Thinking differently about leadership…

Standard

Luke 9:49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”

This is an interesting passage. A few verses earlier Jesus sent the twelve disciples on a mission to preach the good news of the Kingdom in nearby villages, to heal the sick, and cast out demons. Things went pretty well for them, but not entirely. Jesus chastised them for their lack of faith when they could not heal a boy with a demon.

So then the disciples encounter a stranger who is successfully casting out demons – despite not having the benefit of the personal teaching, training, mentoring they had received from Jesus. The nerve of this guy! We’ve got to stop him! But Jesus says to leave him be. He didn’t need to be authorized by Jesus or the disciples to do the work of the Kingdom.

We’re in an interesting time in the life of the American church, particularly the Lutheran church. We’re in a season in which there are more churches that need a pastor than pastors to fill the vacancies. It wasn’t always so. For many years there was a surplus of pastors, which was reflected in the preparation of pastors for the church. There were lots of requirements and processes to fulfill in order to be approved and ordained. Some of it made sense, but lots of it had little to do with actually equipping people to serve as solid pastors for the church. We’re starting to see that change.

It’s simple supply and demand. We need pastors so the church is becoming more flexible and inclusive in approving people for ordination – which is a good thing. We need people who are outside traditional boxes, who have a deep sense of call and who understand the rapidly changing landscape for ministry. And most importantly, we need people who have demonstrated fruitful ministry even if they don’t have the academic or scholarly experience required in the past.

But, just like the disciples in our passage, there are church leaders who’ve been through the traditional processes who object. I suppose the more things change, the more they stay the same. Lord Jesus, open our minds and hearts to see the value of those who bear wonderful fruit for your Kingdom. Frankly, the church needs them. Amen.

First fruits given in gratitude

Standard

Deuteronomy 26:1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.

Here Moses is giving instructions to the Israelites as they prepare to cross over the River Jordan into the land God gave to them. It was an abundant land with more than enough of everything they would need. In these verses the people are instructed to take the first of “all the fruit of the ground” (crops and such) and return it to the priests who would use it to provide for those in need – the alien, the widow, the orphan.

What strikes me is how uncomplicated this must have been. I mean, the Israelites would not have planted and cultivated the produce they found. Others (the nations they were driving out) would have done the hard work. It was a pure gift from God for which gratitude would have come easily. Later this may not have been so simple. Why?

When we put in hard work for something we tend to view the results as “wages earned” rather than “gift received”. It’s “mine”. I worked for it. I earned it. This mindset is, in part, why so many believers struggle to return a tithe to the Lord. We hold on to what we’ve received as gift, missing out on the opportunity to see God’s abundance come to life in us. We hold on to the responsibility to provide for ourselves – and the stress that comes with it – rather than giving this responsibility to God. It’s one reason why Americans, who are among the wealthiest peoples in human history, continue to bear so much anxiety related to money. There is a better way.

Heavenly Father thank you for all you give to us. Give us hearts of gratitude expressed in generosity toward you and others. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Following Jesus…

Standard

Luke 9:18 Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” 20 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” 21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Jesus was well aware of his disciples’ expectations of him and the implications for their own futures. They expected Jesus to rule as king of Israel, seated on a throne, with his disciples helping him run the show. There would be wealth and status and power and authority – particularly for those closest to him. So imagine their confusion and distress in hearing Jesus’ words in v.22 – 24.

When I was in my early 20s I was working for USAA in San Antonio – just a couple of years out of college. As part of their executive development program I was working full-time during the day and studying for my M.B.A. at night. It was exhausting but I was excited by what I thought the future held for me. My family was proud of me, especially my mother, which meant a lot to me.

At the same time I was getting deeper into my Christian faith. After a while it became clear the Lord had different plans for me. My future would be in serving the church, not following a career in business. It took me a while, but I finally surrendered to the leading of the Lord and enrolled in seminary. I can remember telling my family about this. Some were happy for me, but some were not – including my own mother who thought leaving USAA was a mistake. Why leave a good thing in your hand for the unknown path of ministry? She meant well, of course, wanting the best for me. I might have done the same if the shoe were on the other foot.

So when I read v.23-24 those memories come back to me. And of course the “take up” the cross didn’t stop there. The Lord has called me and my family to do this again and again – to depart from our own expectations and submit to the leading of the Lord. It hasn’t been easy. But I’ve never regretted it. The Lord has always brought blessing along with the grief and anxiety of change and loss.

