Friday, December 31, 2010

Corporate Identity Versus Personal Indentity in Faith

At some point in the process of becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, each of us must transition from a faith that is focused on corporate identity to a faith that is centered in personal identity. I have spoken of that corporate identity as responding to God’s initiative of grace by becoming part of the family of God.

Our first sense of who we are as followers of Jesus Christ is shaped by the community with which we identify. That community can be an actual family. It can be a Bible study group, a prayer and support group, or a worshiping community with which we identify. The “spiritual family” that this group represents provides affiliation, support, encouragement, challenge, and a sense of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. In this family we find welcome, acceptance, affirmation, encouragement, and support. We also find boundaries that separate our corporate identities from those outside the group—boundaries that define the expectations of the group. These boundaries may be explicitly stated or shared by common understanding; but they will describe the degree of involvement, the comfortable depth of the mutual relationships, and often the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that are deemed appropriate for participation in the group.

This kind of response to God’s grace is expressed in publicly identifying with the “family,” becoming a “member” of the group, or “joining” a church. This “family of God” blesses us with an identity. It embraces us in its sense of community. It instructs and guides us in how to live as a separate and distinct “family of faith” in the world. For many people and many churches, this is as far as you need to go in your discipleship. You have been “saved.” You have identified yourself publicly as a believer. You have accepted initiation into the community by being baptized.

My contention is that this “completed conversion experience” that ends in affiliation with “the family of God” is only the very first step in discipleship. It is only column 2 of the 6 columns in the “Making Disciples” chart. I identify it as the “Old Covenant” kind of faith that falls short of the radical transformation that the Gospel describes in calling us to become children of God and disciples of Jesus. It may never challenge us to the kind of Christlikeness that loves God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loves our neighbors as ourselves.

The Gospel of John concludes with the fundamental question that I want to address in the days ahead. After three years of being associated with Jesus as one of his followers, Simon Peter faced an intimate encounter with the Risen Lord. Simon was a disciple—in fact, the lead disciple. He was deeply embedded in the disciple “family.” He had lived with Jesus, followed Jesus, and learned from Jesus. But one question still remained: “Simon, do you love me?”

“Of course, I love you. You know that I love you. I’ve shown you my love by following you through good times and bad. How can you question my devotion—well, maybe I did deny you at a crucial point—but that wasn’t the real me. I do love you.”

But Jesus pressed on—three times—with the central question of discipleship. We will explore the many facets of that question in the days ahead, and I will blend in with those some aspects of my own pilgrimage in seeking first to become a child of God, and then a disciple, and then a servant in the ultimate goal of striving to become like Jesus.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Adjusting to the Changing Times, Part 3: Science of the Mind

We all have come to appreciate the importance of genetics. The deciphering of the human genome is one of the most significant advances we are witnessing in science today. We are just beginning to see the complexity of the genetic factors that make us what we are.

A new field of science is emerging, however, that likely will have an equal if not greater impact on our understanding of humanity. Our genes are givens—we are born with them and they don’t change. Although some advances are being made in gene therapy, mostly we are in the “describing” stage in this science with the prescribing stage still to come. The new field of science, however, is addressing a far different component of humanity. It is exploring the “wiring” of the human brain with the goal of describing how memories, personality traits, and skills are stored. This nascent field of neuroscience is being called “connectonics,” and it is an attempt to understand the mental makeup of persons. In the same way that geneticists are trying to map the human genome, connectomicists are trying to build a map of the mind. By tracing the connections of synapses in the ganglions of the brain, these scientists hope to discover how we store memories, make decisions, and function as individuals.

The scope of this effort is mind-boggling (no pun intended). As an example of its scope (and to help you appreciate the complexity of the human mind), scientists say that about one petabyte of computer memory will be needed to store the images needed to form a picture of a one-millimeter cube of a mouse’s brain (that is about the size of a cross section of the wire used in a paper clip). In comparison, Facebook uses one petabyte of data storage space to hold 40 billion photos. To ramp this up to the human scale, a worm’s brain has about 300 neurons. A mouse’s brain has about 100 million neurons. The human brain has about 100 billion neurons and millions of miles of “wires” (connections) that must be unraveled and traced. Ashlee Vance, writing about connectomics in the New York Times, compares the task to trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti by tracing how each strand of spaghetti touches each other strand as it winds its way through the bowl.

Scientists are better at describing than prescribing. Somewhere down the line we may be able to describe how a person changes his or her mind, but I suspect the “why” will continue to be a “spiritual” thing. And the most remarkable thing is that we can change our minds, we can “repent,” and we can do all of that with a “fixed” structure of brain connections that are adaptable and consciously controllable but hold the potential for conversion into something new.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Adjusting to the Changing Times, Part 2: r u lol yet?

