Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Ernest!

I want to take the day off from blogging about making disciples to wish a happy 91st birthday to my friend and mentor, Ernest Hollaway. Ernest has played a pivotal role in my life, and I would like to share that story today.

The story begins in 1962 when I first began to respond to a call into the Christian ministry. I had been a coop student at Georgia Tech working in Huntsville, AL for NASA on the Saturn 5 rocket’s guidance and control system. Recognizing that I would need a strong liberal arts background to prepare for the ministry, I decided to transfer to Howard College (now Samford University) at the beginning with my sophomore year. That same semester, Cliff Tharp transferred to Howard after two years at a junior college. Cliff and I became close friends, and that friendship will come back into play later in my story.

In 1964 I was selected by the Alabama State Baptist Student Union to serve as a student summer missionary in Taiwan. On my way to Taiwan, I spent a couple of days in Tokyo, Japan, where a missionary from Alabama was doing student work. He hosted me during my stay in Tokyo, and one of the visits we made was to the home of missionaries Ernest and Ida Nelle Hollaway. This was a brief visit, probably lasting no more than an hour or so; but it became background for Ernest’s role later in my life and career.

Now fast-forward to August 1977, after I had graduated from Samford, received three degrees from seminary, worked on the staff at one church, served as pastor at another, and was beginning my third year as a professor at Campbell University. I received a phone call from my friend Cliff Tharp inviting me to write a series of Sunday School lessons for the Adult Life and Work Curriculum Section at the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources). Cliff admitted that he was in a bind. He had wanted to get Peter Rhea Jones to write, but that had fallen through. As a last resort, he fell back on our friendship and asked if I would do that assignment. I agreed.

In January of 1978 I attended a writers conference to prepare for writing the Bible background material on a series of lessons related to Peter and his writings. At that conference I became reacquainted with Ernest Hollaway, who was then the manager of the Adult Life and Work Section at the Sunday School Board. Ernest also was the leader of the quarterly team of writers of which I was a part, and for a couple of days we worked closely together on exploring the biblical materials and study foci for the lessons that I would write. I had prepared well for the conference, and Ernest saw something in me that made him think I might be a good curriculum editor. At that time, I was looking for a new vocational direction; but I was focusing on the pastoral ministry. At that same writers conference, Cliff Tharp told me that he was in transition back to a previous job he had held in research at the S. S. Board, and he would be leaving the Adult Life and Work Section soon.

A couple of weeks after the writers conference, I received a call from the personnel department at the S. S. Board telling me that someone had expressed interest in me as a prospective employee and asking if I would be open to considering employment there. I had declined consideration of employment at the S. S. Board a couple of years earlier, when Don Whitehouse, the pastor with whom I had served in Louisville and who subsequently had moved to the S.S. Board, contacted me about my possible interest in working there. This time, I already had indicated my intentions to leave Campbell University at the end of the academic year; so I said I was open to the possibility.

In May of 1978 I began my 25-year career at the S.S. Board/LifeWay. Ernest Hollaway employed me, trained me, and supervised my work for over three-and-a-half years. In February of 1982, I became manager of the Youth Curriculum Section; and Ernest and I continued to work together as managers in the Youth-Adult Group. When Ernest retired at the end of 1984, I became his successor as manager of the Adult Life and Work Section.

Ernest is one of those people who know how to draw the best out of people. He was a wonderful manager and mentor for me, providing encouragement, guidance, and the wisdom of experience. He was generous in his praise and gentle in his correction. He gave me tremendous freedom to explore new ventures, one of which was my interest is seeing the S. S. Board move from editing on paper to editing and designing products on computers.

Ernest Hollaway is a Christian gentleman, a mission-minded follower of Jesus Christ, an unselfish servant-leader, a colleague, and a friend. I am grateful for the pivotal role he has played in my life, for the opportunities he opened for me, and for the ministry-model he has been for me through the years. Happy birthday, Ernest! May you enjoy many more!

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Chosen People Serving God

The Hebrew culture of Old Testament times was very much a corporate culture. While individuals certainly had personal identities and many patriarchs, prophets, and kings were elevated to significant levels of prominence, the general society coalesced around corporate structures like family, clan, tribe, and nation. The importance placed upon God’s election of Abraham, God’s covenant with Moses, God’s leadership through judges, God’s communication through prophets, and God’s reign through kings was always in the context of the people as the chosen Israel.

