Thursday, February 26, 2015

Romans Versus James: An Orthopathic Integration

As Christians who devote ourselves to the study of God's Word, I think we all have our most and least favorite books. You may really love the Gospel according to St. John, but not have such a wonderful appreciation for Deuteronomy. The Epistle to the Philippians might stir your soul, but not so much Ecclesiastes. Hebrews may make your faith soar, but Proverbs or Song of Solomon bring it to ground again.

Martin Luther
Many Christians have felt a similar dilemma when it comes to Paul's extraordinary epistle to the Romans, and the letter of James, the half-brother of Jesus. The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther was one of those. While the theology expressed by Paul in his letter to the church at Rome laid the underpinnings of Luther's Reformation of grace and salvation by faith alone; the book of James so annoyed him that he wished it to be removed from the Christian canon.

I too have sometimes been "annoyed" by the book of James. This verse in particular really seems to fly in the face of everything else we learn in the New Testament: "You see that man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24). James "redefined" religion as "to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (1:27).

The prior verse says: ""Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless."

The person who receives "the crown of life" (that "God has promised to those who love Him") is the one who "perseveres under trial" (1:12).

And on and on. James' focus (on practice as opposed to belief) seems at first blush to be not on the faith in the finished work of Christ on the Cross which saves us, but (at face value) on the behavior that identifies us as those who have been saved.

What's happening here? Does the Bible contradict itself? Why was Luther so concerned?

The Supreme Importance of Context

Recently I've been challenged to re-examine the highly critical role of context in the way we read and interpret and teach God's Word. The truth is we find it very easy to "proof-text." The Bible contains more than 54,000 verses, all told, which makes it very easy to isolate a specific verse or set of verses which support "our position" on an issue. Whole books have been written which do this. For instance, some today claim that the Bible doesn't really oppose homosexual practice in the manner that orthodox Christian teaching (for hundreds of years) has held it does. "Jesus taught on a lot of subjects, but He never even addressed the issue of homosexuality," they claim.

This teaching, of course, ignores the larger context of Christ's teachings about sexual fidelity in marriage, as well as His clear definition of marriage as being created by God for one man and one woman. It also ignores the clear explicit teachings of both Paul and Moses (embraced by Christ) representing homosexual practice as abhorrent to God. It jettisons the whole counsel of Scripture in favor of a sort of "proof-texting by omission" that seeks to support its position.

In order to accurately interpret Scripture, we must approach it holistically. We must take the "whole counsel" of the Word into careful consideration.

And this approach is very helpful when it comes to a book like James. In fact, even within James itself, context makes a huge difference as we are looking at some of the more "works-focused" verses that I cited earlier.

In fact, one of the key clues comes from James 2:24 itself. "You see that man is justified by works and not by faith alone." James is certainly not claiming that works alone justifies a man ... but that works comes alongside faith in some manner as being the source of justification.

Two key questions must therefore be asked. The first is: What does James mean by "faith?" A closer look at 2:14-26 helps answer this question. It becomes clear that, to James, there are at least two (and possibly three) kinds of faith: 1) Verses 15-18 illustrate a kind of faith James calls "dead faith," one which is not accompanied by action. The person who has this kind of faith sees a person in need whom God places in front of him, and says: "Go in peace, be warmed and filled." In other words, he offers "cheap grace," pronouncing a "word of faith" blessing on that person. "God bless you, brother," he says upon encountering the man beaten in the road, as he moves to the other side and continues on without helping. This man pays lip service to God but does not allow God to use Him as His hands and feet to minister true compassion to the person in need. James calls this "dead faith."

2) Another kind of faith is seen in verse 19. James calls this "useless faith," but I think you could also call it "doctrinal faith." He says (rather sarcastically): "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder." Simply believing the right things, simply believing truth about God, is a kind of faith. But because it doesn't inspire any kind of heart change, it's useless.

And 3) it's nothing like the third kind of faith, which James illustrates in the account of Abraham, being willing to sacrifice his son at God's command, in verses 21-24; or Rahab the harlot, who risked her life to save the spies sent by Israel against Jericho, in 25-26. In verse 22 James calls this "working faith," which was accounted to Abraham (and to Rahab, respectively) as righteousness.

