Saturday, December 27, 2014

Don't Forget the Baby!

When I was a teenager, one of the ministers at our church forgot his newborn son in the nursery following Sunday services. His wife picked up their older son and left instructions with her husband to get the baby. After the young minister finished his post-service responsibilities, he got into his car and left for home. He forgot the baby. Fortunately, the church nursery was staffed with loving volunteers who kept the baby until the husband made it home where he was quickly made aware of his mistake and then promptly returned to collect the forgotten child.

Once upon a time when I was a young minister myself, with four children all under the age of seven, my wife and I were always counting heads. We did not want a similar story told of us. We navigated those preschool years with success and without ever “forgetting the baby!”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure others can say the same. The Church in general, for instance. Every year, we celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus. His is a birthday worth celebrating! He is the ultimate expression of God’s love for all humanity. Christians spend weeks rehearsing Christmas productions, decorating, cooking, buying gifts, and listening to those familiar and well-loved carols. We re-tell Bible stories about wise men and shepherds, we light candles, sing, attend services and Midnight Mass. From Thanksgiving to December 24, the season of Advent is a flurry of activity anticipating the arrival of that precious baby. And then, on December 26, when the Christmas pageants are over, we go home and leave the baby lying in the manger, abandoned on the altars of our sanctuaries.

Given that the modern Church spends so much time celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is interesting that only two of the four gospel writers even bother to mention the circumstances of His birth. In fact, Jesus Himself never mentioned His own birth. He never asked His followers to celebrate it in particular, or to remember it as He instructed them. to remember His death every time they drank from the cup or broke the bread. How telling.

Now before I get in trouble with all Christmas lovers out there, let me say that we have much to learn from this familiar story. We should reflect upon it, not just this month, but on each and every day. To do so, we will need to strip away the glitter and gold, ask the orchestras to pause and tell the choirs to pipe down long enough for us to hear the true story. Remember the circumstances of His birth as they really were, not what we’ve made them to be, and recall that He was born to a couple of poor refugees. Do not overlook that His mother was a simple teenager whose family and neighbors were highly suspicious of her pregnancy. Do not forget that He was born in a stable full of noisy livestock, cow dung and flies. The scenes from Bethlehem invite us to admit Jesus into the reality of our lives. He comes to the dirty places in our world because it is only when we let him in that He can pull us out.

We should also remember and celebrate that, despite the evil King Herod’s best efforts, Jesus did not die as a baby, but grew to manhood. Jesus, the man, would not conform to the pious wishes of the religious establishment. He smashed their erroneous image of an invisible God with a God all too visible as He ate with sinners, walked with tax collectors and spoke openly to harlots and prostitutes.

Too often our response to the scandal of the Christmas story is to sanitize it. We attempt to scrub Jesus clean of His humanity. We do so in order to keep Him neatly preserved in cathedrals and sanctuaries. Moreover, we prefer Baby Jesus lying in a manger to bloody Jesus dying on a cross. Baby Jesus doesn’t talk. He doesn’t tell us to love our enemies, or forgive those who have wronged us. Baby Jesus does not remind us that we are broken, nor does He broach the topic of our sinful choices. We prefer stained-glass Baby Jesus because He resides in the lofty, unreachable corners of our church buildings and not in our own homes. We assume that keeping Him in a porcelain creche eliminates the probability of Him walking into our schools, offices and boardrooms.

As long as Jesus remains an icon, bound within the four walls of the church house, we can manage our lives the way we want without interference. We relegate Jesus to our westernized nativity scenes and, quite like Herod, prefer that He never reach His adult years. At Easter, we Christians celebrate the fact that the grave could not hold him, only to lock Him away in the manger eight months later.

The problem with Jesus is that He won’t stay put. The grave could not stop Him, the manger could not keep Him, and no church can contain Him. How ludicrous that we would even try.

