Geneva Two–An Honest Look at Community

A while back I had the opportunity to read and review Geneva Two, by Russell Smith, for the Englewood Review of Books. Following is an excerpt of my review for ERB, you can find the full review here.

Geneva Two may be the most honest insightful study of Christian community I have ever read. Don’t let the term study discourage you, in no way does it read like a study. Instead it reads like a conversation. The book is deeply honest in presenting the reality that even in a Christian community conflict can be found in abundance. Even unresolved conflict with accusations, bitterness, and hatred.

While this work may be especially relevant for those belonging to or considering joining an intentional community, it is filled with gems for all Christians. Geneva Two has been encouraging and insightful for me as a Christian and as a pastor, and is a book that I will highly recommend to all who are striving to follow Christ faithfully. Additionally, I would go so far as to say that Geneva Two is a must read for all serving the church in a leadership role.

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On Morning Prayer

Lately I have been reading A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, by William Law. This work may very well be one of the most challenging I have read regarding Christian living. Law calls all Christians to a life of the utmost piety. Following is an excerpt that I found to be especially challenging. 

I take it for granted, that every Christian, that is in health, is up early in the morning; for it is much more reasonable to suppose a person up early, because he is a Christian, than because he is a labourer, or a tradesman, or a servant, or has business that wants him.

We naturally conceive some abhorrence of a man that is in bed when he should be at his labour or in his shop. We cannot tell how to think anything good of him, who is such a slave to drowsiness as to neglect his business for it.

Let this therefore teach us to conceive how odious we must appear in the sight of Heaven, if we are in bed, shut up in sleep and darkness, when we should be praising God; and are such slaves to drowsiness, as to neglect our devotions for it.

For if he is to be blamed as a slothful drone, that rather chooses the lazy indulgence of sleep, than to perform his proper share of worldly business; how much more is he to be reproached, that would rather lie folded up in a bed, than be raising up his heart to God in acts of praise and adoration!

What Kind of Disciple Are You Called to Be?

Throughout the Jewish world there were, and continue to be, many misconceptions about what kind of Messiah was to come from God. Some said the Messiah would be a political savior. Others argued for militant freedom fighter. No matter where one fell in the debate, one thing was certain; life would be better once the Messiah came. God’s people would be free once and for all.

No more slavery. No more exile. No more oppression. Freedom.

When Jesus of Nazareth came on the scene everyone was talking. There wasn’t a coffee shop or hair salon to be found where people weren’t chattering about this miracle worker. Is it possible? Could he be the One? “Maybe John the baptist has come back?” One would say. Another replied, “No, I think he’s Elijah.” Then one of the religious leaders would pipe up, “Enough, he is from Satan! He’s demonic!”

Then there were Jesus’ disciples. The thought he was the Messiah (Mark 8:27-29). Once the disciples had proclaimed their belief in Jesus’ Messiahship, Jesus began to teach them what exactly that meant. As the Messiah, Jesus “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31, ESV).

There was one not so small problem with what Jesus said, a dead Messiah is a false Messiah*. Peter clearly understanding this problem takes his rabbi aside and humbly rebukes this problem of Messiahship.

Jesus pulls no punches, he looks at Peter and replies with a harsher rebuke than any the religious leaders would ever see. “Get behind me, Satan!”

Why would Jesus reply in such a way? Why would He** call this “Rock” “Satan?”

Consider what has happened in Jesus’ life. After his baptism He begins a 40 day fast. At which time He has a showdown with Satan himself. It was during this encounter that Jesus already overcame the temptation to avoid the cross. Peter quite literally was again presenting with the same temptation he already faced from Satan.

However, Jesus’ teaching about the kind of Messiah He is, wasn’t just informative.

It was also to be formative.

Jesus goes on to tell His disciples that if they really want to follow him, they have to take up their cross as well. That clinging to life is a sure way to lose it.

What Jesus makes clear is this: one cannot follow a selfless self-sacrificing Messiah, if they too are not selfless and self-sacrificing. The only way to follow the Jesus in His Messiahship is to live like Him.

Jesus presents two rhetorical questions to help think through this backwards losing equals saving and saving equals losing idea He has stated.

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

When I read this question I cannot help but think about the rich young ruler (see Mark 10:17-31), who when told to sell all he has and give it to the poor “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” This parable reveals the folly in gaining the whole world, yet losing one’s soul.

Jesus also asks, “what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:37).

As I read this I have two thoughts. First, as Paul reminds us grace is a free gift from God in order that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). Second, it reminds me that all those things that consume people have no value in exchange for one’s soul. They are invalid currency.

Jesus makes it clear to the disciples what kind of Messiah He is, as well as the kind of disciples they are to be.

In fact this is the only kind of disciple that exists, there is no other kind of disciple. You and I are called to the same kind of discipleship. The kind of discipleship that reflects the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship.

This kind of discipleship has some implications for how we live our lives.

First, it affects our words. We must learn from Peter’s mistake. Every word that leaves our mouths is to be weighed against the priorities of Christ, lest we become instruments of Satan.

