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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why I Don't Call Myself a Christian Anymore.

 "We tend to think that if Jesus Christ compels us to do something and we are obedient to Him, He will lead us to great success. We should never have the thought that our dreams of success are God's purpose for us. In fact, His purpose may be exactly the opposite. We have the idea that God is leading us toward a particular end or a desired goal, but He is not. The question of whether or not we arrive at a particular goal is of little importance, and reaching it becomes merely an episode along the way. What we see as only the process of reaching a particular end, God sees as the goal itself."

"What is my vision of God's purpose for me? Whatever it may be, His purpose is for me to depend on Him and on His power now. If I can stay calm, faithful, and unconfused while in the middle of the turmoil of life, the goal of the purpose of God is being accomplished in me."

"God's training is for now, not later . . . We have nothing to do with what will follow our obedience, and we are wrong to concern ourselves with it. What people call preparation, God sees as the goal itself. "

      Excerpted from Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (July 28th).

As many of you know, Tricia and I have been up in western Massachusetts since the summer of 2008. We followed Jesus and came to help plant imagine/Northampton, the creative missional church forming in our hearts and minds beginning in early 2007. We were all filled with dreams and ideas of what imagine/Northampton was supposed to become. We talked of it for hours upon hours. We prayed and studied. It took shape in us.

The day finally came when we moved. There were all sorts of unforeseen problems, setbacks and difficulties, but we were here and gradually became a part of the life of this city.

Over the course of the two years here, we weathered all manner the trials and tribulations, some expected and some not. In the midst of it all a subtle change took place. I stopped referring to myself as a Christian and not because people were antagonistic to me because I am one. The word gradually just felt too passive. I saw it similar to calling myself American, Irish, or a McDermott. It described something about me, but didn't capture the dynamic nature of actually following Christ, a dynamism I valued and wanted to characterize my life. A person can be baptized into Christianity and never follow Christ. I realized I wanted my primary identity to be that of a man actually following Christ in the redemptive work he's currently doing in my neck of the woods. Many of the other terms used to identify me are the roles and interests though which I should follow him. Everything I am and do is given to him for his use as his follower. The term Christian was just too pale for what he wants from me which is to step over the line, follow him and never look back.

So I've taken to using the term Jesus-follower. Sometimes I use Christ-follower - nothing wrong with that. However, I prefer Jesus-follower because it captures his becoming human, and I can identify with that: he became one of us that we might become like him. At the same time, I know his being Christ (the Messiah) is a source of great joy and hope to me. It's just that Jesus-follower feels the most intimate term, so I use it more.

With that in mind, I've also begun to come to grips with a simpler, but more true to the heart of God understanding of my following Jesus as a spiritual formation catalyst under imagine/Northampton. I see it as less about the mechanics of planting and growing a church, and more about opening people to the love of God through Jesus and his call on them to truly love others. I'm to obey God in this regardless of whether or not imagine/Northampton sticks. Therefore, the mission is less about growing an organization, and more about helping form an exuberantly loving community of viral Jesus-followers. It has nothing to do with hip programs or innovative artistic expression, and everything to do with being a faithful redemptive subversive in the Kingdom mission God is leading . . . one person at a time. Church for me is not a thing, event or a place, but a salvific stealth movement of unexpected healing, freeing and being included in the most miraculous revolution in the universe.

So I'm seeing I am to follow him and be of use as he invites people to trust and experience his healing love. Then, by his grace and through the leading of his Spirit, I am to help them open to his love so they can learn to love others who have no idea such love exists. It's that simple, I think. Adding to the imagine/Northampton membership rolls is not my prime directive. That's God's prerogative. Following Jesus wholeheartedly and loving what he loves is.

So I'm understanding being a Jesus-follower these days to mean continuing to find what it is to love God with all my heart, and soul, and mind, and strength (holding nothing back i.e., learning to surrender fully), and from the wellspring of his gracious, abundant response, give my days in Northampton to loving others as I would want to be loved. My key question every day has to be: Am I following Jesus today or am I wandering in the jangling confusion of my desires, wants and preferences thus giving myself to "much ado about nothing?" I've been quite good at the latter!

Oswald Chambers in the quote above reminds us that obeying him is the essence of being a Jesus-follower. Listening to his commands and instructions through the Spirit and then going (or sometimes waiting) fulfills his purpose in me, and maybe his purpose through me. I want to learn such obedience and the freedom attendant to it. I want to trust God to such a depth that outcomes do not determine how passionate I will be for obeying him. In other words, if I never see any fruit from my labors here, it will not seem a failure to me because I obeyed, stayed the course and did what was asked of me . . . I followed with all I had.

What about you?


Friday, July 23, 2010

Who'da Thunk It! Playing in a Rock Band Again . . .

Some of you who've been keeping up with imagine/Northampton or this blog know one of our missional strategies is to connect with the artistic community in and around Northampton. Jim LaMontagne (a bass player) and I (a drummer) have been talking about playing with musicians in town. I and we have played with a number of Christian musicians in the area, but we really wanted to hang with players who'd not call themselves Jesus-followers.

Well, lo and behold, we are on our way! We've been  rehearsing together for about a month, learning the songs and getting used to playing with the other guys. The key players are brothers: Mike and Steve Dubuque. We're geezers and 30+ years older than they, but it works. They are veterans of the scene in the area and have been for a number of years. They play guitar and sing. Mike writes most of the songs, although we heard a new one by Steve the other night. Mike comes to imagine and I've known both him and Steve for awhile.

The experience has been copacetic so far. We get along and the music is coming together. We even have gigs lined up in August and beyond. I haven't played regularly in clubs in decades so it will be both a little weird, and interesting to do so again. We're even playing in Northampton at the Iron Horse, and NYC in the fall!