Yes, celebrate the birth of the Holy infant, but do not leave Him that way. He grew up. Maybe when you weren’t paying attention. Don’t attempt to lock Him up. Embrace the man who speaks, loves and heals. Invite the man who challenges the religious and welcomes the sinner—who lived, died and rose from the dead.

This Sunday, after church, don’t forget to get the baby.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What's in a Number?

I have never been a fan of numbers. In high school algebra class I once asked my teacher how learning complicated equations would better my life. She gave me some rote answer that I now try to remember when my kids argue with me about doing their math homework.

Too often, in church world, leaders use numbers as weapons or measuring sticks of comparison. We like numbers because they help us know our place in the “pecking order” of the Christian subculture. It is nearly impossible to speak to a leader from another church for more than ten minutes without a question about numbers being asked: “So, how many people do you have? What is your budget? What are you running in small groups?” I hate that conversation. Would it be it inappropriate to say that, for many pastors, size seems to matter a little too much?

Now I know that numbers are important. After all, there is an entire book of the Bible called “Numbers.” Most people don’t read that book, however. If they did, they would know that it is more than a spreadsheet. It has lists of names. Lots of names.

I like names. Names come with stories. Names represent people. When I call my bank, my credit card company, or my health insurance provider, do you know their first question? You got it: “What’s your account number?” They really don’t care about my name. Actually, my name is only used to verify my account number, and that is only if I am speaking to a human—which is increasingly unlikely. Most church leaders are smart enough to know they can’t get away with that kind of impersonal approach to ministry. But from hearing these leaders talk to each other you might guess that numbers matter more than the names of the people they represent.

There is one obvious exception to the church numbers conversation. Over the past 20-30 years, few leaders seem to be comparing their baptism numbers. You would think that particular number would be especially important in “Baptist” churches. Perhaps the reason we have stopped comparing this number is because the average number of annual baptisms in a Southern Baptist church has fallen from 11 per year in 1981, to just below 7 in 2013.

Here is another reason we are inclined to avoid discussing baptism numbers: the bigger the church, the more members it takes to see a single person baptized. In 2013 there were 175 Southern Baptist churches with memberships ranging from 3‑4,000 people. These churches averaged one baptism for every 59 members. Compare that to the more than 12,000 churches with memberships less than 200 that averaged one baptism for every 17 members. Perhaps our emphasis on “church growth,” defined by every increasing membership and attendance, is having a negative impact on “kingdom growth” as defined by the number of new disciples the church is actually making.

I pastor one of the hundreds of Southern Baptist churches found somewhere in the middle of the two examples offered above. Southside Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, has a membership of about 700 people. The average number of members it takes to baptize one person in churches our size is typically 53. That is a lot. Fifty-three people can do a lot of things, but to think that’s how many of our members it would require to see one person come to faith and publicly profess Jesus through baptism is enough to make me want to find another job.

I have the unique privilege of serving the church in which I was baptized at the age of nine. The year was 1981 and Southside baptized 52 people that year. That was the last year we baptized more than 50 people in a single year. There have been years in which we have baptized as few as 12 people. Like most churches, we don’t talk much about baptism numbers. There hasn’t been much to talk about. But something is happening this year. After spending the last six years focused on church health rather than church growth we have seen an increase in our baptism numbers. From October 1, 2013, through the end of September 2014, Southside has celebrated the baptism of 40 people! That means that currently at SSBC it requires about 18 members to see one person stir the baptismal waters. That is a number I can live with, but hope will continue to diminish.

Our baptism goal for 2014 has been 50. This past Sunday, October 5, 2014, we baptized our 32nd person, but that number doesn’t tell the real story …

Number 32 is an Iranian immigrant who lives in a retirement community where 11 other Southside senior adults are residents. Many of these seniors actively invested in their new friend, inviting him to visit our church. He soon began attending a Sunday school class that uses English as a second language (ESL) to teach the Bible. The couple that faithfully teaches this class works with people from many different nationalities. They are passionate about sharing the gospel with people from other cultures. Then there is the retired evangelist/poet/street preacher who drives our friend to church every week. As number 32 and I waited for the beginning of the worship service in which he was to be baptized, he told me with tears in his eyes how he came to know the love of Jesus Christ through the love he was shown by his new friends. “They are my family,” he said in broken English.