I wonder how the Lord might be calling you to move in a different direction, to take up your cross and follow. It’s normal to be wary of this. Leaving the known for the unknown is hard, especially when the known is pretty darn good. If you’re conflicted about this, I pray the Lord will give you grace to overcome your fear and doubt, to trust the Lord with a future you can’t see.

Lord let it be so. Amen.

Jairus – out of moves…

Standard

Luke 8:40 41 Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying. As he went, the crowds pressed in on him… someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” 50 When Jesus heard this, he replied, “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” 51 When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. 52 They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But he took her by the hand and called out, “Child, get up!” 55 Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat. 56 Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened.

What catches my eye is the way Jairus approaches Jesus. We’re told that Jairus is a “leader of the synagogue”. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet – not something a person of stature in the community would generally do. There is no dignity here, only desperation and need. One would expect he’s done everything he can to help his daughter but nothing has worked. He’s out of options. But he’s heard about Jesus’ healing ministry and figures it’s worth a shot. Fortunately Jairus’ faith is well-placed and his daughter is restored.

Nothing brings about faith more than desperation.

At least that’s been my observation over the years. It’s also what I see in the scriptures. When things are going well, faith can be seen as unnecessary. Why bother? I’ve got this. But when life spins out of control and we’re out of moves, we tend to be far more open to things of God. Like Jairus. Like me (back in the day). Maybe like you at one time.

Here’s something to think and pray about. I firmly believe the Lord brings desperate people into our relational orbit who are marginally connected to the Lord or perhaps not connected at all. And when this happens we have a great opportunity to do four things:

  1. Ask what’s troubling them – and LISTEN deeply
  2. Ask if you can pray for them.
  3. Pray for them on the spot. If you’re not sure what to pray, the Lord’s Prayer will do just fine.
  4. Continue to pray that the Lord will open their hearts and draw them into a life of faith.

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Confronting obstacles in the supernatural realm…

Standard

Luke 8: 26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

In the previous section of Luke, Jesus demonstrates mastery of the natural world – stilling a storm. Now Jesus demonstrates mastery of the supernatural world – casting out demons. First, let’s look at some of the details of our passage.

We’re told that Gerasenes (Gargesa) is opposite Galilee. See the pic below:

You may notice the light blue line down the middle of the map to the north and south of the Sea of Galilee. That’s the River Jordan. The area west of the Jordan is the land of Israel. The area east of the Jordan is the land of Gentiles (non-Jews). You also see the green and orange lines indicating the path where Jesus crossed into Gergesa and back to Galilee.

In Gergesa Jesus encountered a man possessed by a legion of demons (a “legion” was a Roman military term for a group of about 6,000 soldiers). As a result he was not wearing clothes and was living in a cave instead of a home. V.29 tells us that the authorities had tried to control the man with “chains and shackles” for his own protection and that of his neighbors – but it didn’t work. The demons were so numerous, and so powerful, he simply broke the chains. By telling us about the chains Luke is hinting at a very important truth which no one had addressed before Jesus showed up.

The root of this man’s problem was supernatural in nature.

I’m guessing that by the time Jesus met the man, his neighbors had given up on him. Let the man live in the cave where at least he’s not a danger to others. The fact he lived in a cave is significant. In Jesus’ day, in that part of the world, people were usually buried in tombs, which were caves used to store the dead. Luke gives us this detail to indicate a sort of death had already taken place in the man. True, he had not mortally died yet, but his life was effectively over. He was a dead man walking.

So Jesus showed up on the scene and did what others had not yet done. He attended to the supernatural dimension of the problem, casting out the demons from the man into the herd of pigs nearby. Here’s an important truth:

When we encounter a problem that will not respond to typical “natural” solutions we are likely dealing with a supernatural problem.

The first important step in learning to deal with such problems is acknowledging the reality of the supernatural realm. It is not a myth or superstition, but a very real dimension of the universe. Next, we ask for grace to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” (Ephesians 6:10). You and I bring little to this fight, but with God all things are possible. Jesus demonstrates his power and mastery of both the natural and supernatural. When we call on his name we are bringing to bear the powers of the Kingdom of God, which are available to us as children of God through Christ.

