Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's never over

This is a picture of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. On the surface, it looks like an ordinary motel. History, however, tells us this particular motel will be remembered forever. This is the site where Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated so many years ago.

The hotel has been converted into a museum of the Civil Rights Movement, with special emphasis on the events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination. Dr. King was a man with a dream and a plan to see it come to fruition. He was a social justice worker and peacemaker. And we lost him too soon. One thing is certain, though, his legacy lives on.

On the day King was assassinated, two men were with him: Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy. Tony Campolo tells a story about the words these men exchanged when King was shot. Young was the first to reach King and he began to cry aloud, “It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.” Young cries these words as if to say they’d lost, their progress was for nothing, and things would never change. Abernathy, on the other hand, did not share Young’s sentiments. He grabbed Young in his arms and shouted passionately, “It’s never over. This will never be over!”

It’s never over.

Indeed, King’s work and his dreams are not over. His legacy of resilience, peace and nonviolence lives on in the hearts of men and women who dream of a better world. His incredible amount of patience paved the way forward. His life gave us an supreme example of sacrifice and love. His work will never be over.

Perhaps the same is true for our lives. We can resiliently hold on, even when it feels like everything is falling apart. We can echo Abernathy’s words and live like “It’s never over."

Monday, January 17, 2011

How well do you know the Bible?

Remember all of those Bible verses we used to diligently memorize in Sunday school? I do. I vividly remember my childhood Sunday school room displaying a large banner with the names of every student in the class. Next to each of our names was a blank space for a star. Every time we memorized a verse we received a star. This star also translated into a trip to the candy bucket. I loved that candy bucket and was also quite fond of gold stars. Hence, I became a Bible scholar by the fourth grade.

I’ve heard the term “Bible literate” used quite a bit recently. The question asked is: does your church know Scripture? This question is often used to distinguish between churches that really teach Scripture and others who aren’t as in depth in their preaching and teaching. I’ve been thinking about this lately in regards to my church and many others. How well do we know Scripture?

Since I’m a pastor, I tend to listen to a number of sermons every month. It’s always interesting to hear what other churches are preaching on and what I can learn as a communicator from others in my field. There are a number of preachers around. They have their unique styles. Some are insanely creative; others a tad bit boring. But they have one thing in common—they’re teaching from Scripture. Their congregants are listening to them so they can interact with a text. The preaching moment happens on Sunday morning or Saturday night and people come to listen. It doesn’t matter the size of the church. People are coming to hear. How we teach the Scriptures is important.

I heard someone sing a song the other day that listed all 66 books of the Bible in order. It was an assignment they received in their Christian school. They learned a song, so they could know the order of the books of the Bible. I was asked recently if I could recite every book of the Bible in order on the spot. I could not. I got mixed up somewhere in the Minor Prophets. I forgot about Obadiah. This person was shocked that I couldn’t recite the books of the Bible. “I thought you were a pastor,” they said jokingly.

All of this makes me wonder what knowing the Bible means? What are we really getting at when we ask that?  Jesus certainly knew the Scriptures in his day. He quoted from them, taught from them and applied them to his ministry. He certainly had an understanding of the Scriptures, but it was more than that. He understood the Scriptures to be full of life. He embodied them in a way others didn’t.

I’ve heard it said that knowledge is a gateway to action. The more you know, the more you care. I’ve often wondered, though, if the way we talk about “knowing” Scripture can be misleading. Instead of equipping our churches, we’ve left them believing retention and fill-in-the-blank inserts are the key to knowing the Bible. Perhaps many of our congregants who know so much about the Bible, are missing a fundamental insight: what to do with it. We try so often to interpret Scripture, but how often do we allow Scripture to interpret us? We strive to know more, but do we attempt to live out with what we do know?

Is knowing Scripture the same as being changed by it?

I certainly aspire to know the Scriptures. I study them, take courses on them and engage in conversations about them. I desire that my church knows Scripture too. But I also want them to embrace Scripture. Whenever I preach, I’m not looking to simply transfer information. Rather I desire to invite my church to experience transformation.

I have a few students that I disciple on a monthly basis. Some of them want to know more about Scripture, theology and ministry. I’m happy to teach them and help them study Scripture. But my goal is not for them to be the new day Hank Hanegraaff (the Bible answer man). Instead, I hope that in learning about Scripture they would be prompted to do something with it. Because God’s word comes alive when we live with the text.

Here are some ideas that I’m trying to use in order to help my church move beyond the realm of informative and into the realm of transformative:

-Preach sermon series that are focused on a book of the Bible or a particular genre of biblical literature. This way, we have the chance to get a better understanding of a book’s overall message and context. Instead of simply memorizing individual verses, we have a broader understanding of the book as a whole.

