be at odds. I’m so grateful that He enabled me to respond to Him and abandon my self-righteousness. This event underscored for me what it meant to take up one’s cross and follow Him. Grace flooded into a situation I had written off as impossible, setting the stage for a new season of life. A captive had been set free and a decade of strife had been redeemed. This was the kingdom!

Had I insisted on my rights, I would have been walking in the flesh. I would have reaped death for myself and others. I would have had to sell myself some story about my opponent’s depravity to justify my own self-righteousness. I have concluded that being right is highly overrated.  While thinking we are right feels good to our flesh, it is a certain pathway to death for our spirits.

Father, help us to see that all the ingredients are at hand, that our circumstances, together with Your Word and Your Spirit are sufficient for our transformation. May this world see Your resurrection life demonstrated as we find ourselves in right relation to each other, individually members one to the other. In so doing, may we overcome evil with good.

If the Lord is bringing anyone to mind just now, here is a proven prayer-route to higher ground:

 Lord, I forgive (fill in the blank for yourself – you know the names). I give you permission to take the judgment and the bitterness out of my life. I do not want this in my life.  I surrender it to You and ask You to remove it—to heal me where I have been wounded, to forgive me where I have sinned. I choose not to blame or hold the action of others against them. I hereby surrender my right to be paid back for my loss by the one who has sinned against me, and in so doing, I declare my trust in You alone as my Righteous Judge. Father bless them in every way. In Jesus name, amen.  

(This prayer was contributed by Charlie Finck of Liberty Cross Ministries, Liberty Lake, WA.)  God bless you, Charlie!

 

 

Together (Tuesday)—Hebrews 10:19-25

I was chatting with a guy at a Dallas hotel who informed me that the church across the busy freeway had just gone to five services. “They had to” he said,  “in order to accommodate their 25% annual growth.” While my friend was waiting for my “wow,” I was wondering if God measured success with the same yardstick we do. In light of Jesus’ comments about broad and narrow paths, I wouldn’t think numbers alone should be our benchmark. Can we build the city whose architect is God, using our standards of measurement and our tools?  What were the apostles using as a plumb line?

            Once upon a time there was an apprentice who was handed a board by the journeyman carpenter and instructed to produce 100 boards exactly like it. Eager to please, the zealous apprentice laid the original on top of the board to be cut and struck his line. He made his cut and produced his first board. He then used it to mark the cut for the third. He followed this procedure for each subsequent cut. When the journeyman came to see how his apprentice had done, he was not pleased. He asked where the original board was. The journeyman picked up the template and compared it to the last board that was cut. He showed him how setting aside the original pattern had resulted in a slow accumulation of error. The consequence was that much time and materials had been spent cutting 98 boards that could not be used.

Why is Christianity being increasingly marginalized in modern culture? The reason (we devout ones often tell ourselves) is that men are by nature hardened, depraved, or unelected—probably all three. While I see an element of truth to this, I don’t think it’s the whole story. I believe that substituting numbers and dollars for the transformation of human lives has resulted in our accumulated error. We must now call this normal lest we delegitimize our own existence. In other words, each subsequent board cut over the centuries became a tradition sanctified by time and practice. Institutions perpetuate themselves by comparing themselves to their own traditions, not by comparing themselves to the original early church example. Such a comparison would raise many questions. I believe there are many yet-to-be-saved persons who keep Christianity at bay because the last board looks so different than the first.

To insure that our boards look like the original, I am proposing to the small groups I participate in that we read and meditate on the New Testament narrative, retaining it as our standard. I am proposing we learn to read this story in a new way—not to merely add to our base of Bible knowledge, but such a way that we allow its light to search our hearts and become our own internal standard of measure.

Today’s passage reminds us to not forsake our own assembling together. The writer tells us we are to encourage and stimulate each other toward love and good deeds. I don’t know if you caught that, but Pastor and his sermons were not mentioned. The writer presumes that saints have the capacity, in themselves, to stimulate each other. Welcome to community—the original pattern.