The impetus was from the one (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) toward the twelve families and tribes in loose confederation toward one unified nation under a messianic monarch. The goal was for each individual to find identity, love, acceptance, achievement, and legacy within the integrity of the nation as the people of God. That goal was reached when the nation was united under a king. Saul, David, and Solomon brought a unifying identity to the nation as the people of God.

That unity was short-lived. The kingdom divided. The kings sought personal prominence rather than corporate integrity. Though struggles for power, influence, and significance drove deep wedges between the tribes, the hope for a united people of God was never fully abandoned. A united people in a united kingdom under a divinely anointed king became the hope and provided the ideal goal for the future. God’s initiative of grace would find its expression in a chosen people serving God in the world. In a sense, we are trying today to recreate that same vision of a chosen people serving God in the world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

God's Initiative of Grace

Hardly anyone would dispute that God takes the initiative in relationships with humanity or that grace is the underlying foundation of that initiative. Few, however, think of grace as a fundamental issue in the Old Testament. Most are drawn to a law versus grace tension that sets the Old Testament on a different foundation from the foundation of the New Testament. While it is true that the words translated “grace” in the Old Testament make up less than seven percent of the references to “grace” in the Bible (using statistics from the NASB concordance), if you include words that might serve as synonyms for grace (like mercy, kindness, lovingkindness, compassion, pity), the picture changes considerably. In reality, grace is a foundational biblical theme that stretches from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.

Discipleship finds its initial impulse in grace. The initiative in each and every relationship between God and human beings lies with God—the eternal, immortal, and invisible One. The creatures that we are (created mortals existing solely in time and space) cannot initiate relationship with One who precedes us, who is experienced solely through the divine handiwork of creation and the inner workings of the spirit, and whose infinity cannot be captured in our finite minds and experiences.

Discipleship itself implies that we are followers, listeners, students, and learners; but we are not playing a game of Follower the Leader. In discipleship, we do not take turns leading—the leader always is the same One. In discipleship, initiative, invitation, and call always rest with God; and when the invitation comes, it is fundamentally an invitation of grace.

I am not saying that we should never seek God; but we could never find an invisible God who does not want to be found. Column 2 in the Making Disciples Chart will guide us in recognizing that from the beginning God was involved in an initiative of grace that began in creation and continued through election, covenant, torah, and blessing. Discipleship must begin with each of us recognizing God’s invitation and deciding how we will respond to the grace evident in God’s initiatives.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Grace First

We now have completed the first of three major dimensions in considering the task of making disciples. The first dimension is an acknowledgement that (to mimic the KJV) discipleship is made for man, not man for discipleship (column 1 of the Making Disciples Chart). The God who created us intended for our lives to be full and abundant. Thus, our probing humanity’s needs for identity, love, acceptance, achievement, legacy, and integrity provided the first dimension in our thinking about the task of making disciples. Discipleship will fulfill our deepest human needs so that we can live the full and abundant life.

The second dimension is outlined in the first row of the Making Disciples Chart (you will notice that subdivisions of the three major themes in row 1 result in 5 columns). This row provides the basic theological dimension that undergirds discipleship, and you will recognize it immediately as Paul’s and Martin Luther’s basic views of grace and works. Salvation and discipleship are posited on the foundation that God’s grace is always the initiating and driving force of discipleship. If we focus too quickly or push too hard for the works or deeds that demonstrate that we are disciples, we open ourselves to a works righteousness that ultimately will lead to Pharisaism rather than to genuine discipleship in the footsteps of Jesus.

Discipleship always begins with God’s initiative or with Jesus’ invitation or call; and the foundation of that initiative, invitation, or call is grace. God loves us and values us, not because we are worthy, but because love is God’s nature. The goal of discipleship is not to make us worthy; it is to make us fully human in the image of Christ. It is to capture in our being and in our living the fullness that God intended when God created us in the divine image.

Grace was not an afterthought that resulted from humanity’s sin. Grace was the underlying force “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:1) or in the when of “to begin God …” (a better rendition of Gen. 1:1). Grace is the theme both in the First Covenant (column 2) and in the New Covenant (column 3). Discipleship will always be distorted if we do not begin with God, with God’s initiative, and with grace.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Integrity: To Thine Own Self Be True

The word “integrity” comes from the word “integer,” whose primary meaning is “anything that is complete and whole within itself.” “Integrity” thus implies completeness, wholeness, and soundness. Webster’s third definition comes somewhat closer to my intention in selecting “integrity” as the expression of our most comprehensive need in experiencing the full and abundant life: “The quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty, and sincerity.” Actually, I am attracted more to the “honesty and sincerity” ideas than to the “moral principle” one. Principle implies a standard, but I am focusing more on the unity of our being and doing that expresses itself in honest, sincere, genuine, authentic selfhood.

