Monday, January 24, 2011

Discipleship in the Old Testament, Part 1

Having looked at the Latin origins of the English word disciple, we would do well also to examine the Old Testament roots of the concept. Do we have any examples of discipleship in the Old Testament? We do, but they are rather sparse and provide only a little insight into what being a disciple means. I have searched pretty thoroughly and can only find four Old Testament passages that would seem to have any relevance for our attempt to define “disciple.”

Three of these passages are found in the Book of Isaiah, and two of the passages use one Hebrew adjective in an absolute construction (that means the adjective is used alone without reference to an associated noun and thus takes on some of the force of a noun). The Hebrew adjective is limmud, which is derived from the Hebrew verb lamad, which means to learn, to be trained, or to teach. The adjective is used in the plural form twice in Isaiah 50:4. At the beginning of the verse, translators are all over the board in their rendering the concept in English. Most have added “me” after “the Lord God has given” to apply the verse either to Isaiah or to the Messiah. What the Lord has given is interpreted as “the tongue of a teacher” (NRSV), “an instructed tongue” (NIV), “the tongue of disciples” (NASB), or “the tongue of the learned” (KJV). “My” is added again at the end of the verse; and limmud is rendered “those who are taught,” (NRSV), “one being taught” (NIV), “a disciple” (NASB), or “the learned” (KJV). My attempt to translate the verse literally, using “instructed” for limmud, is, “The Lord God has given an awakening word to a tongue instructed to know, to sustain a weary one. In the morning, in the morning, he awakened the ear to hear as the instructed.” I would have omitted this verse altogether except for the fact that the NASB used the words “disciples” and “disciple” to translate limmud in this verse. Since the word is a plural adjective in an absolute construction, none of the attempts at translation are very good renderings, including my own. At the most, this verse says that both those who speak and those who listen need an attitude of disciplined attention to God’s voice.

Isaiah 8:16 also employs the word limmud, but in this case the possessive pronoun “my” is attached to the absolute adjective construction. All four translations we looked at previously use “my disciples” in this context. Here the disciples (those who are learned, instructed, or trained) appear to be disciples of the prophet Isaiah, and their charge (indicated by Hebrew imperatives) is twofold: “bind up the testimony” (that is, preserve the prophetic teaching) and “seal the teaching” (literally “seal the Torah,” that is, affix an attesting seal upon the divine instruction given to the people of God). This is an initial idea that finds full expression later among the rabbis, where the disciple’s primary role is to preserve and pass on the teachings of the rabbi.

The foundational elements found in limmud, therefore, emphasize disciplined attention to the voice of the teacher and a charge to preserve diligently the teacher’s instruction. We hear echoes of these ideas in John 10, where Jesus is “the good shepherd” whose sheep know him, listen to his voice (cf. “wakens my ear to listen like one being taught,” Isaiah 50:4), and follow him.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Et tu, Brute?

Ok, I admit it. I’ve discovered that catchy titles to my blog posts bring in more readers. So instead of the staid “Defining ‘Disciple’ #2: The Latin Roots,” I went for something more appealing. The more immediate question is, “Why are you concerned about ‘Latin roots’ in the first place?” After all, the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Jesus and his disciples likely spoke Aramaic. Why a concern for Latin?

The reason is that the English word disciple derives from the Latin root discipulus. Since we used that Latin-base word in our translations, we need to establish the essence of what we are saying in English so that we can compare our interpretative translation against the Greek standard. Have you ever wonder if “disciple” is a good translation of what Jesus was saying? If not, here’s an opportunity to probe behind our English translations and try to recover what discipleship meant to Jesus and his followers.

“Disciple” basically means “a learner.” That same Latin word also provides the basis for the Latin word disciplina, from which the English word discipline is derived. These two Latin words provide a foundation for our beginning attempts to define and understand discipleship. While we can learn in many ways, the Latin roots for disciple imply that the source of learning is a teacher. Though much learning, instruction, and disciplining take place in the home under parental guidance, disciple steps beyond the parent-child instruction into the intentional instruction of a teacher. The learner or “disciple,” therefore, is associated with the teacher as a pupil and, by extension, is a recipient of the teacher’s instruction.

Because of our current educational system, we probably need to acknowledge that the Latin origins have more similarity to the one-room schoolhouse than to contemporary educational practices that involve an academy with many teachers and numerous specialties. Even with that focus, however, the image of a schoolhouse or a designated building devoted to instruction would be misleading. Many teachers or rabbis taught in open forums and public places, the colonnade (often interpreted as “courts” in contemporary translations) of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem being one of the more familiar locations (cf. Luke 2:46; Matt. 21:23; 26:55; Mark 12:35; Luke 20:1; 21:37; John 7:28; 18:20). The last reference in John 18:20 reminds us that another central location of teaching in Jesus’ day was the synagogue. Of course, we also see the role of public forums in marketplaces in Paul’s missionary work.