A seismic shift is going on in our society, and a recent article in the NY Times brought this issue into focus for me. The Times highlighted several contemporary writers who are setting their novels in the “near future” (i.e. 2025 to 2035). In the spirit of George Orwell (who in 1949 published the futuristic novel 1984) and of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (who in 1968 produced the film 2010: A Space Odyssey), these writers are giving us a glimpse of our society as it may become. Taking emerging trends in today’s world and projecting them into the future, they can help us weigh the impact and perhaps test the consequences of the innovative spirit of our time. One of the trends identified in these novels is the impact that text messaging will have on our use of language in the future. As a person who does a good bit of writing and who always has a dictionary open on the desk next to me so that I can check the spelling and weight the nuances of word meanings, this really caught my attention.

Text messaging clearly is a generational matter. My wife and I are on a family communication plan together with two of our daughters and one son-in-law. My wife and I have separate cells phones and have cut out our land line—pretty innovative stuff for our generation. One of our daughters and her husband have included text messaging in their part of our family plan, and they get by pretty well each month on their allowance of 250 text messages each. Our other daughter has unlimited text messaging in her part of the family plan. She not only sends text messages, but she frequently sends pictures and videos in messages. Last month she sent over 1500 messages.

While visiting our other daughter before Christmas, she commented that her son (who happens to be turning 14 today) only talked on his cell phone for about 20 minutes last month but sent almost 10,000 text messages. Do you sense the trend here? And with that trend comes a whole new language full of abbreviations and short-cuts that frankly I find quite confusing.

I’ve noticed on Facebook that the texting short-cuts are creeping into posted messages. I’ve tried to decipher some of these by weighing the context in which they were used. At first I thought “lol” meant “lots of luck” because it seemed to have a whimsical quality to it. On occasion I have thought someone was saying “lots of love” as a kind of affectionate sign-off. Then I discovered it meant “laughing out loud,” which I sometime find hard to understand in the context in which it is used. The real shocker came recently when a very accomplished writer with whom I have worked a lot through the years began substituting “u r” and similar abbreviations in her Facebook posts. This brought me back to the futuristic novel and the certainty that our written language and our whole system of communication is shifting quickly.

I’ve reluctantly decided that this shift is OK. The emphasis on spelling and grammar are important parts of clear communication; but frankly I’ve decided that communication is the objective, and spelling and grammar are the vehicles. We may be in the midst of shifting vehicles. Oral communication, video communication, and text messaging may replace the classical expressions of the written word. I will have to learn this new language in order to survive, just like an immigrant has to adapt to the language of a new culture.

In the spirit of the season, I also have concluded that sometimes and somehow the word must become flesh to really communicate. That is what Christmas is all about, and it is what I must be about as well. Where r u in all this?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Adjusting to the Changing Times, Part 1

I am finding myself a little nostalgic this Christmas season for Christmases past. I am reflecting on those Christmases when Christmas Day was a very special family day. In those days every member of the family went to my Grandmother Richardson’s house to celebrate Christmas together. Family members brought wonderful foods, and we had a delicious Christmas dinner together. Names of every adult family member had earlier been drawn from a hat (probably at the Thanksgiving Day family get-together) so that each family member gave one gift to one other family member. We children were exempted and generally received a gift from almost every aunt and uncle. This was a special time with nieces and nephews and cousins, and in many ways it became the epitome of Christmas for me. I even recall the Christmas when one of my cousins was serving in the army and was stationed in Germany. He wasn’t home for Christmas, and his absence left a hole in the family Christmas experience.

This Christmas is very different. In fact, Christmas is mostly over for me. Our family is scattered from South Carolina to east and middle Tennessee. One of my daughters and her husband are airline pilots, and their schedules provide only restricted timeframes in which to celebrate Christmas. So Christmas began a week-and-a-half ago when we celebrated with the exchanging of gifts for this portion of our family. Then a week before Christmas we went to Nashville, exchanging gifts to be opened later with one of our daughters and her family and actually opening gifts with our other daughter. We have a few gifts under the tree to be opened tomorrow, but Evelyn and I will be doing that together at home. For the extended family, Christmas was virtually concluded a week before the day and it was celebrated in fragmented intervals with a scattered family. I have found myself reflecting on the fact that Christmas is a season and not a day, and the spirit of a family Christmas is more important than a large family get-together.

Then my nostalgia caught up with reality. My grandmother died in 1958. Her family continued to get together at Thanksgiving and Christmas for over a decade after that; but beginning during seminary years when I was serving as pastor of a church, I was the one who often was breaking the family tradition. My church in Indiana was too far away to drive home and back on Christmas Day. I had responsibilities that tied me to the celebration of Christmas with my “church family” that overshadowed my clan back in Alabama. Then I recalled that my father’s family had only once in my memory ever tried to get together for a family reunion. His family had been scattered from Illinois to Michigan to Alabama; and while we went by and visited with one or two of my aunts and uncles each year at Christmas time, the family gathering was never a complete one.