Numbers can’t tell that story. Will we reach 50 by the end of 2014? I pray we will. Not because I plan to brag about the number, but because number 50 represents someone God loves and for whom Christ died. As does number 51 and 52 and 53 and 54 and 55 …

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Personal Reflection on "Invitation to a Journey", by Robert Mulholland

In his book Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as, “a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” While the core of his definition, “... being conformed to the image of Christ ...” aligns with the vast majority of those seeking to define spiritual formation, Mulholland’s definition finds its unique strength in the words preceding and following this phrase. With special attention to the process of being transformed for the sake of others, Mulholland reminds his readers that, “spiritual formation is not something that we do to ourselves or for ourselves, but something we allow God to do in us and for us as we yield ourselves to the work of God’s transforming grace.” (Mulholland, 1993, Kindle e-book, Location 229)

As I reflect on the process of my own spiritual formation, I recognize it has often been a struggle between self-effort and total surrender to Christ. The balance between passive surrender and active participation can be difficult to find and harder to maintain. Looking back over my 30 year journey with Jesus, I have seen the greatest transformations take place as the results of circumstances over which I had no control. These periods of growth came with great pain and demanded total surrender. They also required my active participation as I made choices to obey God’s word and trust His plan even when it went beyond my ability to understand.

When I was fifteen, God used the tragic death of my father to teach me how to forgive. While I had no control over the circumstances of my father’s death, I had, and continue to have, clear opportunities to choose how that event informs my choices. At age twenty-eight, tragedy again struck as my mother suffered an illness resulting in her death. After that loss, I recall feeling as if I were standing at a crossroad. One road led down a path of questioning God’s love while the other required a journey of absolute trust. In that moment, unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances transformed my relationship with God in ways I would have never chosen.

These transformative moments forged a greater likeness of Christ in me. They also allowed me to more effectively minister to others. Mulholland says, “We are created to be compassionate persons whose relationships are characterized by love and forgiveness, persons whose lives are a healing, liberating, transforming touch of God’s grace upon their world.” (Mulholland, KL 237) As I experience the healing of God, I am better equipped to offer his ministry of healing. As I learn to forgive and live forgiven, I more effectively minister to those living in the bondage of unforgiveness. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God" (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4 NIV).

Spiritual transformation seldom happens in areas of our choosing. Left on our own, we ignore those parts of our lives that do not already conform to the image of Christ. Mulholland asks:

How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way. In fact, may not such practices become a defense mechanism against the areas that are not yet conformed to the image of Christ? (Mulholland, KL 280)

Many of my spiritual disciplines could be described as "defense mechanisms". To defend myself against the hard lessons of trusting God’s sovereignty, for example, I placed greater emphasis on individual responsibility. To avoid transforming my unforgiving heart, I studied God’s judgment and the Bible’s call to personal holiness. In many cases, I emphasized virtues and truths that counteracted the very transformative work God wanted to do in me. I avoided transformation through the very disciplines I claimed to be the means of transformation. My spiritual disciples were used to avoid the difficult and painful process of true discipleship.