Our goal is to serve the music with skill in the style appropriate to the songs. We want to comport ourselves in the clubs with professionalism and integrity. We also want to get to know folks and let them get to know us. In the long run, we want to love and serve the people we meet, and maybe be able to share the hope that's in us because of Jesus. Doing the music is a platform for the mission (although very indirectly).

So the adventure begins and I'm excited. At 61, I didn't think I would be in a rock band, but here I am. I haven't been in one since my late 20's. God keeps life interesting. I honestly hope not only will it lead to making good music, but Kingdom relationships will result - the reason I am here in the first place.

I would be woefully remiss if I didn't add I'm profoundly grateful to still be playing, and with passion and intelligence. Playing the instrument at all has always been a joy and a privilege.

Thanks God.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts on Being Spiritually Formed and Transformed.

I will be giving a talk on this topic tomorrow at imagine/Northampton. Below is an expansion of what I will say.

"We always thank God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel which has come to you as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing-as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
And so from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

Over the years I have noticed often that Christians can have a tendency to pigeon-hole spiritual formation/transformation into a number of activities, unwittingly making the means the ends. Here are a few examples:
  •  Living spiritually formed and transforming lives is mostly about not sinning, and trying to be good - not doing what God says is wrong. Certainly learning to live wholly unto God includes working on our sin, but it is a freeing dance of grace with God being in the lead that conforms us to the image of Christ over time.
  • Living spiritually formed and transforming lives is mostly about going to church, reading our bibles, having quiet times to pray, being in a small group, writing a check, i.e., doing our religious "duties" faithfully. Again, all of these activities are means by which the Holy Spirit can teach us to know, love God, and walk in his ways, but they do not comprise the essence of our formation.
  • Living spiritually formed and transforming lives is trying to be really spiritual or pious about the things of God: keeping a prayer journal, going on retreats, fasting, writing and observing a Rule of Life, doing Lectio Divina, or having a Spiritual Director. Any and all of them can be efficacious means of grace toward maturity, but they are not the essence.
  • Living spiritually formed and transforming lives is about going on mission trips (now you're really serious about your faithwalk), attending Christian conferences, going to a Christian college, reading Christian books and attending Christian concerts. God shows up in those situations as well, but they only function as doors not the wellspring of our calling to love God with all we are and have.
The wonder and miracle of what Paul writes so exuberantly about in these Colossian opening passages is that living spiritually formed and transforming lives springs from a radical, existential change of the heart, the core of our being - an astonishing revolution in your fundamental nature takes place. You were a spiritual "corpse" and now you are a new creation in Christ: fully alive and loved in him. Your understanding of yourself must open to this new reality, and along with it, your core values and ultimate life choices have to come under your new identity. If you really get what's happened, you know something earth-shattering has occurred and you'll never be the same.

Paul puts it this way by writing the Father has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light, having delivered you from the domain of darkness and transferred you to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Jesus) in whom you have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Monumental change has overtaken you and God did it sovereignly by grace and mercy flowing from abounding love. He is its Beginning and End.

At the split second of this existential change, your primary identity and true nature are birthed and spiritual formation begins, however stumbling it may be at first. Your deepest identity can no longer be contained by your sex, race, country, family of origin, social status, class, politics or power. You've been given a place in an eternal, universal family. You have been summoned to become a Jesus-follower. Paul says it like this: we are to "be filled (fully immersed in), with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God." Our primary identity is to be immersed in relationship with him, knowing him, walking in his ways and working with him in the redemptive Kingdom mission he is completing. If we yield to the Spirit and respond to grace, our transformation deepens over a lifetime

And there are benefits to what has happened to you. Here are a few:

  • The chance to be formed and transformed by having wounds of your heart healed so you are freed to live by faith and love because of the hope which stays and grows in you. It will be an iterative process. Through the Spirit and gifted people summoned to the work of inner healing, you can be gradually released from captivity and the sins of others against you. It can happen at different junctures of your life, but God extends his hand to you time and time again.
  • As you surrender your heart to being formed and transformed by the grace of Christ, you'll notice a growing capacity to trust God and live by faith. It happens through testing and experiencing God's timely faithfulness repeatedly. His word of truth (the Scriptures), gradually helps you increase in the knowledge of him. As you do, you're slowly being strengthened by power to hold fast (endure) to what you believe no matter the adversity or trials you face in life. Acquiring patience with joy through the animating power of God lifts you from being ruled emotionally by your troubling circumstances. You learn to stay the course, regardless.
  • You have the opportunity to be formed and transformed to embrace a life set apart to God (holiness), and his missional Kingdom ways. The incline of your heart can become "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" through loving and serving people, and by so doing, helping them discover this God who is far more than they ever imagined, i.e., "bearing fruit in every good work." Your priorities and deepest desires turn toward the heart of God that it might be known through you.
Tomorrow afternoon, I will ask the following question of the folks gathered at imagine. Perhaps one relates to you or maybe there are others more apropos to your current walk with Jesus. Take a little time to reflect in a quiet place with him - have a conversation and invite him to help you answer:

"Where do you think spiritual formation and transformation still needs to continue in you?"

  1. Your knowledge of who Christ is, what he has done for you, how he relates to you, or how the Kingdom of God works? How to surrender your heart more fully to him and follow more closely?
  2. The wounds of your heart/life still need inner healing?
  3. Learning to live the spiritual disciplines: prayer, worship, study, service, solitude, etc., as means of grace to be more fully formed in him?
  4. Living your faith more transparently and publicly because you long for others to know him?
Perhaps the best way to close is something God said to my wife Tricia in prayer this week:

"To know my will is to know me,

To follow my will is to know my ways,

To be transformed is to know my ways,

To know who I am is to love me and let me love you."