Month: July 2013

Continuing to Live in Christ

The challenge for Christians, both new and old, is to continue to follow Christ long after our initial profession of faith in Him. This must be hard because thousands of books have been written about how to faithfully follow Jesus as a disciple.

The apostle Paul gives us a big clue about how we follow Christ in his letter to the first-century church in Colossae. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him…” (Colossians 2:6a NIV).

In other words, Paul says, we follow Jesus in the same way we came to him. The question then is, “How did we receive Christ?” Here’s my take on what it means to continue to live in Christ just like we began with him:

1. Like the Colossians, we don’t trust the popular gods of our culture.

Roman culture in the first century embraced a pantheon of gods headed up by Jupiter and his wife, Juno. A host of lesser deities hung out on Mount Olympus. Romans called first-century Christians atheists because they didn’t believe in these rather fractious divinities. The Christians at Colossae rejected the gods of popular culture, affirming that Jesus Christ was the son of the One True God.

Today our cultural gods are power, money, and technology. Interestingly, like the gods on Olympus, our new gods often hang out together, too. Even though we all use power, money and technology, twenty-first century Christians are challenged not to place ultimate trust in these gods as the solution to our social and spiritual problems. Following Jesus like we received him means we continue to trust in him, and him alone, as the creator, sustainer, and savior of the world.

2. Like the Colossians, our politics is Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

In the Roman empire, citizens were required to affirm their loyalty to the emperor by stating, “Caesar is lord.” Paul radically altered the politics of his day by asserting “Jesus is Lord.”

We have difficulty appreciating what a bold confession “Jesus is Lord” becomes. To replace Caesar, who was believed to be the son of god and ruler of the universe, with a crucified itinerant Jew placed first century Christians outside the social norms of the day. Under emperors like Nero and Domitian, Christians suffered persecution as a radical, subversive sect who refused to acknowledge the emperor cult of their day.

Our political statement as 21st century Christians is still Jesus is Lord. That statement strips us of our primary allegiance to political parties, or even political ideologies as the ultimate guide in our lives. Our political leaders are neither the creators of the universe, nor are they the center around which all things revolve, despite the self-importance of those who live and work in Washington, DC.

3. Like the Colossians, we came to Christ and we continue to live in Christ because our relationship with God is personal.

In the Christian faith, we believe that God loves us, sent his son Jesus to die and rise again for us, and that we continue to know God personally. Unlike the gods on Olympus, who weren’t loving or personal, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus has always related directly and personally to His people.

Baptists, of course, have made a big deal of a personal relationship with God. Our Baptist forebears called this possibility the “priesthood of the believer” or “soul-competency.” Both of those phrases mean that individuals are capable of relating to God, and of receiving Jesus Christ as their Lord. Maintaining an awareness of our personal relationship with Christ models the same way we received Him as our personal Lord and Savior.

4. Finally, we continue to live in Christ because He is present with us.

For the first-century Colossian Christians the decision to follow Christ was a costly one. By rejecting by the popular gods of their culture, they cut themselves off from their families and friends who continued to seek the capricious favor of the gods of Rome. By refusing to acknowledge Caesar as lord, and by embracing Jesus as Lord, the Colossian Christians isolated themselves socially, politically, and economically.

However, the Colossian Christians were sustained by the presence of Christ in their midst. Stripped of social and political community, Colossian Christians experienced the presence of God each time they gathered together. The gods of Olympus never pretended to be present daily with their subjects. But the God who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the God who delivered Israel from the bondage of Egypt, the God who brought Israel back from exile, and the God who sent Jesus was ever-present with the first-century church, too.

Elie Wiesel writes of the presence of God with his people in his book, All Rivers Run to the Sea.

“Here is what the Midrash tells us. When the Holy One, blessed be His name, comes to liberate the children of Israel from their exile, they will say to him “Master of the Universe, it is You who dispersed us among the nations, driving us from Your abode, and now it is You who bring us back. Why is that?” And the Holy One, blessed be His name, will reply with this parable: One day a king drove his wife from his palace, and the next day he had her brought back. The queen, astonished, asked him “Why did you send me away yesterday only to bring me back today?” “Know this,” replied the king, “that I followed you out of the palace, for I could not live in it alone.” So the Holy One, blessed be His name, tells the children of Israel: “Having seen you leave my abode, I left it too, that I might return with you.”

