Sunday, October 28, 2012

Maturity


          Maybe it goes without saying that a genuine Christian wants to follow Jesus. We all may have various ideas of how to do this, or differ on what the goal of spiritual growth is. Yet, perhaps we need to ask what God wants and what his goal is for his followers? Maturity is where it is at, man, and we all need it, without exception. It is not unusual for me to have a conversation with a student who is hot for God, and bemoans some problem in the church or world, but lacks the maturity to go with the fire. I usually say something to the effect, "yeah, well, you can post your 95 Theses once you own a door to put them on."  It’s also not unusual for many Christians today to have heard thousands of sermons, but there is no fire to go with the length of time spent in church and, furthermore, is not sure of how to avail of the great Christian resource of grace.  Physical maturity does not always equal spiritual maturity.  And maturity does not happen apart from unity.



          In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians telling them his aim: "Him (Jesus) we proclaim warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ" (1:28). He echoes this again with the Ephesians letting them know that the process of maturity is to not be done in isolation, but together as a community of believers, so that no one is left out or behind in God's goal of seeing a well-rounded church, fully developed and equipped to follow Jesus in every circumstance of life (4:13). Our Lord himself exhorted us to be mature, just as our heavenly Father is. Since God is mature, we are to reflect him in all of our relationships by handling them in a mature manner (Matthew 5:46-48).

          The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that those who are mature have developed a keen sense of discernment in distinguishing between good and evil (5:14); and, Paul told the Phillipians that maturity brings a proper perspective from which to view hard situations and allows one to endure suffering (3:12-15).

          Here is the crux of the matter:  maturity results from spiritual growth which occurs over an extended period of time in the context of community. Maturity can neither be realized with only growth, nor with just time. Both are needed in order to reach a mature state. The process of growth over time is of vital importance to Jesus, who knows that this is the manner in which one bears fruit that will last (Luke 8:9-15).

          Are you spiritually mature? If so, how did you get to this point? If not, how will maturity be realized? Does my ministry and church have maturity as a goal? Why, or why not? May God be gracious to work in us and instill in his children his own mature nature so that we may be like Jesus in all we do and say.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Addiction - Going Back to Egypt

          With a miraculous hand and outstretched arm, God brought judgment on the ancient Egyptians for keeping the Jews in bondage and, through Moses, led the Israelites out of Egypt and on their way to the promised land.  There was just one little glitch to the plan:  Israel would have to take a rather circuitous route to get there.  Even after another miracle of walking through the parted Red Sea, Israel experienced a failure of faith.  On the first sign of hardship in travel when there was no water, they grumbled and complained.  "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children die of thirst?" (Exodus 17:3).  In fact, they complained about everything to the point that when Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God, the people became impatient and hatched a plan to go back to Egypt.  



          It is easy to read the narrative of the exodus and see a bunch of stupid, ungrateful people in light of all that God had done for them.  A return to slavery looks pretty foolish when we see it in other people.  Yet, this is what the addict needs to see in himself each time he goes back to repeating the addictive behavior:  it's a return to Egypt, to the bondage of self-soothing through a familiar activity.  Getting mad at himself and feeling bad about the behavior is just that; it doesn't bring him into the promised land of freedom from addiction.  To set out on a biblical course of change, people caught in vicious cycle of addiction vitally need to begin defining and identifying themselves as more than an addict.

          God has redeemed us from the slave market of addiction through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Just as he brought the ancient Israelites miraculously out of Egypt, so in Christ God has brought an exodus to us and set us on a road to the promised land.  In Christ we have been chosen to be holy and blameless; we have redemption through the blood of Jesus; we have been adopted into God's family through Christ; and, we have been given the Holy Spirit to come alongside and help us live on the holy road that God set for us (Ephesians 1).  However, there is a hitch to it:  you must believe all this.  The road to the promised land of freedom requires faith, and that faith will be tested and tried.  It won't be easy.  The Christian life is a road that must be traveled with others, and not a spiritual lightning bolt that erases all addictive desire.