I have subtitled today’s post with a quote from Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true,” but that is only half of the integrity concept. We also must include the idea of being true, honest, transparent, and trustworthy in our relationships with other people. Our thoughts, our words, and our actions represent integrity when they express a continuous consistency. With integrity, our thoughts are not hidden or veiled; they are open, honest, and consistent with our words and our actions. With integrity, our words are direct, truthful, and consistent with our thoughts and actions. With integrity, our actions are true expressions of our thoughts and our avowed intentions. Inconsistency between our thoughts, words, and actions are the source of shame. Integrity is what allows us to present ourselves to God as servants who do not need to be ashamed (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15).

Jesus directed some of his harshest criticism against the “scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites,” whose lives were inconsistent with their claims. The word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word that literally means to “judge from below,” that is, to impose a higher standard on others than we apply to ourselves. Jesus seems to have called his disciples to a higher standard, but grace was the standard he called them to apply toward others (thus, “judge not,” “condemn not,” “forgive” in Luke 6:37, KJV). People who are outraged by the behavior of others generally fail to examine the inconsistencies in their own lives.

If our ultimate goal is to become Christlike, we too will need grace as we strive for integrity. As disciples, we are seeking consistency between who we are and what we do. Only as we strive toward that consistency will we progress toward Christlikeness.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A True Legacy

“Legacy” is “achievement” that endures. Achievement relates more to self-esteem and status needs, while legacy focuses on the sense of personal fulfillment that comes from making an enduring contribution to the well-being of others. Achievement focuses on the present moment and immediate benefits, while legacy looks at the long-term consequences of who we are and what we do. Achievement is composed of “onesies” (individual actions), while legacy weighs the broad impact of one’s contributions on the welfare of the community.

Legacy faces some of the same dangers we listed in considering achievement yesterday. “It’s all about me and preserving the memory of me” can be its Achilles’ heel. True legacy does not require that the name or the person becomes the focus of the legacy left.

While I was in the doctoral program in seminary, the pastor of my home church (Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham) invited me to fill the pulpit on an occasion when he planned to be away. The date happened to be Memorial Day weekend, and I carefully prepared my sermon to relate to that occasion. A few months later the Baptist Sunday School Board announced an “Award Winning Sermons” contest, so I submitted the sermon I had preached. From about 300 submissions, my sermon was selected as one of the 15 published in a Broadman book, Award Winning Sermons, Volume 2 (1978). The title of my sermon was “A Gift Remembered—A Name Forgotten.” It was based on Matthew 26:6-13, the story of “an unnamed woman who appeared in an unusual set of circumstances and who did a most remarkable thing. Although her name has been forgotten, her deed, her gift, has been remembered.” The four sections of that sermon were: A Timely Gift, An Appropriate Gift, A Precious Gift, and The Anonymous Giver.

That is the spirit of legacy. Legacy is not about the contributor; it’s about the contribution and its lasting example and impact. Row 6 in the “Making Disciples Chart” will give us direction in leaving a legacy as disciples of Christ.

NOTE: The “Making Disciples” chart is available to you via email. Send an email message to: thinkingaloud@comcast.net.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Being and Doing

Life is a combination of being and doing. In the context of making disciples, we have been considering what people need to have a full and abundant life. The first three needs we identified (identity, love, and acceptance) relate to our being and are addressed through the experiences in which the disciples are engaged. Row 5 in our Making Disciples Chart shifts us from the being to the doing aspect of life, or we might say, from receiving to initiating, or from taking to giving.

The gospel has a gift or grace dimension that always should precede expectations for a response, but discipleship cannot be fulfilled if all the believer does is bask in grace. At some point the disciple must be engaged fully in heart, soul, mind, and strength. The disciple must begin to do. A life solely based on the inflow of grace will become a Dead Sea if that grace is not channeled into acts and behaviors that give expression to who we are (identity), the love we have received, and the affirming acceptance we have experienced from others in the faith community.

I have chosen to call the first step of doing “achievement.” Setting it is the context of people’s needs, I have defined it as the need to act and behave in ways that enhance one’s self-esteem and status in the faith community. There are multiple dangers here: (1) that expectations for doing something will get ahead of experiencing grace (leading to works righteousness); (2) that we will put doing ahead of being (resulting in hypocrisy); (3) that actions will be initiated for selfish motives (selfishness); or (4) that good deeds will become a channel for calling attention to self rather than for serving others (pride).