Wiesel continues:

“God accompanies his children into exile. This is a central theme of Midrashic and mystical thought in Jewish tradition. Just as the people of Israel‘s solitude mirrors the Lord’s, so the suffering of men finds its extension in that of their Creator. Though imposed by God, the punishment goes beyond those upon whom it falls, encompassing the Judge himself. And it is God who wills it so. The Father may reveal Himself through His wrath; He may even sharpen His severity, but He will never be absent. Present at the Creation, God forms part of it. Let atar panui mineiis the key phrase of the Book of Splendor, the Zohar: No space is devoid of God. God is everywhere, even in suffering…” — Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea.

Paul reminds us that we follow Christ in the same way in which we came to him. By rejecting the popular gods of culture; by our political confession that Jesus is Lord; by our personal relationship with God through Christ; and, by the presence of God, we continue to live in Christ in the same manner in which we received Him.

The Pastor as Artisan


Over the centuries of church history, various metaphors have been used to describe the role of God’s chosen leaders. Some metaphors have lodged permanently in our collective consciousness, while others have not passed the test of time. I suggest that there is one more metaphor for the pastor’s role that might be a welcome addition to the others — the pastor as artisan.

Perhaps the oldest metaphor used to describe the pastoral leader is that of shepherd. The second metaphor used in the New Testament for church leaders is overseer. Both of those metaphors are enduring and widely used today.

Another metaphor that emerged in the early centuries of the church was that of pastor as the “physician of souls.” Sin was viewed as a disease and pastoral care was seen as the “cure of souls” with the priest as the administrator of that cure.

As the church growth movement took root in the 1980s, the popular metaphor of pastor as CEO was drawn from the corporate world. Successful churches, church growth advocates argued, concentrated authority in the pastor as CEO because this was the most effective means toward church growth. However, in retrospect the metaphor of pastor as CEO and the church growth movement have both proven to be inadequate for the complex task of shaping and leading twenty-first century congregations.

Of course, there are other pastoral metaphors in use as well. The popular triad of pastor as prophet, priest, and poet brings together several facets of pastoral ministry. From the sports world, the idea of the pastor as coach plays off popular sports imagery with the pastor as team strategist, and church staff and members as team players who execute the game plan.

To this wide-ranging mix of metaphors I would add one more — the pastor as artisan. At their height in the middle ages, artisans were skilled master craftsmen who produced goods that were beautiful and functional. These artisans included goldsmiths, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, hatters, tinsmiths, carpenters, potters, stonemasons, and so on. Master artisans took apprentices and trained them to become master craftsmen after apprenticeships lasting seven or more years. Artisans organized themselves into guilds which set standards and ensured that their particular skill and craft would endure.

There are six reasons I believe the artisan is an appropriate metaphor for pastors and their work.

1. Artisans focused on one product. They learned one trade which required them to learn how to select raw materials and how to craft those raw materials into a unique, finished product. Artisans lived in the vertical silo of their own trade. Silversmiths did not work in leather, cobblers did not make barrels, and carpenters did not branch out into stone work.

2. Artisans trained apprentices to continue their craft. Skills, insights, and trade secrets were passed from master artisan to his apprentices carefully. This hands-on training and mentoring assured the continuation of the traditions of each craft, but also allowed for advances and improvements as new tools and techniques were developed. Artisans brought on new trainees each year, assuring their workshops a continuing supply of understudies at different stages of learning.

3. Artisans were successful when their workshops produced both quality products and skilled apprentices. An artisan without an apprentice limited his future and the future of the trade in which he was engaged. Successful master artisans realized that their survival meant not only producing goods today, but continuing the trade for generations through the lives of apprentices they trained.

4. Artisans maintained important traditions while incorporating best practices as they became available. The purpose of the apprentice system was to pass on the skills and trade secrets developed over decades of skilled work techniques. These traditions became marks of pride, honor, and identification for each artisan guild. Guilds guaranteed that standards were followed, while also vetting newer practices. This process assured that the entire guild would continue to be well-thought of, and its products would be valued and purchased.