If you check an English dictionary for the meaning of “disciple,” you will find that our English understanding actually has been expanded for the original derivation of the word. The initial focus was on teaching, but the meaning has been expanded in two directions. The first is the addition of the idea of being a follower of a teacher, and that is extended to include the idea of being an adherent to a school of thought initiated by a teacher. The “following” idea certainly is a reflection of Jesus’ call, and that has been added to the meaning of “disciple” as a by-product of the influence of the use of the word disciple in the English Bible. What this means is that we have altered the original meaning of “disciple” to accommodate the biblical terminology, and the original word “disciple” by itself was too centered on the idea of instruction to represent the best understanding of Christian discipleship.

The Great Commission’s emphasis on “make disciples” certainly goes way beyond making students or learners. We must go deeper to find a well-rounded understanding of what discipleship means.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Defining “Disciple” #1: Our Task

When defining biblical terms, I usually combine two approaches. I examine the meaning of the English term and its derivation so that I can understand the nuances in the contemporary usage and in the proper definitions of the word. I also probe the meaning of the word from its Hebrew or Greek origins, examining both the lexical and the contextual aspects of the word’s meaning. Most exegetes and theologians seem to think that we should begin with the biblical language and move toward the contemporary expression of the biblical term. Occasionally, however, I find it appropriate to begin with our English word and to “correct” its meaning in the specific biblical context. In reality, words whether in English or in a biblical language have a range of meanings that only can be deciphered in their specific contexts.

In defining “disciple,” however, we run into a not uncommon problem. Our English word derives from a Latin root and has no connection with the original biblical languages. This generally means that we have to build an interpretative bridge that focuses on the distinguishing nuances between the languages. In such cases our English word can also have both continuity with and disjunction from its original root in its derivation. These issues open up a gold mine for biblical exegetes, but they often become onerous for the layperson who just wants to know “what it means.”

At the risk of becoming onerous, I think it is appropriate to explore the meaning of “disciple” thoroughly, especially since I have posed “making disciples” as the central and defining task of the church. In addition, the “Making Disciples” Chart has “disciple” in the center of the five stages through which we pass in developing the integrity of our faith. It is the central expression of how we respond to God’s grace. My next few posts will tackle the task of defining “disciple” and will seek to gain an understanding of what discipleship means for us as individuals, for the church, and for our personal relationship with God.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

“Come and follow me.” Jesus

God’s initiative of grace introduces us to a kind of self-discovery. First, God’s grace brings us into a community of faith, which I have called “the family of God.” Within that family, we discover that we have the opportunity to enter into a personal and intimate relationship with God that gives us a standing similar to that of adopted children. All that Jesus enjoyed as the unique Son of God becomes ours as we are adopted and become joint heirs with Christ. These divine initiatives remind us that grace is the central element both in our relationship with God and in our understanding of ourselves as God’s children.

The nature of grace is such that, once it is offered, it still must be accepted. Grace is not forced on us. God can offer us the support and blessing of a community of the faithful, but we must choose to embrace the community that offers to embrace us. God can offer us the privileges and intimacies of being a child of God, and the grace and love of that offer can transform the way each of us view ourselves; but that offer of a new relationship and a new status must be accepted.

The beckoning of God to us takes the form of an invitation to respond to grace. Words like “come” and “follow me” set the response to grace in the context of becoming a disciple of Jesus. We do not choose so much as we are chosen; but God’s choosing is an invitation to live, to learn, and to walk each day in the footsteps of the Son. Jesus becomes our teacher, our guide, our coach, our “big brother.” We become his students, his followers, his team members, his disciples. All of this is our response to grace. It is our RSVP to God’s invitation. It is our acceptance of Jesus’ call to “come and follow me.”

Ultimately discipleship is a response to Jesus’ invitation to “come and be like me” (Christlikeness). That ultimate goal begins in our repentance and acceptance of grace. In the days ahead we will explore discipleship’s beginnings (column 4 in the “Making Disciples” Chart) as answers to our fundamental needs (column 1) for discovering the full and abundant life that Christ offers those who follow him.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Grace and Its Obligations

Once we have experienced grace in the embrace of the family of God and have discovered through grace that we are children of God, we encounter another truth. Relationships cannot be one-sided. You cannot be the member of a family and always be on the taking end of the family experience. At some point you must become a contributing member of the family. The gracious gifts you receive must be reciprocated or returned, not merely out of obligation, but out of love. Being family is not all about me; it is all about “we.” A child in the family, whether in the family by birth or adoption, cannot always be a “dependent.” At some point the child must become a contributing member of the family.