Christ is in us. We are in Christ. This is why Jesus is actually present where two or three are gathered in His name. Leaders who grasp this simple devotion to Christ will go far in honoring the original pattern and ultimately serve to facilitate the type of growth that fits within the narrow gate.

 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

Father, I believe You desire to pour out Your new wine—from us—your vessels. I believe You desire to see us even exceed the good works You did while on earth. Just as in Cana, I believe You have saved the best wine for these last days. As we revisit the New Testament and search out the ancient markers, please show us how to be transformed and to transform our institutions into communities—family units where new wine can be better received, retained, and served up to the called and thirsty souls who surround us. Let it be.

 

Together (Monday)—Ecclesiastes 4:7-12

 A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)

Insight Ministries shaped how I thought about Christianity. IM was the collegiate discipleship ministry Daneille and I were a part of for the first six years of our marriage. Insight was essentially a charismatic version of the Navigators. We studied our Bibles, memorized scripture, shared our faith, held retreats, conducted Summer Training Programs, and worshipped together in small groups. The ministry was also like YWAM except it was equipping people to live as missionaries in our culture as opposed to foreign ones. Insight grew to include seven campuses in the U.S. and three in Europe. Around 1983 everyone returned to Tulsa to form Ahava Community Fellowship.

We had all just been married or were about to be. Kids were multiplying like rabbits. While people intentionally lived in the Tulsa mid-town area, we were continually moving, remodeling, and painting. We helped watch each other’s kids and repair each other’s cars and appliances. We shared many common goods, even money. Many of us came to think of our life together as a primary expression of worship. While our families and most church attenders saw us as cultish, we saw ourselves as a New Testament church.

We lived in the Ahava community for six formative years. We did not know how intertwined with these people we had become until we moved to Enid in 1991. Neither did we know how unique our experience was until, for the first time, we became a part of a traditional local church.

As we attempted to integrate into our new Enid church family, we were shocked at how private, independent and disconnected people were (at least by our standards). It felt as though we had moved from a family into an organization. Right or wrong, we had been ruined for church in the traditional sense of that word. Daneille and I had thought our Ahava DNA might be transferable. I felt as though my life depended upon it. I kicked hard against the organizational goad in an attempt to reestablish what we had lost. It was futile. People were kind and patient, but, to the eldership, I was a thorn in its side and was eventually censored. Censorship is a sign that its time to move on.

However, the strand had not been quickly torn apart. We participated in the traditional local church for 23 years. I was an elder most of that time. Since 2013, I have been living life as an untitled person, relating to others simply as a friend or as a potential friend. It seems I have been a much better representative of the kingdom of God as a friend than I ever was as an elder, worship leader, or teacher.

I learned the hard way that institutions don’t want reformed; they want conformity and perpetuation. And the things that perpetuate them tend to shape them into businesses with employees who have jobs as opposed to families who have members with lives to live out. Unfortunately, those called to model community as shepherds end up modeling corporate America as CEO’s. How can the person at the top of the pyramid model life together? 

Ultimately, whether we are in a traditional church or an organic community, our kingdom relevance will remain proportional to our relational intimacy with Christ and each other. Before the final chapter of the Church is written, we are going to need Christ in each other far more than we may currently grasp.

Father, as we see the day drawing near, teach us to abide in You and draw near to each other. May Your love give us the security to become authentic and available to each other. May we become the family to which all men hunger to belong. Amen.

 

 

Together (Sunday) – John 13:31-35

Together – John 13:31-35

Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately. Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come. A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. 

 

Dear Family,

I am preparing to share my story this morning at the 2012 Eufaula Kingdom Summit. Perhaps what is coming to your mind is an auditorium, numbers of people, a PA system and a keynote speaker. The truth is, this is just a big name for a little gathering. We are just 8 guys (nine yesterday) who have intentionally pulled off the busy freeway of life and ministry. We have downshifted into retreat gear where we are no longer just a blur to each other. Even though the venue is small, it feels big to me.

