Spreadsheets and Spirituality

Quit weighing all the pros and cons of a decision. Instead, seek the Lord’s leading and follow that path.

This past weekend our pastor preached on decision-making, and while he didn’t exactly call us to prayer, he did delineate between spreadsheets and spirituality in decision-making. How many of us create columns—at least in our minds—when making decisions?

Pros and ConsFor example, when it comes to dating: Christian? Check. Fun? Check. Attractive? Check. Good job? Check. And so it goes. We do this for many major decisions; new jobs, new homes, starting a family, finding a church home, and more.

Our pastor made this simple point: When we lean on our own understanding we make spreadsheet decisions, not spiritual ones. Rather, we are to learn to “trust in the Lord with all our hearts” (Proverbs 3:5).

Very good.

It got me thinking.

Our church (in California) is a franchise from Texas. Branding is all important. Nothing can be done without Texan approval. Someone has weighed the pros and cons and decided that local church autonomy is simply too hazardous. McDonald’s in one state looks the same as in any other state—Golden Arches, menu, packaging, the works. So does our church.

Many congregational leaders (including ours) have also embraced the “Simple Church” model. This model involves shutting down most ministries except weekend services, small groups, and limited youth ministry. “It prevents burnout.” “It focuses our corporate energy.”

I can see the benefits of running the church along these corporate lines, if indeed a church is a “business” that we “run.” Branding and burnout afflict many congregations. Badly handled budgets are a blight in many fellowships. But I must admit it feels like spreadsheet leadership. I wonder if the Church in one location can, or even should, look the same as the church in another location?

I’m not wading into video venues or stage sets designed to trick the mind of the audience, though these seem related issues. I’m just wondering, perhaps out loud with you (my friends), whether our ecclesiology (our understanding of the basic nature of the church) needs to be re-visited.

To what extent should a local congregation have a local DNA? Pastoral leadership that knows the people, understands the community, and builds a congregation that is culturally and spiritually sensitive to its context, would seem to require spiritual leadership rather than spreadsheet leadership.

The wise will always look to the leading of Christ. The “wise in their own eyes” may find themselves distracted by the common cultural wisdom around them rather than the work of Christ among them.

Do we need a deeper, richer, more local, more biblically-grounded understanding of the Church?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

This and That

I keep meeting people, Christian people, often in their 40s or 50s, who carry a disturbing question within them. It doesn’t emerge quickly. They’re usually cautious with it. It’s not a safe question to ask. But it dwells deep down, in a place that is largely suppressed but which emerges in moments of sincere reflection. And sometimes, in hushed tones, behind closed doors, with pleas for confidentially, it slips out.

“Is this all there is?”

TrustYears, sometimes decades, of church attendance, sermon-listening, small group participation, and even sacrificial service have not always put that question to bed. There remains that nagging sense that Jesus might have intended something more.

And then I meet other people, Christian people, young people—college students—who carry a similarly disturbing question. They tend to be more vocal and more open with it. They have grown up watching the Christian adults around them. Oftentimes those adults have battled addictions (porn, drugs, alcohol, or gambling). Those young folk watch Christian adults abandon their marriages, pilfer from their workplaces, gossip, criticize, and get overwhelmed by stress. They watch their parents spend beyond their means, argue over petty issues, and feed on media violence and sex. And they quietly whisper:

“Is that all there is?”

And there we have it; two generations (parents and their growing kids) who wonder if faith really makes a difference. They often share a common hunger for something more spiritually nourishing, more spiritually satisfying, more spiritually transforming.

The rise of civil religion, the compartmentalization of faith, and biblical illiteracy all play their part in producing a shallow and hollow Christian experience. We could also explore the role of vacuous pulpits, inadequate pastoral leadership, and drifting colleges and seminaries.

But I wonder if the most basic cause might be hiding in plain sight.

What might happen if we changed a single word in the English Bible? Just one word; and took it to heart? Keep the original Greek language intact. Indeed, enhance it and clarify it by changing our translation of just one word. Here’s my proposal—push the word “faith” to the sidelines and replace it instead with the word “trust.” Think of every Bible text that you know with the word “believe” or “faith” in it, and change it to “trust.” It changes everything, for the better!

As followers of Jesus, we don’t believe that. We trust in. There’s a world of difference. Belief doesn’t cause us to flourish. Trust does.

“Is this all there is?”

“Is that all there is?”

Today a CBS lead news article declared that the “none” category now exceeds any specific religious affiliation category in the United States. Is it possible that our disillusionment (and abandonment) reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of this core Christian term?

Whoever trusts in Him will not perish but have a flourishing (everlasting) life (John 3:16).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

40 Days in Mark’s Gospel – Day 40

Mark 16:8  “And the women went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Some of the oldest biblical manuscripts — 4th century — have nothing beyond this verse.

It seems totally unacceptable. We all want the happily-ever-after ending. We all prefer the hero to succeed and the people to celebrate. A nice finish to a great story matters. We certainly don’t want the story to finish with a few scared women too afraid to say anything to anyone. What sort of ending is that?