This is why Jesus said in Mark 8:34 that those who want to follow him must take up a cross. “Our cross is the point of unlikeness to the image of Christ, where we must die to self in order to be raised by God into wholeness of life in the image of Christ right there at that point. So the process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place at the points of our unlikeness to Christ, and the first step is confrontation.” (Mulholland, KL 290) To define the progress of my spiritual transformation I must recognize where I am most unlike Him. One such area is in the arena of personal finances. In spite of my obedience to tithe and even give beyond, I still find a spirit of consumerism seeping into my life as I selfishly purchase things I know I do not need. Meanwhile, God is inviting me to a simpler way of living that better reflects Jesus in a consumer driven culture. Another opportunity for growth is my inability to remain fully present and engaged in current realities. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus was always fully present. The people to whom He ministered knew they were the center of His attention and affection. Too often I am distracted by future concerns or past failures and am not fully engaged in what God is doing in the present. Technology has only made this problem worse as it pulls us out of both our physical and chronological present realities. For many months I have sensed God inviting me to fast from technology and focus on identifying Him in the present. These are only two areas where I see obvious differences between myself and the image of Christ. I know there are others, some of which I am aware and many more He has yet to reveal. Perhaps this is why David prayed, "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23, 24 NIV)

The true test of spiritual transformation comes as you …

… examine the nature and quality of your relationships with others. Are you more loving, more compassionate, more patient, more understanding, more caring, more giving, more forgiving than you were a year ago? If you cannot answer these kinds of questions in the affirmative and, especially, if others cannot answer them in the affirmative about you, then you need to examine carefully the nature of your spiritual life and growth. (Mulholland, KL 327)
Mulholland's litmus test comes from the final phrase of his definition of spiritual formation, “a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” He rightly argues that our spiritual formation is tested and occurs in the context of Christian community. "We learn to be Christ’s for others by seeking to be yielded and obedient to God in the midst of our relationships.” (Mulholland, KL 338) While I can answer Mulholland's questions in the affirmative, it is really those who walk beside me on this journey who are best positioned to answer that question.

Mulholland’s assertion that transformation occurs in areas where we are most unlike Christ also means we must operate with an awareness of our personality and the inherent weaknesses that accompany it. “Holistic spirituality always takes place in the midst of our emotional, psychological, physical and mental conditions and emerges out of them.” (Mulholland, KL 41) For me, this means a greater emphasis on my inner self, as I am a strong extrovert (E). It also means I must focus on disciplines that strengthen my reliance on the physical senses as I gravitate more toward inner urgings of the spirit (N). Since I am a “feeler” (F), I must discipline myself to use a more cognitive process of reasoning. Finally, my strong desire for order, control and closure (J) must be counterbalanced with greater perception and sensitivity to the unforeseen and unexpected.

Mulholland describes holistic spirituality as a “pilgrimage of deepening responsiveness to God’s control of our life and being” (Mulholland, KL 33). Throughout my journey, and that of my family, I see how God has used events to shape me into the image of Christ. Through prayerful reflection on my family of origin, God illuminated a significant path of transformation. As I considered the earliest days of my childhood, God began to reveal how I have carried feelings of abandonment toward all of the men in my family. As I considered how these feelings may be affecting my current relationships, I sensed God inviting me to repent of the “sins of my father” and walk on a new path based on trust and surrender. I am still learning to walk on this path, but the knowledge of this previously unrecognized and unconfessed sin has deepened my relationship with the men in my family and community. More importantly, it is strengthening my relationship with my heavenly Father.

The continuing process of being transformed includes the ongoing practice of spiritual disciplines. For many years, the main component of my spiritual disciplines was an annual reading of the entire Bible. I started this habit in my junior year of high school and continued it for the sixteen years. It was an invaluable practice for gaining insight into the big picture of God's divine plan for humanity. With each passing year I grew in my understanding of and confidence in the Scriptures. The downside of this habit was it often lent itself to the inherent weakness of my "J" personality and became more about completing a reading plan than allowing my heart to be transformed by the Holy Spirit through the word of God.

In recent years I have attempted to decrease the volume of scripture I read while increasing the time I invest reading it. This has led to a new journaling habit in which I transcribe the scriptures on the right page of a journal and record my thoughts and reflections on the left page facing my copy. This discipline is forcing me to meditate and reflect on each word. I am finding new insights in passages I previously rushed past in an effort to complete a reading plan.

