Pathway of Discipleship

Every church provides a pathway to Discipleship.  The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Quoted like that out of context the verse raises a lot of concerns about working at salvation and fearing God.  Setting that aside, the phrase still puts a finger on Discipleship.  Salvation is God’s gift.  Discipleship is what a Christian does through the receiving process.  Discipleship involves hands and feet–living a life of purity and finding meaningful forms of service.  It involves the heart–cultivating affection for God and forging meaningful relationships with others.  It involves the head–understanding one’s faith.  But different congregations see the trajectory differently they have different starting points and different ending points. 

One way to think of this is to consider a catechism. People who received religious instruction through a catechism learned to give specific answers to theological questions.  The pathway of Discipleship I grew up with involved scripture reading, scripture memory and scripture knowledge.  Both catechetical and biblical pathways of discipleship suggest the same trajectory.  The pathway of discipleship is from head to heart to hands and feet.

Other people grew up with a very different pathway.  My hunch is that most Disciples of Christ who grew up in churches in the last forty years (i.e., my lifetime), grew up with a strong emphasis on relationships.  Friendships were forged through church groups and people felt they experienced the presence or love of God.  I’d call this the heart to hands and feet to head approach to discipleship.

Still others operate from the hands and feet to heart to head.  In this trajectory, churches seek to engage people in meaningful service–mission trips, volunteering, leadership in worship, etc–and watch as their hearts are warmed and their head inspired in the process faith forms. 

Where one locates the starting point of discipleship is where one looks for meaningful connections to God.  And when that works we create one problem–believing that a way is the way.  And this creates a second problem: exclusivity born of misunderstanding the way other people can come at faith. I have heard people make exclusive claims about scripture, relationships and service.  “All you need is the Bible.”  “Christian faith is all about relationships.”  “Nothing really matters but service.”  Though I’ve never found these claims convincing, I’ve also never been successful in trying to suggest an reasonable alternative.  

Even so, my experience has also been that every pathway breaks down somewhere along the line.  There are some questions for which our minds cannot form adequate answers.  People lie, fail, sin, and walk away and relationships dissolve or worse square off in fierce enmity.  The romance of service sooner or later confronts the reality of human life most of our problems can be ameliorated through service but very rarely solved.  

One way forward seems to be self-awareness and critique. A person can map their own faith journey and assess what’s missing. If it’s all head and no heart they might seek to establish spiritual friendship. If there’s a definite lack of hands and feet, they might seek to stretch into some form of Christian service. Second, it would be to ask others to share their story of faith and listen with a sense of hospitality rather than judgment. Very hard to do. 

Scripture teaches us to love God with all that we are. So we seek ways to give God our head, heart and hands and feet.   

Confessions of a Judmental Christian

I struggle with judgmentalism. Here’s what it looks like in my life:
1.  I regard some sins as worse than others.  I can be really forgiving of the things that plague me and really harsh toward those sins I do not struggle with.
2.  I overlook sins in my own life and emphasize the salient in others.  I’ve never thought of myself as greedy.  Of the sins that I condemn quickly, greed is probably at the top of the list.  But, I’m also guilty of being a poor money manager.  I’m guilty of technolust (wanting the newest gadget without determining whether it’s useful or not) and I buy too much on impulse.  Gluttony is another form of greed and I’m guilty of it.  I easily overlook these sins in my own life but quickly judge the greedy people “on Wall Street.”
3.  I relish an attitude of moral superiority rather than earnestly praying for repentance.
4.  I am slow to believe people’s intentions to change even though I profess a belief in the power of grace to transform. 

When a Minister Manages a Building

We have had so many building repairs.  In my office, I have an orange notebook.  The staff and I are using it manage several different projects related to the building:  adding access control and security to the major entrances, changing 10 air conditioning units, getting the roof repaired, repaving the parking lot, upgrading our internet service and installing wifi through the center section of the building, replacing the gravel in the playground with playground mulch. 

I have zero building management experience.  The fact that building management has been such a low priority for me until this year is part of what has forced me to think about it now.  I am by no means claiming expertise.  I feel more ignorant about physical plants now than at the beginning of the year.  But, I thought I should record a few of my preliminary observations about what happens when a minister manages a building (or when this minister manages this building):

1.  Nothing in his ministry training or experience is helpful here. 
2.  Having “another set of eyes and ears” on a problem means managing another set of opinions.
3.  When a contractor thinks that he is your only option, he will charge you more.  I’m grateful to Troy Singleton for the line–you can sheer a sheep many times but you can only skin them once. 
4.  Vendors can be some of the most emotionally temperamental people you’ll deal with in a week–and that’s saying a lot for a minister.
5.  If I preached sermons the way some of these guys run their businesses, I wouldn’t be able to serve a church anywhere.  

