All posts from "December 2012"December 31, 2012
I’m consumed with what it means to be called
As a preacher’s kid, my youth was all about church. We discussed ministry the way some families discuss sports. When a new pastor or leader gave his first sermon, we hoped it would include an exciting story of his “calling.” In fact, we were never as concerned about his resume as we were about his calling. We didn’t want a businessman. We wanted “God’s man.” We were confident that “the called” would not lead us down the wrong path.
I’m consumed with what it means to be called. We all have talents, and even those who volunteer to clean Sunday school rooms are “called” to be helpers. Every volunteer, teacher, and nursery worker is important to God’s work. Yet when we elevate leaders, teachers, and those who impact evangelism in the church, shouldn’t we pray for them to have a specific calling? Will their influence and ministry have greater impact because they are called? Is there a deeper calling that goes beyond just being “willing” to do the job?
The term “called” refers to the way Jesus called his disciples. Many biblical characters made important contributions, but it was the “called” disciples who delivered the most impact. Their spiritual accomplishments highlight the idea that God’s anointed work will take us down a different path.
What does “the calling” look like? It would be nice if called people looked like actor Charlton Heston when he descended the mountain as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s production of The Ten Commandments. He climbed the mountain with brown hair and returned with white hair and a beard. If the called exhibited a physical change, it would be easy to distinguish their ministry. Instead, those who are called experience an internal change. Their eyes are fixed on a bigger goal, and their actions are always filtered through God’s Word. Yes, that’s the mark of a Christian as well. A called person however, will jump to the big picture even faster. For example, a called person might struggle with anger, but when faced with a difficult situation his or her calling provides the necessary power to overcome human flaws and quickly become a peacemaker. God’s universal plan will always win over personal desires.
Should we pray for “a calling”? Absolutely! I believe we all have a place in God’s plan and we’ll be more successful if we’re in tune with the master’s call. Ephesians 4:1 instructs us to “live a life worthy of your calling.” Paul goes on to promote unity within the church and to explain that the gifts of God are for the edification of the body of Christ. In other words, we should pray to be unified, to be called, and to strive for holiness.
When asked, one pastor felt his calling required more of him than others. He pushed to be more accessible, to be a living example of Christ’s teaching, and to give 150 percent to the body of Christ. He provided for his home, but everyone understood that God’s work came first.
Another church leader explained that his calling was to be the example that others needed. “How can we teach God’s commands if we can’t live them? I exemplify that it is possible to live a holy life. It’s hard, but we can do it!”
Dr. Crocker looked into the distance. With a determined look he responded, “God owns me. Period. I am completely and totally his. When you are called, you will do extraordinary things because you are always obedient to God. God uses the obedient Christian.”
I’ve felt that calling. Focused on a specific spiritual issue, my eyes twinkle, my voice raises a notch, and I feel as if every cell in my body has just been elevated to alert status. My mind kicks in with reasoning powers that aren’t available for other issues. When I’m consumed by my calling—for a split second a spotlight hits and I recognize its heavenly origin. I am both exhilarated and humbled. I rejoice in every second of enlightenment. All too soon the moment is over. The article, conversation, teaching session is put aside. The spotlight dims and I put the “calling” back in the box as if this gift from God were only a loan.
But what if I didn’t put it back in the box? What if God meant for each of us to make it permanent? What if he expected us to live our calling 24/7? Should it become a permanent part of us until it changes who we are? What if it became the burning bush that engulfed our every thought, wish, relationship, and deed? If our calling never left us, perhaps we would be better mothers, fathers, wives, friends, and ambassadors for Christ.
Some leaders neglect their families in order to give everything to God. We rightly encourage them to be more “present” or aware of daily relationships. That causes some to compartmentalize their work. Like me, their calling goes back in the box. God did not intend for our calling to disappear when we clock out of spiritual work.
