Friday Post: Weighing Disciples

I send a Friday email to our church with a little devotional thought. I thought I’d start placing it here, too

On my last day at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta, a fellow pastor on staff, Mark Brewer, gave me an important and challenging task: “Make sure you find a way to routinely weigh members of your congregation. Don’t just count them.” Don’t worry, we are not going to install scales at the doors of the sanctuary, nor are we going to launch a weight-loss, Daniel Plan initiative. The admonition from Pastor Mark is a metaphor that points to a dilemma for church leaders: “There has to be more to what we can study about how our church is doing than just the three B’s: Budgets, Butts, and Buildings.”

There is and Jesus is focused on who we are becoming, not merely how many are showing up for worship. His Sermon on the Mount is filled with teachings that check our character, especially when no one is watching. Paul regularly launches into tightly, packed sections in his New Testament letters concerning our life lived together. While listening to John Ortberg recently, I was challenged. He made this neat comparison between our bodily health and our spiritual health. “Your body is always being shaped, whether you like it or not. Your body takes no breaks in being shaped. In the same way, your soul never ceases to be shaped, by what you do or not do in correspondence with the way of Jesus.” (paraphrase) What a stunning reality, one that should be a primary focus for us as Christians and for us as church leaders.

To that end, we will launch into a new sermon series this Sunday called Vitals. Vitals will outline three categories for spiritual formation, how one might grow in Christ. The image we’ll use is the Apple Watch face, which has three rings worth of daily goals that monitors our personal health. I hope that you not only make it to the opening sermon this Sunday, but commit to listening to each part of this series so each of us can make a personal and family plan to grow up in the knowledge of Christ in 2018.

This Sunday at the Cordova campus and next Sunday at the Arlington campus, we’ll have a unique wrinkle in our worship liturgy. Our faith formation team on staff has put together a way for each of us to “weigh” how we are doing as a follower of Jesus, a simple examination exercise to sketch how our faith life is going. I don’t want to give too many details at this point, but I wanted to share our enthusiasm for this opportunity and for you to know that we want to do all that we can to help you shape a deep, relevant, and informed faith. I pray that you and I will be eager to weigh ourselves this weekend and to be open to God’s transforming power in the year ahead.

Happy New Year!

What I’m Currently Reading: God Dreams by Will Mancini

What I’m Currently Watching: One Wheel promo videos (and trying not to cave into envy)

What I’m Currently Listening to: Queen’s “Forever” album

An App I find helpful: Adobe Photoshop Express

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Taller and Taller

In Tom Wright’s Spiritual and Religious Wright has a fascinating chapter on idolatry on how humans can fall for lesser loves,

The process begins with a lie; it continues with the habitual lie; it goes yet deeper when we are unable to distinguish the lie from the truth; and it ends when our words are literally meaningless, the mouthing and mumbling of mechanical untruth that nobody believes but which functions like the clanking of the machinery that says the system is still working. This is the cost of human inflation. We may have felt ten feet tall, but it was a lie. That is the story, in essence, of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11: humans decide to make themselves taller and taller, but the end result is chaos, confusion, the disintegration of human speech.

Creative Minority (Book) – 6 Practices

I’m working my way through A Creative Minority by Tyson and Grizzle. It’s a neat little book that is worth the read for leaders within the church. I highly recommend it.

The authors are seeking to persuade the modern-day Church, which is diminishing in participation and power, to resist the urge to seek “cultural dominance” or to daydream of recovering its “unrealistic and nostalgic past.” Instead, seeking to be a counter-community within the world, not removed from it, or as Karl Barth suggested:

The church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way that is full of promise.

This counter-community must have two elements, working in tandem: radical dissimilarity and hopeful promise. There’s a good chance that if you or I have participated in a community that makes much of Jesus, we would recognize these two elements.

The authors provide 6 characteristics of this type of community. I’ll cover those in two different posts, later.

This content reminds me of a Facebook conversation that Ginger and I were in several years ago. I can’t remember the exact subject that sparked the “delightful” back-and-forth, but I do remember an interesting perspective that someone shared.

“Jesus didn’t ask us to win a popularity contest… Jesus told us to be ‘in the world, but not of it.'”

This person’s sincere sentiment is relatively helpful, as a reminder that any of us can be susceptible to waning faithfulness in order to be accepted by outsiders. However, to base one’s entire life on picking the least popular thing doesn’t always lead to a faithful end, either. Even though the earliest Christians picked the least popular option of defying the Temple leadership, they also enjoyed the favor of all people. (Acts 2:42-47) Their risky unpopularity pointed to a greater, distinct, and redemptive reality. I have always enjoyed this idea from NT Wright,

“Jesus said that his kingdom was not from this world, but it is certainly for this world.”

The outworking of that takes some creative ingenuity, a lot of prayer, and some guts. May we find ourselves dedicated to such a task.

Book- A Creative Minority

I’m working my way through a lovely, little book that I’ll read again and hope to work through with our leaders.

The book is A Creative Minority by Jon Tyson and Heather Grizzle. This book is self-published; some publishing house needs to pick it up!

The definition they provide for a “creative minority” is compelling:

A Christian community in a web of stubbornly loyal relationships, knotted together in a living network of persons who are committed to practicing the way of Jesus together for the renewal of the world.

I’m enthused by this vision and can’t wait to share more as I read along. You should pick up a copy and enjoy it too.

