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Spiritual transformation is not so much a process of creating a “new you” – but instead, is about becoming the “real you.” As we increasingly grow “in Christ” we are led by the Holy Spirit into a deeper level of self-evaluation and, as the Spirit reveals to us both our strong and weak points, we gain understanding into who we are and why we do what we do. It is sometimes a painful process as we begin to see who and what we are behind the various masks we create. Still, this is a part of the process that we must undergo if we are to become useful vessels in God’s kingdom.
In essence, it is all about becoming a person of “authenticity.” An authentic person is a person who is guileless and consistently exhibits impeccable integrity. If more of us displayed just these traits, an absence of…
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For decades now, sociological research has indicated that organized Christianity in America is on the wane. Except in the non-urbanized areas of the Bible Belt, all of the old Mainline denominations like Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ have undergone a mass exodus resulting in empty sanctuaries and boarded up doors and windows. Now, just a few months back, the Southern Baptist Convention, long the stalwart bastion of conservative Evangelicalism, has admitted to decreased membership and a dramatic drop in baptisms.
The reasons for this decline are myriad and analysis of these etiological factors is certainly beyond the scope of this short paper. Suffice to say that the Christian faith, as it is practiced in the West, has largely gone off the tracks. Granted, independent, non-denominational churches have grown in terms of membership rolls, as have some of the non-affiliated Charismatic…
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I am an admitted book addict and have been an avid reader since childhood. I guess there are worse things one could be and, other than spending more than I should for books on occasion and having a head full of somewhat useless knowledge, I don’t think my life is any worse for wear as a result of my excessive reading.
I mention all this because I am going to do something I rarely do in these pages: I am going to recommend a series of books by a particular author. I normally shy away from doing this because I understand that readers have a wide range of tastes and, as a result, what appeals to one may not be pleasing to another. However, from time to time I run across a book, or in this case a group of books, that are so outstanding –…
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If we ever hope to grow into the fullness of Christ as Paul promised we could, we not only have to imitate Christ. Although the “What Would Jesus Do?” teaching was both admirable and beneficial, it did not go to the core of the issue. If we want to manifest the character, the mind, and the heart of Jesus, we have to live as he lived. This means, among other things, that we have to practice the spiritual disciplines of our faith.
I am always fascinated by those folks who are threatened by the spiritual disciplines and especially those writers and teachers who warn us against practicing the disciplines. These folks go so far as to infer that the practice of spiritual disciplines is at best unscriptural and at worst, from the bowels of hell.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I don’t know…
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(continued from Part One)
Our nation has evolved a Christian faith that is a far cry from the one Christ intended. Blended with our culture’s worship of individualism, materialism, and personal freedoms, the Christianity that developed in America was, and remains, more American than Christian. The fact is, and few of us want to face this reality, our minds and hearts remain too small for Christ’s gospel. The following words by Houston Smith, renowned scholar of comparative religion, ring far too true:
…we have heard Jesus’ teachings so often that their edges have been worn smooth, dulling their glaring subversiveness. If we could recover their original impact, we too would be startled. Their beauty would not paper over the fact that they are “hard sayings,” presenting a scheme of values so counter to the usual as to shake us like the seismic collision of tectonic plates…We are told that we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek. The world assumes that evil must be resisted by every means available. We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. The world assumes that friends are to be loved and enemies hated. We are told that the sun rises on the just and the unjust alike. The world considers this to be indiscriminating; it would like to see dark clouds withholding sunshine from evil people. We are told that outcasts and harlots enter the kingdom of God before many who are perfunctorily righteous. Unfair, we protest; respectable people should head the procession. We are told that the gate to salvation is narrow. The world would prefer it to be wide. We are told to be as carefree as birds and flowers. The world counsels prudence. We are told that it is more difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye. The world honors wealth. We are told that the happy people are those who are meek, who weep, who are merciful and pure in heart. The world assumes that it is the rich, the powerful, and the wellborn who should be happy. In all, a wind of freedom blows through these teachings that frightens the world and makes us want to deflect their effect by postponement – not yet, not yet! H.G. Wells was evidently right: either there was something mad about this man, or our hearts are still too small for his message.
For those of us steeped in Western culture and raised within the walls of the church, it is hard to fully grasp the true revolutionary, radical nature of Jesus’ teachings. Yet when compared to the general religious worldview of his day, as well as the practices that went along with that worldview, the Master’s approach to the spiritual life was a complete anachronism.