So the times are not just changing for me this year—they have been a-changing for a long time. I was the first in my Richardson clan to move far away and to be away regularly at Christmas time. In the Fink clan, we never really developed a Christmas family tradition. So I have been living with a changing Christmas tradition for a long time. It just seems different this year with family scattered, with celebrations observed on several occasions, and with just the two of us together on Christmas Day. The joy of togetherness, the excitement of opening presents, the good food and fellowship around the table may not be focused on one day this year; but it is Christmas just the same—and it has been for the last week-and-a-half. Maybe the spirit of the season is more important than one twenty-four hour sweep on the clock. Even the first Christmas was celebrated far from home, in a strange setting, and with strangers sharing the occasion. So my Christmas Day will not be so different after all.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Annual Christmas Letter

I have been off-line and over-involved for the last few days, so no new posts have been put online. If you would like to receive a copy of our 2010 Christmas letter, send an email to:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Finding a Place in the Family of God

Making disciples involves both instruction and experience. If you reflect on the accounts of the disciples of Jesus, you will find both of these dimensions. The common factor between these two dimensions, however, is some sort of teaching-training community in which the disciples develop. That community is a critical factor in making disciples.

If you will reflect on your own experience and the experiences of others you know, I think you will find some kind of special group of people who became a community of love, grace, and learning for you. For most of us that community was and is within a church setting. Traditionally that community has been a Sunday School class or some kind of intentional study group; but others find their way into the community through fellowship opportunities, sports teams, work projects, mission trips, musical groups, or even through an extended family. In reality, discipleship is fostered best when individuals find a comfortable community of supportive people who genuinely are interested in its members and are living, learning, and working together for their mutual benefit and for some larger vision.

In the “Making Disciples” Chart, I have called this community the “Family of God.” Just as a human family is the initial setting into which a child is born and nurtured, discipleship has its roots in a small group that guides the “child of God” in discovering how the basic needs for identity, love, acceptance, achievement, and legacy can be met in the grace of God. The Old Testament provides a biblical context in which we can understand this family of God idea. The individual finds a sense of personal identity in the account of creation. The individual senses God’s love in identifying with a people whom God has chosen to represent and serve among all the people in the world. The bond to God and community is sealed with a covenant, which itself is set within the instruction of the community’s teaching (Torah or Law). The family of God blesses those who are part of the community and empowers its members to share that blessing with others.

Sometimes we are born into a family. Sometimes we choose a family. Sometimes a family chooses us. It is within that family, however, where we begin to discover and experience the grace of who we are and who we were intended to be. In that family we discover the power of genuine love that embraces us in our best and in our worst. In that family a bond of mutual covenant is formed where we find our special place in the community and embrace the unique contributions of others in the family. In that family we are instructed, guided, and trained for living in the family, for maintaining the integrity of the mutual covenant, and for communicating the family’s grace to others who need it. As we draw others into the family, into the love and covenant that binds it together, and into its instruction and life, we are blessed and we bless others through our family.

Historically, God initiated that community of grace. Creation and the call of Abraham formed the initial parameters, but God still invites us into a community where we can experience grace and find our place in the family of God. This is the first step in making disciples. We invite people into a grace community where they can find their identity as a beloved member of the faith family.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Children and Discipleship

One crucial issue we face in making disciples relates to children and their developmental readiness to made decisions that reflect a mature understanding of discipleship. In the “Making Disciples” Chart I have tried to provide a progressive understanding of how a person moves from the beginning conception of faith to a mature understanding of discipleship. That progression is in the bottom row of the chart that deals with the human need for integrity.

I view discipleship as an integrating factor related to our understanding of who we are and why we are. Every disciple will find each aspect of that progression relevant, but the rate at which a new believer progresses in “Integrity” will depend on many individual factors. From my perspective, those who work with children need to focus on “God’s Initiative of Grace” (columns 2 and 3 in the chart) for the foundational concepts, experiences, age-appropriate perspectives, and emerging self-understandings that are relevant to children. While many will disagree with me, I think that making a response to God’s grace is an experience for which adolescents are ready but children are not. Thus I would hold off on an emphasis on repentance, making a profession of faith, becoming part of the covenant community (church membership), and identifying oneself as a disciple until the person is mature enough to commit “one’s life and gifts to God’s service in the church and the world” (quoting column 4, row 6). While maturity is not solely a matter of age, I would think that ages 16-18 reflect the level of maturity that makes “commitment of one’s life and gifts” a realistic and reasonable response to grace.