Many have spoken of the gospel as both gift and demand. Grace creates obligation, and that obligation becomes a burden only when the recipients think that grace is the obligation owed to them rather than a love-gift that is undeserved and unmerited. The selfish and self-centered child who receives but never gives, who wants but never contributes, who demands but never volunteers, becomes a tyrant in the family. The tyrant will try to control and manipulate the rest of the family to get his or her own way. The parents in the family and the King in the family of God will become the servant of the child’s whims and ambitions. The first thing we must learn as recipients of grace is that, although grace is freely given and unmerited, grace carries with it expectations. Grace that doesn’t transform us into people of grace will leave us as demanding, self-centered tyrants, always receiving and never giving.

This is the reason that the first step in becoming a disciple is repentance (column 4, row 2 in the “Making Disciples” Chart). Grace is the first experience, but repentance is the first response to grace. Repentance is the change of mind and heart that acknowledges that the self-centered “I” is actually a rejection of grace rather than an acceptance of grace. It acknowledges that grace has embraced us but we have not embraced grace. It recognizes that the grace that was freely given was undergirded with sacrifice. It discovers that all the blessings and gifts we have received were not deserved or earned. It reminds us that the family embraced us when we were mere “nothings” and that a gracious God called each of us “my child” when we were strangers to the Almighty’s purposes and will. Repentance is the first step in becoming teachable. It is turning from the path of self-centeredness and selfish ambition to new way called discipleship. It is opening ourselves to the instruction of God, to the transformation that God expects, and to the invitation to walk in the path of the “perfect Child” who showed us by his life and death what being a disciple really means. Repentance is recognizing a grace whose love is so amazing, so divine, that it demands my soul, my life, my all.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Grace and Spiritual Gifts

One of the things we discover about ourselves through our encounter with God’s grace and through our discovery that we are children of God is that God has gifted each of us in a unique and intentional way. I have called this “the bestowal of spiritual gifts” in the “Making Disciples” Chart. I view the purpose of these gifts as equipping and enabling us as children of God to serve God, the church, and the world. As part of the family of God, each of us is a child of God who has been specially endowed and equipped to serve within the family or, as Paul designates it, within “the body of Christ.”

We use a number of terms to describe this endowment—gift, talent, function, and calling among others; but we do face some confusion about this giftedness because the Scriptures contain several strains in its focus on God’s investment in us and our endowment with gifts and abilities. Beyond that, we also face questions about whether these are (1) special gifts given after our “conversion” and incorporation into the family of God, (2) are innate gifts with which we were endowed at birth, or (3) are abilities developed along the way through training and experience.

I place spiritual gifts within the scope of God’s initiative of grace focused on both the family of faith and the individual child of God who is part of that family. As we individually discover that each of us is a child of God, we discover both our uniqueness and our connectedness. The uniqueness is the recognition that we are individuals distinctly created by God, not copies stamped out of some master mold. While it is true that we have some genetic heritage from our parents, we still are unique individuals—even if we have an identical twin. God makes us special, and in our uniqueness are imprinted clues to God’s purposes and intentions for us.

I think we can make a Scriptural case for at least three aspects of spiritual gifts. The first is the innate abilities with which we are endowed at birth. This is a unique endowment drawn from the mystery of our conception, our genes, and our birth. God makes us special, and in our specialness is a stewardship that we owe to God to be all that we were made to be.

The second is what I would call “Kingdom assets.” I have drawn this category from the teachings of Jesus, where the king, the landowner, or the master makes some special investment in those under his authority. These “investments” are to be used and multiplied for the benefit of the king. Neglect, misuse, and the selfish waste of these gifts are the dangers associated with our accountability.

The third aspect draws from Paul’s focus on the distinct role or functions of the parts of the body. Though the parts may all come from the same stem cells, they each have distinct roles and functions that work together when the body flourishes. When the parts fail to fulfill their functions or fight against each other, the body is diseased and dysfunctional.

In our discovery that each of us is a child of God, we discover that God has given, invested, and entrusted something unique and special in each of us. The family has no other member exactly like me. The body has no other part just like me. God has graciously gifted me with the opportunity to be a unique child in God’s family, but the family and God’s purposes will suffer if I fail to respond to God’s grace—which is where we are heading as we move to column 4 in the “Making Disciples” Chart.

Allen Pote penned these lyrics, which I think underscores today’s post: “Many gifts, one Spirit; many songs, one voice; many reasons, one promise; many questions, one choice. . . . Take our many ways of working, blend the colors of each soul into the beauty of a rainbow. Give us life, Lord; make us whole.”

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Gift of the Holy Spirit

Before we begin to probe more deeply our response to God’s grace as disciples, I want to touch on two other aspects of God’s grace that relate to our identity as children of God: the gift of the Holy Spirit and the bestowal of spiritual gifts. In some ways these gifts are integral to the discovery of our new identity as children of God, and in other ways they are connected to the response we begin to make to God’s grace as disciples. Let’s focus today on God’s giving to us the Holy Spirit (in essence the gift of God’s very presence with us).