We get the first hint of this on the occasion of Jesus’ first public miracle – the turning of water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana. The magnificence of the miracle itself, the changing of water into wine, often overshadows a more subtle, symbolic aspect to the events of that day. The water Jesus changed into wine was not just any water – and the vessels holding the water were no common containers. Instead, Jesus told the servants to fill six stone jars to the very top with water. These stone jars were the ones used for people to wash themselves in compliance with the dictates of their religion. By this act, Jesus used his first public miracle to deliver a symbolic yet very real message.
Rather than ritualistic cleansing, rules, and regulations, through Jesus God was bringing something totally new into life on this planet, something much more intimate and celebratory. Through Jesus, God was indeed bringing joy, good news to the people. As the Master said when he quoted the prophet Isaiah, he had come “to set the captives free.” And the irony of all ironies is that his people were not enslaved by the Egyptians as in the time of Moses. No, and the enemy was not just the Romans, either. Instead, I am convinced that Jesus saw his mission as intricately tied up with subverting the existing religious order, which had turned what was intended as a vital, dynamic, and intimate relationship with God into a burdensome shackle of trivial religious laws. Bruxy Cavey, in his excellent work entitled, The End of Religion, describes the subversive, radical nature of the Master’s mission:
I was faced with an unexpected but undeniable fact: Through his first miracle, Jesus intentionally desecrates a religious icon. He purposely chooses these sacred jars to challenge the religious system by converting them from icons of personal purification into symbols of relational celebration. Jesus takes us from holy water to wedding wine. From legalism to life. From religion to relationship……Jesus seems to be saying that his message of love – a radically accepting love – is too great to be contained by the old ways of religious tradition. His new wine demands new wineskins (see Matt. 9:17).
As Cavey later points out, and as any astute reader of the four gospels will soon discover, Jesus did not come as the meek and mild savior with a flower in one hand and a white dove in the other. No my friends, Jesus made it quite clear from the outset that he came to shake things up. If you have any doubts about this, go back and carefully read through the gospels. Pay particular attention to the Master’s words in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount. See how often he prefaces his teaching by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” Jesus challenges the old teaching and then replaces it with a new one.
Jonathan and Jennifer Campbell, in their remarkable, insightful book entitled, The Way of Jesus, make the timely observation that:
God is bringing forth new wineskins for a fresh outpouring of wine, and it does not look like anything we’ve ever seen. So we must focus on Jesus and the wine he is pouring out, and not on the wineskin. Remember, the purpose of the wineskin is to furnish the appropriate environment for the juice of the choice grapes to ferment and season at just the right time. We should be open and flexible, like new wineskins, in order to have Jesus fill our hearts and communities. This new wineskin must be very simple and able to expand and grow with the new wine.
Renewal is not enough. We all need to go through a conversion something like what the apostle Peter experienced in Acts 10 and 11. Peter’s conversion from an ethnocentric Jew to an advocate for Gentile missions was one of the most significant paradigm shifts in the history of the church. Likewise today, the church must repent of any cultural tradition that hinders the movement of the gospel across cultures. The current spiritual-cultural crisis calls for nothing less than complete repentance, what the Greeks called metatonia, a transformation of the mind, a change of heart, and a new way of living. Just as Gentiles received salvation free of Jewish tradition, so all people have the right to follow Jesus without having to become Western or institutionalized…………Jesus calls his followers to undergo a systemic shift that goes to the root of our identity – one that questions all the assumptions of the Christendom model. What we really need are people living the life of Jesus in community, drinking the new wine of the Spirit and living as fresh wineskins in the world.
From all that has gone before in this article, it should be apparent that as followers of Christ we have a divine calling that is both real and urgent. Our world is wounded and hurting and there is a strong need for grace and healing. Yet if any degree of healing is to take place, we Christ-followers must deeply understand that it has to begin within our own walls. It is imperative first of all that the Body of Christ become more unified in both theology and purpose. Yes, there is indeed a place of diversity, but diversity must never devolve into divisiveness. As Christians, we have to get our minds and especially our hearts around the concept that no matter what our differences might be, we have a divine calling to give flesh to grace and that his calling, given by the Master himself, transcends any sectarian differences that may exist.
Listen to Richard Stearns again as he speaks to the missing link in our gospel understanding as well as points us in the right direction.
I believe that we have reduced the gospel from a dynamic and beautiful symphony of God’s love for and in the world to a bare and strident monotone. We have taken this amazing good news from God, originally presented in high definition and Dolby stereo, and reduced it to a grainy, black-and-white, silent movie. In doing so, we have also stripped it of much of its power to change not only the human heart but the world. This is especially reflected in our limited view of evangelism. Jesus commanded His followers to take the good news of reconciliation and forgiveness to the ends of the earth. The dictate is the same today.