Many will argue that the church will lose its prime opportunity to “convert” people if we wait that late. Ages 16-18 are the very years when youth begin to pull away from their childhood commitments; and if we haven’t sealed their eternal fate by that time (these folks will say), we will face enormous hurdles in getting them engaged at this or any later stage. My contention is that we must lay the foundation for discipleship with all people (including children) with a focus on grace. If we do that well, the prospective disciples will come to recognize that they are members of the “Family of God” ( that is, they are “part of a separate and distinct people serving God in the world”—see last row of column 2) and that each of them is a “Child of God” whom God has called into a personal relationship with God and to committed service to God (last row of column 3). These are grace-gifts from God that inform us of who we are and what God intends for us, but these are foundations for calling for a response to that grace.

The call for a response requires a level of maturity that possesses the ability to make commitments that are realistic and actual. A profession of faith and the decision to become a disciple of Jesus are not foundational matters—they are life-surrender matters. My contention is that children and even early adolescents generally do not have the sense of self-determination required to make a commitment that is mature, genuine, and realistic for the remainder of their lives.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Influences That Shape Our Discipleship

The decision to become a disciple of Jesus Christ is something of an idiosyncratic matter. Individuals are influenced by their cultures, for example. Some cultures promote individual responsibility and decision-making, so those of us who have a Western mindset tend to emphasize personal decisions to follow Jesus. This often is expressed by walking down the aisle of a church and making some sort of a public declaration that the individual wants to become a follower of Jesus.

I remember how surprised I was many years ago when an internationally sponsored statement on evangelism sponsored by Billy Graham highlighted the importance of corporate decision-making in many cultures. The statement acknowledged that in some societies the decision made by the leader of a tribe to become a Christian often meant that the whole tribe adhered to that decision. This has frequently reminded me that people make decisions to become followers of Jesus in very different ways.

The last row of the “Making Disciples” Chart focuses on “Integrity,” the quality or state of being complete, whole, sound, or fully integrated in one’s essential being. While that integrity certainly focuses on individual integrity, we cannot overlook the importance and influence of a community in contributing to and shaping a corporate integrity. In many ways, people are conformists. They are shaped and influenced by the group of which they are a part. That group may be as large as a society or as small as a family or even a tight-knit group of noncomformists. Everyone is capable of making individual decisions, and we make many individual decisions every day; but our sense of integrity most often is shaped by what our peer group recognizes as authentic, sincere, and genuine.

Over the next few days, I want us to work our way across the “Integrity” row of the “Making Disciples” Chart and look at the interplay between the corporate and the individual influences that shape our discipleship. (NOTE: The “Making Disciples” chart is available to you via email. Send an email request for a copy to:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Three Criteria for Loving Your Neighbor

Early on I suggested that the ultimate goal of discipleship is Christlikeness. Being “Christian” and doing “Christian” would be another way of describing that same goal. While seeking to be Christlike is the central criterion for all aspects of our discipleship, I think it becomes especially important as a goal in loving our neighbors (column 6 in the “Making Disciples” Chart).

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19, 22:39; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8) provides a comprehensive biblical perspective of how we are to relate to those around us. Despite of the abuses in limiting the definition of “Who is my neighbor?” that Jesus addressed, loving your neighbor as you love yourself is still a high standard for ethical conduct. It goes beyond the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12) that Jesus describes as a summary of the Law and the Prophets. This latter admonition has us put ourselves in the place of another and measure our conduct by how we would like to be treated in the same circumstance. This forces us to identify with our neighbor, to view neighbor as having needs and feelings similar to our own. This “walking in another’s shoes” is a worthy criterion for our behavior toward others.

“Loving your neighbor as you love yourself” shifts the standard higher. It recognizes the natural self-interest that drives each of us in all aspects of our lives. That self-interest is obvious, for example, at the physiological level. A person who is held under water will use every effort available to get to the surface of the water, even if it means pushing and pulling others under the water in order to fulfill that personal need. While that self-interest may not be so obvious at higher level of needs, it certainly is an underlying force that influences all aspects of our behavior. That self interest is equivalent to “loving yourself,” to acting for your own best interests, and to doing whatever you can to advancing your causes. To love your neighbor with that kind of love means that you are willing to invest an equal level of self-interest in your neighbor’s needs as you invest in your own. It creates a parity of interests that governs your behavior in interacting with others.

I think discipleship involves an even higher standard. Loving neighbor as Jesus loved replaces the parity of self-interests and shifts the focus to the needs of the neighbor. Self-interests are sacrificed in order to do good unto all people, to act in their best interests, to advance the fulfillment of their needs. Jesus’ love is not putting yourself in another’s shoes. It is not lifting others to a level comparable to your own. It is elevating others above yourself, humbling yourself, becoming a servant, loving in a self-sacrificial kind of way. It is imitating Christ’ humility described by Paul in Philippians 2:1-8. It is regarding others as better than yourself. It is looking to the interests of others, not your own interests. It is taking up the cross and following Jesus. It is the supreme expression of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Deeds and Grace

We are living in a time when civil discourse seems to be in rapid decline. “Soft” news dominates, and attention to serious matters is spotty at best. Being entertained is more important than being educated. Constant distraction has displaced thoughtful contemplation. “It’s all about me” has unseated any concern for loving neighbor.