The heavenly answer is not to put our calling aside but to allow it to define who we are. When the called are consumed with the calling, we are better people, more rested, and even friendlier. When our calling is more like the life of Jesus, our personal life can only follow suit. Not once did Jesus ever change. He was Jesus every moment of every day. When he rested, he was the Son of God. When he preached, he was the Son of God. When he had pity on the poor, he was the Son of God. When he attended a wedding, he was the Son of God.
When you are called, you will reflect Christ every moment of every day and his power will allow you draw on that call for strength, passion, and endurance to do his will.
I want to live the way David did, pursuing God’s heart
When I was 18 years old, I felt paralyzed in my relationship with God. I knew God was real, but my fancy prayers and daily devotionals were not cutting it. I was doing everything right, but it felt all wrong. Yet I still thought I was giving God what he wanted.
I began to question it all—and this good little Bible-belt girl somehow missed the rules for wrestling with God. As I surveyed my life, I realized doing all the right things had won me the admiration of everyone but God. And I felt empty and prideful. It was worse than rebellion—being good with no God. It was beginning to occur to me that maybe God was after something else.
That’s when I thought maybe I was chasing the wrong things. And then I found 1 Samuel 13. This is an incredibly dramatic part of the Bible, like a great Steven Spielberg movie. Saul was filled with fear; he was about to be attacked by the Philistines. He didn’t know what to do to save his life, and he realized he had not sought the Lord’s favor. Perhaps if he did that, God would save him!
Just then, Samuel appeared and said, “What is this you have done?” (verse 11). He told Saul he had done a foolish thing; he had been disobedient. He basically told Saul he was done. Finished.
Then Samuel told Saul that God was looking for a man after his own heart, someone he could appoint as ruler of his people, since Saul had messed up. He was talking, of course, about David. And that’s why we refer to him as a “man after God’s own heart.” But David wasn’t perfect either. Turns out our perfection is not what God is interested in. Phew! That’s a relief!
David was a wild, passionate warrior king, whose own messy story I had heard and whose psalms I had read a thousand times, but when I began to look a bit more closely at the life of this man, something about the way he related to God just wrecked me. (Check out 2 Samuel 12 and then read Psalm 22!) Yes, David committed murder and adultery—he was no missionary or priest. I saw this man as both completely sold out for God and completely broken. He was in love with God. And he lived with an acute awareness of his need for him. His view of God was so big, David actually believed God was real and lived like it.
In every one of us is a space that is screaming, saying there is something wrong, something missing. We all feel it—this chasm in us—and every one of us tries to fill it. We run hard after everything we can think of to fill it. This is just the way we cope, the way we survive. We need to fill it, so we do. We chase.
Many of us in Christian leadership are tired and burned out and can’t figure out why. I know I feel that way from time to time. It’s so easy to feel like I have to be really successful at my ministry, or else I’m neglecting the gifts God has given me. This can push me to work harder and longer than I probably should. And then I wonder why I’m worn out! And I’m not even sure what I’ve been chasing!
We usually chase good things. I want to be comfortable. I want to be liked. I want to be successful. I want to make a difference. I want to be respected. I want to be loved.
The desire to be effective in my ministry—or any of these other desires—isn’t bad until I want it more than God. I like things I can see, that make me feel good fast. When something aches…when something feels empty…it’s only natural to wake up every day and strive to fix it.
We will chase something. We were built to chase, to worship something. So will we chase what we see or chase an invisible God?
The more I have learned about the life of David, the more my ideas of what God wants from me have been shattered. David had one life and two eyes and one heart, just like me, but they were all laser-focused on the heart of his God…my God. David was in love with God.
Yes, David sinned and wrestled, just like I do. And while he was not so concerned about appearing godly, he was terribly concerned about knowing God. He was a man who saw past his circumstances, past himself, past this life to the heart of God.
David chased after God’s heart. And I think as a generation of women, we are longing to do the same. Unfortunately, we all are chasing things other than God.