It's very interesting to me that James offers these two examples. Abraham, the Father of our Faith, was a man God called out of his homeland and on a long journey of faith, toward the establishment of the Hebrew nation and ultimately the Promised Land. And Rahab, a Gentile woman, a sinner, who had a sudden and unexpected appointment with destiny wherein she was given the opportunity to exercise a faith in the one true God -- at great risk to herself -- and she seized that opportunity and earned for herself a position in that Great Hall of Faith. In some senses, they were diametric opposites; but in this cause they were equally heralded: their faith, as manifested by their "works" (taking a risk to be obedient to God), was counted to them as righteousness.

In citing these examples, James also redefines not only "faith," but "works." How did the Pharisees define works? In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces a whole list of "woes" to the Pharisees, but verse 23 is particularly instructive: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former."

In other words, the Pharisees defined "works" as following the jot and tittle of certain parts of the Law, in such a manner that would not be too personally costly to them but would demonstrate their "righteousness" (self-righteousness) for all to see. But they would ignore other portions of the Law which they didn't like, which required them to embrace and exercise justice, mercy, and faithfulness! It was this cut-and-paste approach to "works" that earned them the rebuke of Christ.

And it's this second (ignored) part of God's Law which James refers to as "works." It's the "true religion" which exercises the compassion of God toward orphans and widows in distress. These are the "works" that justify, or demonstrate that our faith is real -- the "third kind" of faith James was talking about.

The Three-Legged Stool

Recently I read a very eye-opening blog by Christian Piatt, writing in the Huffington Post, which put it all together for me. First of all let me say that I'm not a great fan of Piatt's "progressive" approach to Christianity, which seems a bit too culture-tainted for my comfort. (Although I'd guess he'd probably say the same about me, perhaps? I don't consider myself "conservative" but I realize many of my views align with conservative notions of the world.)

Anyway, Piatt's recent blog, titled "Following Jesus isn't primarily about beliefs or actions," caught my eye. At the face of it, the "battle" between Romans and James seems to be just that, a battle between belief (faith) and action (works). So, what else is there?

Piatt explains:
Right thought or belief is generally called "orthodoxy," while right action is called "orthopraxy." And sometimes we seem to assume that these are the only things to focus on, or even that one is somehow superior to the other.

In studying the teachings and words of Jesus, however, I'm coming to embrace the sense that "orthopathy," or right-heartedness, is a critical third leg of the proverbial stool. Furthermore, I have the growing sense that this right-heartedness actually helps lead us to the path we're seeking for the other two.
It makes sense. You can be orthodox, or have the right "beliefs" about everything. Or you can be orthoprax, and have the right practice. You can even theoretically be both of these things, without having the right heart: to believe in God's Word; to practice God's Word and commands.

But ultimately, right-heartedness seeks sincerely to obey and fulfill the Greatest Commandment -- to love God with all that we are, and our neighbors as ourselves. Orthopathy!

I like the idea of the three-legged stool, but I daresay orthopathy is a synthesis of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It's faith and actions, together; or rather, it's the fundamental motivation that makes James' "third kind of faith" work itself out in our actions.

Learning to Love James

So, I am learning to love the book of James. The man who wrote it is an interesting character. The New Testament reveals that Jesus had four half-brothers (born to Joseph and Mary), and an unspecified number of half-sisters. ("Half" in the sense that Christ himself was not an offspring of Joseph, as his half-brothers and sisters were.) James was the first mentioned of those half-brothers. Early on, during His public ministry, it's implied that his own family members apparently struggled to believe that He was who He was. But later, after His death and resurrection, it's clear that James at least came around and ultimately was a leader in the early Christian church, taking a key leadership position in the church at Jerusalem after the disciples were dispersed.

Leading a church in the crucible of persecution would definitely give one a sense of what "real" faith looked like. And knowing the authentic, compassionate Jesus, as intimately as James did, would put you in a unique position to write about it authoritatively!

I think James issues a challenge to each of us who name the name of Christ. Don't "just believe," prove that you believe, through the way you live your life. Let God change your heart as well as your head, and you will see the fruit of that change working out through your lips and your hands.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fearing Wrong: A global study on violence against children

Many people around the world are concerned about a perceived increase of violence against children, and its causes. But do their perceptions line up with reality?

Finding the answer to this question was the goal of a recent study (download PDF) commissioned by World Vision and conducted by Ipsos Reid. Here are some of the very interesting findings:

People around the world believe that violence against children can be tackled if more is done by governments, communities and religious institutions — with a special focus on supporting families. Perhaps most surprising, the majority (61%) of people think that “out there” — public transportation and other public places — is where children are most likely to be at risk.