Second, it affects our priorities. Think back to the rhetorical questions of Jesus, read them again if necessary. What is it that if Jesus called you to sacrifice it for Him would make you walk away sorrowful?

What are you spending your life pursuing? What consumes your time? Energy? Thoughts? Money? What consumes you?

Maybe it is your mortgage. Maybe athletics. Possibly it is your retirement. It could be your security.

If Jesus called you to give these things up for His sake, could you do it? Would you?

Are these things worth your very soul? Are they worth hell?

These sacrifices are why Jesus says that following Him requires dying to ourselves. If we are to follow Christ we are to sacrifice ourselves to Him, completely. Holding nothing back from Him.

Alan Cole puts it this way, “All men must one day die. The Christian dies here and now, and so has nothing left to fear; for him, death no longer has any sting.”***

When we decide to be disciples of Jesus, we decide to die to ourselves. Only when we have died to ourselves are we able to be the disciples Jesus has called us to be.

*NT Wright, Mark for Everyone, 111.
**The transition in pronouns here is intentional because of the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah.
***Tyndale New Testament Commentary: Mark, 138.

Pay Attention to the Clouds

Clouds have always fascinated me. I have always been one of those people who sees people, animals and objects in the clouds. Lately I have found myself continually awestruck by the beauty I have seen in the clouds.

A while back, during an early morning walk with my good friend Ed, we had both noticed that the sky was a clear, deep, yet bright midnight blue. About half a mile from getting back to Ed’s house we turned a corner and I happened to notice the clouds.

They seemed pretty low. They were a gradient from dark grey to glowing translucent white, radiantly reflecting the glow of the moon. They were beautiful and puffy, with crisp lines. Between the clusters of clouds we could still see the clear midnight blue sky behind the clouds. It was an incredible sight.

I commented to Ed how amazing the sky looked. In the ensuing conversation I mentioned that clouds were one of my favorite things. Ed responded with one of the most thought-provoking comments I have ever heard. He said, “I know, I love it, but usually I get so busy I don’t even look up to notice them.”

Mentally he stopped me in my tracks. Immediately these words convicted me. Not because of my failure to see the clouds, but because I get so busy that I forget to look up.

Too often I find that I am so caught up in the busy rat-race that I fail to notice God. I’m to busy to focus on Christ. I’m to busy to pay attention to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I’m to busy to notice all that God is doing around me. I’m to busy to notice the beauty of creation—itself a gift from God.

I want to slow down. I want to start looking up more. I want to focus on Christ. To check my rhythm with the Spirit. To praise God for answered prayer. To praise God for the beauty of creation. To have more conversations with friends, like this conversation with Ed.

My prayer is that as I notice the clouds in the future I will be reminded to slow down and look up. That is my prayer for you as well, may to take time to slow down and look up. When we see the various shapes and colors in the sky, may we be reminded that it is a gift from God. Furthermore, may we be reminded to be more attentive, not only to the beauty of creation, but to the work of God. May we be reminded to slow down and focus on Christ and walk in step with the Spirit.

Blessed Mourning

Matane cemetery

When I am completely honest, I can admit that there are portions of Scripture that offer promises that I say I believe. The problem is that my praxis reveals I do not genuinely believe these promises.

One of these portions is in a section of Scripture that people often refer to as the “Beatitudes.” The Beatitudes are inside a larger passage known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” in Matthew 5-7.

The verse that I am especially concerned with is Matthew 5:4:

God blesses those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Allow me for a moment to explain the struggle I have with this verse. It’s not that I don’t believe the promise, but that I often, by praxis, believe that it is some future blessing. Recently while sitting at a pre-funeral visitation waiting for the funeral to begin I had an epiphany about this verse.

Like most people, I have seen a lot of death in my life. This has provided the context in which to see people, loved ones, dealing with death. When I was just over two-years old I lost a little sister. Growing up I saw may parents lose friends and family members. Just after Easter when I was in eighth grade my dad’s mom died of cancer. Shortly after my wife and I got married her grandfather passed away. Then we lost my dad’s dad. Next was my father-in-law. Serving in ministry I am often around families who are dealing with the loss of loved ones.

So I say with great authority; nobody two people handle death the same. Some say to let people be and handle the loss the way that is most comfortable for them.

Yet, I must say that I find myself concerned for those who attempt to handle death by not dealing with its reality. Instead they try to keep their minds busy, to get back to the “normal” routine. They do whatever helps them not acknowledge that they have lost someone for whom they have a profound affection.

What I have noticed is that often years later, these same people have no closure. It appears as if they are still attempting to convince themselves that the loss did not occur.

Here is the epiphany I had while sitting in that all too familiar funeral home: we cannot be comforted unless we mourn.

Much like an alcoholic or drug addict cannot be helped unless he admits that he has a drinking/drug problem. It is easy for us to see the truth here, as well as the ramifications of failing to admit a problem exists.

But, I have also seen people paralyzed by the unwillingness to admit there was a death problem. For years they, like the alcoholic, have been living as if they do not have a problem. The result is also the same, like the alcoholic who cannot receive help, they cannot receive comfort.