I’ve discovered that when you look into the life of someone who’s chasing God alone, you start craving him, too. I want a life like David’s, brave and dependent and full of worship. He had a relationship with God unlike any other in Scripture, and honestly, unlike any other I’ve ever seen. I want to know God the way he did. I want to trust God as he did.
One of my great fears is that I will get to the end of my life and realize I lived for the wrong things. And honestly, there are many days when I forget that all the invisible stuff is real, and pleasing God is far from my thoughts and I just chase whatever I want—whatever seems to feel right in the moment. I seek happiness through friends, food, my kids, the approval of people, or wasting minutes on Facebook and catching up on TV shows. There are unending distractions for us to chase.
As a result, I think many of us are tired. And though we would like to please God, it feels like it would take a lot of effort to do that. The more I understand what God has done, the more I quit striving and simply rest in him. David chased God, but part of that meant resting in the work of God, in God’s favor, and in the plans God had written for him. Whether you are running from God or working your tail off to please him, David’s journey will challenge your view of God—it has mine.
I learned that God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called
The Greece I found that Wednesday afternoon in March 2010 was not the one I remembered from my honeymoon fourteen years earlier. There were no stunning, whitewashed buildings. No lapis-blue tile rooftops. No festive music. No outdoor market with vendors selling freshly pressed olive oil, mouth-watering feta cheese, fresh cantaloupe.
This afternoon, the streets were empty, black, wet. The normally crystal-blue Mediterranean pounded dark and rough against the Thessaloniki shipping port. Strange how fear, not just the season—this long, hard winter—changed everything.
Is this how they see it? I wondered.
“They” were fourteen young women, mostly Eastern European, recently rescued from sex trafficking. But they hadn’t begun their journey as women—they’d been mere schoolgirls when lured from homes in the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Romania, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Nigeria. Sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-olds. All girls who should have been giggling about music and basketball games, worrying about what to wear to school—not how to survive the next minute.
Securely hidden in a safe house run by The A21 Campaign, the rescue ministry my husband, Nick, and I had launched just six months before, we were to speak face-to-face this dreary afternoon with a part of Greece I’d never known. I kept reminding myself: This is not a movie. This is not “reality TV.” This is real. This is real.
Questions hammered at my broken heart: How could this possibly happen in our world today? No matter how much money is involved, how can anyone be so depraved as to make sex slaves of others—let alone make it an international operation, enslaving not just one girl but hundreds of thousands, again and again and again?
Sonia, a Russian girl who had arrived at the shelter the previous day, interrupted my flood of thought.
“Why are you here?” she demanded, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Why did you come?”
Oh God, I prayed. Help me help them! I breathed deep and looked at Sonia for a long moment.
“There is only one rescuer I know,” I told Sonia and the rest of the women, “with the power to free us from the darkest prison. That rescuer is the God I love, who loves us so much he left everything to come for us, to free us. He is the one who made us, each of us, for a unique purpose and a magnificent destiny. He makes right what the world makes wrong. His plans are for good, not for evil. His ways are straight and merciful. He came to give me a hope and a future—and to give you one too. His promises are true. His love is full of forgiveness and peace, joy and kindness, grace. He is the true rescuer. He saves us from any prison, whether physical or emotional or spiritual, the ones we’re forced into and the ones we fall into on our own. He chooses us. He can make all things new. He loves us without condition, unrelentingly, forever. He loves us broken, and he loves making us whole again. And he asks those of us who love him to love others the same way. To choose them. To be agents of his hope, his forgiveness, his grace. He asks us to join him in rescuing others.
“That’s why I’m here,” I said. “That’s why I’ve come.”
