Monday, April 30, 2012

Chrillaxing (Learning to Christian relax and chill: leveraging the imperfections)

I came out of graduate school with two hands of missional dynamite ready to blow Sunday mornings back to where they belonged, the 1980's! If it was up to me, we were going to quit "playing church" in a building on Sunday mornings and were going to saturate the community with Jesus projects. My professors didn't brainwash me to such a mentality, they simply gave me the ingredients. I mixed them to make the explosives.

I was naive, arrogant, and passionate about Jesus! I know, that's a can of mixed nuts, but isn't that the truth for all of us: pure and impure, selfless and selfish, God-glorifying and self-exalting motives all wrapped-up in a self who desperately needs Jesus.  Yes, I'm older and hopefully wiser today than 2004, but I'm still a can of mixed nuts.  

Back to blowing up Sunday mornings...I have since changed my tune (still tone deaf but a different tune nonetheless). I value Sunday mornings, in all its messiness, more than I ever have. Here are a few reasons:
  1. God's people gather.  You find it in the OT and you rediscover it in the NT.  God's people gathering in his presence is part of the breathing in and breathing out of communal life. It's in the rhythm. God gathers and consecrates the band of freed slaves around Mt. Sinai in preparation for his descent.  The people gather before entering the Promised Land to hear Moses's 33 chapter sermon. Joshua assembles the tribes at Shechem to renew the covenant. Israel packs together to dedicate the Temple built for Yahweh. Ezra reads the Law to the mass of returned exiles at the Water Gate square. The ascent Psalms help us imagine the pilgrims trekking into Jerusalem for the religious feasts and festivals. In the NT, Jews meet in synagogues on the Sabbath.  In Acts 2, the First Church gathers in the very public Temple Courts and in more private individual homes. Even the term Paul uses for church, "Ekklesia," means "assembly."  We's in our blood!
  2. Something happens. Acts 13:2 reads, "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them.'" It was no coincidence that the Spirit moved among the Body as they gathered to worship and fast.  Something happens when the Body gets together, namely God moves - God does something. Churches of Christ could take a page out of the Pentecostal manual when it comes to expectation. Too many churches expect too little on Sunday mornings. Church leaderships should foster a culture that expects God to move!
  3. It is a starting place. Sunday mornings are entertaining, consumeristic, fluffy, and overly time conscious, but they are also filled with greetings and hugs, the Word of God, songs offered as sacrifice, giving and tithing, confession, and prayer... Sunday mornings are like me- a can of mixed nuts- and far from perfect or theologically ideal. My theology has always said, "Sunday mornings are not the sum total of Christianity!"  Exactly! And in our consumerist/entertainment culture Sunday mornings are a starting place for discipleship.  So, let's leverage Sunday mornings as a starting place for faith and not as the time slot to prove the perfection of our ecclesiology (understanding/practice of the church).
  4. I Crave It! In my respite from full-time ministry I find myself anticipating Sunday mornings. I crave those opportunities for communal worship, not because I put my Christianity on hold during the week, but because I need to join my voice with other Life pilgrims.  I need to hug some necks.  I need to hear the Word of the Lord declared and not simply read in solitude.  I need to hold the body of Christ in my hand and to taste his blood on my lips.  I need it!  And yes, it makes me FEEL good, and that is okay.  It plays with my emotions but in a good way.  Sunday reminds me of the larger story, the one playing out on a cosmic scale.  It fills me up and I want to be filled among the Body of Christ because so many other things compete for that space.  
I know it's Monday, but I''m looking forward to Sunday!

    Friday, April 20, 2012

    Don't Go in There

    So I followed a Jew to the bathroom. I know, it sounds like a joke but it's not.  I did follow a Jew into the bathroom, but I wasn't following him on purpose, as in some strange stalking sense.  We just happened to be going to the bathroom at the same time and he just happened to be in front of me. Although my soon-to-be-friend was not a Hasidic Jew his traditional attire gave him away as devote and conservative. Before I walked through the restroom threshold I noticed he had left his Torah outside. I instinctively wanted to grab it and return it but then, "Click!"- light bulb. What if he left it outside the bathroom on purpose?

    After "taking care of business" and returning back to my gate (Detroit airport) I told Mary Beth about my experience,
    "I think he left it outside on purpose."
    "Probably because the bathroom is unclean space. I've got to go ask him!"
    "He won't care."
    "He'll be happy to talk about his faith."
    "Okay, do what you want."