Our media focus on the outrageous; and the more outrageous the situation, the more media play the subject seems to receive. Too much of our attention is claimed by the trivial. Many in our society long for a moment of notoriety. All kinds of insignificant foolishness foisted upon us as newsworthy is little more than ego trips driven by someone’s desire for a moment in the sun. “Reality TV” has displaced real life. We want to be distracted from the hard realities of life rather than to focus something constructive. Concern about “good deeds” has been lost in the fray.

A person who responds to God’s grace by loving God and who commits self to becoming a servant of Jesus Christ (column 5 on the “Making Disciples” Chart) will quickly recognize that devotion and service require active expression in deeds. Some of those deeds will focus on God (worship, piety, and stewardship, for example). Some will focus on the discipling community of faith (Bible study and koinonia, for example). Much will focus on deeds that show our love for our neighbors (column 6 on the “Making Disciple” Chart).

Loving God and loving neighbors are the core of our “doing” that grows out of our “being.” In our culture, however, “doing” is constantly threatened by the self-centered drive for attracting attention to ourselves. Unless our being has been shaped by grace, our doing is in danger of reflecting the “it’s all about me” of our culture. Grace demands a response, and that response focuses on loving God and loving neighbor; but if our deeds become disconnected from our experience with God’s grace, our intentions, our motives, and our actions will become self-serving efforts rather than reflections of Christlikeness.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Loving God Is Not Enough

Many people think that loving God with deep devotion is not merely the greatest commandment, it is the only commandment. I think they are wrong—whether they actually advocate this idea or merely operate on the basis of it—and I’ll try to make my case against that notion today.

Those who advocate loving God exclusively and completely immediately run into a problem. The only way they can show the depth and breadth and height of their love is by comparing what they are willing to do to prove their devotion to God against lesser levels of devotion. “I’ll do anything to show that I love God” becomes their de facto motto; and quite frankly, when that premise takes over, bad things happen.

In Old Testament times, the depth of Israel’s devotion to God was tested against devotees of a god called Molech (probably derived from the Hebrew word melek, “king”). To show their superior devotion to their god, these people sacrificed their offspring to Molech as a votive offering. The child was given to Molech as a human sacrifice, and this sacrifice was offered in pre-Israelite times in the Valley of Hinnon immediately adjacent to Jerusalem. Though this abomination was condemned in Leviticus (18:21; 20:1-5), its enticement was evident in the time of Ahaz (who made his son “pass through fire,” 2 Kings 16:3), Hoshea (under whose reign sons and daughters were made to “pass through fire,” 2 Kings 17:6-17), and even Solomon (who in his old age built a high place for the worship of Molech, 1 Kings 11:1-7). These practices were thoroughly condemned by the true prophets, but the argument still swayed people’s understanding of devotion to God. If you truly love God, you will withhold nothing—even your own child—in demonstrating your superior love. Bad things easily happen when devotion to God is the supreme commandment.

We face a similar challenge today in radical Islam, where suicide bombers demonstrate their superior love for and devotion to Allah by giving their lives in sacrifice to their god. When the issue becomes, “How far are you willing to go to show your complete love and full devotion to God,” you begin to see how a sole commandment to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength can have disastrous results.

Jesus, of course, balanced the love of God with love of neighbor; and we may not have thought as deeply as we should about why that balance is necessary. Any rationale for doing bad things in defense of God, to advance God’s cause, to show our devotion to God, or to destroy the heathen enemies fails to maintain that balance. Whenever we act in God’s name in ways that denies a love of neighbor—or enemy or even evil incarnate—we fail in keeping the Great Commandment. First John recognized this essential connection between loving God and loving neighbor: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). And “Who is my brother?” finds the same answer as the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). The answer is not found in the object of our love or our devotion, it is found in the one who shows mercy (Luke 10:37) and the one who shows love.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Love, Devotion, and Service

When I was in college, a local church sent buses to the campus to transport students back and forth to Sunday services. On those bus trips, we sang lots of “contemporary” Christian songs and choruses. I was reminded of one of those songs when I was thinking about Jesus’ command that we love the Lord our God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. The song was “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” and one of the verses was, “If you love Him, why not serve Him [repeated three times], soldiers of the cross.” While that sounds politically incorrect by several contemporary standards, the song does express a central aspect of what we mean by “Loving God.” Love naturally leads to service.