Christianity is a faith that was meant to spread – but not through coercion. God’s love was intended to be demonstrated, not dictated. Our job is not to manipulate or induce others to agree with us or to leave their religion and embrace Christianity. Our change is to both proclaim and embody the gospel so that others can see, hear, and feel God’s love in tangible ways. When we are living out our faith with integrity and compassion in the world, God can use us to give others a glimpse of His love and character. It is God – not us – who works in the hearts of men and women to forgive and redeem. Coercion is not necessary or even particularly helpful. God is responsible for the harvest – but we must plant, water, and cultivate the seeds.
Just as Christ knelt before his disciples and washed their filthy feet on the night before he died, we are to do the same. No, this does not necessarily mean that we have to wash each other’s feet. What it does mean is that we must be sensitive enough to discern where need exists and willing to go forth in faith and love to address that need. This requires each of us to transcend our own tendencies toward self-absorption and personal preoccupation. We must, with the power of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts, become “other-focused” and willing to get down and get dirty if need be. Christ embraced the lepers of his time and in our own day and age, we are to do no less.
I am of the firm belief that if we who follow the Master consistently exhibit this kind of servant evangelism, we can do much good in this world. And while we are at it, we might make great strides toward healing the title “Christian” as well.
© L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved
- A New Reformation is Upon Us (and it’s about time)! (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- Proactive Compassion and Authentic Christianity (Part One) (ldturner.wordpress.com)
- Living in the Tension of Jesus’ Love (six11.wordpress.com)
When we take an honest, unbiased look at the life of Jesus as presented in the four Gospels of the New Testament, we are left with the undeniable impression that his primary concern in inaugurating his kingdom on earth centered on caring for the poor and the marginalized. Despite the concerted efforts of those self-proclaimed “believers” who have made brazened attempts to alter the message of Jesus to fit their political agenda, anyone with even a grain of objectivity and personal integrity will admit that the Master called us in no uncertain terms to care for the less fortunate among us.
“I have come to preach good news to the poor,” Christ tells us in Luke 4:18. With these words, and a proclamation taken from Isaiah 61 Jesus launched his mission. If anyone doubts his concern for the marginalized, let them study carefully his closing words in Matthew 25: 31-46 where the Master states clearly that our eternal destiny is intimately connected with how we treat the poor, the sick, and the infirm. As disquieting as Christ’s words are in this section of Holy Writ, the implications are clear and cannot be dismissed out of hand, just because they happen to fly in the face of our political ideology. It is for this reason that when the LifeBrook Faith Alliance began back in 1997, it was with these words as our motivating credo:
As followers of Jesus Christ, our prime calling is to give flesh to grace.
I am convinced that this was the directive Jesus operated under and I feel I should do no less. In concrete terms, instead of giving people advice, trying to convert them or get them to come to church (these are not bad things by the way), our mission is to help those who are hurting find a better way of navigating through their problems and living in the solution. Instead of asking, “Are you saved?” we instead ask, “What do you need?” or “How can I help?”
Unfortunately, the vast majority of practicing Christians in America have drifted far off course. Instead of looking for positive and effective ways to be of service to others, many of us have opted for a more comfortable and less challenging version of the faith. Seeking at all cost to maintain the status quo and keep the application of Christianity within the respectable bounds of American culture, we have settled for something far more tame and far less radical than what the Master called for. In the process of living beneath the standard set by Christ, we have also managed to more often than not, major in the minors. And in doing so, the once-honorable title “Christian,” has become a derided term.
Francis Chan makes the following cogent observation regarding the contemporary church in America:
I quickly found that the American church is a difficult place to fit in if you want to live out New Testament Christianity. The goals of American Christianity are often a nice marriage, children who don’t swear, and good church attendance. Taking the words of Christ literally and seriously is rarely considered. That’s for “radicals” who are “unbalanced” and who go “overboard.” Most of us want a balanced life that we can control, that is safe, and that does not involve suffering.
I have found that at least in a general sense, most American Christians shy away from churches that are serious about putting on the mind of Christ. Like Chan says, the typical American believer prefers a church that is safe and predictable. This desire for safety and predictability goes even farther. These same Christians also prefer a Jesus that is equally safe and predictable – one that sits quietly on quilt-board displays holding lambs in his lap and patting kids on the head (or maybe that’s the other way around, with kids in his lap and patting lambs on the head).
