Monday, June 23, 2008

Do You Really "Love to Tell the Story"?

“I love to tell the story of unseen things above…” If you want to get a congregation singing with gusto, I mean singing to where you forget about how you sound type singing, you can’t go wrong with Arabella Hankey’s classic hymn. “I love to tell the story; twill be my theme in glory; to tell the old old story; of Jesus and his love.” Feels good, doesn’t it? But there’s just a part of me that has to ask everyone—including myself—who just sang “I love to tell the story”—do you really? Do you love to tell the story—and have you told it lately—or not?
If not—and if you honestly don’t always love to tell the story—you’re not alone. The fact is, we face intense pressure to keep quiet about Jesus. The culture in which we live tells us that religious faith is best kept private. Seemingly wise voices—some even from inside the Christian Church-- suggest that the exclusive claims that Jesus made—such as “No one comes to the Father except through me” ought to be downplayed, if not totally ignored, for the sake of tolerance. We won’t even get into the way that our entertainment loves to portray Christians as geeks for God, or severely serious, or downright dangerous hypocrites. Who would want to identify with such a group?
These rather dramatic pressures show up in more subtle ways in our social lives——the everyday exchanges you make with neighbors, friends, co-workers, family members, and even strangers. It may never be explicitly stated, but the Christian is always tempted to go along with the “unwritten rules” that can be summarized thusly: “Don’t talk about Jesus too much. Not at all would be better.” Unfortunately, fear is a willing accomplice to this temptation. Fear says, “Keep bringing up Jesus and you could lose your job.” Fear says, “Keep mentioning Jesus and your friends are going to think something’s wrong with you.” Fear says: “Keep talking about Jesus and you’re going to push away your family member—maybe forever!” Fear says: “Keep your faith to yourself and act like everybody else so they don’t think you’re weird.” Even pastors have the amazing ability to compartmentalize their lives—to say Jesus is in this part of my life, but not that part—and to choose silence for the sake of earning “cool points” or not getting into an embarrassing debate. Bad news, though. The false peace that exists when we don’t speak up for Jesus is not just a false peace—it’s a false god. We’re not doing anyone any favors when we sugarcoat—or worse yet—swallow words that would’ve put the focus on Christ. And it’s not that surprising to learn that the person we’re hurting most when we shut our mouths is ourselves.
Jesus lays it right on the line, as usual, when he says: “If anyone acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will openly acknowledge that person before my Father in heaven. But if anyone denies me here on earth, I will deny that person before my Father in heaven.” Jesus says, “Don’t think you can have it both ways. Don’t think that I can be your little secret. You deny me, I’ll deny you.” This hurts. This exposes all the little deals we make with ourselves to not rock the boat, to just let it go, to promise to get to that Jesus discussion someday…but not today. If we serve the false god of false peace, Jesus’ words here confront us with the fact that we’re denying him at the same time.
What have we done? What can we do? Holy Scripture gives us two vivid case studies to consider: Jesus’ own disciples, Peter and Judas. Judas, of course, went way over the line of denying Jesus and into outright betrayal, setting Jesus up for his execution for a throwaway sum of money. And even though Judas realized his guilt, he didn’t take that guilt to God. He attempted to handle his guilt through the self-punishment of suicide—a tragically wrong approach.
At the same time there’s Peter, who withered in the face of social pressure. Fear whispered to Peter: “Save yourself.” And so Peter denied even knowing Jesus personally—not once—not twice—but three times, selling out for a pathetically low bid. Jesus had called it; Peter knew it. He went out and wept bitterly. And in a way, Peter cries for all of us who have ever said: “I don’t know the man.” But in that very dark place, with tears running down his cheeks, something takes hold in Peter that didn’t take hold in Judas—something that holds onto hope; something that is willing to throw everything we are upon the mercy of God—something called faith. What can we do? We can follow Peter in grieving over our sins, realizing that because of them we deserve nothing but Jesus’ denying us before the Father in heaven. And we can also follow Peter in holding onto hope by throwing ourselves upon the mercy of God. Not only was Peter forgiven and restored, but the Holy Spirit would eventually use his preaching to bring thousands of people to that same saving faith. As you come to the Lord, confessing your sin today, hear once again that He does not disown you; that in order to forgive and restore you, he disowned His own Son on the cross of Calvary. The estrangement from God our sins deserved was placed upon Jesus Christ, so we could be embraced by our Father. Every blow Jesus endured, every scathing word spoken to Him, every agonizing second he spent nailed to the cross, trying to breathe was spent to claim you. He did it all to forgive you. Without Jesus we would be marking the time until the full weight of God’s punishment drops on us. With Jesus, that time will never come, because he took the impact instead of us.
How can we be ashamed of the one who has done this great work for us? That’s the question posed by another hymn, this one written by Joseph Grigg and Benjamin Francis, which reads: “Jesus, Oh, how could it be true/a mortal man ashamed of you? Ashamed of you who angels praise, whose glories shine through endless days? Ashamed of Jesus, that dear friend on whom my hopes of heaven depend? No; when I blush be this my shame, that I no more revere his name. Ashamed of Jesus? Yes, I may when I’ve no guilt to wash away. No tear to wipe, no good to crave; no fear to quell; no soul to save. Till then—nor is my boasting vain—till then I boast a Savior slain; and oh, may this my glory be: that Christ is not ashamed of me!”
Christ is not ashamed of me. Christ is not ashamed of you. That means we can live compassionate lives, looking for someone to help. That means we can pick our spots to talk about our faith, and to do so boldly, naming Jesus as our Savior and giver of Life. We can stand for Jesus with out fear, because we have a God and Father who has already given us the greatest gifts and who knows us intimately—to the point that he knows the number of hairs on our heads. We can say along with the apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes.” (Romans 1: 16) Let us find lasting satisfaction and purpose for our lives in telling the old, old story of Jesus and His love.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