-Promote quality Bible reading over quantity. There is something important about meditation and repetition that many of our modern churches miss out on. Liturgy is powerful. Rather than have our church members read chapter after chapter, challenge them to reflect on a smaller portion of Scripture several times a week.

-Allow creativity to intersect with a Bible study. Scripture can inspire us. Can we allow our church’s to react in creativity to the Scriptures through art, music, video, song, dance and craftsmanship? This way, a passage or book becomes alive to an individual.

-Expand the preaching experience. Sometimes we (myself included) put too much emphasis on what happens Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. Preaching and Bible study, though, are not confined to that hour every week. Find ways to broaden the preaching experience. Allow our churches opportunities to live with a text in their world—events, projects, and outings. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Leading or Being Led

I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. John 21:18

There is a difference between “leading” and “being led.” A Christian leader is primarily someone who chooses to be led, instead of leading. It’s an interesting concept. Our culture emphasizes the importance of leading. We crave great leaders who are visionary and charismatic. We search for those who can help us navigate the changing waters of the future and guide us into the unknown. Our world celebrates these types of leaders. Our churches hire these types of leaders. Jesus, however, has a different version of leadership he shares with his people: the art of being led.

Jesus calls us to follow him. We are to be disciples. Learners. Students. Followers. He doesn’t call us to be leaders. He calls us to follow one true leader. Jesus’ version of leadership is to strip away any barrier or position and submit to his way and not our own. Jesus is anti-institution, anti-“The Man” and anti hierarchy. In the gospels, Jesus avoided any kind of conversation that was political or power oriented. When James and John argue about their places in heaven, Jesus talks about the little children. When Jesus is questioned about paying taxes, he doesn’t get caught off guard, but refocuses the attention on serving God, not man. A Christian leader is called to mimic his example (Ephesians 5:1).

Peter was one of the foundational leaders of the Christian movement. By the time we reach the book of Acts, he is leading a great deal. He is bold, strategic and effective. But we shouldn’t forget the advice Jesus gave him before he became this great leader.

John 21 shares a unique scene in Scripture: the reinstatement of Peter. Most scholars believe the twenty-first chapter of John was a later addition to the gospel, being as chapter 20 concludes the gospel quite nicely and a number of other theories that we don’t have time to explore. In my opinion, though, John 21 offers one of the clearest pictures of what a Christian leader should do. Regardless of its origin, I am thankful the gospel bears this chapter.

The story is quite fascinating. After Peter is reinstated, Jesus tells him a proverb about young age versus old age. Peter was reminded that when he was younger (perhaps, in his days before Christ) he did what he wanted and went where he wanted to go. When he is older, however, he will stretch out his hands and be led… even to places he would rather not go. Jesus reinstates Peter to be a leader. But his primary “leadership ability” is going to be as a follower. He needs to choose to be led.

Peter’s world came crashing down when Jesus was arrested and crucified. It destroyed his hopes of what the Messiah would do—restore Israel, reestablish the law—and who he would be. Jesus’ mission was different. God’s true plan for the Messiah was something bigger than Israel—it was global and spiritual and far more radical. In John 21, Peter has left the path of following Jesus and turned back to his old way of life. He is on a boat, fishing. The same thing he was doing before he met Jesus.

Jesus appears to Peter and challenges his current way of living. No longer would he sincerely follow Jesus according to his way or his own thoughts about how things should be. Now, he would be led. Furthermore, he would also be led to places where he might not want to go. That is a shocking thought! Following Jesus means going where you might not want to go? Henri Nouwen says, “Jesus has a different version of maturity: it is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go.” Peter’s new found commitment to Jesus eventually led him to martyrdom. It also established him as a Christian leader.

I’ve heard a number of pastors and other Christian leaders talk very candidly about “following” God’s leading in a given situation, usually when it relates to a new job or opportunity. The line of thinking goes “We’ve prayed over the right decision and believe God has led us to make it.” Interestingly, when it comes to accepting a position at church or other organization, it seems people are always led by God to accept the job at the bigger church, with the bigger pay check.  God doesn’t lead us to stay at our current churches, or heaven forbid, accept a position at a smaller church in a less affluent area. He doesn’t lead us to work with the poor or give up the comforts we desire. The way people talk about following God’s leading, it seems God only guides us according to our bank accounts. I wonder why we can’t just be honest and say this isn’t God’s leading, it’s my own.

The Christian leader, however, will learn the art of “being led.” He may learn to dismiss certain opportunities because he’s following God’s leading and not his own. He may choose to look foolish in the eyes of the world because he understands there is a difference between “leading” and “being led.” Like Peter, he may choose to stretch out his hands and follow the path of Jesus, even to places he would rather not go.