In light of verses 34 and 35, its quite a wonder our ministerial yardsticks are laid out in people numbers on one side and dollars on the the other. (Oh yes, good evangelical ministries also have a souls saved-yardstick.) However, if you are a leader, the following questions will eventually be asked, “How many people have you got coming out?” “What does you budget look like (especially missions)?” To clarify: these are not the questions we are asking today.

The simple premise of this retreat was to create a safe space for men to be themselves and hopefully feel comfortable enough to tell their stories. We didn’t come to fix each other up. We just came to identify and affirm the master builder’s handiwork in each other’s lives. Amazingly, without a single prepared message from the Bible, without a worship center or a bulletin, without any titled religious professional presiding, the Spirit has been moving – drawing us toward each other and toward the Father.

When the conventional yardsticks are left at home, people are free to relate to each other differently. I am privileged to be a part of something that resembles those new testament gatherings where each person had something to contribute, where words of encouragement were given to build each other up, where the obligation of leading and teaching were shared. We had checked our ministerial yardsticks at the door, agreeing we would give each other permission to …

Be yourself, tell your story because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.(Not in the Bible. It may be a Jack Taylorism.)

Gathering, as we have in Jesus’ name, ultimately makes a contribution to the structure God is building. As living stones, our size, our angularity and certainly our degree of hardness vary. Yet, with sufficient differences to split 8 churches, we enjoyed an edifying and civil give and take which brought clarity as to what manner of stones we were. Some stones were so hard, they were not immediately available for use. (We witnessed the Word and the Spirit working among us, facilitating a breakthrough for one of these stones.) I believe we will depart later today with a better understanding of how we are to fit into the larger structure God is building.

The master builder has positioned us strategically in our relationships to the stones around us. His love will ultimately prove to be the mortar holding us together. We will not always be independent piles of dissimilar rocks. A master architect has conceived of a structure which includes us all. By God’s astonishing grace, we will one day find ourselves polished and fitted together to people we had mislabeled. We will be glued side-by-side to souls we had thought offensive. One of the great wonders of God’s kingdom will be the glorious structure God has built with us – such raw and questionable material. It is good to recall that we are the habitation of God and, for a time, will be (individually and collectively) under construction.

Our group is from different generations, backgrounds, experience and theology. Upon arrival (because of our flawed yardsticks), we may have seen each other as unlikely stones. However, as we intentionally drew near, apart from our busy and more familiar contexts, we gave love a chance. We listened to each other, discovering the unique ways God has been transforming us from inert stones into living stones. All we have done is create a safe space by listening to each other describe how Father has been building. Our joint-exploration into God’s love is proving to be a powerful way of being together – something worth replicating.

The Message quotes Jesus saying, “You are going to look high and low for me.

Since 1976, I too have looked high and low for Jesus. I had followed but I hadn’t found. To clarify, what I didn’t find was the Jesus I had preferred or anticipated. He didn’t save that business I confessed would not fail (or the two I prayed would not). He didn’t heal people, including me, when I asked. He didn’t prevent those church schisms. He didn’t offer any quick fixes to my relationship disasters. He didn’t quickly lead me out of my vocational box canyons. He didn’t speak to me in the prophetic ways considered to be gold standard revelation by my tribe. He didn’t overwhelm me by his Spirit in ways my tribe recognized as his authentic presence. So … I quit looking for Jesus around 2010.

I am still seeking the kingdom but In the Middle with Mystery is an account of the hope within me which I attribute to having ceased looking high and low for Jesus. The Blue Book led me to a quiet place where I regularly quit looking for him. The friends God has given me are also places I regularly quit looking for him, because I have found, in these places (and all places) Jesus is (and has been) always waiting for me.