The sad truth is, immediate family members are the most common perpetrators of all forms of abuse, accounting for 34% of reported cases where the perp was known.

Is violence against children on the increase? 61% feel that in the past five years violence against children in their country has increased. Results are mixed, but the truth is that some forms of violence are decreasing. Harmful traditional practices are declining; there are fewer child laborers than 12 years ago. And the proportion of girls forced into early marriage is better than it was in the 1980s.

What are the most common forms of violence against children? Public perception is that physical and sexual forms of violence are the most common. And this is accurate: Globally, one in four girls aged 15 to 19 have been victims of some form of physical violence. Around 120 million  girls worldwide have experienced sexual violence.

Cyber-Bullying

Among developed countries, cyber-bullying is perceived to be the most common form of violence against children. But in reality, physical and sexual abuse are usually more common than cyber-bullying. It's also perceived that cyber-bullying affects mostly girls; but in truth there is increasing evidence that cyber-bullying affects both girls and boys, and that both are just as likely to act as bullies.

There is also a perception that no one form of violence affects mostly boys. Yet the truth is, boys are more affected by gang violence and child labor than girls are – 99.8 million boys versus 68.2 million girls between the ages of 5 - 17 are involved in child labor.

Gang Violence

In middle-income countries, gang violence is thought to be the most common form of violence against children. And this is an accurate perception.

Child Labor

What about child labor? 79% believe child labor is harmful, but 28% of people do not believe that harm will have a long-lasting impact. In reality, though, child labor affects a child’s long-term health and the development of their cognitive skills, damaging their educational ability and long-term prospects.

Forced Child Marriage

Not surprisingly, views diverged significantly along country lines, although this divergence was less pronounced when economic factors were taken into consideration. On early, forced child marriage, 29% of people say the practice doesn’t have a long-lasting impact. But the truth is that girls who marry under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die during childbirth than those who marry in their 20s, and their education and literacy chances are lower, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Violence in Fragile Contexts

When it comes to fragile contexts, harmful traditional practices such as witchcraft and child marriage are perceived as the most common source of violence. Yet other forms of violence are often more pervasive. In the DRC, for example, over one in five girls aged 15 - 19 have experienced forced sexual intercourse.

For more resources about the survey and child violence, check out this Storify document. Or visit World Vision's website to help combat child violence in all its forms.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Stayin' alive in Lebanon's snowfall

We've had unseasonably warm weather here in the Northwest this winter. As a result, the snowpack is high. Skiers complain about lost opportunity. Others worry about whether there will be drought next summer. The bright side, for me, is some very nice bike rides I've been able to take, including a long weekend jaunt up the slopes of Mt. Rainier ... in biking shorts and shirtsleeves, in the middle of January! (Nearly unheard-of.)

Watch this slideshow of children
struggling to survive in Lebanon's
brutal winter. Photo by Ralph Baydoun,
courtesy of World Vision.
Elsewhere in the country, folks are getting pounded with snow and cold. Record snowfall in places like Boston and Buffalo has made for a difficult winter for many who have been literally confined to their homes.

But, compared to the plight of others, they should probably be grateful for the homes they are confined to. My World Vision colleague, Lindsey Minerva, put together this video after receiving footage from refugee camps in Lebanon, where people displaced by the violence and fighting in Syria have fled by the millions ...



And I just read another news report yesterday that yet another snowstorm is pounding Lebanon.

World Vision is working hard to provide a safe and warm place for children who have fled the violence and literally own nothing but the shirts on their backs. In northern Iraq, in Lebanon, and in Jordan, many refugees and internally displaced are trying to survive freezing temperatures holed up in makeshift refugee camps, or in bare cement half-finished factories they are squatting in, or even in cardboard boxes and tarp-tents (like the one shown collapsed, in the video), out in open fields.

World Vision is distributing coats
and other badly needed clothing.
Photo by Ralph Baydoun, courtesy
of World Vision.
Even worse, these refugees have been traumatized by constant fear of attack, and by the loss of friends and loved ones in the fighting. Both physical and mental health is threatened. Desperately-needed education has been completely interrupted for many children.

Now is the time for us to come together, to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the least of these! Please share this with your friends and fellow churchgoers, and help World Vision provide the emergency aid that these Syrian and Iraqi refugees and displaced persons need to survive. Thank you!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Understanding the Bible: Why is Context So Important?