5. Artisans depended on other artisans for products they did not produce. The carriage maker, for instance, depended on the wheelwright for wheels. The wheelwright, in turn, depended on the blacksmith for the iron bands wrapped around the wooden wheel. Because artisans specialized, they depended on and supported each other’s work and products.

6. Artisans were themselves master craftsmen. While this might seem self-evident, they knew what it was like to be a novice, and then to progress to the more complex skills as their knowledge and craftsmanship developed. Master artisans knew the frustrations of apprenticeship, learned to endure the seven or more years their apprenticeship covered, and valued their training as they set up their own workshops as master artisans. There was no shortcut to becoming a master craftsman, and no absentee ownership of a skilled craft workshop. Artisans were hands-on masters, trained to train others while producing their own quality products.

In summary, the pastor as artisan is an apt metaphor and here’s why.

 Like artisans, pastors…

1. Focus on one product — proclaiming and practicing the good news of Jesus Christ.

2. Train others to do what they do, thereby ensuring continuity of Christian witness now and in the future.

3. Are most successful when they not only produce effective ministry results, but when they also work closely with others to do the same.

4. Value age-old traditions, such as doctrinal orthodoxy, while incorporating new expressions of the faith into their practice.

5. Depend on others, as members of the body of Christ, to provide those gifts they do not possess in order to function faithfully as the Church.

6. Have learned important lessons from skilled leaders who have gone before them, and have incorporated those lessons into their own mature practice of ministry.

Viewing pastors and other church leaders as artisans helps us to take a long-term approach to ministry. Apprenticeships that lasted seven years required patience, consistency, and perseverance from both master artisan and apprentice. However, by taking the long view , artisans created beautiful products and an enduring legacy. Pastors could learn from their example.

Who Do You Trust?


The epistle reading for today is Colossians 1:15-23. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae contrasting the good news of Jesus with the claims of the first century Roman empire.

In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat contend that Colossians contrasts the violence, inhumanity, and corruption of the Roman empire with the new imagination of Christian community centered around Christ.

As a Roman outpost, Colossae participated in the emperor cult which asserted that the emperor was the son of god and the deity around which the universe revolved. The Roman empire was also the undisputed example of political organization and military might. From Rome’s dominance came what was ironically called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace. However, the Roman peace was secured with overwhelming violence against those nations and city-states Roman legions pacified by force.

Paul challenges the ideas of the emperor’s supremacy, the empire’s legitimacy, and the Pax Romana with the assertion that Christ is the image of God, the creator of all things, the sustainer of the universe, the first-born from the dead, the head of a new community called the church, and the true prince of peace.

The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to contrast the misplaced confidence they formerly had in the Roman empire with the new hope they found in Christ. Prior to following Christ as Lord, the Colossians had placed their trust in the Empire for their security, happiness, and fulfillment.

Today millions have misplaced their trust, too. If Paul were writing the letter to the Colossians today, he might contrast the trust we place in power, money, and technology with the supremacy of Christ.

Power is still the currency of international relationships. Mao Zedong said, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That philosophy is shared by virtually all of the nation-states on the world stage today. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others project the power they have in order to influence international events. Just as the Roman empire used its military, economic, and political power to shape the course of history, nations continue to be seduced by the promise of power today.

The second member of our illegitimate trinity is money. China is relocating 325-million peasants — rural farmers — into newly-created cities. Why? Because China’s economy, according to the IMF and other economists, doesn’t have enough consumerism. The key to growth in the Chinese economy in the near future, economists say, is creating a new class of consumers who will buy TVs, refrigerators, cell phones, and cars. In a world where one billion people live on less than $1 a day, money is a seductive force, often coupled with power.

However, a new player has entered the arena as a close partner to power and money. Both power and the quest for money are being driven by technology. We now have the technology to instantly deliver books, newspapers, and magazines to personal computers, tablets, or mobile phones. In  2007 Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone and revolutionized the mobile phone industry. Today over 5 billion cell phones are in service, and 1 billion of those are smart phones.

The NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden showed us that the US now possesses and uses advanced technology to track every telephone call, email, and cell phone location everywhere in the world; scan those communications for suspicious links to suspicious characters; track users by location; and, know who everyone everywhere in the world is talking to and what they are talking about.