In the “Making Disciples” Chart I have called the Holy Spirit the Paraclete. The English word “Paraclete” is derived from a compound Greek word that literally means “one who is called along side another” for the particular purpose of providing aid. Interestingly, the word has two applications, one focused on the person needing aid (where the emphasis is on inviting, summoning, calling for, requesting, imploring, or appealing for aid) and the other focused on the agent who provides aid (who urges, exhorts, encourages, comforts, cheers up, or consoles). Since I have placed the Paraclete under God’s initiative of grace, I am emphasizing the giving of aid at this point; but obviously one fundamental aspect of our human needs (column 1 in the chart) is a recognition that we need aid and assistance from beyond ourselves.

A major portion of evangelical Christianity puts the primary focus on the Holy Spirit’s role in convicting us of sin. For some reason, many Christians seem to feel that we must convince people that they are lost sinners before we can invite them to grace. The Holy Spirit’s initial role is to get inside us and show us what dirty, rotten scoundrels we really are. The Holy Spirit is an external “Convicter” rather than an internal Conscience.

I have been giving a different take on this issue. I believe we all begin with uncertainty about who we are. I believe we all have deep uncertainties about whether we are lovable in any way. We have deep longings to be loved and accepted, and much of the angst we feel (particularly in adolescence) is focused on a low level of self-esteem and a high level of despair that we really may not be lovable at all. I don’t think people need to be convinced of the bad news that they are out of sorts with life. I think they need to hear that they are unique individuals created in the image of God, called by God into the family of faith, and loved so deeply by a gracious God that they can be God’s children. Salvation is more a sense of being flooded with the overwhelming awareness of a gracious love than being convinced that I am a poor, unworthy sinner desperately in need of some Greater Power in my life.

God’s very presence with us is the ultimate expression of grace. The very presence actually became flesh in Jesus, but the very presence is still available to us in the form of the Paraclete. The Holy Spirit, the Helper, the Comforter is God’s present Gift that reminds us of and keeps us connected to the Ultimate Gift in the incarnation. The Paraclete is the evidence that God’s love and grace are present with us and that we not only are part of a family of beloved ones, each of us is a son or daughter of a gracious and loving God.

God’s initiative toward us comes through grace, love, and presence. Judgment comes, not because of who or what we are, but because of the grace, love, and presence we refuse to accept. The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, is the gift of grace in this very moment and in each moment of each day of each year of our lives. The Paraclete is the constant reminder that I am a beloved child of God, a joint-heir with Christ, and a recipient of a grace that compels a response.

Friday, January 7, 2011

When God Gets Personal

At some point our relationship with God must get personal. While we can draw strength and encouragement from our corporate experiences with other believers, discipleship cannot deepen without God going one-on-one with us. That personal interaction will be distinct or unique with each person. Since I have shared with you my experience in making a profession of faith, I want to focus today on my one-on-one with God. I have never shared this experience publicly before, and I don’t intend to imply that it is a standard by which you should measure your own experience with God. It is solely a part of my pilgrimage of faith.

I ended my post on January 3 with the statement that “It took three or so years before I began to recognize that there was more to this business of being saved than I had realized.” My story picks up again at the age of thirteen or so. I say “or so” because I don’t have a specific date or age in my memory; I only have a personal experience. Quite frankly, the memory is embedded in two lasting impressions that have continued to influence my personal understanding about God’s relationship with me as an individual. The two impressions are the warmth of God’s love for me personally and God’s knowledge of me personally.

The season was winter. I was at home alone. The house seemed cold and chilled to me; and although my father frowned upon our fiddling with the thermostat on our home’s gas furnace, I turned the thermostat higher. As I was walking back toward the living room in our house, I “heard” a voice that sounded somewhat like my father say, “Michael.” One word only. That was it.

The tone of the voice was not reprimanding; it was beckoning. I did a quick search to make sure that my father was not actually in the house; and then a sudden sensation swept over me that was simply this. God had spoken my name. God knows my name. God knows me individually and personally. And then the new sensation of warmth in the house surrounded me, and I sensed that God loves me and cares for me.

This was no Samuel-in-the-Tabernacle kind of experience. It didn’t happen three times; in fact, it has never happened again. But I have never felt it needed to happen again, because it taught me something that through the years has become the foundation of my faith and of my relationship with God. Karl Barth often is quoted as saying that the greatest truth he ever knew was learned in the song he sang as a child, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” This was more than the Bible telling me so. It was more like the President of the United States walking up to you and calling you by name. God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, knows my name.

Through the years this personal experience has gained further dimensions and taken new shapes. If God knows my name, God must have a purpose for me and my life. If God loves me, God must be working to bring about good in even the most difficult circumstances in my life. When God gets personal with you, it changes your life.