The point is this: the radical, firebrand Jesus that showed up in the flesh and went on to challenge the religious leaders of his day, calling them everything from a brood of vipers to white-washed sepulchers, was and is far too dangerous. That’s why one of the primary tasks of the church throughout the centuries has been to domesticate the rough-edged revolutionary who set this new faith in motion.
In the somewhat detailed notes below, taken from Richard Stearns The Hole in Our Gospel, the author describes how anemic and superficial Christianity has become. From his perspective as President of World Vision U.S., Stearns also looks at some of the causes of this situation and how a return to a more complete gospel, based more solidly on the actual teachings and life of Jesus provides a way for the church to heal.
More and more our gospel has been narrowed to a simple transaction, marked by checking a box on a bingo card at some prayer breakfast, registering a decision for Christ, or coming forward during an altar call………..It was about saving as many people from hell as possible – for the next life. It minimized any concern for those same people in this life. It wasn’t as important that they were poor or hungry or persecuted, or perhaps rich, greedy, and arrogant; we just had to get them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and then move on to the next potential convert. In our evangelistic efforts to make the good news accessible and simple to understand, we seem to have boiled it down to a kind of “fire insurance” that one can buy. Then, once the policy is in effect, the sinner can go back to whatever life he was living – of wealth and success or poverty and suffering. As long as the policy was in the drawer, the other things don’t matter as much. We’ve got our “ticket” to the next life.
There is a real problem with this limited view of the kingdom of God; it is not the whole gospel. Instead, it is a gospel with a gaping hole. First, focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life. The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21 NKJV), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. It was not meant to be a way to leave the world but rather the means to actually redeem it.
Jesus’ view of the gospel went beyond a bingo card transaction; it embraced a revolutionary new view of the world, an earth transformed by transformed people, His “disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19 NKJV), who would usher in the revolutionary kingdom of God. Those words from the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, you will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” were and are a clarion call to Jesus’ followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now (Matt. 6:10). This gospel – the whole gospel – means much more than the personal salvation of individuals. It means a social revolution.
For those of us raised in the embrace of American Christianity these words may be difficult to digest, but digest them we must. The Master we have chosen to follow calls us out of our comfort zones and into the roiling cauldron of poverty, disease, and injustice. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not afforded the luxury of sitting quietly on the sidelines, shaking our heads in dismay, spouting scripture, and uttering a chorus of sympathetic platitudes while children are starving and dying of preventable diseases. As those bold enough to take on the mantle “Christian,” we have not only blessings but responsibilities. Christ charged us with taking care of the last, the lost, and the least. When we do this, our hands are likely to get dirty and our hearts are likely to be broken. Jesus warns of this and encourages us to count the costs before we set our hand to the plow.
To be continued……
(c) L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved
- Remedies for What Ails the Church: Christ’s Proactive Love (Part Two) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- A New Reformation is Upon Us (and it’s about time)! (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
We find it difficult to grasp the idea that God calls us righteous because we actually are righteous. It feels more humble to believe we’re filthy worms awaiting a future change into beautiful butterflies…………..Jesus stated it best. He said that our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom (Matthew 5:20). So if we Christians don’t claim to possess perfect righteousness, we are lowering God’s standard. We are watering down the gospel. We insinuate that Jesus can unite himself with sin. And we insult the perfection of God.
(from The Naked Gospel)
- Living as a New Creation (Part Two) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
For quite some time now I have pondered and prayed over the various reasons the contemporary church is in such a state of crisis. In addition to people leaving the sanctuaries in drove, the church itself is rapidly becoming marginalized in its impact on American culture and this, coupled with dwindling numbers and a chronic affinity for internal bickering, has left the Body of Christ in a general state of paralytic impotence.
There are many reasons for this state of affairs – far too many to catalogue in this brief article. I would like, however, to focus in particular on one specific causational factor that I think contributes greatly to the church’s current woes. Before delving into that issue, however, I want to spend a few moments discussing the issue of “lost faith” or, as some describe it, “weak faith.”