Holy Spirit we give you your rightful place in the center of our beings and our gatherings. We give you continual permission to fulfill your mission through us of drawing men toward you and toward each other. May they see you preparing us and fitting us together so that all men may see and believe. Help us to make time and space for the relationships you have given us. May your love bear fruit in us for your kingdom. Father, please show us the off ramp. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Together (Saturday) – Luke 10:25-37

Together – Luke 10:25-37

When the learned man stood to test Jesus, his motive, as a lawyer, was to expose contradictions in Jesus’ testimony thereby discrediting him. I picture Jesus, totally unthreatened, saying, “Thank you, I’m glad you asked this.” At this point the lawyer may have even thought he had lulled the country boy to sleep with his pretended deference to him as “Teacher”.  Jesus replied with words this man had known since he was a child …

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.

At this point, the lawyer may have been the one disarmed. This familiar command coupled with Jesus’ authentic respect may have moved this man’s heart. Jesus then plies his trade, exposing the lawyer’s heart, and ours, saying …

                                                 You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Our lawyer, caught off guard, yet still nimble of mind, managed a, “Yes, but …

Who is my neighbor?”

The story Jesus tells in response is familiar to us. A man is waylaid by a band of robbers and left alone to die. Both a priest and a Levite (God’s men) passed by on the other side, leaving the victim as they had found him. But a Samaritan (a religious and social inferior) had compassion and cared for this man. The Samaritan takes ownership of the man’s health, making what resources he had available until the victim regained his health.

I could picture a tribal man from some remote jungle, after observing our culture, returning home and reporting, “They are a people who pass by on the other side.” He might then add. “At high speed!”

The pace of our busy lives does not allow us to slow down enough to see the waylaid souls around us. In western culture overdrive, we are just a blur to each other, as far as our hearts are concerned. While we are progressing technologically are we not in decline socially? Do we see our bondage to this materialistic, production oriented culture? Oh well, at least at high speed, we can keep our resources for ourselves. (sarcasm intended)

The lawyer thought he had cornered Jesus but Jesus had cornered the lawyer, and us. Who is our neighbor? According to Jesus, it is anyone we encounter who has a need or a burden we can relieve by sharing of ourselves and our resources. As members of God’s family on earth, our obligation is to assume ownership of one another’s well-being until we are all whole.

Our culture is not going to voluntarily slow down. Individually, we are going to have to exit the freeway of our own accord. We are going to have to downshift from over drive into a more efficient gear. At our new pace, our neighbors will no longer be a blur. We can ask them, with sincerity, “How are you doing?” Perhaps as we do, like our Samaritan, our compassion will be awakened. By really listening, we create safe spaces for others. In this secure place, they will discover who they really are and the extent their souls have been robbed or are being robbed. And perhaps, in the process, we will see what has been robbed from us.

Communities are safe spaces of connected people who, by nature, ward off the isolation that give robbers opportunity in the first place. If we are to pass Jesus’ test, we will discover that we are each called to become our brother’s keeper. As his friends and children, we are to take ownership of the space around us for the sake of his kingdom.

Father, may Your love triumph. May we discover the nature of our oneness. May we learn to defer to one another and consider the needs of others above our wants. Give us the courage to slow down and really look at those around us. Awaken our compassions and transform them into those many deeds which you have prepared beforehand that we might walk in them. Amen.

 

 

Together (Friday) – John 17: 20-26

Together – John 17: 20-26

And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one…..that the world may know….

Most of my adult Christian life has been lived as a devoutly religious person. After discovering God’s love for me, which was a pure gift, I devoted myself to living in a manner which I believed would please God. I studied the Bible. I memorized scripture. I witnessed. I fellowshipped. I prayed. All these things I did diligently.  Voila! Spiritual formation.