3SR (Three Sentence Reviews)

Here's my tip of the cap to "Matzke on Media"--a new element called "Three Sentence Reviews," where I give you some short takes on the stuff I've been feeding my brain.

3SR: "Everything They Had" by David Halberstam
If you enjoy good writing, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of "Everything They Had," a collection of David Halberstam's sports-related work collected from various periodicals. Halberstam is at his best in essays that probe America's love affair with athletics, such as the article that explores the role sports played in our culture in the wake of 9/11. Whether or not you are a "sports fan," it is extremely easy (and enjoyable) to be swept away by Halberstam's graceful prose.

3SR: "Snacktime" by The Barenaked Ladies
These Canadian pop-rockers have joined the growing wave of artists recording material for children (and their pop-rocking parents). This batch of affable songs has enough wit to make Mom and Dad smile, enough kid-oriented references (ninjas; snacks; ABCs) to perk up young ears, and enough melody to make everybody hum along to the tunes. But the childrens' albums produced by They Might Be Giants (upon which "Snacktime" seems to be directly modeled) mines the same territory to much sharper effect, and I must admit I was put off by a throwaway lyric endorsing darwinistic evolution.

Monday, June 16, 2008

My Treasured Possession

It is a major understatement to say that my world changed when my son was born. Like many fathers before me, I can remember with absolute clarity the first time I laid eyes on my child—the first time I held him in my arms—the first time he “urped”all over my shirt. A profound shift takes place when there he is or there she is, and this little person now depends on you for everything! You look down at that little one, and the phrase “my treasured possession” would certainly be appropriate. And I think that in particular a father knows that as that little one grows up, it’s not going to be all warm fuzzies and Hallmark greeting card feelings. There will be challenges to rules, arguments, disobedience, rebelliousness, and those must be met with discipline. None of that changes the love that started to flow in you the moment you became a parent.
I bring this up because I believe it relates directly to what the Lord God says in Exodus 19—today’s Old Testament Reading. Those of us who have been blessed to be parents, in a way that is ever so small compared to God, may be able to see where God is coming from, and catch the depth of love issuing from God’s heart. Even if you’re not a parent, but there’s someone in your life that you treasure, you can understand the affection that God is expressing here. God says to Moses, “This is what I want you to say to my people: You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Father’s heart is revealed. “Look at all I’ve done for you,” He says. “Keep living in relationship to me, and I’ll do even greater things than these!” Pardon the pun, but God the Father is making an offer that couldn’t really be refused, could it?
However, there is great risk in expressing love to someone else. There is great risk in calling someone else “my treasured possession”—namely, they might not treasure you back. The love you give may not be returned in kind. It’s that thought that chills the blood of every godly parent I know. Whether or not this troubled the Lord God is impossible to say. What we can say is that He didn’t wait around to strike Egypt and part the waters of the Red Sea until He was asked. He didn’t poll the Israelites to see if they wanted their chains broken. He just did it for them, because He loved them, and brought them out of slavery into freedom. With all the power available to God, that was no problem. But He didn’t use His power to force His people to love Him in return. This was the risk God took—He did everything in His power to demonstrate His love for His people, but then He left the ball in their court. “After all you’ve seen me do for you,” God said, “just obey me—trust me—follow me—and you will be my treasured possession.” Talk about being swept off your feet! And according to Exodus 19, the people were! When Moses reported what the Lord had said they responded by saying, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” And they all lived happily ever after.