CopiestVarious copiests throughout the centuries apparently shared our concern, so they added material. Some added a very short ending where the women found their tongues and told Peter and the disciples what they had seen. Some added a much longer ending that included appearances of Christ to the disciples and His commissioning of them to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation.”

But I like the original ending.

An entertaining story wraps up all of the loose ends and leaves us feeling good. A great story invites us into the drama. The original ending of Mark’s Gospel, the ending that stops the Gospel abruptly in its tracks, makes this a great story!

It shocks us. How could these women possibly be silent after the resurrection? How could they possibly be afraid, after all they had seen Jesus do? It seems ludicrous to think that they wouldn’t shout this news from the mountain-tops. This is not how it should end! This is plain wrong!

Our indignation rises. Our hearts begin to judge and accuse these faithless women. Scared? Silent? Unacceptable!

And just as I get worked up about this crazy ending, and these embarrassing women, I realize that the story has caught me unawares. It has slipped an unexpected knife between my ribs. And an unwritten question starts to take shape. What are you doing with the news of the risen Savior?

The Gospel story does not need wrapping paper and a big bow on the box; a long ending. Rather, it cries out for people who will cry it out. So many of us have grown timid about the truth.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday. As we celebrate the risen Christ among us, let’s consider these women. The real ending to the Gospel story is being written in the 21st century and has your name in it.

Blessings this Easter to each of you!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

40 Days in Mark’s Gospel – Day 39

Mark 16:6  “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here.”

On May 8, 2013 Dallas Willard passed away after a very brief and private battle with cancer. He had become a beloved Christian statesman. As a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California (USC) he had written such Christian classics as Spirit of the Disciplines, Renovation of the Heart, and The Divine Conspiracy. He had become renowned as a leader in the Christian spiritual formation movement.

Dallas WillardThat day, at his bedside, a friend kept vigil. The end was imminent.

Then, in the final moments, Dallas began to describe a vision he was having. He was entering a magnificent hall with hundreds of people lining the wide aisle, standing, and welcoming him in the warmest possible way. His life had included countless public appearances, presentations, conferences, and applause. But he quietly whispered, “I’ve never experienced anything like this!” And he was gone.

“He has risen; he is not here.”

Very early yesterday morning, while students slept in their dorms, Somali Islamic militants stormed Garissa University College in the northeastern region of Kenya. They moved systematically from dorm to dorm, separating Christians from Muslims, and executing those who could not recite verses of the Koran. The current count is 147 dead.

The violence shocks us all. The slaughter of Christians, young men and women simply seeking an education by which they might improve their own lives and their communities, stuns us.

Yet, amidst the grief, even as their bodies lay in a morgue today and a grave tomorrow, the words of the angel echo softly again.

“They have risen; they are not here.”

Today is Good Friday; the start of the most spiritually significant weekend of the year. There was nothing “good” about the violence that Jesus endured on this day at the hands of domestic militants. There was nothing “good” about the torture or the agonizing brutality of crucifixion. But Sunday, which is coming, has forever enabled us to attach the word “good” to Friday, because the worst of experiences simply provide a pathway to redemption and resurrection, when we walk with Christ.

One day we’ll die. And yet again those angelic words, first uttered to the Marys in Gethsemane, will echo forth. “She is risen; she is not here.” “He is risen; he is not here.” And we ourselves will break forth into the new creation, the glory of God Himself, with inexpressible joy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

40 Days in Mark’s Gospel – Day 38

Mark 15:40-41  “When Jesus died, there were women looking on from a distance…. When Jesus was in Galilee, the women used to follow Him and minister to Him; and there were many other women who came with Him to Jerusalem.”

We could almost miss it.

Mark has drawn little attention to the entourage surrounding Jesus during His ministry. Left to our own deductions, we might conclude that Jesus mostly had the twelve male disciples with Him, with crowds occasionally swelling to hear a sermon or get a miracle. But here, slipped in near the end of the Gospel, Mark makes a surprising note.

Women and JesusWomen featured among the followers and disciples of Jesus. They “used to follow Him and minister to Him.” Many of them.

This surprises me at two levels. First that Jesus would allow it. Any renowned and respectable Rabbi would distance himself from the women, if for no other reason than they posed a constant hazard. Any woman who might brush against a man during her monthly cycle would render him ceremonially unclean. A responsible Rabbi would take no such risk. Women had no business traipsing around behind a notable Teacher.

But Jesus apparently permitted it.

That’s the first surprise; the respect He afforded women, the dignity He restored to them, and the value He placed on them. When people accuse Christianity of misogyny, they do not understand the extraordinary liberation that Jesus extended to the women of His day.

But a second surprise pops from the page at me. All these women … and not one accusation of impropriety?

