Monday, September 16, 2019

The High Cost of Discipleship

Not every invitation to discipleship from Jesus sounded the same.
He said to Andrew, "Come and see" (John 1:39)
To Peter: "Come, follow me." (Matt. 4:19, NIV)
The the twelve: "Come and bring your cross with you" (Matt. 16:24, para)
Bonhoeffer latched on this final invitation, writing in his classic, Cost of Discipleship, "Jesus bids a man to come and die." The invitation to discipleship is costly. And this explains why so few came.

Even a cursory reading of the gospels shows that Jesus invited indiscriminately. He invited ordinary people to be his disciples (Matt. 4:18-22). He invited the conflicted people (8:18-22). He invited outcasts (9:9). He invited rich and religious people (19:21). He invited anyone and everyone, but only those who could remove themselves (ego, agenda, identity) from the center of their kingdom came (Luke 14:15-33).

The cost of discipleship comprises... 
  • losing yourself and bearing a cross; 
  • dethroning idols and deflating your pride; 
  • releasing lesser loyalties and reordering your loves. 
Discipleship means daily living under the generous reign of Jesus. His values, ethic, mission must become yours. A disciple redirects his financial plans, career path, speech patterns, time usage, relational commitments, thought life, and inner dialogue to match Jesus's model. She surrenders her mind, emotions, feelings, spirit, body, and relationships to Jesus's direction.

I understand the challenge. Selfish decisions come naturally to me. I like the idea of doing what I like to do:
  • I could avoid all arguments. 
  • I could control the calendar. 
  • I could live recklessly with the credit card (and ignore phone calls from collections). 
  • I could shirk responsibilities. 
  • I could dismiss the cries of draining people. 
  • I could sneak mushrooms in all our meals. 
  • I could cloister myself in my pastor's study to read, write, and do crossword puzzles. 
If I didn't follow Jesus, I could, give myself permission to live fully unto me. But I accepted the invitation. (Have you?) I counted the cost. I'm still counting. And today I must die (1 Cor. 15:31).

NOTE: There is also a cost of NOT responding to Jesus's invitation. Or, you could say, there is GAIN with discipleship. Those who positively respond to Jesus invitation receive his Spirit, a new identity, a new family, and opportunities to impact others to expand God's kingdom. God begins a work of renewal in them; cross-bearing disciples are becoming more like their glorious Master day by day (Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Dangerous Drift toward Institutionalism

Fall marks a season of furious church activity: relaunching small groups, resuming kids ministry, restarting youth group, offering new Bible studies, and running outreach events. Meanwhile, Sundays keep coming. I am the conductor of this ministry locomotive. I am monitoring the gauges. I am watching the clock. We're all racing down the rails. Jesus is a blur.

This is dangerous territory. When church activity obscures intimacy with Christ, the mission has drifted to maintaining an institution. 

According to Michael Wilkins, institutionalism poses a perennial threat to our mission. Originally, Jesus created and commissioned the church to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). The corporate body once served to build up individual believers (Eph. 4:11-16). Now priorities have flipped: believers serve the corporate body. They fill the building, foot the bills, and do its bidding.

Wilkins provides four insightful questions to expose the dangerous drift toward institutionalism.

  1. Are we making disciples of our institutions, or do our institutions make disciples of Jesus?
  2. Are our disciples proficient at programs or at living a radical relationship with Jesus?
  3. Does our attachments to our institutions isolate us from the world or equip us for changing the world?
  4. Are people focusing on us because of the importance of our programs, or are we - and our programs - the "means to the end" so that people see Jesus more clearly? (Following the Master, 354). 

I know I'm drifting into dangerous territory because I can feel my pastoral calling compromised.

  • Meeting agendas, building needs, ministry policies, event plans, and sermon notes consume my thinking. I used to prioritize dreaming, praying, and study. 
  • My mental image of the church is morphing into a faceless mass on Sundays. I used to prioritize quality time with individual people throughout the week. 
  • The Sunday gathering matters more than internal growth. I used to prize spiritual formation over attendance figures.
  • Developing the church brand has become a growing obsession. I used to proclaim Jesus not an  outreach slogan or mission statement.
I confess these things in an effort to end my dangerous drift toward institutionalism. Church involvement is no substitute for intimacy with Jesus. My primary calling as a pastor is to make disciples not manage an organization.