Oh, wait. That’s not what my Bible says. It says that while God was giving Moses the commandments for his people to follow, they messed up. They gave their love to a calf made out of gold, and indulged their senses in pagan ways of worship. To call it a slap in the face doesn’t quite say enough. God’s risk didn’t seem to have paid off. The people He wanted as his treasured possession evidently didn’t really want Him. And as hard as it is for us to imagine, that hurt the Lord God Almighty. It also made him angry. Quite frankly, God’s thought in Exodus 32 is to destroy his unfaithful people, and if you’ve every felt the bitter pain of rejection, perhaps you can relate to that. God’s thought was to destroy; to punish; somebody was going to pay for this.
And somebody did. But it was not somebody who deserved it. Just the opposite. Rather than wipe out the people who had cheated on Him, God took another risk, and this risk was even crazier than the first. Yes, somebody was going to be destroyed. That somebody would be God’s own Son.
Has the Gospel ever lost some of it’s “wow” factor for you? Has the good news of Jesus ever started to lose it’s “oomph” or impact in your life? If so, then just think in these terms: imagine that person who is your treasured possession, that person your cherish and can’t imagine living without, and now imagine that in order to right a huge wrong, you’re going to have to punish—more than that, execute—your loved one.
Or think of it in these terms: You hear on the evening news the story of an extremely deadly virus sweeping the planet. It’s only a matter of time before it hits home. High-ranking doctors discover that your “treasured possession” person could produce a vaccine that would literally save the world. The only catch is, they would die in the process of creating the vaccine. Would you sign off on the procedure?
God the Father did just that—and that’s the gospel we preach and believe in. The deadly virus is the virus of sin, and it infects us all. The virus of sin makes us all unfaithful, looking for a god that will give us what we want. It makes all of us people who say “We will do everything the Lord has said,” and then we turn around and dance before the golden calf on the way to our graves. Without waiting to be asked, God signed off on the procedure that would create the vaccine against sin, the procedure that would kill his Son. He went ahead with it, still hopeful that there were people who would take this vaccine and live; still hopeful that there would be people who would look to His Son and receive forgiveness through His Blood; still hopeful that He could gather a people to himself that would be his treasured possession, as well as a holy nation and a kingdom of priests; a people that would deliver God’s love to the world.
So what do you think—was God the Father’s risk worth it?

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Pharisees Were Right

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost--Matthew 9: 9--13

Well, folks, it turns out the Pharisees were right. Let me explain.

In the Gospel lesson today, the Pharisees confront Jesus’ disciples. They are worked up. They ask Jesus’ closest associates, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” That’s one of those questions that really isn’t a question. I’m guessing they didn’t really care to know why Jesus was doing what he was doing. They wanted to send the message that they were opposed to such irreverence. Filled with self-righteous indignation, they say to all who will listen, “Jesus eats with sinners!”

They’re right. He does.

In their eyes, Jesus’ dining practices—more specifically, his choices of whom he broke bread with—invalidated any claim he had on being a teacher of the people. How could somebody claim to speak for God and then wallow around with the scum of society? The people he shared a table with weren’t even trying to lead righteous lives. It was just not what respectable rabbis did. Doesn’t this young man—from Nazareth, of all places—realize how scandalous this all looks? Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners!

That is correct. That’s how He operates.

Yes, the Pharisees had this one pegged. Jesus did indeed lunch with the lowlifes and sup with the social misfits. He knew the tax collector’s methods of legal extortion and still spent time with them. He was well aware of the reputation of women selling their souls and bodies and he dared to honor them by sharing a meal! He had no problem hanging around those whose diseases made them ritually unclean. There was something seriously wrong here. And there was, but it wasn’t Jesus.