Some who have never had a personal encounter with God might poke fun at giving such importance to such a childish experience. For others, your personal encounter likely was much different. Maybe your voice of God came through a sermon you heard, a Bible passage you read, or a word from a concerned friend. How it happens doesn’t really matter. The truth is that some kind of personal experience with God will move you from the corporate experience in the family of God to the personal experience of recognizing that you yourself are a child of God. God knows you personally. God loves you. That personal one-on-one brings you to the point where you realize that you must make some kind of personal response to God’s grace. You must become a disciple.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I’m a Child of the King

At some point in our faith experience, discipleship must become personal. It must expand from corporate life and experiences in the family of God into something very personal, individual, and private. The corporate experience (being part of the family of God) is an important setting for faith development; but when it becomes the only experience—that is, when attendance, group study and worship, fellowship activities, and even ministries are all social events—discipleship will not deepen into a personal and transformative experience. Until we begin to focus on ourselves as individuals in personal relationship with God, the experience of God’s grace will not touch us at the deepest levels of our being. Isn’t it ironic that the things we value most about our church experiences can end up being a detriment to our personal growth as disciples?

Just as all that God is was focused through the incarnation in one person, Jesus Christ, so all that we are and all God hopes for us to be is focused on us as individuals. Our personal experiences with God’s grace are what truly transform our self-understandings, our natures, our very beings. The personal transformation begins in the personal experience of redemption—God through Christ redeems us from our selfishness and sinful ways. The evangelical tradition emphasizes this personal redemption strongly, but too often it focuses more on what we are saved from than what we are saved to. When that happens, redemption becomes an escape from the bad consequences of sin rather than an escape to a new level of self-understanding about our relationship with God and our lives lived in personal relationship with God.

To me, the most powerful image of this personal transformation is centered in each of us becoming a child of God. Think for a moment about John’s affirmation that Jesus was God’s one and only son. Do you recognize the significance of the gospel’s affirmation that you too can entered into that kind of relationship as a son or daughter of God? What Jesus was in terms of his one-and-only exclusive relationship with God is exploded into the potential of whosoever will may become a child of God.

Adoption holds a special place in my heart since two of our daughters are adopted and were adopted before we birthed our third daughter. Because of our personal experience with adoption, the biblical expression of our being adopted as sons and daughters of God is a powerful one to me. Just think! We are granted the same relationship with God that Jesus has. Not only are we children of God, we are joint-heirs with Christ. That idea produced the title of today’s post, which I drew from the old gospel song: “I’m a child of the King, a child of the King. With Jesus, my Savior, I’m a child of the King.”

The corporate experience of “we are children of the Heavenly Father” is one dimension of faith that is important and helps us to build community. But the transformative experience doesn’t come through the community experience. It comes from the individual, private, personal experience of grace when we discover, “I’m a child of the King!”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Individualization of the Family of God

An accepting and affirming community is an important ingredient in personal development. This is true regardless of what we call that community: a family, a church, a class, a gang, a fraternity or sorority, a team, a club, or some other name. Some sense of identity, some perception of being valued and loved, some sense of acceptance and affirmation, some recognition of achievements and contributions, and even some sense of leaving a legacy can be garnered within any community. A community, however, can also have inhibiting influences. Personal identity can be restrained by the insistence on conformity. Failure to conform can result in isolation, separation, or banishment from the community. Achievement can be measured by the contributions that are narrowly focused on the community’s wellbeing. Legacies can be achieved by unusual loyalty to the community, its existence, and its values. These inhibiting influences are as true of churches as they are of gangs or any other exclusive grouping.

While some people may be content with a corporate identity that inhibits or restrains, personal development cannot progress without each member developing some kind of individual identity within the community. Some degree of individualization, some sense of otherness, and some kind of separation must be blended with a sense of inter-connectedness if each individual is to reach a level of purposeful existence (reflect here on 1 Corinthians 12). The grace that brings us into the community must be supplemented by a grace that allows each individual to develop a distinct self-understanding. Individuals must perceive that they are valued as distinct individuals, that they are individually gifted for some kind of unique contribution, and that they are special in who they are and what they do.

The same kinds of opportunities and restraints are at work in making disciples. Individuals find their places in the community, but some degree of individualization must take place if a disciple is to grow and develop in Christlikeness. Column 3 in the “Making Disciples” Chart attempts to address that need for individualization. It begins with a focus on individual identity as exhibited in the miracle of the incarnation. God chose to become personal by indwelling one individual life in the historic family of God that stretched back to Abraham. God’s identity was no longer inhibited by the identity of a community of faith with its opportunities and its restraints. The people of God, the family of faith, the representatives of God before the nations, were not cast aside. They still had a role to play in God’s plan. By indwelling human flesh, however, God initiated a new humanity that benefitted from its historic corporate identity but was no longer restrained by its limitations. In one individual God showed us what being human was truly about. God established a new goal for each of God’s creatures made in God’s image. That goal was to live the truly human life that Jesus lived. Becoming like Jesus—Christlikeness—was the new model. Identity, love, acceptance, achievement, legacy, and integrity received new definitions through the incarnate Word made flesh dwelling among us.