I enjoy reading Jonathan Merritt's column in Religion News Service each day. He is very smart, and courageous, and always has a fascinating take on the issues of the day.

We also have a little bit of a personal connection. He's very on top of social media, so he frequently likes or retweets things I say in reference to his column. Plus, he traveled to Syria with the director of my department, and I know he has a great respect for World Vision's ministry.

Jonathan also has one of the most devoted followings of rabid atheists I have seen, on anything he writes. If I were him I'd actually be quite flattered that they apparently read every word and seek to insert their opinions vociferously on almost anything he says.

There's one in particular, who dubs himself "Atheist Max," who is always there. He argues with every Christian opinion, to the point where many accuse him of "spamming" the column. (What does this guy do for a living, I wonder? How does he find the time?) He tries to portray himself as a defender of reason, but readily admits he hates religion. His attacks are quite vicious and often ad hominem.

One of the most frightening things he does is subtly twist Scripture and quote it out of context as part of his apparent mission to make God look like a tyrant and His followers like fools.

As part of a recent column on ISIS, Max presented a list of about two dozen New Testament passages and headlined each in such a way as to ignore its context in order to portray Jesus as a violent and evil man. After several Christians complained about the way he took Scripture out of context, he responded:
"Complaining a verse is 'Out of context' is a dishonor on yourself. It is a way to claim a loophole so you can wriggle out of your responsibility for promoting your despicable Bible. Like a used car salesman who KNOWINGLY sells a crappy vehicle and hides behind the small print! Shame on you for trying to hide your small print!"
You can see that he's pretty over-the-top. I then exercised the temerity to say: "That’s absolute nonsense. Context is critical to the accurate interpretation of any work of literature, let alone one as diverse and century-spanning as the Bible."

I guess this was kind of like painting a bulls' eye target on my back. Max came back with this response:
"If you believe your own nonsense then please answer my question. Under what circumstance is it GOOD AND HUMANE to cut off your wife’s hand for touching another man’s penis? By all means put this depravity 'in context' and let’s see how that improves this ridiculous argument."

How does context make a difference?

Max was of course referring to Deuteronomy 25:11-12 ...
If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
After much prayer, and realizing whatever I said wasn't actually going to help convince Max any, but could instead be an opportunity to share the Gospel with others, I decided to reply. Here's how I responded:

~~~

Max, thank you! By citing Deuteronomy 25:11-12 you’ve provided the perfect example of why context is so important. Hang on, it’s a deep dive, and since I know you will argue I’ll just say this will be my last word on the subject.

“Good and humane” … Deuteronomy is a book about justice. The very name means “law.” It is a code of justice governing the Jewish theocracy.

“Humaneness” doesn’t enter into the equation. Just like “American Sniper” really is about justice. The sniper’s goal is not to be humane, it’s to protect lives and mete out justice.

Justice is the first half of goodness. Mercy is the second half. The Old Testament law established the demands of God’s justice. The New Testament reveals God’s mercy through Jesus Christ. Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The one who sins is the one who will die.” The penalty of sin is death. Justice.

But Jesus died to give us life. Romans 5:8 says: “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Mercy.

So the context of Deuteronomy is justice. Now to your statement: “cut off your wife’s hand for touching another man’s penis.” Context shows this to be a complete misreading of the text. Verse 11 sets the context: Two men are in a fight. More or less a fair fight, one against the other. But one of the two men’s wives comes along and tips the scales of justice … she “reaches out and seizes him by his private parts.” Says nothing about his penis, so assume the whole package. She is reaching between the man’s legs while he is focused on the fight, and trying to rip off his balls.

If you were that man, I think you would want some justice, no? It’s a violent, physical, sexual assault, not a titilating encounter as you have erroneously (out of context) tried to depict.

And it’s not her husband who’s charged with cutting off her hand (your assertion to this end is simply silly and misinformed at best) … it’s the Law. The government.

It’s interesting to note that Jewish scholars interpreted this command in a way that balanced justice with mercy. I assume this was a rare occurrence, but when it happened, they typically charged a fine “equal to the value of the woman’s hand” (whatever that was), rather than actually cut it off. Justice and mercy.

The point of this law, of course, was to establish justice. You can’t rip off a person’s balls while they are in a fair fight with your husband, and get away with it.

Does that help you see how important context is?

My prayer for you, Max, is that you would experience not just the justice, but the mercy of Jesus. Perhaps then you will be less inclined to take God’s holy Word out of context in a vain effort to validate your own twisted views of the universe.