    So I headed over to my friend. Okay, now maybe it is borderline stalking, and he wasn't my friend yet, but I don't want to keep referring to him as "The Jew."
    "Excuse me!"
    He looks at me like, "Oh great!"
    "I'm a Christian minister and I wanted to ask you something about your faith."
    He nodded an "Okay."
    "I noticed you left your Torah outside the bathroom..."
    "It was a prayer book."
    "O-oh! I noticed you left your prayer book outside the bathroom. Did you do that on purpose?"
    "Yes. We don't take it into the bathroom."
    "Is that because the bathroom is unclean?"
    "Thanks for taking the time to answer my question, and I want you to know I respect your reverence for God."
    He smiled. (Can I call him my friend now?)

    I have spent half of my life studying God but as I walked back to my gate that evening I was reminded that I would never fully understand him.  Even though I'm extraordinarily grateful that in the incarnation God invaded our personal space and with His Spirit set up camp in our internal space, this small experience reminded me that God is still radically other! I appreciate my new friend for reminding me to "fear the Lord." When I revere his holiness...
    • It creates theological humility - that no matter how well thought-out my understanding of God, I could be wrong.
    • It leads me to conversation rather than dogmatism.
    • It makes me a better listener.
    • It reminds me that grace not only covers imperfect actions but also imperfect theology.
    • It encourages me to practice silence and solitude, disciplines where God works on me rather than me dissecting God.
    • It makes me thankful that the Holy God seeks intimacy with me.
    But be sure to fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. (I Sam. 12:24)

    Wednesday, April 11, 2012


    "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48)

    Five months ago I decided that I would not pursue ministry as a profession. I had come to grips with never preaching again, but then God breathed John 21 deeply into my soul. In this passage, the Risen Christ gathers with his disciples and has this intimate moment with Peter.  Peter had blown it!  He had turned his back on Jesus when Jesus needed his friendship the most.  I am positive Peter felt like a failed disciple...he was! Jesus, always in the business of resurrection and restoration, intentionally asks Peter, "Do you love me?!"
    "Of course I do!"
    "Then feed my lambs!"
    Jesus again, "Simon, do you love me?"
    "Jesus, you are God's son, you know everything and the answer is 'Yes!'"
    "Take care of my sheep, okay?"
    Jesus for a third time (Hmm, seems like Peter did something three times), "Do you love me?"
    "Come on JESUS! You know I love you!"
    "Feed my lambs!"

    Jesus, by calling Peter back to ministry three times is clear to point out, "I acknowledge that you betrayed me but I STILL want you to minister to my people!"  I believe this moment with the Risen Christ empowered Peter to a new and more effective ministry!  He went on to be one of the greatest preachers and leaders in Church history.

    I, in no way, compare myself to Peter.  I cannot touch him with a ten foot pole except for one area: I also failed and I too have felt Jesus asking, "Charlton, do you love me?" 
    "Yes, I do!"
    "Then feed my sheep!"

    I felt this whisper from Jesus through many who love me, through a raging fire in my heart that won't quit burning, and through a new friend and mentor Tim Woodruff. Tim looked at my heart, chose to believe in me, and served as my Barnabas.  Thank you, Tim! Jesus is calling me back to ministry. And so this summer my family and I will be taking the long trek north to serve alongside an amazing congregation in Trenton, MI: Trenton Church of Christ. I believe wholeheartedly that God is intertwining our stories because he is up to something redemptive in Trenton and the surrounding area. Here are some of the few things I already love about TCOC:
    1. Mark Frost, their Senior Minister for 30+ years, has loved them and pastored them well.  He is a man of God who has shaped an amazing community of faith.
    2. TCOC has loved Mark Frost well! They have taken care of their ministers.
    3. Philip, Mary, and Jema...three new co-workers who love God and dream God's dreams for TCOC.
    4. Four elders who are passionate about shepherding and empowering their flock.
    6. A passion to reach a mass of unchurched families in the area (65% of people in the area have no church affiliation).
    7. A community of people who have already begun to love and accept my family.
    8. Relocating to an area of the country hit hard by the recession that seeks redemption on so many levels.  We have a good message for that!
    9. A community that takes seriously the leadership of women and their Spirit-given gifts.
    10. A faith community with lots of kids.
    And there are many more.  I am humbled and honored to have been invited to join stories with TCOC. I'm so excited to see what God has in store. The following statement sums up my thoughts as my family and I enter this new phase of life and ministry:

    I have less confidence in myself and my ability than I have ever had in my life, but I have more confidence in God than I have ever had in my life. 

    Here is a video my family put together to introduce ourselves to our new Church family:

     "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48) His favor keeps me on my knees with my head bowed...I better get busy!

    Saturday, April 7, 2012

    From Siberia with Love

    I recently watched the 2010 film The Way Back.  It invites the audience into the story of 8 men who escape a Siberian Gulag, a Russian prisoner work camp where Stalin sent perceived threats to his power.  The horrendous camp conditions along with the brutal Siberian winters resulted in a high prisoner mortality rate.  This group of eight decide to face the elements ill-equipped than to have the Gulag seal their mortal fate.  The story chronicles the group's 4000 mile trek through Siberia, an expansive desert and the Himalayas in order to find freedom in India.  Only three come out alive.