Restraints had to be removed, and God acted to redeem humanity from its restraints. That redemption was costly, for it meant that the one Model of true humanity laid down his life to show God’s deep love for all humanity—and thereby true humanity was redefined for all of us. A “New Covenant” of grace invited all people—and invites each individual—into a personal relationship with a loving God. This kind of relationship cannot be established through group-think, community decision, or corporate activity. It is as individual and as personal as the one true human through whom God showed love, redemption, and grace. Only as an individual can you enter into this kind of personal relationship with God and become a child of God.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Is Love Really the Theme?

In 1913, Albert C. Fisher wrote a gospel song that became a favorite for many believers. Its title was “Love Is the Theme.” I’ve been thinking about that song recently as I have gone through one of my occasional reality checks. I often find that when something seems to be playing an increasingly important role in my thinking, I benefit by stepping back and asking myself, “Is this the whole truth?” I’m in one of those reflective times today as I step back and review my “Making Disciples” Chart.

Whether or not you have seen my chart, if you have been following my blog, you know that love is a central element in my conceptualization of what being a disciple involves. I have focused on love as one of the six central needs in people’s lives. With an emphasis on a grace that reflects God’s love for us, my entire focus on how we enter into the family of God and how we discover that we are children of God has been deeply founded on love. My entire conception of how we are to respond to God’s grace has drawn from Jesus’ answer to the question about the greatest commandment. His summary was to love God and love neighbor. The questions for the moment are these: Is love really the most important and central issue in the Christian faith? Where in the task of making disciples have you reflected things like God’s justice, righteousness, holiness, and wrath? Yesterday’s post about my experience in making a profession of faith seemed rather critical of the evangelist’s approach to S-I-N, but have my own perspectives ignored the seriousness of sin by focusing so exclusively on love? Is love really the theme, or is this one of those theologically liberal smokescreens that doesn’t want to deal fully with the whole Bible and some of its fundamental truths? Love is a strong Johannine emphasis in the New Testament, but is it a universal emphasis?

My internal critic’s voice says, “Major portions of the Bible say nothing about love.” (Actually “love” or “loved” is used in 58 of the 66 books. It absence from Ruth, 2 Kings, Esther, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Haggai would not seem significant; though the absence in Acts might be.) “There’s nothing in the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, or the Lord’s Prayer about love.” (Actually, Exodus 20:6 speaks of God’s love; love is a significant part of the Sermon on the Mount to which the Beatitudes are the introduction; and the Lord’s Prayer is immediately followed by a call to forgiving others because God has forgiven you—an expression of love.) “The gospel is both gift and demand—you’ve over-emphasized the gift and ignored the demand.” (Actually, I haven’t. I just think that fully recognizing the gift should precede the demand. The demands arise in column 4 and are strengthened in columns 5 and 6 of the “Making Disciples” Chart.)

I confess to some continuing discomfort about the harsher elements of the biblical message. I think we should take God’s holiness seriously, even to the point of avoiding such loose and vain expressions as “OMG.” With my own sense of “wrath” about many things I see happening in our society and our world, I have no doubt that God’s wrath is real and even greater than my own. Maybe I am not as consciously focused on the sin in my life as I should be, and maybe repentance is not a regular enough expression of my sense of inadequacies as it should be; but I sense that God is more interested in my improvement than in my reproof.

Maybe I am oversimplifying, but I think Jesus offered grace to the sinners and judgment to the self-righteous. The latter were so incensed that Jesus did not condemn the sinners and commend the “righteous” that they excluded themselves from hearing his offer of grace. If my identification of the basic human needs (column 1 of the “Making Disciples” Chart) is correct, salvation involves discovering your identity in the family of God and as a child of God. Being loved means discovering that God created you, chose you, and acted through Christ to redeem you because you matter to God. Those are the beginning points of making disciples, I think. We are invited to a new understanding of ourselves as the objects of God’s love and grace. We don’t need to be torn down, convicted of our sinfulness and inadequacies, and scared into the kingdom by the impending certainty of judgment. We really just need love—pure, sincere, selfless, forgiving, inviting, blessing, embracing love. I guess love really is the theme, the eternal theme.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Faith as Status or Relationship?

When I was 10 years old, I made a profession of faith and was baptized in the church that was the “Family of God” in my life at that time. The circumstances might help us answer the question posed in the title of today’s post.