          We are forgiven.  Forgiven of all those lapses into addiction.  It is grace that saves through faith.  And it is grace that we must all focus on, or we will be sorely tempted to go back to Egypt.  Here's the deal:  whatever wins our affections will control our lives.  Addicts are addicts because they are controlled by their beloved behavior, whether it is alcohol, pornography, food or smoking.  The only way out of such a destructive relationship is to be moved in the affections even more by the grace of Jesus.  And that only comes when we make the choice to swim in the gospel of grace through thinking about it, meditating on it, and talking about it more than we do our addiction.  In other words, know, really know, what God in Christ has done for you and take the narrow road of genuine faith in Jesus.

          This is where the church comes in.  It is always better and more effective to walk with someone rather than walk alone.  Pyramids of pride keep us apart from one another in a cycle of shame, but Christians were meant for community, not isolation.  Affections for Christ are more fully stoked in the furnace of similar affections in others.  So, don't go back to Egypt.  Don't spend your time and effort fashioning a golden calf.  Spend it on pursuing grace.  It may take awhile to get to the promised land, but there can be joy in the journey.  Journey well, my friend.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Problem of Isolation


          Here is what a Boston Globe article from a few years back had to say about some local neighbors:
"It can never be said that Adele Gaboury's neighbors were less than responsible.  When her front lawn grew hip-high, they had a local boy mow it down.  When her pipes froze and burst, they had the water turned off.  When the mail spilled out the front door, they called the police.  The only thing they didn't do was check to see if she was alive.  She wasn't.  On Monday, police climbed her crumbling brick stoop, broke in the side door of her little blue house, and found what they believe to be the seventy-three-year-old woman's skeletal remains sunk in a five-foot-high pile of trash, where they had apparently lain, perhaps as long as four years.  'It's not really a very friendly neighborhood,' said Eileen Dugan, seventy, once a close friend of Gaboury's, whose house sits less than twenty feet from the dead woman's home.  'I'm as much to blame as anyone.  She was alone and needed someone to talk to, but I was working two jobs and I was sick of her coming over at all hours.  Eventually I stopped answering the door.'"

          We might think this would not happen in our neighborhood or community, but the problem of isolation is a profound reality.   Do we really know the people located all around us?  Do we actually see them?   Relating electronically, for many people, far outweighs knowing the individuals that pass me by every day.  Even in an actual conversation with another, there can be multiple technological relations taking place through cell phone texting and/or tweeting.



          Although technology serves a purpose and helps connect us in ways previously unheard of, it is now possible to have five-hundred "friends" on Facebook, but have no one person to share the secrets of my life with and express the vulnerability needed for close relationships.  There may be, geographically, people all around us, but we can live in virtual anonymity and loneliness in a modern day prison of isolation of self, pretty much keeping to ourselves and only letting people see a few electronic phrases.

          As people created in the image of God we are highly relational creatures, but those relationships can easily be a mile-wide, and an inch deep.  If we are going to find fulfillment in this present technological age we must find a small band of people who spontaneously go in and out of each other's lives, are actually available to relate face to face instead of being so busy, frequently see one another and spend time together, and share meals and lives often.

          The irony of our age is that we can have hundreds of acquaintances, and not one intimate friend.  Technology is not the real culprit, but only serves to allow us pseudo-relations that protect our obsession with work and time, and guard us from the inevitable pain and hurt that can come with true relationships.  Grace and love are much harder to offer than a tweet.  We are to love one another deeply, from the heart, and experience the true community that shows the world that we are Christians (1 Peter 1:22; John 13:35).