~~~

(I've got to say, in conclusion, that's the only time I've ever felt led to use the phrase "rip off his balls" in a post while sharing the Gospel!)

Please share your own thoughts. How have you found principles of contextual interpretation to matter while you are studying Scripture?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bummer of a birthmark, Hal. Or is it Lyme Disease?

Woke up last Saturday morning very early to take my daughter and her family to the airport, then came home and went back to bed. We usually sleep in on Saturday mornings.

Gary Larson cartoon:
When we finally awoke, about 10 or 11 a.m., I got up and Darlene said, "What's that on your back? Bummer of a birthmark, Hal!"

I immediately recognized the reference to the old Gary Larson cartoon. (At left.) She handed me her hand mirror, and looking in the bathroom mirror, what I saw on my back was a perfect "Bulls' Eye" target. (See photo below.)

"What is that?" she repeated.

"I have no idea. I must have leaned up against something," I replied, straining to think what might have caused such an unusual pattern.

"Well, if it's still there tomorrow," she said, "you're going to see the doctor."

bullseye rashSunday came, and it was still there, about the same. So we started searching the internet. "Bullseye rash" turned up some interesting information, mostly related to Tick bites and the diseases they can cause. The bulls-eye rash can be caused by many things, but the best-known (and probably most-feared) is Lyme Disease, which debilitates its victims with neurological symptoms: headache, fuzzy thinking, bad dreams, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, arthritic attacks and sometimes spinal meningitis and heart problems. The bacteria in infected ticks comes from mice or rats they have bitten. Lovely. Despite all this nasty history, though, it's rarely fatal.

I thought back. I had been hiking on Wednesday (briefly on the Deception Pass State Park trail, then a longer hike on the Galbraith Trail in Bellingham), and the time for appearance of the symptomatic rash is said to be 3 to 30 days. My wife took a closer look at the bulls' eye ... there was no embedded tick, thankfully, but there was a puncture mark in the center of it. (Which you can make out by zooming in on the photo.) Something bit me.

The only other insect that can cause a "bulls-eye rash," according to internet sources, is a spider, but those bites are typically painful. I would never have known the rash was there, had my wife not seen it.

I had no other symptoms, except for mild fatigue and muscle aches, and these could have been caused by my week-long vacation and the fact I had to go back to work on Monday.

So, instead of going back to work first thing Monday morning, I saw my doctor. He was immediately very interested, took photos, and disappeared to do research on his computer. He then returned with another doctor, who also wanted a look. And he had a list of possible causes on a print-out sheet.

"You're weird," was his diagnosis.

"I'm paying you all this money to tell me something I already know?" I retorted.

"Well," he backtracked, "statistically speaking, it's unlikely it's Lyme Disease." Most cases occur on the East Coast, although there are a handful (about two dozen, according to the State Health Department) in Washington each year. "I think the greatest likelihood is some sort of fungal infection, so I'm going to prescribe an antifungal cream for that. But because Lyme Disease is a possibility, I'll also prescribe an antibiotics course to make sure we can knock that down if that's what you have." The best chance victims of Lyme Disease have, I've read, is if they are treated early with simple antibiotics.

So, I started a two-week tetracycline course. The antibiotic is common, but hard to come by now when so many people are sick with infections. But 24 hours and about four pharmacies later, I had my antibiotic.

The antifungal lotion, Mentax, was another matter. My pharmacy didn't have it and couldn't get it for a few days. I ended up going to Wal-Mart's pharmacy (a nightmare in and of itself), and they got a tube after 24 hours, then informed me my insurance wouldn't cover it. That one little tube cost $112. Too rich for my blood.

I called the doctor back to explore alternatives. The first thing he asked was, "How's the rash? Any worse?" Darlene looked at my back. "No," she said, "it actually appears to be fading on its own."

"Good." He said. "Don't worry about the cream, then. It must not be a fungus. I consulted a few other doctors, and they all agreed with me that the antibiotic course is the wisest. And we'll see what the blood tests say."

I'm not sure exactly what this means. I may or may not have been infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease, I guess. He also told me the early blood work would be relatively unhelpful, unless it came back positive, since I probably wouldn't have antibodies against Lyme Disease in my blood this early, anyway. (And it did come back negative, finally.)