I realized that Matthew 5:4 is a simple truth: a person cannot be comforted if they do not mourn. Yet, it also remains true that we will receive ultimate comfort at the resurrection of the dead.

Have you seen people who refuse to admit loss? How does it affect their quality of life?

What are your thoughts regarding Matthew 5:4?

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The Truth About Worship Styles

First Presbyterian Church ~ Bridgewater PA

First Presbyterian Church ~ Bridgewater PA (Photo credit: Onasill)

If there is anything that seems to be true about Christians across denominational and cultural boundaries, it is that we can make any topic a theological argument. We can take any issue facing the church or a congregation and explain why God would agree with our opinion and disagree with theirs. One example of this is worship styles.

I do not remember being in the church and not hearing people argue over what style of music is best for worshipping God. It is with regret that I confess; I too have participated in these discussions/debates/arguments. We are well versed at making this a spiritual arguments also. “Hymns are more reverent.” “Contemporary songs are more personal.” “Hymns have stood the test of time.” “Contemporary songs are better for reaching the lost.” “Hymns don’t use pagan music.” “Psalm 96 says sing a new song.” I’m sure you can recall different arguments you have heard, or even used, for (or against) either side of the discussion.

Yet, when we are completely honest with ourselves, we must admit that this debate is less spiritual than we want to make it. In reality, it is not a spiritual argument at all, it is an argument over preferences. You prefer one style and someone else prefers another. The problem is that each of you thinks your preference matters more than the other person’s.

Can I let you in on a secret? First, a disclaimer, this secret is not for the faint of heart. Consider yourself warned, if you are easily offended stop reading immediately. The secret is this; worship is not about you. It does not matter one iota what style you (or I) prefer. Worship is about glorifying and praising God. Period.

Eugene Peterson writes, “No, you don’t have to like the [songs]. And yes, you do need to sing them—hopefully in approximate tune and rhythm with the rest. It’s an excellent exercise in humility.” (The Wisdom of Each Other, 28).

I can attest for the truth of Peterson’s instructions in my life. When I worship in a style that is not my preference it reminds me that worship is about God. It reminds me that I have brothers and sisters with different preferences. It reminds me that God doesn’t care what style we use, He cares about the content, He cares about the heart.

Sometimes, we need to put our preferences aside, quit making everything a spiritual debate, and just worship God. Sometimes we need to be humbled (no doubt more often than we’d like to admit).

Any time we discuss preferences it is advisable to remember Paul’s words in Philippians 2:1-11.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you agree? Disagree? How can we truly worship God with our focus on Him alone?

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Captain America on Church Leadership

Captain America

Captain America (Photo credit: LZ Creations)

Like many boys, my son has decided he really enjoys The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. My wife hates this, probably because I have enjoyed watching the cartoons as well. One day after we had enjoyed an episode together I began to realize that it was an incredible lesson in leadership.

The lesson requires backstory, so if you will journey with me to The Avengers storyline (Spoiler Alert). In previous episodes there was an alien race attempting to take over the planet and…in come The Avengers to save the day. However, little did they know the alien race had infiltrated them by kidnapping and taking the form of Captain America. When the aliens begin their invasion they use the alien Captain America to encourage the entire planet to surrender. The episode ends with the real Captain breaking free and The Avengers once again save the planet from imminent ruin.

Back to the episode that taught me about being a leader. The people of New York are angry with Captain America for encouraging them to surrender, apparently they failed to receive the alien impersonator memo. In order to heal his reputation Captain America is persuaded to do an interview with the Daily Bugle, during which Peter Parker asks him about what has happened and Captain America responds by taking full responsibility. In the midst of the interview the Serpent Society makes an attack on the city.

Captain America, Spider-Man, and a group of citizens find themselves in the subway tunnels taking on the Serpent Society.  Even in this situation the citizens are hurling insults at Captain America. In a conversation with Captain America, Spider-Man inquires about Cap’s unwillingness to defend his honor. Throughout it all Captain America continues to ignore the insults and attacks and persists in doing what he needs to do. In the end, the people have regained their trust, admiration, and respect for Captain America.

As I reflected on this episode over the next couple days I thought about its connection to ministry. Unfortunately as leaders we will undoubtedly find ourselves under attack, sadly like Captain America, these attacks all too often come from the people we are attempting to serve. Personally, when I face these attacks I tend to want to respond like Spider-Man and defend myself, showing people how they are wrong and putting them in their place.

Yet, we see a different method of response from Captain America, one that I think better suits us as leaders. This method of response is not new with Captain America, in fact, it is the very way in which Jesus responded to the accusations against Him (I must admit thought, that seeing it in The Avengers helped me to understand it better). There are two passages that I had never intentionally contemplated next to each other that have helped me understand how to respond to attacks and insults Biblically (emphasis added).

Philippians 2:5

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

And 1 Peter 2:21-23

For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. ‘He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God,who always judges fairly.’

While these are written to Christians in general, how much more do they apply to leaders? I find myself frustrated in the way that I have handled insults and attacks in the past, yet encouraged to act more like Christ in the present and future.

How do you respond to personal attacks? Is there ever a time when we should defend ourselves?