    The film is set soon after the Russians invade Poland.  It opens with the Secret Police interrogating Janusz, the lead character, accusing him of espionage.  He denies it and so they bring in his wife.  Forced by agonizing torture (not depicted in the movie) she testifies through tears and shame that Janusz was in fact a spy.  And with her confession, the Russian authorities export Janusz to Siberia. His last encounter with his wife is one of betrayal, brokenness, hopelessness...

    In a decisive moment on his journey to freedom Janusz explains why he cannot give up and die- why in spite of starvation, dehydration, infections, and deterioration he must make it.  These are his words:

    "My wife is alive. She lived, or was.  At least that much I know. But she will never be able to forgive herself for what she has done. See...only I can do that. She will be torturing herself just like you.  So you see, I have to get back. I have to get back!"

    And so as we relive on this Friday and Saturday Christ's death and burial I can almost hear him saying through his anguish in the garden, "They can't forgive themselves.  Only I can do that. I have to go...I have to go."

    Thursday, April 5, 2012

    3 Degrees from a Noose: Accepting Grace (Part II)

    In my last post, "Remorse to Repentance," I shared some thoughts from a sermon I recently co-preached with Luke Norsworthy. The sermon focused on Peter and Judas, how both felt remorse, shame, and sorrow over their betrayal of Jesus and yet they ended up in vastly differently places: Peter as a key Early Church leader and Judas dead! Peter moved from remorse to repentance while Judas moved from remorse to shame to self-hatred. Peter's success centered on his ability to accept God's Grace.  

    Having personally stood in both Peter and Judas' shoes, I too found myself at the crossroads of repentance or self-hatred.  Thanks to a community that surrounded me and a strong theological foundation I was able to accept God's grace in my life and move into a new and better place than I have ever been.  Here are three necessary steps in accepting God's grace in your life.
    1. You must BELIEVE in God's grace .  In order to accept God's grace you must be solidly grounded in its limitlessness.  That’s why "good" theology is important.  That’s why knowing your Bible is important. If teachings of a disappointed, angry, and legalistic God shaped your understanding of the Father then grace will be nearly impossible for you to receive.

    As I struggled to accept God's grace in my own life I dwelt in Romans 8.  I lived in this passage until it's truth became a part of my daily rhythm.  It is a passage about God’s love, his justification, and life in the Spirit. Particularly, I prayed 8:33b, "It is God who justifies" hundreds of times a day.  I prayed it for three reasons:
    • Unfortunately you cannot undo the damage your sin caused. (Sin always destroys. That is what it does.) You can cease a sinful act, you can repair relationships, you can seek restoration but you cannot undo the sin.  You cannot fix it. "It is God who justifies," is a calming reminder that although you cannot make what you did right, God can and does make you right.  It will let you sleep at night. (There was a period in my life where I prayed this phrase over and over until I fell asleep at night.)
    • Many times your sinful choices bring judgement from others. You will hunger to change people's perception of you.  Praying, "It is God who justifies," helps you find peace in knowing that others' opinions of you cannot justify or condemn you because only GOD justifies, and not Lady From Church who sits on the third row.
    • Finally, praying "It is God who justifies" reminds you that you have a right standing before God,  a Child of God, not because you did "good" or you did "bad' but because he made you his child.  God justifies because of his love and not your performance.
    In order to accept grace, you must immerse yourself in the truth of scripture and God's nature. You must BELIEVE in his grace. 

    2. You must FEEL God's grace. If believing in God's grace helps your mind accept grace, then feeling God's grace helps your heart accept it.  Unless you are the exception and have stood face to face with God, you probably have not felt his arms wrap around your body- where God swallows you up in an embrace as the Father does The Prodigal. While God may not appear in person, the body of Christ is there to help you physically accept God's grace.  The Church is the arms and legs of God, the Spirit-filled (His Spirit) community.

    It is imperative that you stay connected or get connected to a church body when you are seeking to make that change from remorse to repentance - to accept God's grace. When you enter the remorse phase Satan will immediately attempt to ISOLATE you in your shame and guilt.  In my case, I knew this and therefore one of the first things I did was call two of my best friends and tell them, “I need your help.  I cannot do this by myself.”

    You need to feel God’s grace. You need to feel people love you in spite of your failure.  The place we go (should go) for that is the Church! DO NOT ISOLATE YOURSELF IN YOUR SORROW.  If you do you will guarantee it will lead to worldly sorrow. Remember Judas...suicide is always committed alone!! But on the other hand, Peter, who bounced back, gathered with the Eleven only two chapters after his denial.  He stayed connected to the body.