Maybe “achievement” is not the best term to describe what I am seeking to communicate. Our goal in making disciples is that people will develop a sense that they are making a contribution that benefits those inside and outside of the community. That sense of making a contribution will bind them to the community as they recognize they are part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) and are contributing to the body’s health and well-being.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Finding Acceptance in Community

One of the classic pop-psychology books that were popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s was John Joseph Powell’s book titled “Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?” Appealing primarily to adolescents, the book focused on the fear of being rejected if we reveal too much of who we really are to others. By identifying this fear as a universal experience and by showing some of the roles we play in protecting our fragile egos, Powell encouraged transparency in relationships. He saw in such transparency the potential for finding mutual acceptance among those who experience the same kind of fears.

While love is the emotion we deeply need (see yesterday’s post), acceptance is the communal experience that demonstrates that others value us. Finding a community where people accept us for who we truly are is a vital need. Being part of a community and feeling secure and at-ease in that community are integral aspects of the full and abundant life.

Row 4 on the “Making Disciples” chart addresses this need for acceptance. Finding your place in a community where you are valued, accepted, affirmed, and loved is an essential step toward Christlikeness. Jesus modeled this kind of community with his disciples. In many ways, Jesus’ attention to drawing tax collectors and notorious sinners into his circle epitomizes the expanse of this need for acceptance. By his example, Jesus in essence said, “If agape-love can reach the dregs of society and draw them into a community of love and acceptance, how much more hope you have for finding that kind of community for yourself.”

Identity, love, and acceptance emerge primarily through experience. They are hard issues to work out on your own. Interactions with parents, friends, teachers, co-workers, bosses, and so many others who touch our lives exert strong influences on our journeys toward discovering who we are, developing a sense of our worth and value, and binding our lives and our spirits in a community that embraces us and challenges us to be all that we are capable of being. In our task of making disciples, we must address these foundational issues by the community we are, by the experiences into which we draw each member of that community, and by the power of that community to draw others into its loving embrace.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Love Is the Theme (and the Persistent Need)

Understanding who we are as individuals and being loved and valued by others surely are closely related. Because identity is shaped in some kind of community, the way in which a child is perceived, accepted, affirmed, and valued in the community is a significant influence in shaping identity. Children are born with immediate physiological needs. The manner and timeliness with which the surrounding family and community respond to those needs quickly communicates to the child how readily his or her needs are recognized and how valued the child is in the family.

The traditional spank on a newborn’s bottom initiates an immediate intake of the oxygen needed to survive as an individual beyond the first few minutes of life. How interesting that pain sometimes is used as the first action for the good of a child. I don’t know why a child gasps for air in response to pain or how a child knows to cry upon the infliction of pain; but the child has natural instincts for breathing, suckling, excreting waste, and sleeping that immediately engage and quickly advance to Maslow’s safety needs for secure and ongoing attention to these physiological needs. That sense of safety is the foundation for developing a sense of being important, valued, and loved.

Children tend to adapt to whatever love or neglect is offered them, though the signs of neglect often are fully evidenced in their behavior. As self-identity develops more fully in adolescence, however, sensitivity to one’s value and worth in the eyes of others increases dramatically. If one’s value, love, and acceptance have not been securely experienced and fully recognized in childhood, the onset of puberty accentuates and complicates the need for love and a sense of self-worth.

Love lies at the center of the Christian gospel. In the “Great Commandment,” loving self is a foundation for loving God and loving other people. Making disciples will be impeded if we do not help children, adolescents, and adults find value and worth in themselves. The unselfishness exhibited in Christlikeness will never be possible if the gnawing need for love is not satiated. The themes in row 3 of the “Making Disciples” chart suggest ways in which the Christian community can address the need for being loved, valued, and cherished.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Identity: Who Am I?

“Who am I?” lies at the center of the human experience. While that question doesn’t plague an infant, and childhood generally brings a kind of selfless abandon, once we humans reach the teen years we begin an introspective quest that is filled with angst. WHO AM I? Teens search for answers to that question in many ways—some healthy and some destructive. Answering that question successfully may be the most significant step in finding a full and abundant life.

Discovering who we are almost always takes place in some kind of community, in some kind of interaction and interchange with other people. The first community, the family, plays an extremely significant role in fostering or impeding the development of a constructive self-image. Foundations are laid in the family (genetically as well as socially) that influence the shaping and structuring of our self-identities. Neighbors, friends, teachers, coaches, and others with whom children interact contribute in varying ways to the ongoing discovery of “Who am I?” In many ways, we discover ourselves through the experiences we have with others more than by conscious reflection. Except for occasional eureka experiences when some conscious insight grabs our attentions, we view ourselves in ways that reflect how we think others see us.