What was wrong (and what is wrong) is when religious people start patting themselves on the back a bit too often. What’s wrong is when people who really ought to know better take a look around and think to themselves, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as that pervert, or that murderer, or that drug abuser, or that fill-in-the-blank.” What’s wrong is when folks who like to come across as very devout also habitually categorize people based on their race or their economic standing or their education, as if slapping a label on them makes it OK to criticize them or hate them or ignore them. It’s not Jesus that’s the problem. The problem is the human tendency to invent traditions, regulations, and self-serving organizations that have nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with making ourselves look good compared to others. We are wired for “us versus them,” we are quick to say, “you know how THEY are,” and we can even dress it up in a way that seems to honor common sense. As long as we hang on to attitudes like these, we will never take a seat at the table with Jesus. Why would we? Jesus eats with sinners. If I believe deep down that I’m really a pretty upstanding person, with fewer flaws than the next guy, then why would I want a spot at the sinner’s table? I’m doing pretty well on my own!

Ah, but here’s the catch. The Pharisees were right when they said “Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners.” If you’re looking for Him, that’s where you’re going to find him. Hear Jesus say in response to his accusers: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.” If you’re banking on your good performance to gain an audience with God, you’ve made a tragic error. If you’re hoping to get the Lord’s attention by saying, “Hey, Lord, look at how faithful and moral and good I am,” I have some alarming news for you. Jesus isn’t even looking your way. He’s looking for the sick. He’s looking for people who will admit their sickness; admit their selfishness; admit their anger; admit their inability to love anyone well; admit their disinterest in God; admit that I can not by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord or come to Him. He’s looking for those who have reached the point where they pray with a broken heart, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That’s who Jesus has come searching for—not the proud, but the humiliated. Not the self-righteous but the one who has given up on “self” as an avenue to God. It is precisely for that person who has made a mess of things and knows it and admits it that Jesus has come. If that’s the secret condition of your heart and life—there is fantastic news for you.

The Pharisees were right. Jesus eats with sinners.

Jesus will not shrink away from you because of what you’ve done. He will not exclude you because of who you are. When you come to Christ with “Lord, have mercy” welling up from deep inside, you are ready, finally ready to hear Jesus say with authority, “Your sins are forgiven. As far as the east is from the west, that how far away your sins are from you now because of me.” Your sins have been dealt with—not excused—but dealt with, paid for, the punishment they deserved has been meted out upon Jesus himself. In the court of God’s justice you are found “not guilty,” because Jesus volunteered to take your sentence. The Lord desires mercy and He is merciful to those who realize their spot at the table, their relationship to God, their life in His kingdom depends entirely on His mercy. It all depends on God not repaying us in proportion to what our sins deserve. That repayment fell on Jesus in His Passion and death. So come, you who have been brought low by your sin and failure, and have a seat. So that His forgiveness could be sent to you today, Jesus sets His Table in the Church. So that His pardon could reach you, He offers His body and pours out His blood for you to eat and drink. So that you could know the joy of fellowship with the Son of God, He brings you into His Holy Supper, where you are treated as an honored guest. More mercy could hardly be shown.

So score one for the Pharisees in Matthew 9. They were right. Jesus eats with sinners. This is our only hope, for life today and life with Christ that never ends. Amen.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Servant Leadership

In church leadership circles, one hears occasional references to "servant leadership." What follows is a presentation I have made based on Jane Fryar's "Servant Leadership: Setting Leaders Free" (Concordia Publishing House, 2001). It is a concept well worth thinking through, no matter whom you are leading.

Servant Leadership—A Contradiction in Terms?

“I am among you as the One who serves.” (Luke 22: 27, NKJV)

The essence of servant leadership springs not from a leader’s traits or behaviors. At its heart, servant leadership is identity-based.

Describe a “servant leader” you have known personally. Why did you characterize that person as a servant leader?

Service First

Servant first—or Leader first?

Servant leaders begin by asking, “How can I help? Whom can I serve?”

“Leaders don’t command and control; they serve and support.” This kind of service orientation requires humility.

Scripture pictures humble tasks (such as foot washing) as the highest honor. Jesus says, “You know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13: 1—17).

True service also means vulnerability. It means admitting our limitations and owning our mistakes. NO LEADER CAN KNOW EVERYTHING. When we openly admit our limitations and our need for help from the Lord and other people, we allow those who follow us to use their God-given talents and gifts.