    [NOTE to Churches… We must be the arms and hugs of God’s grace to those who are moving from sorrow to repentance.  We are the physical manifestation of God's grace.]

    3. You must LIVE out of God's grace. Satan wins a battle when you give in to temptation and choose sin, but he wins the war if you let the shame and guilt of your sin paralyze you from getting involved in Kingdom work. He is perfectly content for you to feel bad for your sin, to even stop sinning as long as the guilt of your sin keeps you immobile in the Kingdom.

    It is one thing to believe in his grace and to feel his grace but if you really want to repent, to turn the car around, to go the other direction you have to LIVE out of grace.  Peter is a great example of what it means to live out of God's grace. Not only did he return to the Eleven but Peter gives a sermon at Pentecost that ends up with 3000 people baptized.  Peter's greatest witness for God came post his epic fail! He goes on to become one of the most powerful leaders in Church history because he chose to live out of God’s grace.

    Your sinful past/present will make you feel unworthy to serve in the Kingdom. YOU ARE UNWORTHY! WE ARE ALL UNWORTHY, always… that’s the beauty of grace.  God uses the unworthy for his ministry.  Don’t let your past cripple your ministry in the present! Live out of grace.

    Sunday, April 1, 2012

    3 Degrees from a Noose: Remorse to Repentance (Part I)

    A little over a week ago I tag-teamed a sermon with a great friend and preacher Luke Norsworthy.  Luke is the Lead Pastor of Venture Community, a dynamic church plant in Denton, TX.  Check them out!! He was preaching a Lenten series using Matthew as his text. As a part of the series he wanted to compare Matthew's narrative of two better known Jesus disciples, the yin and yang of the elect 12, Peter and Judas.  Luke invited me to step into the series and co-preach this particular passage. What follows comes from that sermon.

    If you have studied the gospels at all you will recognized the two names Peter and Judas and likely you will have very different reactions to each of them.  You will tend to picture Peter as a hero of the faith, as a pillar of early Christianity, as a model and example of a legit Christ-follower.  Judas, on the other hand...let's just say you are not going to name your child after him.  Both characters ended in very different places. Peter ended, according to Christian tradition, as a martyr for Christ.  Judas? His intestines exploded all over the ground when he hanged himself in shame. Although both apostles wound up at different ends of the spectrum there was a moment when they were in the exact same place.

    Jesus chose both Peter and Judas to follow him.  Both accepted.  Jesus predicted that both of them would deny/betray him.  Both swore they would never do such a thing. Both did deny/betray him.  Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, turning him over to the Jewish authorities for a mere 30 pieces of silver. Peter denied Jesus three times in Christ's most desperate hour. Both failed miserably, and HERE IS WHERE WE NEED TO REALLY FOCUS - both were remorseful and sorrowful over their sin and failure.

    When Peter realized what he had done the text says, "...he [Peter] went outside and wept bitterly." And when Judas realized that the Sanhedrin actually delivered a guilty verdict against Jesus (It's my opinion Judas did not think Jesus would be convicted. He knew Jesus was innocent and figured there was not enough evidence to convict him) the text reads, "He [Judas] was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 'I have sinned,' he said, 'for I have betrayed innocent blood.'”

    Peter and Judas both had the proper response when coming to grips with their sin: remorse and sorrow and yet they ended up in vastly different places.  Peter goes on to be a great leader in the Church while Judas commits suicide. They ended up in different places because Peter demonstrated Godly Sorrow while Judas demonstrated Worldly Sorrow.  Paul defines Godly Sorrow and Worldly Sorrow in II Corinthians 7:10, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death."

    In other words, God desires for sorrow to lead you to repentance.  Sorrow is not repentance.  Sorrow is brokenness and remorse over the destruction you have caused.  Repentance is a change in direction, a 180 degree turn. It is the choice to realign yourself with the way of Christ. If your sorrow leads you toward repentance, then repentance will lead you back to salvation and regret-free living.  On the other hand, Satan desires for your sorrow to feed your guilt and grow your shame until you are held captive by your brokenness, ending in despair... or as Judas, in death.  When sorrow leads you in that direction it is Worldly Sorrow.  NT Wright describes it this way, " -“The first goes down the hill of anger, recrimination, self-hatred and ultimately self-destruction, the way that leads to death. The second goes down the route Peter took, of tears, shame & a way back to life.”

    I'm going to venture to say that all of us have felt sorrow and/or remorse over our sin. This is the correct first step, but what will you do with it?  Will you let your sorrow lead you to repentance or will you let it shackle you to shame?  Clearly, we want the way of Godly Sorrow, one that leads to repentance. The struggle lies in figuring out how to move from remorse/sorrow to repentance.  I believe the key to Godly sorrow, the bridge from remorse to repentance is the ability to accept God's grace.

    In my next post I'll share three things from my personal experience that are necessary when accepting God's grace.