So I went back and did more reading on the disease. The CDC actually has an extensive write-up about it on their website. They say there are more than 30,000 cases reported in the U.S. each year, but they believe in reality, as a result of their research, that nearly 10 times this many actual cases go unreported. In fact, I read elsewhere that because of its neurologic symptoms, Lyme Disease is often confused with ALS.

I thought back about how fortunate it was that Darlene saw the rash. I never would have. (Yet another great reason to marry a nurse!)

So, all this is probably not very helpful to anyone reading this, hoping for more definitive information about Lyme Disease. (I guess the bottom line is, if in doubt, do the antibiotic!) But, like many other things in life, an "interesting" incident like this often creates more questions than it does answers.

(By the way, the "target" on my back has now almost fully faded. So, if anyone was thinking of taking a potshot at me, don't bother. But continuing prayers would be appreciated!)

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Disciple-making is messy

This is a follow-up to my previous blog, Making Disciples.

I feel that I may have painted a little too rosy a picture there. Disciple-making is what we're called to do, and it's definitely an endeavor that God puts His authority behind.

Triple facepalm moment But, sometimes it's not pretty. In fact, it can be downright messy.

Sometimes I read the various stories in the gospels about what Christ's disciples did and said, and I just shake my head. What a bunch of goofballs!

Arguing about "which among them is the greatest." Or about who among them would "sit at Jesus' right hand when He comes into His kingdom."

Asking Jesus to rain down fire and brimstone on a village which repudiates their message? Falling asleep at the most important time possible (when Jesus is in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, right before He was arrested)? Or whipping out a sword and cutting off a servant boy's ear ... then denying Christ — three times?

Then there's Judas ... the group treasurer, who was pilfering money out of the moneybag, while criticizing Christ's worshippers for wasting their resources ON HIM ... the God who created the universe!

Much of the disciples' story is a major facepalm moment.

Though, as I am frequently reminded, so is my life! It's pretty hard to point an accusing finger at the 12 disciples. There go I, time and time again.

I think all these facepalm moments are included in the gospels in part to help us understand how messy the process of making disciples really is. My wife and I have experienced this firsthand in our young adults group.

Is it worth it all?

As leaders of a dynamic and growing group of young adults at our church, my wife and I have had more than our share of messy facepalm moments. Often these revolve around romances gone awry, or situations in which communication was poor or incomplete or absent, or gossip, or sin masquerading as something else, or people we care about simply "dropping out." With all this (probably inevitable) pain, is being a disciple-maker really worth it?

I'm sure the answer is "yes," even though it doesn't always feel like it. (Let's put it this way: The answer of faith says "Yes!") To see the reason, I think we need to look at what Scripture says about the blessings that are inherent in being parents. We read in the Psalms: "Children are an heritage from the Lord ... blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them." Many times as I've wrestled with the various challenges of being a dad, I've asked God, "In what sense, truly, are children a blessing?"

It always comes back to this: Our Creator God is a dad. ("Abba, Father!") Jesus is a disciple-maker. When we follow His lead, investing our lives in the lives of others, we are ultimately blessed as a result. Even when it's messy, in God's "big picture" it is still worth the risk. You do the best you can, and you leave the results up to Him. As in all things, He gets the glory!

So ... get out there and make some disciples already!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Making disciples

When Jesus was finished with His earthly ministry, He gave us one job. Do you remember what that was?
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Make disciples. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Partly because it's something our church struggles with a lot. We know it's important ... but how exactly to go about it? And partly because I know it's key to the young adults ministry in which God has placed my wife and I. How does one go about making disciples? Baptizing and teaching obedience to the commands of Jesus are obviously a part of it. And also, Christ's presence (with us, through the Holy Spirit) is absolutely critical. But is there more to it than that?

In Pulse we've been studying the Gospel of Mark, and I've been seeing some things there, in how Jesus interacted with His disciples, that I think are instructive to this discussion ...

There's no substitute for quality time. Jesus spent TIME with His disciples. His disciples occurred in four main "layers" ... first there was the big group of followers (estimated to be around 500 people, give or take). Most were probably "fringe" hangers-on. Nonetheless Jesus spent time teaching them and they followed Him, usually, but not to the same extent (and with the same level of commitment) as the next layer ...