Jesus acted with divine authority, yet He lived with the limitations and vulnerabilities of true humanity.

When have you experienced command-and-control leadership? When has a leader served and supported you? Describe the results in each case.

Servant Leaders See (and Listen) Deeply

Servant leaders:

*recognize the yearning to make a difference their followers have;
* can see beyond present reality to a better future;
* communicate their conviction that bringing the vision to reality is exciting and worthwhile.

Seeing begins with listening. Servant leaders really listen to constituents’ observations, commitments, experiences, and personal goals. They ask:

What needs do our neighbors have? How might Jesus want us to address those needs?
What doors has the Lord opened for us already?
What motives lie behind the voluntary commitments and actions people perform in this organization?
What frustrates or confuses us? How could we move the roadblocks or move ourselves around them?

Servant leaders listen first, then set a direction and focus the efforts of those who follow them.

What is your organization’s vision (or goal)? How do you communicate that vision to your group—or do you?

The Power of Persuasion

Until recently, leaders were expected to COP: Control, Order, & Predict.

The chief “power” in the COP model is “coercive power.”

A scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory writes: “One thing I’ve learned at LLNL is that if you have to invoke the authority of your position to make people do something, you effectively have no authority over them.”

Authority does have a proper place in society, as well as the Church.

Jesus taught “as one who had authority” (Matthew 7: 28—29).
Jesus gave Peter and the Church the “keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16: 19).
Jesus designated twelve apostles to “preach and have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3: 13—15).
Paul instructed Timothy to “correct, rebuke, and encourage” (2 Timothy 4: 1—5).

Those who had authority in the New Testament Church seldom resorted to coercion or attempted to control others. The model of persuasion prevailed.

Paul writes to Philemon: “Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love…I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced” (Philemon 8—14).
“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9: 7—8).
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…use your freedom to…serve one another in love” (Galatians 5: 1, 13).

Jesus and His followers led by what some have termed “referent power.” This kind of power grows from the desire of others to please a person for whom they have strong affection. Referent power usually grows slowly, over time, as followers develop friendship and loyalty toward a leader they admire and want to emulate.

Here is another description of referent power: “Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to WANT TO struggle for shared aspirations.”

Followers in organizations led by Christlike servants experience a change of heart, a shift in focus from themselves to the common vision of the whole. NO LEADER CAN COERCE THAT KIND OF CHANGE. Not even Jesus forced anyone to believe in Him or follow Him.

Reflect on a time you coerced someone else into doing something you wanted. What became of your relationship with the other person as a result? What happened to that person’s ability to comply freely?

Have you experienced either the giving or receiving of “referent power”? If so, in what ways did that change you?

Consensus means that each group member has had an opportunity to shape a group’s decision and has committed himself or herself to making the decision work. Leaders forge consensus by listening to others and encouraging all group members to listen carefully to one another.

One alternative to the COP model is ACE: Acknowledge, Create, and Empower.

Acknowledge: Synonyms would include “recognize” and “appreciate.” Say thank you. Notice and celebrate the positive accomplishments of those who are following your lead.

Create: What can leaders create? Communities free from fear…supportive environments…a climate or culture of respect and love.

Empower: Set high standards for your people, then be a coach and encourager along the way. Ask questions like “What am I doing that helps you succeed? What am I not doing that you need to succeed? What am I doing that you would like to do?”

Servant leaders believe and live the concept that the development of people…pays real dividends to both the organization and the individual.

Servant leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers.

Empowering others to act can be risky. Consider the risks a perfect Servant Leader took in Luke 10: 1—12.

Think of the mistakes the 72 might have made. Evidently, Jesus saw learning and doing as inextricably linked.

Notice the celebration when they returned: (Luke 10: 17—22)

Servant leaders work to help others succeed. They work for their people. This kind of service requires both humility and the willingness to admit our vulnerability. Servant leaders do not need to fear their limitations. We have freedom in Jesus’ pardon and the power to ask for forgiveness, help, and the insights of other people. Servant leaders seek to serve and support, not command and control. Our followers do not need a superhero who stands above the fray. They don’t need a paragon of virtue who always knows what to say and do. They need Christlike servants who care for them with His compassion, who serve them with His love. They need leaders whose primary identity rests in their service of Christ and His people.