One recognition that grows out of our understanding God’s grace is that all of life is a gift from God. Too often, however, we forget that the gift must be returned to God through devotion and service. Those two words, “devotion” and “service,” well describe central aspects of an agape-type love for God. Devotion speaks of exclusive commitment or loyalty (“no other gods besides me”) and deep affection (“heart, soul, mind and strength”). “I love you with all my heart” is an easy commitment to verbalize—not unlike a wedding vow—but words of devotion and affection mean little if the words are not accompanied by actions.

A love that claims to be exclusive, loyal, and deep but does not find expression in acts of love can rightly be questioned as to its authenticity. When a disciple responds to God’s grace by loving God, that response will find expression in becoming a servant of God. New Testament translators use even stronger expressions like “bond-servant” or “slave” (the underlying Greek word “doulos” is used 141 times in the New Testament) to describe service to the Lord. Even the title “Lord” carries with it the idea of the supreme authority of a master over a slave.

My point today is this: If we love God in response to his grace, our love will find expression in deeds of love shown toward God. We will become servants of God whose lives reflect our love and devotion to the Lord of our lives.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Can Love Be Commanded?

Many have observed the seeming incongruity of love being the result of a command. Love, the observation goes, is an emotion; how can an emotion be commanded? Yet Jesus placed the commandment to love God and neighbor at the supreme pinnacle as the first and most important commandment. How can that be?

We have been looking at the transition between the being and the doing aspects of discipleship, and I think that transition provides insight into how love can be commanded. When our being has been transformed by God’s grace, the ultimate result is that our relationships with God and others have been transformed. Love doesn’t come out of the will so much as it comes from the transformation of our selfish selves through grace. As Jesus frequently noted, the worst outcome from experiencing grace is that we accept it but not be changed by it. That lack of transformation is evidence that we have not really accepted grace but somehow think we have earned or deserved the grace bestowed upon us. The inability to escape that self-centered rejection of grace corresponds with an inability to love anyone other than ourselves.

When grace has truly transformed us, however, the Giver of that grace is recognized as the most loveable Person in our lives. The love that we have experienced—the love that has cherished us, sacrificed for us, forgiven us, and transformed us—transforms our affections, our values, and our priorities. The experience of grace allows us to love with an agape kind of love.

The command to love God and neighbor is not so much a command to love as is it an expectation that we allow God’s grace to transform our lives. When we fail to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we demonstrate that grace has not fully worked its transforming power in our lives. When that transformation takes place in our being, our doing will become a ready reflection of grace working through us in love for God and love for others.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Different Kind of Love

We began our reflections on making disciples by focusing on our human needs. One of the deepest needs we identified was our need for love. This “needy” love is self-focused. It longs for a sense of worth and self-esteem, for being valued and important to others. We search for something that will enable us to fill our lives with meaning, purpose, and significance. The Greeks had a word for this kind of love—eros. We have focused that word in modern times on sexual love and desire; but its basic meaning relates to the instincts, impulses, and desires for self-preservation and advancing our own personal interests.

In relationships we begin to discover that we must balance our personal needs with the needs of others, so we modify our selfish needs by a mutual accommodation that allows each partner to give and to receive love. If the give-and-take is too out of balance, we cast off that relationship and search for another. The Greeks also had a word for this type of love—philia. This love involves the give-and-take that maintains and fosters ongoing relationships.

Christians often reflect on the significance of the love that God has shown toward us in Jesus Christ. We especially focus on the nature of that love expressed in a third biblical word that can be translated “love,” the Greek word agape (ah-gah’-pay). This kind of love focuses unselfishly on the beloved and on the interests and well-being of the one who is the object of that love. Agape achieves its highest expression in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. When we reflect on the servant role that Jesus played and on the sacrifice he made on behalf of all humanity, we begin to understand how agape sharply contrasts with the kind of love that so often inhabits our human relationships.

Now here is the challenge. When Jesus calls for us to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39), he didn’t speak of a “needy” love or even an accommodating love. The word for love used in the Greatest Commandment is the verb form of the word agape. One of the greatest challenges we face in our discipleship is getting beyond our roles as recipients of grace and God’s unselfish love—where everything has been centered on us—to the place where we can love God and neighbor unselfishly, where our lives are focused on their benefit, where we are motivated by giving rather than receiving. Only the deepest experience with God’s love and grace can open the door for us to love with God’s kind of love and to act with God’s kind of grace.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The "Doing" Part of Discipleship

When it comes to the “doing” part of our discipleship, the central call of Christ is expressed in his response to the question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt. 22:35, NRSV). Because the commandments are calls to living out our relationship with God in specific and concrete ways, Jesus’ response provides clear insight into what we should be doing as followers of Jesus.

At first glance, we might think that Jesus’ response was not very specific. We think of “love” as an emotion, a feeling, or a state of mind. Jesus understood it as a central, active expression of our core values and our being. It is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling. Loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength is a totally comprehensive description of the very central construct of who we are—of our very beings. Love establishes specific parameters for the way we live—our actions, our deeds, our commitments, our values, and our use of our time, attention, and effort.