Sonia’s eyes filled with tears. I could see her grappling with the concept of unconditional love, the meaning of grace, of all things being made new. All the whys and hows of what I’d said furrowed her brow. All the what ifs and possibilities had died in her long ago. Yet here I was, resurrecting them. What if there are good agents and true promises and a merciful God who loves me and chooses me and can lift me from the impoverishment, the betrayal and fear, the hurt and horror? What if…
No! Sonia could not believe all this. It was too good to be true. She knew all about promises too good to be true. The risk of allowing hope to reenter her life, only to see that hope dashed again, was too much. Her anguish turned back to anger, and she pushed back from the table. “If what you are telling me is true,” she yelled, “if what you say about your God is true—then where were you? Where have you been? Why didn’t you come sooner?”
Why didn’t you come sooner?
I offered them no excuses that day, but I did know that there were reasons. Reasons that, when we hear God’s call, when we feel that gentle (or not so gentle) urging of God’s Spirit for us to make a bold step, take a risk, serve others, save a life, commit—we so often hold back.
It’s because we don’t feel empowered.
We don’t feel qualified.
We think we lack the courage, the strength, the wisdom, the money, the experience, the education, the organization, the backing.
We feel like Moses when, from out of the burning bush, God called him to speak for him before Pharaoh. And Moses answered, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent . . . I am slow of speech and tongue . . . Please send someone else” (Exodus 4:10–13).
Not me, God. I’m afraid. Weak. Poor. Stupid. Unqualified. Daunted.
Not long ago, that is exactly how I would have responded.
But it has never been my desire to be daunted, to be afraid, to be unable to respond to God’s call. Is it yours? I doubt it. I think that you, like me, want to be able to say instead, “Here am I, Lord—send me.” We don’t want to sound like Moses, stammering around in search of excuses.
And we don’t need to. Because, just as God gave Moses exactly what he needed to accomplish great things for God, he will equip us in just the same way. If he calls us to slay giants, he will make us into giant slayers.
God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called. Taken from Undaunted by Christine Caine. Copyright ©2012 by Christine Caine and Equip and Empower Ministries. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
A book review
I have read a lot of books over the years, many of them on spiritual topics. I read books on Bible study methods, prayer, small-group leadership, and sharing your faith. I thought they would help me build skills that, as a nerd and introvert, don’t come naturally. Most of them had steps to follow, goals to set, and acronyms to remember. Those are great tools. They give me structure and clear goals. However, I am learning that using a formula and following steps do not guarantee success.
I confess, in the evangelism department I should get an F. I can count on one hand the people I’ve told about Jesus who said yes to his invitation. I have never felt comfortable walking up to some stranger and asking, "If you died today, where would you spend eternity?" I don’t leave a little booklet on the restaurant table with my tip. It's not that I don't love Jesus. I just feel like a used-car salesman. Reading all those books about evangelism did not improve matters, either. They only left me feeling guilty.
I've been missing something. The Sacrament of Evangelism, by Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie (Moody Publishers, 2011), helped me see what it is: relationship. My relationship with God, my relationships with those around me, and God's relationship with them.
The book starts by explaining what “sacrament” means. God is already present and working around us. When we take communion, he is present. When we pray for those who are lost, he is present. He wants to have a relationship with us. So…as I nurture my relationship with him, some things happen:
As my understanding of God's love for me grows, and my love for him grows, that love overflows into my relationships with other people.
As my understanding of God's love for the lost grows, my love for the lost grows.
As I remember that God is already present and working in my life and the lives of those around me, I become more aware of his presence. I start to recognize the work he is doing. I recognize the brokenness in other people as an invitation to lovingly tell them about Jesus.
Evangelism, like prayer and reading the Word, is not intended to be a "good deed," something to check off my do-list, or part of a magic formula to have a more rewarding relationship with Jesus. It's not something that makes God love me more. According to the book, evangelism is about nurturing my relationship with God and joining him in the work he is already doing.
The Sacrament of Evangelism could easily be used in a Sunday school class or small group. It isn't heavy on theology. I'm a seminary student, but I think this book is readable for anyone who loves Jesus. It contains a few tips on starting conversations and being discerning. It also suggests Scriptures to use in conversation. Each chapter includes discussion questions to give structure to group conversation.