Civility in conflict

Sometimes a movement’s worst enemies are its most ardent supports who, out of zeal for their cause, make victims of their opponents and therefore make their opponents heroes. Christians of the first three centuries faced intermittent experiences of persecution.  The persecutions did not have the intended result.  In fact, they had quite the opposite effect.  Christianity grew in popularity even as its leaders were thrown out of the synagogues by religious leaders or thrown to lions by political leaders. Tertullian addressed early Christianity’s persecutors once by saying, “The more often we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow.  The blood of Christians is seed.” This lesson from history is often lost in today’s conversations around questions of religion and politics.
            Today, we create labels for the people who disagree with us. We are too easily convinced that a person’s whole character can be reduced to those labels we place on them. We will take one issue and make assumptions about the person’s whole character based on that one position on a single issue.  Frequently, we are guilty of not even completely understanding what that person believes about that one issue.  Certain topics like “abortion,”  “patriotism,” “gun control,” or “equal protection” trigger emotional responses that get in the way of genuine dialogue. We may not execute or excommunicate our opponents.  We may use condemnations, logical fallacies, sarcasm, condescension, histrionics, sneering satire, labeling, assumptions and shouting as tools we to silence people.  Yet, today’s tools are as ineffective as their more violent predecessors.
I find that on most issues, I’m hopelessly moderate.  If I have a passion it is a passion that people learn engage conflict hospitably.  We should assume that people who disagree with us are not bad.  We should limit the assumptions we make about people.  We should let people define themselves on their own terms.   We should limit the amount of labeling, name-calling or generalizing we do.  And we should value the opportunity to be in conversation with those who disagree with us.  As I say this, I’m very aware of the times that I have failed to follow my own advice.  Which means I should ask for one thing more—we should show grace when people speak to divisively or angrily in an initial way.  Grace means everyone gets a second chance including those who try to deny that chance to others.  Today’s hotheads can also repent and their repentance should be trusted.
Listening is not the same thing as agreeing.  But listening is usually the first step in the journey of mutual growth and understanding. Christians who have strong opinions about social issues need to stop and ask themselves if they want to win a war of words or participate in real and lasting change.  Winning the war of words is easy.  Find a label that sticks and tell a joke that stings and you win!  Change is much more difficult.  But Christ has not called us to be winners in a war of words but citizens in a kingdom governed by love.  This includes loving our enemies—loving our opponents. 

Gettysburg Revisited

                This week marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg—a turning point battle in the Civil War.  The battle was a three day ordeal.  In total, 51,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate, died at the battle.  It was started somewhat by accident as Union soldiers encountered Confederate soldiers at a crossroads outside a small Pennsylvania town.  General Robert E. Lee convinced the Confederate leadership to try once again to shift the battles to the North by shifting troops beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.  Considered to be one of the finest generals America has ever produced, Robert E. Lee made a few fatal mistakes at Gettysburg that changed the shape of the war.  Unfortunately, his counter-part General Meade also made the mistake of not taking advantage of the victory and allowing the Confederate Army to retreat.  That decision meant that America’s bloodiest war would continue for another year and a half.
                In November of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery.  The speech he delivered, the so-called Gettysburg Address, is one of the most familiar pieces of American public discourse.  In a touch of unplanned irony, Lincoln said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”  Truth be told the world is more familiar with what he said that day than what they did.  We could lament this fact but, I think it is significant. 
                The Gettysburg Address framed the reason for the war in moral and ethical terms.  The nation began with a premise—God desires people to live free.  Lincoln essentially said that the whole of democracy hinged on the outcome of the war.  Could people live both free and united?  It remains a difficult proposition.  Freedom without unity is easy.  Chaotic and cruel but easy.  Unity without freedom is also easy.  It’s despotic and lifeless but easy.  Freedom and unity together requires patience, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  Today we continue to struggle with whether we as a people can allow people to say what they want, live the way they want, worship and think the way the want and still be held together as an indivisible people.  As Christians, we have been invested in this struggle for well over 150 years.  It was the most significant challenge faced by the early church.  Early Christians pushed against ever seam of culture, language, philosophy and lifestyle to see if this movement could live up to Jesus’s prayer, “that they might all be one” (John 17).  We continue that struggle today.  May God give us strength.