Finally we continue to pray for God’s power to bring breakthrough in the supernatural realm. It doesn’t always happen quickly, but the Lord hears our prayers. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Letting Jesus take the wheel…

Standard

Deuteronomy 19:11 But if someone at enmity with another lies in wait and attacks and takes the life of that person, and flees into one of these (sanctuary) cities, 12 then the elders of the killer’s city shall send to have the culprit taken from there and handed over to the avenger of blood to be put to death. 13 Show no pity; you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may go well with you.

In this section of Deuteronomy, the Lord is giving to the Israelites the rules they were to live by as they prepared to enter their new homeland – the Promised Land (Canaan). V.11 mentions sanctuary cities which were cities available to those who accidentally took another’s life – what we might refer to today as “manslaughter”. You chop down a tree for wood, but the tree falls on another worker and kills them. Or the axe head flies of in mid-swing and strikes someone nearby, killing them. That sort of thing. It’s killing without intent or malice. Sanctuary cities were places where persons who committed such acts could be protected from retribution until a trial could take place to determine guilt or innocence.

V.12-13 indicate what to do if someone abused the privilege of sanctuary cities – fleeing there when they’d committed intentional murder. They were to be put to death. No jail time. No chance of rehabilitation. Execution. Period. The murderer was considered inherently evil and in need of destruction so as to “purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel”.

One of the most appealing aspects of the gospel of Jesus is the promise of a new start, both with God and with people. Human beings make lots of mistakes, so the notion of being forgiven of our wrongs and placed on the path to a better future is like a dream come true. Our past mistakes don’t have to define us.

I can tell you that the Lord gave me direction and purpose when I was floundering as a young adult. My education path reflects this. I started as a biology/pre-med student, then changed to marketing, then applied to law school but changed my mind before actually matriculating, then went to business school to study for an M.B.A. before finally landing in seminary. Ridiculous!

I could easily have spent a lifetime bouncing around from one thing to the next, never really finding a vocation that fit. But the Lord changed all that. Through Jesus I was given a fresh start, a purpose for my life that was greater than myself. As I write this I am so grateful to the Lord. God is indeed good.

Maybe you have something of a rugged past. You’ve made mistakes along the way. You have regrets. Join the club. I’m not sure I know of anyone who does not fit this description at some level. Fear not – there is hope for you. If you’ll give your life to the Lord Jesus he will show you the way. And I’m not just talking about those of you who may not be Christians, or at least not active Christians. There are many who are committed to being a part of the church, but still refuse to allow Jesus to take the wheel, to give up control, to follow the Lord’s leading. Today could be your day sister/brother – to start living the life designed for you from the start.

Heavenly Father we begin by thanking you for your grace and mercy. Everyone who reads this blog post has made mistakes. We have regrets. Today we ask for the grace to finally surrender our lives to you through Jesus Christ. Make us a sheep of your own flock, among those who follow where the Good Shepherd leads. Give us grace to trust you to lead us in everlasting life. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Good soil in a difficult time…

Standard

Luke 8:4 When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. 7 Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8 Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”… 11 “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. 14 As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.

This is one of the better known parables in the gospels. There were lots of people, many thousands, who heard Jesus teach and preach and heal people and cast out demons, and so on. Yet remarkably few actually accepted his invitation to follow him as a disciple. Why? Because it meant leaving everything behind: family, friends, home, business, and so on. It’s a lot to ask, no doubt. At the time of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit arrived, there were only 120 disciples. Total. So this parable tells us why there were so few.

There were many people who started following Jesus, but eventually went back home. They returned home when the authorities put pressure on Jesus and his disciples, threatening to put them in prison or worse. Or they left to check on their properties or businesses. Or to care for their elderly family members. Or whatever. I understand why people left Jesus after a time. I may very well have done the same.

But some disciples stuck with Jesus for the long haul and bore much fruit.

I want to commend you for reading this blog post today. There are many of you who are committed to doing so each day, even when (let’s face it) the content isn’t so great. You stay with it because you expect the word of God to bless you, to encourage you, to challenge you to become the person God created you to be.

These are difficult days in which many people are running on fumes. Bone tired. You know, the kind of tired that a nap can’t fix. It’s a weariness of spirit that overwhelms. You may be tempted to give up your discipline of being in the Word every day. You may think you’re just too tired. Or you’re too busy. Or whatever.

15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.

The key words in this verse are “patient endurance”. Being in the word is a marathon, not a sprint. As you maintain your practice, even through these difficult days, I can assure you the Lord will bear much fruit in you – and in others through you. Stay with it friends!