The transition from being to doing is difficult only if we have failed to realize how great God’s initiative of grace has been in leading us to the full and abundant life. Any other response to the gracious gifts God has given in guiding us to the fulfillment of our deepest needs and in forming our identities as children of God living within a family of faith will be inadequate. The selfish love that drives our deepest needs is transformed into loving God and neighbor with the same intensity that we once loved ourselves.

“Because I have been given much I too must give” becomes part our response to grace; but that giving falls under the larger umbrella of “Because I have been loved much I too must love.” Column 5 in the “Making Disciples” Chart spells out the deeds that flow from our loving God, and column 6 spells out the corresponding deeds that express our loving our neighbors as ourselves.

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Dangers of an Affected Faith

Once a disciple’s response to God’s initiative of grace fixes the ultimate goal of becoming Christ-like, “doing” becomes the focus in expressing our “being.” I continue to emphasize a delicate balance here because every action that we encourage believers to take in expressing their faith faces the danger of being undertaken for the wrong motive. If “doing” gets ahead of “being,” hypocrisy becomes an enormous threat.

I was going to quote here the biblical admonition, “By their deeds you will know them”; but I discovered that quotation is not in the Bible. If you look up the quotation on the internet, you will discover how frequently it is quoted by weirdos who try to read sinister motives back into peoples’ actions. Actually the closest the Scriptures come to this quotation is Jesus’ statements in Matthew 7:16 and 20, “By their fruit you will know them” (KJV). Paul in Titus 1:16 gives a slightly different twist, “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him” (NASB). “Fruit” speaks of the end of a long process. “Deeds” is plural, and we must be careful not to identify one action as indicative of an entire life.

My caution here is focused on the fact that we can encourage certain kinds of behavior for believers and get ahead of their personal faith development. Sometimes we try to transform them from outside in rather than changing their hearts and letting those changes in their being find natural expression in their living. The affectation of faith (that is, the pretense of having faith and expressing it through behavior designed to impress others) is one of the greatest dangers in making disciples.

I personally believe that much of what we do in the church related to children fosters a disjunction between being and doing. By pushing them to make an early response to grace, we encourage them to begin “doing” before their “being” has matured enough to express itself intentionally. I would argue that our entire focus on children in the church should be on God’s initiative of grace (columns 2 and 3 in the “Making Disciples” Chart). We ought to be fostering their sense of being part of the family of God and helping them discover that each of them can have a personal relationship with God and can become a child of God.

The need for laying that foundation, however, is not just a children’s issue. Adolescents and adults also need that same foundation and that intensive focus on grace before we call them to discipleship and invite them to respond to God’s grace by their deeds. Before we start focusing on believers loving God and neighbor, we must be sure they fully understand God’s gracious love for them personally. When disciples have been nurtured in the family of God and have discovered God’s gracious purpose for each of them to become a child of God, then they can surrender themselves to a life of discipleship and begin to focus on how they can love God and neighbor in return.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Grace's Indebtedness

Grace lays an obligation upon us. Isn’t that a strange concept? When we think of grace as God’s free gift of mercy, love, and unmerited favor, does it not seem strange that what was given freely creates an obligation of indebtedness?

In the Christmas season, all of us know the discomfort created by someone giving us a gift when we had not planned to give them one. An awful lot of last-minute shopping is driven by being sure we are relieved of the obligation incurred by an unexpected gift. Many people, in order to deal carefully with the etiquette of no unreciprocated indebtedness, actually will be spend a little more on the return gift in order to subtly shift the obligation back to the original giver.

Of course, nothing we can do in response to grace could outdo what God did for us in Jesus Christ. Our indebtedness is too great; and even if we “surrender all,” as the gospel song writer suggested, that response is but a drop in the bucket in comparison to God’s greatest gift.

A lot of people accept this grace and recognize that any response they might make is inadequate. So they give back to God symbolically—many a dollar or two in the offering plate at Christmas or Easter. Others think the only way to repay God is to follow the law, so that give back exactly 10 percent of their incomes as their tithe and feel they had adequately paid God back. Jesus, of course, raised that bar considerably: “If you would be my disciple, go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor; then come and follow me” (see Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21). Of course, even that cannot repay the gift of God’s grace.

God’s grace has not been bestowed on us so that we will try to repay it, nor was it bestowed to keep us indebted to God. Instead, grace is an invitation to walk with Jesus as one of his disciples, knowing that he is trustworthy to guide us and to care for all our needs.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Funerals and Grace

I will be attending a funeral today, and the reflections I have been sharing about grace are resounding strongly in my mind. The death of a relative or loved one forces us into an intensive kind of reflection about the life, love, and experiences we share with others. Death also forces us to confront the aspects of our relationships that are left unresolved. None of our relationships are perfect; and even in the best of circumstances, we all reflect on what we wish we had said or done in addressing those unresolved issues.