During the teen years, the influences become intensely generational. Friends and the generational culture become the dominant influences that often overshadow all others. Much of what had been shaped by family, church, and school experiences is tested, challenged, and discarded or embraced.

The teenage angst doesn’t go away in adulthood, though it lessens in many ways. Experiences of success in finding a fulfilling job, developing an intimate relationship, succeeding in educational achievements, and advancing in a vocation can enhance a sense of confidence in who we are; but failure in any of these can set our quest back considerably.

I can think of nothing more significant for the church to become involved in than addressing this need for identity. The “Identity” row of the “Making Disciples” chart will lay out a plan for doing just that, and we’ll address that in the days ahead. For today, let’s affirm in our thinking the importance of identity and the crucial roles played in families, churches, and schools and among peers in shaping identity.

NOTE: The “Making Disciples” chart is available to you via email. Send an email message message to: thinkingaloud@comcast.net.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Full and Abundant Life

What do people need to have a full and abundant life? Many of us might think of material things as the primary need, and Maslow’s physiological and safety needs (see my 11/14/2010 blog) certainly are foundational for life. In reality, however, people can have everything they could ever need in a material sense and still have an empty and unsatisfying life. Column 1 in the “Making Disciples Chart” lists six ingredients that I think are essential for the full and abundant life to which Christ calls us: identity, love, acceptance, achievement, legacy, and integrity. Over the next few days I will address these needs; but because a close association between material things and happiness is so ingrained in our society, I want to share an anecdote first.

In 1970 I began my service as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Crothersville, IN. One of my first Saturdays in Crothersville, a deacon in the church took me around to introduce me to some people in the community. One visit that day was to an elderly, homebound couple named Jephthah and Mary Bridges.

Jeppie and Mary probably were the poorest people I have ever known. Jeppie was a member of our church, but Mary belonged to the Presbyterian church in the next block down from our church. Their small, dilapidated home had floors that sagged from a poor foundation. The exterior had flaking paint and was overgrown with bushes, vines, and weeds. Finding a sturdy chair to sit in always required bringing a chair from the kitchen table into the small living room where Jeppie sat in his old recliner. Jeppie would tell stories of when the first automobiles came through town and he had to pull them out of muddy ruts with his mule. Mary was one of those people who made you feel like you were the best friend she ever had. They had little in terms of material possessions; but they were two of the happiest, most fulfilled people I have ever known. Over the next five-and-a-half years of my pastorate, I buried Jeppie and found Mary to be one of my best supporters. The smile on her face when you came to see her was enough to make your entire week.

Several years after we left Crothersville, Mary suffered a stroke that partially paralyzed her and left her unable to speak. She was placed in a nursing home in Brownstown and was only able to communicate by spelling out words, pointing with the only hand she could use to letters on a board with the alphabet printed on it. My last time to see her was about 15 years later when we went back to Crothersville for the church’s 100th anniversary. After the anniversary celebration, we drove to Brownstown to see Mary in the nursing home. As soon as I walked in the door, Mary’s eyes brightened and the unparalyzed side of her face broke into a big smile. I talked and Mary spelled; and the magic of a full and abundant life touched me again. This humble disciple of Jesus Christ made my day, and my week, and in many ways my life better.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Charting Our Way in Making Disciples

Over the past few days I have set the context for our examination of how the church goes about its task of making disciples. I now am ready to share with you a chart that will become the focus of my extended examination of the task of making disciples. With the chart in hand, you will see the aspects of discipleship we already have examined; and you will have some idea of where I am heading in this examination.

The chart is available to you via email in a rich-text format that should be compatible with almost any word processing program. If you will send me an email message from the email account in which you would like to receive the chart, I will reply quickly with a copy of the chart attached. To keep these requests separate, please use this email address to make your request: thinkingaloud@comcast.net

Once you receive the chart, you will note that Column 1 focuses on “the full and abundant life” referenced in my blog posts up through November 13. The bottom right corner establishes the goal of “Christlikeness” referenced in my blog posts through November 17. The top row of the chart has the focus on grace and works (I call the latter “deeds”) that I referenced in the November 18 post.