The 72 apostles. What? you say ... weren't there just 12 apostles? Luke 10 records how Jesus sent out 72 of His disciples out to do ministry, two by two. The word "apostle" simply means "sent one," so these 72 could certainly be called apostles.

At the core of this group, however, were those specifically selected by Christ for the ultimate mission ... The 12 Apostles. These were those He spent all night wrestling with the Father in prayer about, whom He selected carefully. These were those in the Upper Room, celebrating the Passover with Him. They went most everywhere with Him, spent most of their time with Him ... but not to the same extent as the next group:

The inner 3 Apostles. Peter, James, and John were the special focus of Christ's attention. During His Transfiguration, they alone accompanied Him up the mountain. They alone were invited to witness His most amazing miracles, like raising the little girl from the dead (Mark 5:37-43).

So, what does all this mean? I think it's a recognition that, as human beings called to make disciples, we surely must focus our efforts. You may be a pastor and may have a large church of 500 that you preach to each Sunday. But you will need to focus your efforts when it comes to disciple-making. Only a portion of that congregation (perhaps a fifth?) will be available and willing to be used for the next phase of disciple-making: sending out. Doing ministry.

And of course you won't be able to spend huge amounts of quality time with such a large group, of 72. Instead you must focus on a smaller group, say a dozen, and who comprises this smaller group should be a matter of very specific prayer.

Note that even in Christ's 12 Apostles, one (Judas) was a major, catastrophic failure, at least in the disciple-making sense of the word!

But, the bottom line was that even Jesus selected carefully whom He should focus his time and energy on. And there is no substitute for the time He spent with them, simply living life together.

Do you have two or three close mentoring relationships you are pouring yourself into? Leaders who comprise a core of a larger "small group" of believers, perhaps a dozen in size? And are you engaging with an even larger group in shared ministry?

Making disciples is all about doing ministry together. The people whose lives really are being changed in any church setting, the people who are getting their socks blessed off, are those who understand the principle expressed by Matthew 6:21: "... for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Treasure? Substitute any resource which is valuable to you ... time, money, talent, influence, whatever. If you invest in something, your heart follows after that thing. You are changed by that investment. Your sense of personal ownership increases.

If you are investing in ministry, serving people ... if you take the time and trouble to figure out your spiritual gifts and how to use them on a regular basis to bless others ... then your own heart will begin to beat faster for those things that God's heart loves. You will be following in Jesus' footsteps, one step further down the path of being a true disciple.

So it follows that, if we want to make disciples of other people, we need to help them find a ministry "fit." We need to encourage them to invest their own resources in heavenly things, so that Heaven will begin to capture their hearts.

This was what happened with Christ's 72 apostles in Mark 6. He sent them out, two by two, without even a staff in their hand, to do ministry in His name, to teach and to heal and even to cast out demons. They returned -- tired but excited, invested, and thrilled to discover the joy of ministry.

Come away with Jesus for awhile. At this point, where they had invested in ministry and experienced some spiritual victory, Jesus knew they were vulnerable to Satan's attack ... either filling them with pride, or accusing them of being failures. So the solution was to "take a vacation with Jesus!" To go away to a quiet place, and debrief, and get some rest.

God knows we are vulnerable, weak, feeble, greatly in need of constant rest and renewal. Did you ever wonder why He invested so much in the creation of Sabbaths and Holy Days? We certainly need to be strengthened by these times of rest and renewal. And not just for the sake of taking a vacation, but to hear from the Master Himself. And this leads me to my final point. True disciple-makers help the people whom they are discipling to ...

Understand the End Game. Everything Jesus did had a purpose. He was quite clear, shockingly clear, about the end game when He spoke to His disciples. Mark 8:31 records:
31He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
Christ had His eyes on the prize the entire time. The big picture for Him, the goal, the end game, was His death and resurrection. Only through His sacrifice would the entire world be saved. Only because of His resurrection would the hope for the eventual transformation of all of society into the coming Kingdom of God be realized.

Did His disciples "get it?" No, obviously not. Verse 32 says that Peter "took Him aside and began to rebuke Him" for such talk. But Christ was crystal-clear in His mission: "Get behind Me, Satan!" he looks directly at Peter and warns. "You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns." The end game, for Jesus, was God's concern, God's plan.

Which is where I will leave off, today, because this is ultimately the most important test of true leadership, and (to me) its most rigorous challenge. Is your end game in sync with God's end game? Is what consumes your mind the plan of God for the people you are seeking to turn into disciples of Jesus?