The church held a spring revival with a visiting evangelist. On the final Sunday morning of the revival, an evangelistic service was held for children and youth in the church auditorium during the Sunday School hour. As I recall, the evangelists did a chalk talk about “sin,” using each letter in the word to represent a kind of sin that would condemn us to hell. The letter “S” was turned into a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe and represented the sin of smoking. That wasn’t one of my particular weaknesses, but the “warning” was issued loud and clear for those who did, who were thinking about it, or who might someday think about it. The letter “I” was expanded with a curved top and became a champagne glass. This was accompanied by a corresponding warning of the evils of alcohol, which also wasn’t on my radar; but I understood the warning. By the time the evangelist got to the letter “N,” I must have tuned him out. I never can remember what he did with that letter, unless he said something about sex. That must not have been an issue for me either—since I obviously was drifting by this point in his chalk talk.

At the end of the chalk talk, the evangelist began his invitation to “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.” Now before I get to that, I need to set the context in which I found myself. For some reason when I came into the auditorium, I had separated from my fellow ten-year-olds and had taken a seat right in the middle of a group of “intermediates,” who were sitting on the third or fourth row from the front of the auditorium. These were “good” seats because we could see the chalk talk well. I still remember that on my left was David Costner, one of the tallest guys I knew all the way through my years in school. David must have been 14 or 15 years old, and he probably wasn’t yet to his full adult height; but he was plenty tall to me.

In his invitation, the evangelist had each of us to close our eyes (so that we were focusing on ourselves and God exclusively). Then, to get things rolling and to see the true needs in the group, the evangelist had everyone who already was a Christian to stand. If you had made a public profession of your faith and been baptized, you obviously were past the concerns of S-I-N and were already A-OK with God. So all of the “saved” stood up and symbolically said so. Now I know I was supposed to have my eyes shut, but I sneaked a peek anyway. Everyone on my row and everyone on the row in front of me was standing! I remember looking way up at tall David Costner; and maybe I’m just imagining it now, but I think he took a little disdainful peek at me. While S-I-N might not have convicted me of my breach with God, I certainly sensed a breach with everyone standing around me. They were in fact my family of God, but I now realized that I wasn’t really a part of them.

Next the evangelist asked that those who would like to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior to stand. In my 10-year-old mind, I really had no doubt that someday I would like to accept Jesus as my Savior. That’s what “would like” meant to me—“would like at some appropriate time in the future.” And so I stood up. Immediately the evangelist told all of us who had stood up to come down front and sit on the first row in the middle. We had just been “saved.” I couldn’t very well sit back down. All those intermediates sitting around me would know what I had done; and the evangelist might even see me sit back down and embarrass me by calling me to get back up and come forward. In a quandary about my “decision,” I joined a group of six or seven who made their way down front.

Our counseling about our decisions consisted of telling us to come forward at the invitation during the worship service that would follow. Then we were dismissed. I knew something was awry about what I had done. I had been tricked; and in my mind, I could see no way to undo the deed. When the service was over, I immediately sought the comfort and counsel of my mother, making my way back to the regular place where she and my dad regularly sat during worship services. I was weeping when I saw her. She may have misunderstood my weeping. Maybe she thought I was under conviction for my sin, when I really was confused because I had been manipulated into making a decision that I recognized was subtly coerced. Mom hugged me, sat me down beside her, and encouraged me that everything was OK. I had done a “good” thing. If Mom thought it was “good,” who was I to argue? So when the invitation was given at the end of the morning worship service, the Spirit had a great outpouring as six or seven came forward to accept Christ as their Savior—and I was one of them.

When I was baptized a few weeks later, I was back in the “Family of God.” I was a part of something “good.” I did not yet have a sense of being a “Child of God,” and I certainly wasn’t yet a disciple of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, too many of us grow static at just this very point in our spiritual development. We’ve moved into a “status” where we are “saved,” but we haven’t perceived a call into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We are in the “family,” but we are not yet fully “children of God” whose identities have been changed by grace, redemption, the work of the Spirit, and a personal relationship with God that enables committed service as a disciple. It took three or so years before I began to recognize that there was more to this business of being saved than I had realized.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

In and Out of the Family of God

Having been reared in a family that chose to be associated with the evangelical Baptist tradition, I faced as a child the push to make a personal decision to be associated with the family of God. In the same context, however, I was part of a Boy Scout troop that was sponsored by an Episcopal church, where the more liturgical tradition assumed association with the family of God and stressed that teenagers should “confirm” their faith at some point. Both traditions emphasized personal association with the family of God, but the means of entry were in sharp contrast.