"For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." (1 Cor. 2:2)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Spiritual Growth Means Shaping a Path

Christian faith is more than an ancient creed; it is an ancient path. In fact, path is one of the oldest ways of talking about discipleship to Jesus. Paths imply directions, ways, and destinations. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Becoming like Jesus, the goal of spiritual growth (see Eph. 4:11-16), means walking an exclusive, personal path.

And yet, this personal, exclusive path to spiritual growth is wide enough to allow for some variety--steep inclines, sharp turns, quiet excursions--inviting every disciple to customize his or her own pace. Spiritual formation writers call this a "Rule of Life." Less mystical people might call it a "growth plan" or "regimen for growth." In either case, the path we shape comprises our deliberate employment of time for prayer, rest, exercise, study, meditation, retreat, and relationships to help us grow in loving God and others (Matt. 22:34-40).
Adapted from The Life You've Always Wanted by John Ortberg
Furthermore, the path should be holistic.  After encouraging the Philippians to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12-13), Paul includes suffering, witness, reconciliation, prayer, meditation, gratitude, and giving in the "growth plan" (3:12-4:19). In a different letter, he describes his teaching, conduct, purpose,  faith, patience, love, hardship, and suffering as a path worth emulating (2 Tim. 3:10). Although the apostle never uses the phrase "Rule of Life," his comprehensive view of Christian growth supports the idea. If the path to growth does not extend beyond the pews or a few disciplines, disciples will remain delinquents.

My path for spiritual growth includes Bible study, prayer, journaling, reading, confession, accountability, corporate worship, running to podcasts, conferences, retreats, and power naps. I have daily disciplines, weekly rhythms, monthly encounters, and annual events. I leave enough room for spontaneity and some for the Spirit.

I acknowledge my path is not the same as Paul's path. Nor should it be. I am not Paul. He is not Timothy. He was gracious enough to give Timothy (both me and his "beloved") a model for shaping a path, but he left the particulars to the person.

The path is personal because growth is personal. And the path is personal because we're growing to become like the ideal Person (Eph. 4:24). Take some time to shape your path today.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Taking Time with Those Texts That Talk about Transformation

We used to give our dog Zeb (may he rest in peace) a pig ear for Christmas. It kept him out of our space for an hour while we opened our presents. It gave him something to savor. He pawed his consumable prize and gnawed it into oblivion. If anyone threatened to take the pig ear away, Zeb issued a low, lazy growl. We knew to stayed out of his space.
Image result for eat this book
This picture of a dog slowly, deliberately, protectively ingesting his bone inspired Eugene Peterson. He wrote (2006, 2), "There is a certain kind of writing that invites a certain kind of reading, soft purrs and low growls as we taste and savor, anticipate and take in the sweet and spicy, mouth watering and soul-energizing words." God's Word is that "certain kind of writing" that requires a "certain kind of reading." Peterson played off the Hebrew word for meditate, which connotes a lion's growl (Isa. 21:4), dove's coo (38:14), or believer's reading of Scripture (e.g., Psalm 1:3; 63:6).

Not much of my Bible reading is meditative. I don't take the time. I don't amble through the gospels, linger in the Psalms, or camp out in the prophets. Sadly, my weekly reading is a series of sprints to the nearest paragraph break, section heading, or chapter ending. Meditation requires slowing, but my mornings race by.