Technology is our Pax Romana — both the new security savior and cyber weapon in our war to be safe from terrorism. Our trust in technology compels us to give out our credit card information, our personal history, our family and friend connections, the schools we attended, our workplace, our daily routines, even where we eat, shop, and travel. Why? Because we cannot live without the always-on, always-available world at our fingertips. We depend on technology for friendships, for commerce, for security, and even for our faith (yes, there are online churches and faith groups). Increasingly, we give away our own privacy in pursuit of friends, followers, page views, and search rankings.

But power has not brought peace, consumerism has not brought satisfaction, and technology has not brought with it the authentic life we yearn to live.

We have separated our faith from our function as human beings, believing that we, too, can place absolute trust in power, money, and technology. By doing so, we are letting those things shape us.

Paul reminds us that we ought to be shaped by the radical good news that this world system, whether the Roman empire of the first century or the internet of the 21st century, are not the legitimate gods of this world. They are the pretenders, the interlopers, and the pale substitutes for that which is real.

If you want to know God, Paul says, look at Jesus. If you want to know who the creator of the world is look at Jesus. If you want to know who keeps the world turning, look at Jesus. If you want to know who’s in charge of everything, even the things that are not acting according to God’s plan, look at Jesus.

If you want to know where real peace comes from look at Jesus.

Despite the fact that misplaced trust in power, money, and technology are found in every culture on every continent, Paul says the good news about Jesus is also ubiquitous.

The question then becomes: Who do you trust? After all, the Roman empire is no longer a world power, is it?

Singing a New Song

pianohymnbookLast Sunday we had an old-fashioned hymn sing at our church. For several weeks our members noted their favorite hymns, and our choir director collected and organized their requests. Last Sunday we sang the top 10 favorites, and we’ll sing the others during the future services.

My message that day was brief because we followed our hymn singing with communion as we always do on the first Sunday of each month. I departed from the lectionary to read an appropriate psalm —

“He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”-Psalm 40:3 NIV

After reading that short verse, I shared six types of new songs God has put in our mouths. My point was that the new song God has given us reflects who we are as God’s people in all the circumstances of life.

This new song is a song of praise.

This is what the psalmist says his new song is. No longer are we confused about who deserves our praise because the God of all creation is the only rightful object of our praise and worship. Charles Wesley penned the iconic hymn of praise when he wrote, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace.” But the new song is not only a song of praise.

This new song is a song of unity.

When we gather on Sundays for worship, we sing together, lifting our voices as one people because we are part of a community of faith. Unlike the exiles in Babylon, who asked “how can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land” we are no longer strangers, we belong to the family of God, the community of faith, and our song is a song of unity. “We Are Called To Be God’s People” reflects not only our individual relationship to God, but our corporate, communal relationship as well.

This new song is a song of  justice.

We sing as celebration that one day God’s justice will prevail. In 2007, our church was asked to host the Martin Luther King Day service for our town. We were hosting the newly-formed Boys and Girls Club of Chatham in our church, which was the first racially-integrated afterschool program in our county. Both white and black worshippers filled our sanctuary on MLK Day for worship. At the end of that service, we joined hands and sang, “We shall overcome.” For the first time in Chatham, that song became, not just the song of the black community, but the song of justice for our entire community. Justice must be a part of our new repertoire of song because justice means that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

This new song is a song of thanksgiving.

Gratitude for God’s blessings, for God’s grace, and for God’s mercy should be part of our spiritual songbook. At Thanksgiving we sing, “We Gather Together” and “Come, Ye Thankful People Come” but thanks to God for God’s blessings should be sung more often than once a year.

This new song is a song of lament.

The problem with what is now called “praise and worship” featuring rock bands and full-stage lighting is that it leaves no room for sadness and sorrow. The psalmists wrote songs of lament, sang them with heartfelt emotion, and offered them as prayers for God’s mercy and grace. We need to lament as we stand in God’s presence, even in the 21st century. Perhaps especially in the 21st century. Lent provides a time of solemn reflection and self-examination. “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” reminds us of Christ’s sacrificial death. “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” asks in plain but mournful language for us to remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. We need to go to “dark Gethsemane” at times as prelude to the joy of Easter.

This new song is a song of confidence.