The graveside is one of the places in our lives where we most need grace. All of the intimacies of a lifetime—all of the love, the good, the bad, the anger, the slights, the competition, the neglect, the oversights, the bitter memories, the disagreements, the misspoken words, the unfulfilled needs, the unresolved tensions, the postponed intentions, and so many other confused emotions—seem for a moment to rise to the surface. We need grace.

We re-experience those intimacies with tears, regret, joy, sorrow, guilt, loss, pain, grief, emptiness, and despair. Never again will we be able to touch, hug, kiss, converse, share, cry, forgive, confess, laugh, celebrate, or reminisce with the deceased. We need grace.

Too often our emotions spill over into our relationships with those with whom we continue to live and relate. Family relations can be strained. Blame, anger, despair, and ruptured relationships can intensify. We need grace.

My recent reflections on grace, however, should remind us that grace is not only something we need—it is something we must give. In times of grief, we focus on our loss and forget that others need grace. They too are feeling grief and loss. They too are struggling with mixed emotions. They too have regrets. Grace can carry us beyond our grief into the shared experience of new life, new relationships, and a new future.

Grace reminds us that something good can lie beyond the graveside. Grace has within itself the power of resurrection—the power of forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, and love. Grief is not only resolved through hope; it can be healed through grace. Peter admonished his readers, “Minister the same one to another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10, KJV). Let us minister to one another today in that kind of grace.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Our Response to Costly Grace

God’s initiative of grace revealed both in the Old and New Testaments demands a response. Unfortunately, too many of us respond to God’s grace in the wrong way. We want grace for ourselves and justice for others. We want leniency in applying judgment to our thoughts and deeds, but we want God to rain down judgment on those with whom we disagree—our real enemies and our virtual opponents.

If grace is the central element of God’s initiative toward us, we had best give attention to that grace. That attention, however, cannot relate only to our personal need for grace and God’s desire that we welcome and embrace that grace. For many people, the response to God’s grace solely consists of professing faith in Jesus Christ, the One who embodied God’s gift of grace. Grace for these people is a free lunch, and no one refuses a free lunch—unless there is a catch attached to it. And there is a BIG catch with grace! Those who welcome God’s grace solely for themselves are accepting the free lunch without recognizing the catch—grace brings with it the radical demand that we become gracious toward others in the same way that God has been gracious with us.

The classic teaching of Jesus that draws the connection between our receiving grace and the kind of response that grace demands from us is Matthew 18:21-35. Jesus told a parable in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” Peter welcomed grace from his “Lord,” and he was even willing to show a limited amount of grace toward a “brother” who had sinned against him. Peter, however, had not yet recognized the cost of the grace he was receiving—the death of God’s Son on the cross—and he certainly didn’t realize what an obligation that great sacrifice placed on him as a recipient of costly grace.

Those who find comfort in “once saved, always saved” need to remember the conclusion of this parable from Jesus. Ultimately the grace we receive will be in proportion to the grace we have offered others. We grossly underestimate the cost of grace when we accept it selfishly for ourselves and then raise great hurdles that keep others from experiencing it. Column 4 in the Making Disciples Chart highlights the response we must make to God’s grace if we would be disciples of Jesus.

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

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Grace and Love Through Jesus Christ

If God’s initiative of grace first became evident in creation, election, covenant, torah, and blessing in Old Testament times, it blossomed and began to bear fruit in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The gospel story is depicted from four perspectives by the Gospel writers and is fleshed out in the life of the early church as recorded in Acts and the epistles of Paul and others. It is the story of a grace lived out through the lowly birth, the beckoning life, the sacrificial death, and the powerful resurrection of Jesus Christ. That story of grace is an invitation for all of us to become children of God, and it has the potential for transforming our identities by a redemptive love that turns the alienation of estrangement from God into the intimate relation of beloved children embraced in the family of God.

This same Jesus both models for us and teaches us what integrity truly means. Through his incarnation he shapes our human identities, demonstrates how great God’s love is for us, brings us into intimate relationship with God as God’s children by adoption, and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s redemptive work in the world. He enables all of us to become children of God, loved, strengthened, and gifted for service in the kingdom of God.

All of this is an initiative of grace, conceived and implemented by God. We are undeserving recipients of this grace, but the offer of grace lifts us up to become the crown jewels of God’s creation. God’s love is so deep and wide, that even the most sinful among us are beckoned to cast off their corrupt natures and put on the glorious nature of true humanity fully embodied in Jesus Christ. We creatures made by God are invited to become children of God who follow in the footsteps of the Son of God. In that experience, our identities are transformed through the unifying of our inner and outer lives. We become new creations in Christ Jesus—children of the Most High God.