I mention this because I think that these faith problems are related to our overall lack of understanding and acceptance of Jesus Christ, his mission, and the impact of that mission on life as we know it. As we will discuss below, one of the primary factors contributing to the exodus from the church is that it has lost its most vital, life-giving focus. A side-effect of this is that many people have what those – in – the – supposed – know call a “crisis of faith.” This crisis can take many forms, but each tends to share a few common elements. The following description by Brian McLaren provides a cogent summation of what I am talking about:
One way or the other, we outgrew the faith of our childhood or youth. Now we are seeking for a faith that we can hold with adult integrity, clear intelligence, and open-eyed honesty. So, many of us need in this way to renew or replace the faith we lost – to fill the old vacancy in a new way, to see faith with fresh eyes, or better – to let a mature, refreshed faith become the new eyes through which we see life.
Others of us have faith, but it is weak or damaged. We feel that we are walking on a sprained ankle or trying to enjoy a delicious meal with a bad tooth. Perhaps we have been spiritually undernourished, malnourished, or mistreated and injured by a church or religious family member. We don’t have confidence in our faith, and it brings us more pain than comfort. Or we have a faith that is little more than a set of concepts to us. This kind of faith is often called nominal, meaning “in name only.” It doesn’t affect our behavior, at least, not positively. Perhaps for some of us, faith is like a vaccination – we have just enough in our system to keep us from getting “infected” with a full-blown “case” of vibrant faith. There’s faith there, but it needs to be “set on fire”; it needs to come alive; we need to really “catch” it. In these ways some of us need to invigorate the faith we already have.
I don’t know about you, but I can see myself and many others in this description of those in a “faith crisis.” I especially recognize McLaren’s description of those whose faith is like a vaccination, giving them just enough Jesus to prevent them from catching the real thing.
As I stated earlier, the reasons for the dwindling numbers and declining social impact of the church in our culture are many and multi-faceted. And, I might add, the responsibility for more than a few of these problems lies with the church itself. Overall, I think it is safe to say that as a body, we have done a generally poor job of carrying out the mandate given us by the Master before he departed for the heavenly realms.
One major reason for this situation flows from the fact that the church has lost focus on Christ, who and what he was and is, what he accomplished, and what he expects of us. Without this knowledge, a Christian lacks a functional compass with which he or she may navigate through the shoals of daily living. Further, when the focus on the biblical Christ is either weak or lost, an individual lacks the basic information needed to truly make a decision as to whether or not to follow Christ. I dare say that there are untold numbers of self-proclaimed Christians out there who, other than the standard “he died for my sins” teachings, have no clue as to the true magnificence of Christ’s being.
Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, in their excellent book Jesus Manifesto, speak directly to this situation and how it impacts the most fundamental question each person who faces Christ must answer:
Can our problems really be caused by something so basic and simple as losing sight of Christ? We believe the answer is a resounding Yes. Answers other than Christ to the problems of the church today mean we are more into solvents and solutions. For that reason, this global, Google world needs a meta-narrative more than ever, and the Jesus Story is the interpreting system of all other systems in this hour…
Sweet and Viola then state that each of us needs to answer one specific question and if you think about it, every other thing that follows hinges upon how we answer that question. It is the same question Jesus put to his disciples:
“Who do you say that I am?”
I have come to the conclusion that the church has, as a whole, done a poor job of educating its members on the importance of answering this question and furthermore, our efforts at educating new believers on the incredible nature of this being we call “the Christ.” We have played the “personal savior” and “Son of God” tapes until they have lost much of their meaning. Although the importance of Christ’s role in the process of restoration of right standing with God and the remission of sins is a key element in his mission, but it is only an element. And his status as the Son of the Living God, as evidenced by Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer, is also highly significant, but this, too, is only one aspect of Christ’s identity and his agenda for coming to earth.
I am of the strong belief that until we educate new Christians (and reeducate established ones) on the truly magnificent nature of Jesus Christ, who and what he is, all that he accomplished, and his agenda for the restoration of God’s plan on earth, we cannot hope to fulfill the mandate we have been given as the Body of Christ.
I am hesitant to give a highly specific prescription for how churches might go about this educational mission, primarily because each church is a unique entity in terms of its congregational demographics, its denominational affiliation (or lack thereof), its theological orientation, and its particular mission. However, several areas of commonality may be mentioned.
To be continued…..
©L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved
- Living as a New Creation (Part Two) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- Remedies for What Ails the Church: Christ’s Proactive Love (Part Three) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- Remedies for What Ails the Church: Christ’s Proactive Love (Part Two) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- The Reintroduction of Jesus Christ (Part Two) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- Am I Lukewarm? (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- The Reintroduction of Jesus Christ (Part One) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- The Dwindling Church: Can We Stop the Bleeding? (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- The reason I have decided to follow Jesus Christ (prhayz.wordpress.com)