Also included are some touching accounts of how the authors put the book’s principles into practice. In one inspiring story, Jerry had a conversation with a college student who visited his church. Eventually the student responded to the Gospel, and he was mentored. We hear about the change in this person’s life and the domino effect that resulted. While reading this account, it occurred to me that if a mature believer had come alongside me in the early days of my faith, "evangelism" might not have seemed so scary. Now as someone who has walked with Jesus for more than 20 years, I realize evangelism is about more than me sharing the gospel. It is also about nurturing relationships with young believers so they share the gospel as well.
There are a few points at which the book gets so focused on our relationship with God that it is hard to see the connection to evangelism. For example, there is a chapter on developing character. Courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom are discussed. I can see how courage is needed to tell others about Jesus, but it is hard to think of justice and temperance in the context of sharing the Gospel. However, the discussion questions at the end of the chapter make the connection well.
If you are looking for another book on evangelism that gives you a program to implement, this is not the book for you. It takes a more holistic approach. If you are looking for something refreshing and different, then I highly recommend The Sacrament of Evangelism.
Diana Prange is a student at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and a lay leader at her church. In her free time she plays violin, makes blankets for sick children and unwed mothers, and plays with her parakeets, Lily and Sunny.
What I learned in weaning from the rush
Yes!” I pounded the wooden desktop as I rushed from my office into my boss’. “Lynn, I got it all: bonus spots, the discount we talked about, four extra weeks, guaranteed no charge. That’s at least $50,000 right there!”
Lynn glanced up. “Great!” She continued typing.
I’d grown accustomed to Lynn’s “Of course. That’s what we pay account directors like you to do” attitude whenever I announced each victory in the aggressive game of negotiations I played to win—day in, day out. Unbeknownst to me, I’d also grown accustomed to the thrill of victory, and adrenalin, with every deal I hammered. I loved it—the late-night hours of research, strategy-planning, and what-if scenarios I ran through before phoning the next radio or television rep to begin negotiating on my clients’ behalf. I negotiated to win, to get the best value for my clients, all or nothing.
One day I woke up and thought, “I’m 25 years old and I’m responsible for leading the team of media buyers about to purchase 24 million dollars worth of 30-second commercials on almost every radio station in Canada.”
Obeying God’s call to move out of Canada’s ad-agency world and work as administrative pastor at my downtown Toronto Baptist church lessened the thrill of victory somewhat, but not much. After all, my hire coincided with the church’s multi-million-dollar renovation. There was a lot to manage and negotiate, whether projects or people. My first big task at this new job: make it all look easy—the moving of congregation and staff out of the building into temporary offices, the interminable construction delays, meetings, moving congregation and staff back into the new church building, the opening ceremony, rental policies, rates…
I loved the ministry even though my adrenalin rushes began to lose steam. They slowed down when I dealt with the sticky part of my role—congregants who didn’t understand why our congregation’s ministry of hospitality, of presence, needed to be anchored to a framework of policy and procedure. But so what? I kept my chops wet with risk and crisis management, negotiations with a tenant over rental rates, dealing with agenda-driven volunteers. These were still all-or-nothing situations where I needed to fight on behalf of and for our leadership’s vision for what our church could become: a place of healing and hope where faith intersected with Toronto at large. The stakes were still high.
Crash and Burn
The adrenalin dried up the evening my husband and I left Sunnybrook Hospital, newborn son in arms. For two months I flitted on the edges of postpartum depression through days and nights of nursings, diaper changes, and burps. As I stared into space one night, two thoughts remained: “I’ve lost it all—my profile, my momentum, my career, everything that’s made me Renee. I’ll never get any of it back.” Five months prior, not knowing I was pregnant, I’d assumed the communications director role at Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec (CBWOQ), a women’s missions organization.