My evangelical background nurtured me in the faith until it suddenly decided to exclude me from the safety of the community and demanded that I must make an individual and personal choice to “join” the family. I almost wrote “rejoin” here. Although I had been embraced by the community through my preschool and early elementary school years, the lack of my having made a “personal decision” to be a disciple of Jesus suddenly pushed me out of the family temporarily. The nurturing community that had loved and embraced me suddenly told me that I was a sinner on the way to hell unless I repented of my sins and accepted the love that God had shown for me through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and the emphasis was on the death of Jesus, since my sins were so severe that they required an atoning sacrifice of supreme significance. The Jesus who loved me (because the Bible told me so) was at least temporarily displaced by an angry God who was incensed by my ten-year-old life of sinfulness; and I was on my way to hell unless I repented and was converted.

The liturgical tradition (that I witnessed but of which I was not a part) assumed the continuity of the association with the family of God, and its “confirmation” was secured by a series of educational experiences that “explained” the association and pretty much assumed that your had “adopted” the faith in which you had been reared. A strong emphasis was not placed on the radical decision to leave behind the faith of your father and mother and “take up your cross and follow Jesus.”

Quite frankly, I am not 100% comfortable with either of these traditions. The evangelical tradition divides the religious experience as sharply as the Old Testament is divided from the New Testament, but I think it is right in emphasizing the role of personal decision in becoming a disciple. The liturgical tradition provides more continuity in the religious experience, but the confirmation process seems deficient in eliciting a truly personal decision. I have tried in the “Making Disciples” Chart to emphasize the continuity of an experience in the family of God that is not disrupted by a sudden and arbitrary exclusion but rather builds on the developmental transition that occurs naturally in adolescence. I hold both of these under the umbrella of “God’s grace,” but I emphasize the shift of identity that comes when we transition from the family orientation of childhood to the individualized self-understanding that emerges in adolescence. The “family of God” transitions into a recognition that each of us is a “child of God.” The transition is not a disruption of grace; it is an extension of a grace that loves me in the family and loves me individually.

(NOTE: The “Making Disciples” chart that attempts to depict this transition is available to you via email. Send an email request for a copy to:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Reflections on My First Experiences with God's Grace

I cannot think of a better time than New Year’s Day to reflect back upon my own personal experience with the grace of God. The “Making Disciples” Chart reflects in many ways the experiences that I have had and the goals that still stand before me in my striving to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. None of us has a “perfect” experience in any aspect of our development as disciples. If your experience is like mine, discipleship began in a particular family of God. My family is called the L. O. Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama (now simply called “Dawson”).

I do not have any recollections of experiences in church prior to my family’s move to Birmingham following World War II. When I was born in 1943, my father (who was almost 34 years old at the time) was on the verge of deploying with the Army Engineering Corps to the Pacific Theater. My first recollection of him was when he returned home after the war ended. My mother and I met him at the train station in Birmingham. Up until that time, I was the only “man” I knew about in my mother’s life; but suddenly, here was another man hugging and kissing her—and in public! After his release from the service, Dad returned to his job with US Steel in Birmingham, but we lived with my Grandmother in Childersburg. Dad drove every day to the Fairfield Plant in Birmingham (it would probably be an hour's drive today under optimal conditions); so even though Dad was “around,” I rarely saw him. To complicate things and to facilitate a quicker move to Birmingham, Dad reached an agreement with my Uncle Cecil in Birmingham to help him build a garage apartment behind my uncle’s house. What free time my Dad had was consumed by that project. Needless to say, I did not see much of my father until after we actually moved into the garage apartment in the Homewood section of Birmingham.

While Dad was overseas, my mother and I lived in several locations: Childersburg, Talladega, and Sylacauga. I am sure we must have attended churches in Childersburg and Sylacauga during that time. My mother’s family was active at First Baptist Church in Childersburg. My aunt was church treasurer there from the 1920s (I don’t know exactly when she “retired,” but I suspect she served in that capacity for at least 60 years). Mom and Dad had been married in that church, and I am sure we attended there. Much of the time while my Dad was away, however, we lived with my Aunt Irma and Uncle Thurman Holt. They had a daughter, Margaret, who is about 4-1/2 months younger than I am. During the first three years of my life, Margaret was like a sister to me. Thurman was a deacon at First Baptist Church in Sylacauga, so I am sure we must have attended that church as well.

My first memory of church may seem a strange one. My family and I had attended a worship service at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. As we were leaving after the service, the pastor of the church, “Brother Edwards” (as I recall), was standing at the door. I’m not sure what he said or what he did, but I have a distinct remembrance of the attention he focused on me and the welcome he made me feel at that church. That initial welcome to the family of faith had a positive impact upon our family. Mom and Dad joined the church; and Dad, who had grown up in the Presbyterian Church, was baptized by immersion at a nearby Presbyterian Church so that he could become a member of Dawson. This church became the “family of God” for me for almost 20 years and continued to shape me beyond the days of my membership. There I became one of God’s “chosen” as a part of a separate and distinct people serving God in the world.