With the chart in your hands, we will be able to reflect on the transitions and directions through which discipleship develops and to address the specific concepts that emerge as each of us grows in faith and its practice.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gift and Demand in Discipleship

In the attempt to define how we make disciples in the church, I so far have introduced: (1) the abundant life that God promises to those who follow Jesus as disciples and (2) the ultimate goal in discipleship, which is becoming like Jesus. Today I want to focus on one other broad sweep that guides discipleship—the gift and the demand of the gospel, or in other words, law and grace. Combining those terms we could speak of “the gift of grace” and “the demands of the law.” True discipleship cannot be fully understood without holding these two dynamic influences in tension.

Most Christians have a tendency to emphasize one of these dimensions of discipleship over the other. Those who emphasize the high demands of discipleship tend toward a kind of Christian legalism that sets up very explicit criteria for judging the sincerity of the disciple’s commitment. The criteria likely will examine both what a disciple does (e.g., attends church services, tithes, witnesses, etc.) and what a disciple abstains from doing (e.g., hate, drunkenness, adultery, etc.). A kind of Christian Pharisaism can develop that emphasizes behavior, character, and principles.

Those who emphasize the gift of grace tend to focus on things like love, acceptance, freedom, tolerance, fellowship, harmony, and peace. They tend to de-emphasize any judgment of beliefs or behavior as antithetical to the idea of grace. A kind of Christian libertinism can develop that neglects moral and doctrinal restraints and standards.

Any approach to making disciples will have to tread carefully between these two poles of influence.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Ultimate Goal of Discipleship

The search for a model of what it means to be truly human leads us to define the ultimate goal of discipleship, for the model is Jesus and the goal is to be like him. Where Maslow’s goal and all other attempts fail because of the selfishness that lies at the center of our human experience, Jesus provides the model of a completely fulfilled individual whose central focus was on laying down his life for the sake of others. To be a Christian is to become like Jesus. To be a disciple is to walk in his footsteps, to follow his example, to strive to live with his kind of unselfish love.

The clearest statement of this ultimate goal is found in Philippians 2:1-11. Paul sets Jesus’ example in the context of the human struggle with “selfish ambition,” “conceit,” and looking out for “your own interests.” Until that brokenness at the center of the human experience is healed, none of us can find the full and abundant life that God intends for us. So we strive to have “the same mind … that was in Christ Jesus” (v. 5).

We miss some of the force of Philippians 2:5 in English. “Let this mind be” (KJV), “let the same mind be” (NRSV), or “have this attitude” (NASB) all lose the strong force of the imperative in the Greek verb “think.” “Hey you, think this way” is a command; and “think” carries the ideas of being mentally disposed in an earnest way, holding a sentiment or opinion, and setting one’s affections on something. “In you” and “in Christ Jesus” are parallel expressions with “which also [was] in Christ Jesus” pointing to the mind, attitude, and sentiment of Jesus explained in verses 6-8.

The ultimate goal of discipleship is to be like Jesus, to be Christian; and the effort in making disciples is to begin where each of us starts in our journey and to guide all disciples in becoming Christlike and truly Christian.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Searching for A Model of "the Fulfilled Life"

The pyramid concept in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reveals some interesting insight into what Western psychological considers ultimately important. The satisfaction or fulfillment of “lower” needs is foundational for the fulfillment of higher needs. In a sense, that makes these needs more important because their lack of satisfaction inhibits the achievement of higher needs. The lower needs are in a sense the easiest to fulfill (air, water, food, etc.), and a sense of safety should be easily attained with a modest amount of certainty that the physiological needs will be fulfilled on an ongoing basis. What Maslow fails to explain fully is the insatiable desire of some to accumulate an abundance of resources that far exceed what might ever be needed for physiological or safety purposes. Is a lack of love and belonging or the drive for esteem so powerful that self-actualization finds expression in selfish grasping, accumulating, hoarding, and exploiting of material things? How can billionaires party when surrounded by desperate poverty? Maslow has missed something in the basic selfish nature of humanity that we as Christians would call “sin.” Adam and Eve symbolize those who have their basic needs fully met but still choose to grasp for more.
The ultimate goal in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is called “self-actualization.” The examples identified at the apex of the needs pyramid provide interesting insight into what Western psychological considers ultimately important: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts, and so forth. Maslow would not say that these things cannot kick it at a lower level of development, but the supreme focus on the “self” provides a basically distorted orientation that elevates selfish desires. The “I want to be fulfilled” of self-actualization cannot escape the self-centered “I” or the bottomless pit of selfish desire. We need another model of what it means to be truly human and how we strive together for the common good.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The New International Version 2011 Update

Today I am going to pull away from my reflections on discipleship. I received an email from my sister asking what I thought about the explanations given in relation to the 2011 release of a new version on the NIV. You might want to read what the translators have said about the new edition: http://www.biblegateway.com/niv/Translators-Notes.pdf.