As part of my commitment to spend more time reflecting on specific passages, I began a systematic scripture memory plan in which I memorize one verse each week. I also spend time reviewing previous week’s memory verses. Each day, after this review, I invest time praying through those verses. As a result, I am experiencing a renewed prayer life shaped by the words of Scripture.

I would not have engaged in any of these new habits had I not been willing to set aside my old habit of reading through the entire Bible each year. My new habits, while less suited to my personality, seem to be producing greater personal transformation. I feel a renewed sense of God's presence and work in my life.

The greatest change in my spiritual disciplines has come in the area of how I experience community within the Body of Christ. For the past four years, I have been learning to live in community as a Senior Pastor. This change has been difficult. I remember being told the role of the senior pastor was, “the loneliest jobs in the Kingdom.” While I may have dismissed this suggestion before, I have since come to recognize the truth of the statement.

My family and I have been members of a small group in every church we’ve attended. Often the group met in our home and my wife and I were part of the leadership team. These groups played a significant role in our spiritual development as we served, learned, and experienced life with other believers. We often shared our struggles and helped bear the burdens of others in our groups. While being a member of the church staff required discretion, it never seemed to inhibit a fulfilling small group experience.

In 2008 I returned to my home church to serve as senior pastor. I have many friends in this community and gave no thought to the difficulties of reconnecting in my new role as their pastor. While, I have enjoyed becoming reacquainted with old friends and do not doubt the love and friendship of my congregation, I have not been able to enjoy the same deep sense of community as in previous positions of service. I believe this represents the greatest opportunity for my own spiritual development as well as that of my family.

As I wrestle with how to relate to people who do not always want or need their senior pastor to be transparent with his own struggles and doubts, I am also learning a greater dependence on my personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. As an extrovert, I often neglect my internal life and the disciplines of solitude, meditation and silence. My search for community has been an invitation to go on a quiet journey with God. Prayer walks through my community have become a mainstay of my prayer life. I am learning to appreciate solitude as a valuable experience for spiritual formation.

I have not been without community since assuming the role of Senior Pastor. I am learning to live in a larger community with concentric circles of deepening intimacy. My own congregation is an extremely loving and generous community. I have witnessed God use this community to conform us into His image as together we reach outside the walls of our church through public school mentoring, feeding the hungry, working with refugees, and prayer walking our neighborhood. While it is impossible to experience deep levels of intimacy with several hundred people, we are experiencing conformity to the image of Christ as we serve the needs of our surrounding community together.

On a more intimate level, I have participated with pastors from other local congregations in two learning groups. These groups have provided participants a safe place to discuss the struggles and challenges we cannot share with our congregations. Serving with the staff of my church also provides a level of community and accountability. While it is unrealistic to believe that my role as “the boss” doesn’t complicates our relationship, I do not believe it eliminates the possibility of a transformative community. Other than my own family, I have come to believe there is no group of people for whom I have greater responsibility than the staff I serve. Together, we are challenging one another to higher levels of excellence, love and maturity.

My most immediate circle of community is my family. Seeking to serve our church and neighbors as a family has proven an effective way to disciple our children and builds common purpose. As our children get older, we are discovering an expanding network of friends that include classmates and families who participate in school activities. Our children are opening doors of ministry even as we seek to teach them how to be ministers.

My life, ministry, family, and spiritual disciples seem to be changing with ever increasing frequency. Through all of these transitions, I see evidence of God’s transformative work in and through my life. This process is sometimes painful. I am learning to let go of control even as I seek to be more responsive to his work in and around me. God continues to use community as His primary tool for my transformation. As my role within that community changes, I am learning to be an agent for change while being changed by the very people he called me to influence. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (NIV). My prayer is that through all the changes of life, I will continue to contemplate the Lord’s glory and be transformed into him image as I seek to accept His invitation to a journey.

M. Robert Mulholland. Invitation to a Journey: a Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 1996.