I’d found it easy to lead the big things: the million-dollar media buys, all to be done by deadline and with a team around me; the high-profile projects at church that would impact an entire congregation and budget lines if income didn’t exceed projections; the finding and cementing of partnerships with evangelical organizations that could use our renovated building and thus help us increase our ministry impact. I helped make big visions real. I helped others realize their marketing and advertising dreams (on their dime of course). God now wanted me to learn another leadership lesson.
Perhaps it was the scale of CBWOQ’s mandate and the rhythm of its task list: small, slow, steady, focused. Perhaps it was becoming a first-time mother in my mid-forties: Once I’d wrapped my big fingers around onesies, how difficult could it be to raise a baby? Or so I’d thought.
In any case, the adrenalin that had hallmarked my previous leadership roles became something else—prayers that varied in intensity, frequency, and volume depending on the day and the situation. For once I was up against what I couldn’t anticipate or finesse. I had no clue what my son’s cries meant. And I couldn’t control CBWOQ’s budget that seemingly shrank overnight, victim to the stock market and a shrinking donor base of older women.
All I could do was pray—for strength, for wisdom, for the Holy Spirit to show me what to do. For the first time in my life I prayed, “Lord, I can’t do this in my own strength, on my own. I need you.” I weaned, once and for all, from my adrenalin addiction.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Stay in the moment. When my son wants to plant lettuce seeds in our backyard, am I able to stay in the moment and shut down the ticker tape of deadlines and tasks that runs in my head? Could I give my son, and me, the gift of sweet attention and time? When I do, God’s delight warms me. I feel his pleasure. I hear his “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Search out the one needful thing. One day my writing mentor, a published author, women’s speaker, columnist, and grandmother, cut across the grain of my whine. “Renee,” she said. “I remember accepting my PhD and, while striding across the platform to accept it, thinking about all the books and columns I’d be writing and the talks I’d be giving. I stepped off the platform and into the arms of my son and granddaughters. My son was about to go through a messy divorce. My granddaughters needed me. So I went home—to be a grandmother. And there were months when all I could do was ask the Lord, ‘Lord, what is the one needful thing for today?’ He’d show me and I’d do it. That got me through the years of wondering why my life had taken such a turn.”
What’s the one needful thing for today (Luke 10:42)? That question anchors my days, pulls me back when I spiral out of control, brings me home.
In a sense, staying in the moment and searching for that one needful thing are two parts of the same coin: obedience. I’m learning that leadership isn’t just about the big things we do well. It’s about obedience in every thing. When, like Mary, I choose to press in and listen, I realize how much Jesus wants to give me what I need to accomplish my projects and then some: peace, joy, kindness, gentleness.
Don’t despise small beginnings. Zechariah prayed for, cajoled, and prophesied to God’s people returned from exile in Babylon. The Lord hadn’t forgotten his people and wanted this remnant to rebuild his temple. With fantastic images and words, Zechariah, priest and prophet, told these battered and torn Jewish people to dream again, to believe that Zerubbabel’s small beginnings to the temple would be completed…all to God’s glory (Zechariah 4:5-10).
I’m privileged to help the Spirit fashion a man out of my son and to help CBWOQ reach out to a new generation of Baptist women with creativity and flair. “The Eternal, Commander of heavenly armies, has said this to Zerubbabel: ‘Your strength and prowess will not be enough to finish My temple, but My Spirit will be.’ ” (Zechariah 4:6, The Voice).
Yes, God’s Spirit will be enough to help me.
Renee James is the director of communications for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec, and editor of its publication, The Link & Visitor. She is a former administrative pastor and a regular contributor to Today's Christian Woman, and she blogs at ReneeJames.org
In an age of social media, perhaps more than ever, what is whispered in the dark will be brought into the light
“Imagine if every thought that ever passed through your mind were projected up on a movie screen for all to see.” Ever hear a pastor bring up that idea in a discussion of sin? Me too—more than once.