          A dead woman may not be next door to you and me, but the spiritually dead reside all around us.  It takes courage and boldness to be real and vulnerable in relationships, but as believers in Jesus Christ we have not received a spirit of timidity but of power, love, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).  May we simplify our lives and allow the grace of God to touch us so that we might, in turn, be available to offer grace to those who are isolated and cut off from the love that could be theirs in Christ and in Christian community.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Church Is My Mother


          Is church essential to your life?  Statistics continue to pour out from survey groups on how nearly two-thirds of college students and twenty-somethings simply drop out of church between ages 18-29.  In fact, statistically, all age groups are backing-off on making church an important part of their lives.  This does not necessarily mean that young adults are losing their faith; they simply do not view church as vital to their lives, and so with the pressures and deadlines of school, the need for a vigorous new work schedule, and trying to keep up with the demands of life in general, making church part of the fabric of a person's life becomes optional.  Young adult Christians, instead, may rely on intermittent personal devotions, community through existing networks of friends on campus or at work, and connecting with others through technology rather than face to face meetings and encounters.

          The issue here is not one of church attendance; it is the reality that an entire generation of young people has chosen to put themselves outside of the means of grace given by God for their own benefit and spiritual formation.  There is a profound lack of understanding concerning the nature of the church, as well as a paucity of significant relationships between many twenty-somethings and the rest of the Body of Christ.  Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her so that she might become pure and holy, and become one with Jesus in practicality, as she is in reality through the cross (Ephesians 5:26-27).    The church is God's ordained means of bringing growth in grace to any person's life; to neglect her like ignoring your mother.

          Like a mother caring for her children, the church is to be a nurturing community for the exercise and development of faith and perseverance.  Without her, the believer is at risk of being like an orphan, cut-off from the life-giving Spirit of God who uses the Word of God in preaching and sacrament to edify and feed.  John Calvin has put this in rather vivid terms:

“For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother (the Church) conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels.  Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.  Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation… it is always disastrous to leave the church.”

          

          Young adults and college students need to both experience and recover what it means to be the church.  Church leaders need to think in terms of grace and nurture with caring and sensitive ministry to those persons.  The goal is not simply to get young adults to stay or come to a church service; the purpose of ministry to such persons is to enfold and engraft them into the life of a local body of believers in relationships and ministry so that they might grow in faith and use the means of grace that is available to them.  This formative experience in the young adult years provides a foundation for a lifetime of walking with God and steels them for the years ahead in their engagement with the world.  So, how do you view "church"?  What adjustments to your life must you make in order to experience the grace God has for you through his Body?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Kingdom of God


          So, what is of first importance?  When it comes to ministry, what is to be of priority?  Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, in response to a lack of faith manifested through worry: "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness...." I suppose Jesus could have said a lot of things to seek first. Seek salvation, seek family, seek love, seek justice, seek the church, seek me. Yet, the kingdom really encompasses all that and more. 



          The kingdom has to do with the rule and reign of God in this world. It is distinguished from the church in that the church has to do with the people within God's rule. The church, then, might be said to be the means to the end of establishing God's kingdom rule, and is not a cul-de-sac where we just try to get people to attend church services.  The kingdom may be said to be a broader concept than the church because it aims at nothing less than the complete control of all manifestations of life. It represents the dominion of God in every sphere of humanity.

          Here is how it works (ideally!):  The church proclaims the gospel and brings people into the church. New believers then begin to enjoy all the blessings of God's kingdom rule in their lives: victory over sin and the availability of the power of the Holy Spirit. If we lose sight of the kingdom of God, we become insular and think that our particular church or Christian organization is the goal of ministry, and that issues outside our ministry have no real merit for our attention. Apart from the kingdom, the systemic problems surrounding justice, racial reconciliation, and poverty all take a backseat to personal expressions of faith in my limited sphere of doing my own thing, man.

          When it comes to any particular church, denomination, or para-church ministry, if we have a kingdom mindset, we desire to see God's reign expand across our community and we will work collaboratively to see this realized. Then it does not become “my” ministry and “your” ministry, but our ministry. It is no longer you and me, but we as kingdom minded people. This takes time and effort. But after all, our focus is to be in seeking first the kingdom as priority for ministry.

          How do you think a kingdom mentality would change the face of your life and ministry?