Holy Week Reading: Mark

This week, I’m reading the Holy Week passages from the 4 NT Gospels and giving a bit of comment from them as we approach Easter Sunday.

Today I read Mark’s account, which read in close step with Matthew’s version. Matthew has more interaction between Jesus and his opponents. There are some other details that differ between the two. The majority, however, reads the same and follows a similar narrative stream.

It’s hard not to make mention of Mark’s ending, though. Most study Bibles are honest in that the traditional ending found in some English translations (Mark 16:9-20) is not found in the earliest manuscripts or other “ancient witnesses.”

Without verses 9-20, however, Mark’s Gospel seems to have a bizarre ending. In the last chapter of Mark, the women go to the tomb (like the other Gospel accounts) and find it empty. However, in Mark’s brief ending, they do not see Jesus. They merely see the empty tomb and are instructed by the angel there to:

  • not be alarmed (easy for you to say)
  • to go tell Peter that Jesus is raised and that Jesus will go ahead of them into Galilee to meet with the disciples

Notice the ending at verse 8, however:

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Now, imagine the camera shot zooming out of this final scene as the credits begin to roll signaling the end of the story… Weird, right?

Maybe that is why the Markan tradition felt compelled to “provide a deleted scene,” in order to not only round off the story to a proper conclusion, but to also elevate the reputation of these women who seemed to do the exact opposite of what the angel asked them to do.

Call me crazy, but I think the traditional, short ending of Mark is vital. We might be quick to be disappointed with the women who did the opposite of what was asked of them and embarrassed that our fore-sisters were paralyzed by the news of the resurrection.

But, who could blame them?

Jesus’ resurrection re-ordered everything. Sure, Jesus may have hinted at his resurrection during his preaching ministry, but part of the power of the resurrection is its startling property. It’s hard for something to re-order the entire cosmos when it can be neatly fit into pre-existing categories.

Mark’s ending allows us to consider a God “on the loose,” who is mentioned, but not seen. Although he is announced as risen, his cover is still kept and under that holy “disguise” he’s allowed to continue his redemptive work in the world all around us.

The God of the resurrection is a projectile (who flies at us) and not a projection (that we can anticipate and trace). People with power like to make projections because it allows them to adjust to what might happen in order to retain their power. Followers of Jesus learn to watch for the projectiles, we live to follow a God who is on the loose.

I think a fair question to consider this Easter is, “Can I follow a God who is not only alive, but who is also on the loose?”

Holy Week Reading: Matthew

This week, I plan on reading the Holy Week sections of each of the Gospels leading up to Maundy Thursday.

Today I read Matthew’s version, but I read Genesis 14 as an Old Testament reading, first. Genesis 14 is a peculiar passage, for it places Abram (the narrative’s main character) right in the middle of a major conflict between two sets of allies. Abram’s family (and potential army) is small, but Abram’s troops are a deciding factor in the great battle, further portraying Abram as an “idealized human figure” in the Old Testament’s first book.

Tucked away in the story is a vital detail: Abram is referred to as “the Hebrew.” (v.13) The term “Hebrew” was designated as a “cast off one, unidentified, unaffiliated.” It was a derogatory term. Yet, Abram proved to be a vital part of this story, even as an outsider.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus’ last week, Jesus is treated in a similar way: he’s constantly interrogated, misinterpreted, disrespected, betrayed, harassed, beaten, and crucified. Yet, in the middle of it all, he proves to be the “idealized human figure” that rescues a broken, violent humanity.

The Gospels train us as God’s people for in the moment that we think we’ve carved up the world into those who are capable, valuable, powerful, and wise, we are stunned to realize that someone who we might have cast to the side is more important than we initially realized.

To live within Easter’s power is to imagine that all things, even overlooked things/people/tasks can be animated with the very life of God. May we be that type of Easter people, able to believe that resurrection life can be seen within all things.

Skillen Family News: Tennessee (“You’re the only 10 I see”)

In a word: Tennessee

In a sentence: Earlier today, Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova and Arlington, TN voted to receive me as their next Senior Pastor.

In a paragraph (or two): Where do we begin? It was only two, short years ago that we joined Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta to join their fantastic staff. These two years have been fast and slow at the same time. Fast, because we had so much meaningful work to engage in together. Slow, because I feel like the Skillen 4 have learned so much and have grown by leaps and bounds.

Peachtree- you have been good and kind and thoughtful and blissful and delightful and (insert other such adjectives here). We’ve enjoyed the richness of your history as well as your spontaneity to be a Christ-centered church in a changing environment. To say that we’ve learned much from you is a mere understatement. We are going to miss your energy, your thoughtfulness, and your love. It might be a tad dramatic to compare our exit from you to Paul’s exit from Ephesus in Acts where they had to “pry one another apart” from that last embrace, but that’s certainly how we feel today. We will miss you to an incredible depth of our hearts.

Advent- when our family visited Memphis and your church for worship, we were so struck by how your church and your city remind us a bit of both Wichita and Atlanta. Advent, you are a synthesis of what we have known. As we join your community soon, we are beginning to let our imaginations run wild about what “could be.” God is good and will continue to show his goodness towards us in the days to come.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the reason he chose the Church was because it was a place with an order where “good things could run wild.” Wherever we find ourselves, we must see to it that we put our hands to such an phenomenon. We have certainly seen that in the lives of our Peachtree family and we look forward to such moments at Advent.

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Joe, Ginger, Avery, Ezra (and Cooper and Daphne)