However, an unexpected thing happened. As I ascended along this well established pathway to Christian maturity, my heart was in decline. To my horror, my initial joy was overtaken by depression! Many of my key relationships were either strained or broken. I was struggling privately with sin and I  was angry and scared. I had been doing my best to stay on the straight and narrow path! How could it be that I was privately doing so bad!

In the darkness of my valleys I would stage little revival meetings. I would come to the alter and rededicate myself to the spiritual disciplines. However, I was loosing confidence in this drill. These little rallies were compounding my guilt. I could never study, pray or witness enough to overcome the shame that was becoming normative to my heart. My guilt and shame had become my cross to bear. Yes, I was depraved but there was an upside. I was now a humble man. (sarcasm intended)

Depravity was the domineering force of my life. I knew I would be wrestling with it (and loosing ) until the day I die. Sure enough, my heart was just like the bible said; it was desperately sick. The only thing I could find comfort (and a bit of pride) in was the fact that Paul and I each understood we were the chiefs of sinners. Even though we concurred with the law of God at one level, we were really prisoners to the law of sin, on another. How humble can you get! (major sarcasm intended)

Yes, it turns out, my heart was sick, but it was not with classic debauchery. I was a prisoner of another more subtle, yet no less deadly, aspect of my depraved nature – its predisposition toward religion. I am using the word religion in a negative connotation because of its roots in pride and the alienation it creates between God and man. My working definition of religion is; Any system of thought or practice whereby the thinking or the doing of it causes me to think that I have gained the favor of God. (thank you Gene Griffin)

In my fixation on fallenness, humility meant I must keep my sin ever before me (thank you King David). Humility meant, reminding myself that, in Adam, I was a monster of iniquity (thank you Paris Readhead). The preacher told me and I agreed – my entire motive was to live independent of God’s rule. This was just who I was.

I was running my race as a fallen man, working overtime on humility. I humbled myself with zeal, devotion and deep conviction until I “hit the wall” somewhere around 2010. It was a physical, emotional and spiritual splat. The good news? My definition of humility was about to change. (no sarcasm whatsoever)

My weakness and pain was fertile ground for the Holy Spirit. Laborers in the harvest pitched in, helping me to see, I was not who I thought I was. There was more to me than depravity. I was a new creation in Christ. I had got this memo 35 years ago and memorized it but religion had diverted it from my heart. Today, humility is simply that state-of-the-heart where I am agreeing with God regarding my identity as his son. I’m not just a tolerated stepchild. I am his beloved and he is mine. My conversion as a sin-addicted prodigal produced a dramatic transformation. My conversion as a religious-addicted elder brother has been no less dramatic.

I am also God’s friend and a younger brother to Jesus therefore I am a co-heir with Christ. I am a new creature. The old me was crucified and buried with Christ. A new me was resurrected in Christ to eternal life. I can now stand in God’s holy presence with boldness and great joy. For me, maintaining this perspective is what it now means to …

                                         Humble Thy self in the sight of the Lord.

I am not sure which burden was heavier, blatant sensual sin, or devout religious flesh – so prideful and blind it could imagine itself qualifying for God’s love. As a man who has been twice-converted, I believe the deception of religion is greater than licentiousness.

But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darknessMatt 6:23

It can be very great! Religious light is darker because it can look great. It is honored and promoted. Its put in charge and consequently misleads multitudes! It cannot lead out of love because it does not feel loved. That is why it is working for God’s approval. It is working out of insecurity and obligation, compensating for its misunderstanding of God’s heart.

Jesus’ finished work on the cross was intended to relieve us of the workload of making ourselves acceptable to God. Working for God’s approval gives off a light but it is a cold dark one. This was the light I was giving off as I was attempting, not so humbly, to carry my cross, by fighting an un-winnable war with my flesh.

Father, may your glory become apparent in us. Expose works-religion for the satanic snare it is. May all your prodigals and elder brothers grasp your love which we have so badly misunderstood. Release us into the freedom your cross was intended to produce. May we experience the unity you intended, that the world may know. Amen.