Christians hymns have always described our faith and hope in God’s presence now and in the future. “We’re Marching to Zion” asserts our faith that our lives have meaning and purpose, that we are on a journey whose destination is God. Songs that reflect the confidence we have in God’s love and God’s plan form the foundation for all the other songs in our Christian hymnody. Simply put, we sing because we believe. From the earliest psalms to the most contemporary musical expression, we Christians have sung our faith boldly and with great confidence.

The new song God has put in our mouths isn’t just one tune, with one theme, for all time. The new song God gives us reflects God’s presence in our lives at all times, in all places, and for all people. Sunday when you sing, think about what type of song you’re singing. Then connect that song to the work of God in your life and in the life of your congregation.

Finally, remember the instruction of John Wesley to “sing lustily and with good courage.” If you do, the second part of Psalm 40:3 just might become a reality — “Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”


Picking Up The Mantle of Leadership

prophet-elijah-ascending-to-heaven-on-a-chariot-of-fireSunday I preached on the story of the prophet Elijah and his protege Elisha from 2 Kings 2:8-14. Elijah knew he was nearing the the end of his life, and asked Elisha what he could do for him before he departed. Elisha replied that he wanted a “double-portion” of Elijah’s spirit.

Of course, this is the Elijah who had defeated Ahab and Jezebel’s prophets of Baal, all 450 of them. This is the Elijah that had saved the widow of Zarephath and her son by assuring her that her flour and oil would not run out until God brought rain to end the drought. This is also the same Elijah who raised the widow’s son from the dead. So to ask for a “double-portion” of his spirit was to ask a lot.

In Elijah’s passing of the mantle of leadership to Elisha, there are four things we can learn:

1. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to want it.

2 Kings tells us there were 50 other prophets following Elijah, but Elisha was the only one to ask if he could inherit Elijah’s ministry. Of course, back in 1 Kings 19, God tells Elijah to select Elisha, and he does so by temporarily wrapping his mantle around Elisha’s shoulders. Elisha indicates that he wants this mantle of ministry by immediately ceasing to plow his fields, slaughtering his oxen, and building a sacrificial fire from the wooden plows and harnesses he is using. In short, Elisha wanted to pick up Elijah’s mantle.

2. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to wait for it.

We don’t know how much time elapses between Elisha’s selection by Elijah in 1 Kings 19, and Elisha’s inheritance of Elijah’s mantle in 2 Kings 8. But, however long it took, Elisha had to wait for the time God had appointed for him to assume his prophetic ministry. When Elisha asked for a “double-portion” of Elijah’s spirit, what he was really asking for was that he would be seen as the rightful heir to Elijah’s prophetic work, just like a first-born son would have inherited the material possessions of his father. An heir has to wait to succeed his father, and Elisha waited patiently for God’s timing.

3. To pick up the mantle of leadership, you have to witness the power of God.

When Elisha asks Elijah for a double-portion of his spirit, Elijah says, “If you see me when I’m taken from you, it will be yours–otherwise, it will not.” But paradoxically, Elijah tries three times to dissuade Elisha from following him. Each time, Elisha says, “I’m going to stay with you.” Unless Elisha sees the power of God, he can’t inherit the mantle of prophetic leadership. While others were intimidated by seeing the power of Israel’s evil kings, Ahab and his son, God’s prophets had to see and embrace the power of God in action. When Elisha sees the chariot and horses of fire, he cries out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horses of Israel!”

4. Once you have picked up the mantle of leadership, you have to wield it.

As Elijah is being carried into heaven, his mantle slips from his shoulders. Elisha picks it up, rolls it up, and strikes the waters of the river Jordan, just as Elijah had done not long before. As he does so, Elisha asks, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” By his action and his prayer, Elisha invokes the power and presence of God as he assumes the prophetic mantle. When Elisha strikes the waters of the Jordan River, the waters part just as they had for Elijah. Had Elisha not wielded the mantle of leadership, he would have never received confirmation that Elijah’s leadership had indeed passed to him.

Leadership succession isn’t always neat or simple. But church leaders can benefit from the lessons of Elisha’s succession to Elijah. By wanting to assume the leadership to which God has called them, by waiting until God’s timing is right, by witnessing the power of God in the transition, and by wielding the mantle of leadership once it has fallen to them, the transfer of leadership from one leader to another will follow an extraordinary biblical model.