Here is a copy of my reply:

This is a pretty good statement confronting the issues that translators face in dealing with the biblical text. It demonstrates much of the sensitive nature in balancing what the biblical text meant in its original context with what it means for us today. Subtle issues still remain related to biblical authority and whether a biblical world view that clashes with modern scientific understandings or current cultural realities should be retained.

Many Christians hold on to what I would call a "flat Bible." By that I mean that every word in the Bible is equally accurate and authoritative as any other word in the Bible. That's a little hard to maintain when Jesus and a number of New Testament writers expound views that reinterpret, override, or "fulfill" some of the Old Testament passages that were understood differently in their original contexts; but once you acknowledge that, the question arises as how far can we go in doing the same thing to New Testament passages that clash with scientific or cultural realities. Some hold so tenaciously to biblical authority that they deny the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, while others claim the guidance of the Holy Spirit in validating contemporary cultural practices that clearly contradict explicit biblical teachings.

Because the Bible is such a foundational document, believers always will find some points of interpretation with which they will disagree; but too often the "written word" is absolutized to the detriment of the "Living Word" (Jesus) and the role of the Spirit in guiding the church through the moral quagmire of our modern world.

The Bible needs to be recast for every generation in ways that will make its message alive and relevant; but given our human frailty, too often that recasting will reflect accommodation to views and popular opinions that stray from important biblical principles. But, of course, the biblical principles themselves are not universally accepted--otherwise we would not have a gazillion denominations and independent churches. Sometimes the church loses its prophetic edge in an effort to be popular and accommodating. Sometimes it loses its moral bearings by endorsing popular and contemporary views. Always it reflects the imperfect human nature that tries to twist things to accommodate to "my own perspective of what is right and wrong." That means, "What I think is right and what you think is wrong if you disagree with me." Quoting Scripture and reinterpreting it to support my views is the end result. If 70% agree (the NIV's standard), then that settles it for the translation. But spiritual discernment guided by the Holy Spirit almost always shows that the minority has a more prophetic voice that cannot and should not be silenced by taking a vote.

This defense of the NIV will not silence its critics. People who are searching for what the Bible really says will not find a "perfect" Bible; but when we study the Bible with reverence and openness to the guidance of the Spirit, we will hear the "word of the Lord" with enough clarity to convict us of our shortcomings and beg for God's mercy.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Essential Foundations for Making Disciples

Secular attempts have been made to describe “the abundant life.” One of the most popular is Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Maslow began with basic physiological needs—the things needed to sustain life. Even these basic needs have varying degrees of urgency, though current expressions of Maslow’s ideas (through a triangular chart) do not always reflect that. All animal life, for example, needs oxygen more urgently than water or food. (“Breathing,” shown on many current charts, is not the need—oxygen is. “Sex” gets thrown into this physiological level because reproduction is a characteristic of all living organism. Not all reproduction involves sex, however; and the urgency of reproduction is more the need of the species than the physiological need of the individual organism.) Maslow’s second level, the need for “safety,” is a reflection that life thrives most readily when the basic physiological needs are able to be met on an ongoing basis. Different individuals and different cultures will define “safety” is different ways, and modern culture has tended to create “needs” that are social/psychological rather than physiological in nature. These “higher” needs are so important that they often influence our behavior with an urgency that exceeds their relative importance. In reality, unfulfilled needs at whatever level drive what we deem to be important or urgent. While these levels of concern may seem to have little to do with making disciples, we must at least acknowledge that the prospects of fulfilling higher needs that result in an abundant life are crippled if some sense of safety is not achieved for the individual in the community. A balanced and comprehensive attempt to make disciples will address whatever need hinders or impedes the achievement of the abundant life. In some settings that will involve engagement at the physiological level in feeding the poor. In some settings it will involve engagement at the safety level in assistance with employment or housing. To many people, these may not seem to have anything to do with making disciples; but they are foundational issues that will impede our efforts if they are neglected or ignored.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jesus' Definition of Discipleship