Jesus had plenty of detractors and eventually they succeeded in demanding His crucifixion. They accused him of being a tool of the devil, of being a wine-bibber and a glutton, of being a friend of sinners, and of suggesting He might be the coming King. But nobody, not one person, said, “He’s a womanizer!” No one cried out “Pervert!”

In a culture that encouraged women to be at home, nobody seemed to think it odd or inappropriate that so many women left their homes, followed Jesus, and ministered to Him. If there had been even a hint of sexual indiscretion, the disciples would have exposed it. Who would give their lives for a rapist, a pervert, or a womanizer?

Even in death, Jesus’ purity and integrity remained intact.

In our own highly sexualized culture, His example sets an important standard for us. Men, are we above reproach in the respect and honor we afford the women around us? Are we beyond recrimination in our dealings with women?

This spiritually powerful Easter season climaxes this coming weekend. It invites us to a personal re-assessment, perhaps some fresh resolve, and always new levels of godliness with each other.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

40 Days in Mark’s Gospel – Day 37

Mark 15:34  “And at three o’clock in the afternoon — after darkness had shrouded the land for three hours — Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which is translated ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?'”

Many people suggest that the Father forsook the Son in the darkest moment, because He could not bear to see the sin of the world piled onto His Son. “He who knew no sin, became sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

CrucifixionThis common interpretation has many difficulties with it, to say the least. Perhaps Jesus intended something else, something far more significant and more powerful, as He cried “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

The plea quotes Psalm 22:1. These are the precise words that open that extraordinary Psalm. It’s extraordinary because in the Psalm, verses 6-18 describe the crucifixion to a tee, including “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” It’s as though the Psalmist looked down through history and saw Jesus. Inspiration sometimes works that way.

But we may not realize that Psalm 22 is just the first Psalm in a trilogy. Psalms 22, 23, and 24 form a single unit. They go together. They tell a single story.

Psalm 22 is the Psalm of despair. We can all identify with the pain and fear that the Psalmist expresses.

Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil….”) is the Psalm of hope. It describes the quiet confidence that emerges from the ashes of Psalm 22 when we trust the Shepherd.

Psalm 24 declares the unstoppable and irresistible coming of the King of Glory!

The trilogy, from start to end, portrays the pathway from despair to hope to triumph. The Lord of Hosts, the King of Glory is coming!

As Jesus hangs on the cross, about to breathe His last, he utters the cry of Psalm 22. Is He declaring some kind of perceived (or real) abandonment in his hour of deepest need? We might hope God never feels that way about us! Or, as I suspect, perhaps Jesus was using code-language that His disciples would later understand; language to reassure them that even in the darkest of moments, the story is not yet finished. The King of Glory is coming. Take heart.

What sounds like a statement of defeat may, in fact, be a hint at victory! Jesus winks, as death rushes towards Him.

Perhaps the statement also inspires us to similar confidence. No matter how grim this moment may seem or how alone we may feel, the King of Glory is coming. The  ancient doors will be opened, the strongholds will be defeated, and the Lord will deliver us.

This Holy Week, we are the people traveling from Psalm 22 to Psalm 24.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

40 Days in Mark’s Gospel – Day 36

Mark 14:61-62  “The High Priest was questioning Jesus and saying to Him, ‘Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Jesus delivered the triple-whammy; perhaps a quadruple bazooka.

In a single statement, He claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Son of Man. It doesn’t get any more comprehensive than that.

King JesusThe Messiah (Christ, in Greek) was the anointed one. Prophets, priests, and kings most commonly experienced anointing in ancient Jewish culture. To claim to be the Christ was to take upon oneself a very significant mantle. The Messiah was definitely a Savior, but so much more.

The Son of God, in the minds of many Jews, was a title given to Israel (Exodus 4:22) but later to the King, as the consummate representative figure of Israel (Psalm 2:7). While we are most accustomed to it referring to the divinity of Jesus, it probably spoke more to Him as the King of God’s Kingdom.

The Son of Man, a title we usually associate with the humanity of Jesus, was probably just the opposite. It was Jesus’ preferred title for Himself throughout His ministry…by far. Yet, here in Mark 14:62 He links it directly to a prophetic passage in Daniel 7:13-14 that makes it clear that the title is reserved for the divine King of God’s Kingdom (once again).

Each title speaks powerfully to the rule and the reign of Jesus!

We sometimes downplay Jesus as King and prefer to speak of Him as simply a friend. The “buddy language” that oozes familiarity seems perhaps inappropriate.

In this intense moment before the High Priest and the mob, with violence swirling all around Him and the cross just hours from Him, Jesus lays claim to the Kingdom of God and all time and eternity. Even the simple phrase “I am” would have elicited echoes from the past for any Jew with half an ear and half an education. It is the personal name of God, delivered to Moses in Exodus 3:14.

Could Jesus have possibly said any more with fewer words?

The Christ of Holy Week, the One we honor this week, rises above petty jealousies. He does not defend Himself to anyone. Kings don’t need to. The looming cross looked like an assassination. The resurrection three days later will be His coronation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments