Growing Up

Yesterday I received a phone call from a young couple I’ve known for several years. They are serving God as ambassadors of the Gospel and God’s blessing is evident in their ministry.

Just one year ago they announced that their first child was on the way and all who know them were certain they would make great parents. Then the baby was born and everyone immediately knew that this little boy was profoundly disabled.

Yesterday the new Daddy called to share that after months of tests the final results showed little Andrew would never grow much – either physically or mentally. His life expectancy could be six months or six years or even longer – but he would always be a baby. Of course, the parents are heartbroken but in their grief are showing maturity and Christ-likeness which serve as a model for many.

From Birth to Benediction

The phone call came as I was meditating on the passages in Paul’s letters that refer to the church as a body: Romans 12:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; and Colossians 2:19; 3:15. And then I read Ephesians 4:4-16 and especially verses 11-16:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

From its birth as described in Acts, to the great Benediction at the Second Coming of Christ, the church is described as the Body of Christ. Every follower of Jesus is a part of that church and every church is part of the church universal. Together we are to be “built up;” to “become mature” so that “we will no longer be infants.”

We are called to “grow up.” Andrew will not grow up and that reality leaves his parents and their families frustrated, sad, and bewildered. But unless we have a debilitating disability, we, the church, are expected to “become mature” and leave behind the baby talk, milk, and childish ways.

Simply passing the days (and years) will never help Andrew grow up. Just showing up for church and going through the motions does not help us grow in Christ-like maturity.

We are called to honestly evaluate our own lives to determine the progress of the maturation process. That assessment is most successful when we turn to those who know us best and ask for their insight and respond to their questions.

Pastors and church leaders have an even greater responsibility: we will be held accountable for the people under our spiritual care. How are they doing? What are we doing to help promote their spiritual growth? What does the plan look like for moving people from new birth to adolescence to maturity?

As they think through the individuals in their congregation, maybe one of the questions leaders should ask is, Who is Sold out? Who is risking everything as a follower of Jesus?

Could it be that we should be as frustrated and upset as Andrew’s parents over the reality that our churches are full of people who still need milk and baby formula and cribs?

Over the next several weeks, I’ll share some thoughts about moving from Formula to Faithfulness; From Cribs to Crucibles; and From Diapers to Discipleship.

Sin Within

On May 11, Pope Benedict told reporters flying with him to Portugal, “The greatest persecution of the Church doesn’t come from the enemies outside, but is born from sin inside the Church.” (link to original article)

It’s true.

Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo, put it this way: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We are easily distracted by the masses who would have us believe that governments, politicians, and secularism have become the enemy of the church; a brilliant move by the real Adversary to divert our attention. Pope Benedict is correct; the sin inside the church is the church’s greatest enemy.

Some of this sin within is obvious: gossip, greed, jealousy . . . but much of the foe is insidious. Allow me to risk offending by describing what I mean:

Sentimentalism – Don’t trust your feelings! Churches often find themselves driven by how people feel. When the truth of God’s Word is abandoned in favor of emotion we are ruled by style and not substance; personal preferences become more important than Biblical principles; and tradition takes precedence over Truth. We often choose the type of music, translation of the Bible, and who rings the bell based on how we feel. Emotion – sentiment – is a terrible foundation for decision making.

Edifice Idolatry – The church building is NOT God’s House. Jesus, by the power and work of the Holy Spirit, lives in US; not in a structure of wood, stone, and steel. Facilities are simply tools. Use them up, wear them out, outgrow them – then tear them down and move on. I once heard someone say, “We can’t have all these kids running around because they’ll wear out the carpet!” What?! There isn’t much that frustrates me more than churches spending more on their buildings than on disciple making. North America is littered with empty warehouses, factories, and department stores – let’s move in and wear them out!

Practical Atheism – Craig Groeschel coined this phrase in his latest book, “The Christian Atheist”. Literally, it means we believe in God but live as if He doesn’t exist. Admit it; would materialism – the monster called MORE – really have such a stranglehold on our lives if we believed it is better to store up treasures in heaven than on earth? If we fully believed that God created sexuality for an exclusive, life-long commitment between one man and one woman would we really continue to harbor such lust? There will always be hypocrisy in the church but let’s do a better job at walking the talk!

Indifference – Apathy is closely related to practical atheism but let’s make a distinction. Some practical atheists know all the right words and can sing all the songs from memory but there are many, many people in our churches who just don’t care. Church is simply another activity like soccer or attending a concert. In fact, indifference shows up when people decide softball is more important than worship and going to the football game is a higher priority than being in a mentoring relationship. People all around us who are far from God are longing for someone who will do more than just say they care.

These are just four of the many malady’s which result in Perpetual Spiritual Adolescence – the debilitating and crippling paralysis which runs rampant like a virus without a vaccine. Pastors and church leaders must take inventory: is there indifference? Sentimentalism? Practical Atheism? Edifice Idolatry?

What steps will you begin to take to address the sin within?

On that same flight, Pope Benedict also told reporters, “We can expect that evil will always launch attacks from the inside and the outside but the forces of good are also always present, and in the end, the Lord is stronger than evil.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:7-10)

Mother’s Day 2010

Dear Joy, Peter, and Kari:

I know we haven’t spent a lot of time in the mountains but I want to tell you about the Aspen trees because they remind me a lot of your Mom.

Aspens have one purpose; they grow just to protect the spruce tree when it’s born. As the spruce tree grows bigger and bigger the aspens gradually grow old and tired and they even die after a while. But the spruce, which has had its tender self protected in its childhood, grows into one of the forest’s most wonderful trees. One of the aspens’ most interesting attributes is the beauty of its leaves which seem to tremble and quiver at the slightest breeze.

Think about Mom as aspen trees standing there quaking in the winds that blow, catching the cold snows of life, bearing the hot rays of the sun, all to protect you from those things until you are strong enough and wise enough to do them yourself. Mom was never quaking from fear, but from the joy of being able to see your lives develop and grow into strong, God-fearing adults.

Just like the spruce, you have reached the point where you don’t need Mom as much as you used to even though you miss her very much. In the months between her diagnosis and death we talked often about how all three of you have developed and matured as followers of Christ. We were (and are) amazed at the privilege of seeing you grow this far and have influenced you all we could in this adventure we call life.

The spruce tree is like that, too. After having grown for years under the protection of the aspens he reaches the point where he’s on his own, but what he grows into after he goes on his own is up to him. Will his branches reach towards God’s sky and protect those weary people who come to rest under him? Will you in your growing become a person the world wants to know because you reflect the love of Christ whom your mother loved and served?

Don’t think of this as the first Mother’s Day without your Mom. It is your first Mother’s Day when God (and your Mom) knew without a doubt that you are prepared to practice the disciplines necessary to fully embrace this life-adventure.

So live in the fullness of God’s purpose being worked out in you. Confidently face each new day, and every circumstance, wholly aware that God will guide and direct as you remain faithful, obedient, and humble before Him.

And remember, I love you!


Delays, Detours, Determined Dependency

The water was at least 18 inches deep – across all four lane of Interstate 24 just south of downtown Nashville, TN. We carefully followed another vehicle through the water (Kids: don’t ever, ever do that!) and then we found ourselves stranded. We inched our way to the closest exit and tried three different directions all blocked by flood waters. Five hours later we learned from a Police Officer that one road going west was open. We would be able to go to Knoxville, TN and take I-75 to Atlanta. This was an adventure marked by delays, detours, and determined dependency.

What was intended to be a 12 hour trip became a 20 hour quest for a clear path. Not unlike life itself and especially similar to the challenges of ministry.

We often approach life in general and ministry in particular with the expectation that all the details should fall into place; all the roadblocks removed. We assume that because God has directed us to travel in a certain direction, the journey should be straightforward, and we don’t expect any delays or detours.

Some of us really believe that Jesus has gone ahead of us and prepared the way (Luke 7:22) but we don’t expect the way to include U-turns, backtracking, or waiting for hours on end (or days) for the path to become clear. We forget that the same God who moves at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) also moves at the pace of a glacier or snail. He is God. God is more interested in obedience, faithfulness, and humility than speed.

How closely we follow Him is more important than the route He leads us through. Our self-discipline, self-control, and self-sacrifice are more important than how fast a task is completed or how successful a particular program is.

Fully devoted followers of Jesus learn (and are learning) to be determined in their dependency on God. Being patient while waiting for flash-flood waters to recede is an act of the will. Dealing with hotel doors with computerized locks that seize up at the most inopportune time requires a great deal of self-control. Driving hundreds of miles out of the way to reach the intended destination depends on staying alert.

Recognizing God in the delays and detours produces a new level of dependency on Him. (See Psalm 124)

No matter what tough, painful difficulties you face God is with you. Be determined in your dependence on Him.