When I don't take time with the text, I stunt my growth. I survey the page inattentively, noting only what was already familiar. I miss out on the distinct flavors and nuances of God's Word. My daily agenda drowns out his divine voice. Wonder and imagination remain inactive when I read in a rush.
Image result for divine conspiracy
Dallas Willard (1999, 356) described how taking his time with the text transformed his view of the world. On a weekend trip to the laundromat, he found himself "engrossed" in "the radiant world of John's [gospel] account." He read meditatively through the final spin cycle.
"I had learned that intensity is crucial for any progress in spiritual perception and understanding. To dribble a few verse or chapters of scripture on oneself during the week, in church or out, will not reorder one's mind and spirit -- just as one drop of water every five minutes will not get you a shower, no matter how long you keep it up. You need a lot of water at once and for a sufficiently long time. Similarly for the written word" (ibid). 
A few pages later, Willard suggested a list of biblical texts that transform including: Psalm 23, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, Sermon on the Mount, Romans 8, Colossians 3, and Philippians 2-4. He argued, "[These are] an essential part of any curriculum for Christlikeness... [that will] bring kingdom order into our entire personality," if meditated upon and memorized (362).

Becoming more like Jesus will coincide with our taking time with those texts that transformed him. We should also take time with the New Testament writings. Peter and Paul, Matthew and Luke, John and Jude have something formative to offer. We must learn to meditate on their savory words.

Who knows, once we start gnawing on God's Word, we might see that "it is good" (Psalm 34:6). We might come to prefer the occasional Word feast to our meager daily portions. We might notice the renewing of our minds leading to transformation (Rom. 12:2). We might even utter a few low, lazy growls.

Monday, August 19, 2019

That Part of Me That Won't Change

God made me new. But not all of me.

A part of Tim remains resistant to change, reluctant to give up control. The apostle Paul's word for this persistent, resistant, autonomous core is "flesh" (Greek = sarx). Steven Porter writes, "Sarx is not simply ingrained inclinations to behaviorally sin, but more fundamentally ingrained inclinations to resist the Spirit of God and live autonomously from his life-giving presence."* 

Like all words, flesh (sarx) has a range of meaning:

  • the whole person (Matthew 19:6)
  • the physical material that makes up the person (John 1:14)
  • the physical makeup of a person that is inherently weak (Matt. 26:41)
  • that persistent, resistant, autonomous core of every person (1 Cor. 3:1)
Paul applies this fourth meaning of flesh most readily in his letter to the Galatians 5. He is writing to an audience of believers on the brink of heresy. Although he addresses them as "brothers and sisters," he realizes they have been "bewitched" by a message that adds religious performance to the gospel of Jesus. This is foolishness (3:1-3).

"We do not need more religion, law, or tradition," Paul argues. "That is self-effort. No: What we need is less self and more Spirit." Flesh and Spirit clash (5:17). At any moment, one of them has greater leverage in my life. To give the Spirit more room to reign, I need a funeral for my flesh. I nail the persistent, resistant, autonomous self to the proverbial cross (5:24). I must speak a eulogy over my ego. I must die daily (1 Cor. 15:31).

Spiritual formation writers have used a vivid phrase to describe this process: mortification of the flesh. It requires confession and repentance. It includes spiritual disciplines that loosen my grip of control: fasting, prayer, silence, solitude, etc. The apostle Paul implies "mortification of the flesh" when he asks his readers to "take off" the old self and "put on" the new (e.g., Eph. 4:17-32; Col. 3:5-16). Mortifying the flesh gives breathing room for "Christ in me" (Gal. 2:20).

Fortunately, that part of me that won't change, those pockets of flesh, will not endure. God's Spirit is more resilient than my flesh. His change will win out. As C.S. Lewis writes,
The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself… [He is] killing the old nature self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a new sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge, and eternity.**
So, let's start digging that grave.

*Porter, Gradual Nature of Sanctification, Themelios 39.3 [2014], 474
**Lewis, Mere Christianity, 164-165

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Divine-human Partnership of Discipleship

One of the mysteries of following Jesus is the Divine-human partnership that makes up discipleship. Where does God's empowerment end and my effort begin? According to Jesus's beautiful "Vine-and-Branch" teaching, we can do nothing apart from God (John 15:5). And yet, in the same passage, he exhorts disciples to abide in him. Doesn't it take some personal effort, focus, and initiative to abide?