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Christian communism?

Standard

Deuteronomy 15:4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy.

This section of Deuteronomy discusses the economy in the Promised Land, the remission of debts every 7th year and the importance of giving to those in need. The expectation, as we see in our verse above, was for a people in which there would be no needy among them. Why? Because the Lord would bless them with abundance to share.

The abundance of the Lord was a communal concept rather than an individual one.

In some ways the economy described here in Deuteronomy, and the economy of the early church described in the book of Acts, sounds a lot like communism. Property belonged to everyone and was more centrally controlled. Of course, the communism of the 20th century was part of an ideology that rejected religion which may have been its undoing.

I wonder what might have happened had communism embraced Christianity and the direction of scripture rather than rejecting it. Would it have worked? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting thought.

Lord you are an abundant God, giving liberally to your children. Give us grace to give liberally to others in return. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

John the Baptist…

Standard

Luke 7:18 24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

Jesus is talking about John the Baptist here. I find v.28 particularly interesting. Since my bible reading plan sends me through the New Testament every year I read this passage at least once per year. And every year I sort of get stuck on v.28. What is Jesus getting at here? So I did a bit more digging this morning than usual.

First we have to think about John the Baptist. He was one portrayed in scripture as completely committed to following the ways of God. He was something of a zealot, choosing to live in the wilderness rather than in a city or village with other people. And frankly, he is portrayed as a bit of a weirdo. He is dressed in animal skins and eats locusts. Like I said, a weirdo. And yet I cannot think of anyone more committed to the law, nor one who actually followed the law more faithfully than John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is presented as an archetype of one completely faithful to the will and ways of God’s via the law.

So what does John do? He calls the people of Israel to be baptized in the River Jordan for the forgiveness of their sins, to get a fresh start in their faith life with God. The idea was they might become John’s disciples and grow in fidelity to the law – like John.

28a (Jesus said) I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John…

Pretty high praise from Jesus don’t you think? But then there’s this second half of the verse that makes things really interesting:

28 … yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

What does Jesus mean by this? There is the phrase “born of women” in the first part of the verse. Like everyone else in the days before Jesus, John the Baptist was born of a woman, but those who would follow after Jesus and become his disciples would be born of the Spirit. “Born again” as some like to say. And so, unlike John’s disciples, the disciples of Jesus would receive the Holy Spirit after Pentecost and would be invited to participate in the Kingdom of God breaking out through Jesus. As such their lives would look very different than John’s disciples.

John was one who followed the law and compelled others to do the same. His disciples did likewise, embodying the righteousness of the law and calling out those who didn’t measure up.

Jesus, on the other hand, befriended sinners in ways that John did not. Instead of calling them out, he loved them and invited them into a life of service, mercy, and grace. Jesus and his disciples would love their enemies, offer forgiveness rather than condemnation, and work miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit.

John and his disciples didn’t do those things.

So what does this have to say to you and me? Well, it means that the gospel of Jesus (and our place in it) is not so much about behavior management (following the rules) as much as loving others, showing mercy, and inviting those around us to embrace this life with us. It’s about being transformed from the inside out by the Holy Spirit, which was not available to John’s disciples. It’s about being used by God to change the world, beginning with ourselves.

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Faith of a “thinker”…

Standard

Luke 7:After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

In many places in scripture faith appears to be something of an emotional response, a “feeling” thing. People approach Jesus in desperation, crying out and begging him to be healed or to have demons cast out of them, or whatever. But here we have a “thinker” centurion.

The centurion’s appeal to Jesus is based on logic. The centurion is a man with authority, who does not have to be physically present to issue a command. He reasons that Jesus is able to do likewise. A messenger will do just fine. Jesus is blown away by this, “not even in Israel have I found such faith”. The fact that the centurion is not blubbering at Jesus’ feet or weeping openly at the sight of his healed slave doesn’t matter. His is faith based in the cerebral rather than emotional.

There are many Christians who function more out of the cerebral than emotional. I have known some who experience exclusion by an expectation of “feelings” as a response to God. Well, if you might be one of these, I hope you consider yourself affirmed by today’s passage. Faith is more about actions than feelings. Don’t let us “feelers” tell you otherwise.

Lord, thank you for the thinkers in our midst. They are a precious gift to the Body of Christ. Amen.