Jesus had a lot to say about discipleship, and much of what he said spoke of challenge, sacrifice, hardship, rejection, and even the possibility of death. Sometimes we view these outcomes as the most significant aspect of what discipleship means. I think Jesus left a more significant insight into what he intended discipleship to mean when he said, “I am come that they may have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10, KJV). Obviously Jesus was talking of something more than physical life, for everyone has that. He was speaking of his “sheep,” those disciples whom “he calls … by name and leads” (v.3). These followers “know” him (v. 14), “hear his voice” (v. 2), and “follow him” (v. 4). If we truly want to know what discipleship means, we must probe the meaning of that full and abundant life that Jesus promised to those who know him, listen to his guidance, and follow him in discipleship.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Nature of Discipleship

Many view the task of making disciples in the spirit of Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you?” Too often that discipleship is based on assumptions about things you should not think, feel, say, or do. The end result is that discipleship ends up taking on as ascetic quality that withdraws and separates from “the world.” I confess that I struggle with those tendencies, but I struggle with them more because they seem so antithetical to the spirit of Jesus. Most efforts toward developing disciples would probably fit better in the John the Baptist camp than in the daily discipleship walk with a Jesus who “saw the crowds [and] had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Imperative in the Great Commission

Many think the focus in the Great Commission is on “go.” It is not. “Go” is not an imperative in the Greek text; it is a participle (“as you go on your way”). Its force is in the assumption that Jesus’ disciples already were commissioned to go (the force of the aorist participle in Greek). “Make disciples” is the only imperative in Matthew 28:19-20. “Baptizing” and “teaching” are two present participles that extend the meaning of “make disciples.” One of these is administering a symbolic ritual that signifies commitment and identification with a cause; the other is the ongoing task of the church: “teaching them [these new disciples] to obey everything that I have commanded you” (NRSV). “Obey” translates a word that connotes “keep watch over, guard, hold on to, preserve, observe, fulfill, or pay attention to.” Our goal in making disciples is to invite commitment and instill devotion to Christ and his commands.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What are we striving to achieve?

Some have focused on “faith development,” “spiritual growth,” or some other terminology, but I like the central idea of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), which is “make disciples.” Actually even that is somewhat distorted by our English translations, where a single Greek verb is turned into a verb “make” and a direct object “disciples.” If we will understand “disciple” as a verb, then we can grasp a more complete view of our central task in the church. The idea certainly involves teaching; but it also carries an underlying theme of transforming a person into a learner, a pupil, an apprentice, an adherent, and ultimately into a witness (the Greek word for the latter is the word from which we derive “martyr”). To me, that gives a better focus to what we are striving to achieve in our churches.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Thinking Ahead About Thinking Aloud

For the last 16 months, I have focused my "Thinking Aloud" comments on Facebook. Most recently I have drawn the comments for my daily posts from writing that I have been doing for The New International Lesson Annual. Now that assignment is behind me (to be published in the 2012-13 Annual, although a previous set of lessons I wrote is in the current 2010-11 Annual and will be studied in the June-August quarter, 2011), and I want to move in a different direction with my "Thinking Aloud" daily posts.

First, Facebook limits posts to about 420 characters unless you post them as Notes. I find that rather restrictive, although I know many folks appreciate a short devotional idea more than an extended one, especially when so much is posted on Facebook that you want to keep up with. I would like a little more freedom to lengthen my daily musings, however, so I've decided to post them on my Mike's Thinking Aloud blog and link to the blog on Facebook.

Second, one of the ongoing passions of my life has been conceptualizing the task of making disciples. I began thinking more deeply in that area in the early 1990's when I was working at LifeWay and was assigned to a special workgroup that was redesigning LifeWay's entire Sunday School program and resources. Most of my thinking had been fleshed out by 1997, but I have continued to add to it and tweak it from time to time. In recent years I have used my Making Disciple design in China and India. I'm ready to lay it out more widely now to invite interaction and to generate a broader discussion on how we develop disciples in the church.

Finally, I have been serving on the Mission Visioning Committee in my church (First Baptist, Jefferson City, TN). That committee is winding down now, and the one major area still left to address in the area of Christian spiritual development. I am working with a group of very talented professors and educators on a team looking at how we can improved the discipleship ministry of our church. With the focus currently before me, I'd like to begin addressing little pieces of my Making Disciples design on a daily (or almost daily basis) in place of my regular posts on Facebook.

You can choose to use the link from Facebook to my blog, or you can go to my blog and sign up to follow it--that will give you notice whenever something is added to the discussion. I think the blog also will afford a better place for you to interact with me about discipleship development.

I'll try this out for a while and see where the discussion and interaction lead me. Thanks to those of you have interacted with me on Facebook. I hope you will feel even freer to interact with me on Mike's Thinking Aloud.