The apostle Paul reiterates this Divine-human partnership. We cannot save ourselves, but we can receive salvation by grace through faith in Jesus (Eph. 2:8-9). That salvation moves us from death to life, from futility to fruitfulness. Paul makes this clear the following verse: we are saved for good works as God's workmanship (v. 10).

Another classic text on the Divine-human partnership occurs in Philippians, a letter celebrating human partnerships from beginning to end (Phil. 1:5, 7; 4:10, 15-17). Paul admonishes readers to take ownership of their salvation but recognizes that God provides the engine for their efforts (2:12-13). 

Paul also writes, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). But note, a few chapters later, the apostle turns a statement of truth into a call to action: keep step with the Spirit and don't grow weary doing good (5:13-6:10).

A captivating aspect of this Divine-human partnership is the limitless potential offered to disciples. Abundant life, dynamic works, unshakable courage, powerful ministry, and remarkable character remain within reach (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:58; Gal. 5:21-23; Eph. 3:20-21; 2 Pet. 1:3-5). The sad reality is how few of us experience these heights. 

So what limits this partnership? Is God withholding power from his people? Is he waiting for us to pitch in, put forth more effort, and share our load of the work? Doubtful.

If anything, the Divine-human partnership does not suffer from lack of human effort but too much of it. Humans have inherited a horrible habit of relying on ourselves (see Gen. 3:5-7). Self-reliance ruins the Divine-human partnership. Tragically, we are withholding ourselves.

To be clear, abiding does take work, but it's the work of relenting from self-reliance and seeking out Divine guidance. Trusting does take effort, but it's the effort of undoing the encoded I-can-do-it script and looking to the heavens for help (Psa. 121:1-2). And following does take focus, but it's the focused gaze on our Perfect Savior Jesus not the cultural emphasis on self-improvement (Heb. 12:1-3).
Jesus avoided a life of self-reliance. He did not withhold himself but gave himself fully to the Divine-human partnership. God not only sustained his Son but vindicated him (Phil. 2:5-11). Whether tempted by Satan in the wilderness, pressured by crowds in public, or alone with his tears in the Garden, Jesus prayed self-reliance away: "Not my will be done, but Yours, Father" (Matt. 26:39). And I suspect our engagement in the Divine-human partnership always starts with such a prayer. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Have We Misunderstood Discipleship?

The beginning of the year marked the start of my doctoral work on discipleship. I quickly learned I had misunderstood the biblical meaning of the term. At its core, discipleship speaks of our relationship to Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord (Luke 2:11).

Jesus called men and women into a life of intimacy. They were his disciples. He wanted them to experience the kind of communion he shared with his Heavenly Father--a unity of persons and purpose (see John 17). But before they could become like him, they would have to be with him. "Follow me. Come to me. Learn from me," Jesus summoned (Matt. 4:18-22; 11:28-30). And the disciples dropped their nets, left their dead, and carried their crosses in response to the Master's invitation (8:18-22; 16:24-27).

Biblical discipleship describes the connection between Jesus and his followers. It is deeply personal and dynamically relational. He is alive and with us (28:18-20). Sadly, somewhere along the way, we have reduced discipleship to a church program, mentoring strategy, Bible curriculum, or obedient lifestyle. We have divorced the disciple from Master Jesus.

This tendency to misunderstand discipleship is common. (Read 15+ contemporary definitions here.) Those who write on the topic emphasize imitation of Jesus's mission or obedience to Jesus's teaching. They frame discipleship as a leadership development tactic or evangelistic effort. While these elements may be byproducts of communion with Christ, they are not the center. Tragically, many of these writers overlook (or understate) the heart of discipleship.

Discipleship means following the Master not a mentor.
Discipleship means learning from the Master not Sunday school material.
Discipleship means obeying the Master not moral codes.

Thus I propose another definition: 
I don't expect to see this embroidered on a pillow any time soon, but it's pointing in the right direction. Relationship to the Master gives discipleship its meaning.