A couple of months ago, that image came to mind when word broke that Facebook had accidentally posted old private messages on users’ public walls for all to see—amid widespread outrage and frustration. Just like on that fabled screen, private, closely-held information suddenly was broadcast in a way that was never intended—or desired.
The Facebook glitch also brought to mind these words Jesus said to his disciples:
“The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!” (Luke 12:2-3).
The topic here was a warning against the Pharisees, with their tendency to hide behind a false mask of piety. Now as then, leaders can be the worst offenders when it comes to hypocrisy. But it’s all going to come out at some point.
Of course, “whispering behind closed doors” isn’t the same as a private conversation—and there’s nothing wrong with private conversations. In fact, there are many things right with them. When Facebook first launched, some took issue with the whole public “wall” feature: why write something intended for receipt by one person in a public forum, for everyone else to see? Why say publicly what could be said privately? And in a world where social networking can feel synonymous with over-sharing, there’s some fairness in that question.
But we all quickly grew accustomed to this kind of public-access communication between individuals. It’s most of the fun of Facebook—and Twitter, and social networking in general. Why? Because social media excel at enabling surface-level information-sharing and community participation. It’s all about getting things out to the masses and having group-style conversations about facets of our private lives. But it’s not so good at taking individual friendships deeper. That’s why the majority of us utilize the public-forum functions more frequently than private messaging.
Social media, like many facets of modern life, stretch and blur the lines between public and private. Today we want robust private and public lives—the best of both, without the costs associated with either. This, I think, is why that Facebook privacy breach is relevant to Jesus’ comments about private and public worlds. They’re as pertinent today as when he said them because they emphasize two key facets of his call to holy living: authenticity and care with words. These may be even to harder to navigate today than they were in Jesus’ day.
Authenticity. Jesus calls us to live openly and truthfully, consistent in all settings and honest about our failings—not to excuse our sin, but so we may repent and be changed.
This is where the private/public divide comes in, and today misalignment between the two occurs in person and virtually. The public self is my “best foot forward” self—the earrings I throw on before leaving the house, the cute (not chaos-laden) family photos I share via social media. It’s the me I most like and wants others to see. The private self is less polished and often less godly. Private me can be judgmental, gossipy, and self-interested in a way that public me would never be. She can be petty, too, and complaining. Reasons like this are what tempt me away from authenticity—inclining me to prefer my private messages stay private, not go public on a wall.
The Pharisees’ energy went into hiding their sin and pretending not to sin; Jesus asks us to instead put that energy into confessing our failings and letting him help us grow in holiness. He wants authentic people pursuing integrity in him. This truth is all the more important for leaders to grasp, because Jesus frequently elevated mistake-making folks: Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene. He’s after flawed but honest people, willing to admit their mistakes and seek him for redemption.
Care with words. There’s a lot I love about today’s connectivity, but one negative component is the way it diminishes our use of language and our care with words. We fire off a quick text or email, thumb a status update at a red light, squeeze in a call from our cell. By every measure, communication in our multi-tasking world is often done in haste. This makes the biblical admonition to be “slow to speak” harder than ever to apply—and sin in speech harder than ever to avoid.
Those of us in leadership positions, more than anyone else, should be taking this reality to heart. Failure to maintain purity in speech is the one reason cited when James told his readers, “Not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1-3). We lead by example more than through any other means, and our words matter a great deal. We can do great damage to the reputation and cause of Christ through the words we use. Following Jesus means striving for what James calls “control” on our tongues—and our fingertips and thumbs besides.
The Facebook private message/public wall glitch provides an objective glimpse into how these issues really feel—and play out—in today’s world. But any honest assessment of our social media usage can do the same thing. Are we authentic people, the same in public as we are in private? And do we choose our words carefully, regardless of our hearers (in person or virtual)?
May we live in such a way that the harsh words Jesus used to reprimand the Pharisees will not be those he uses with us.
How the “next Christians” offer light to the world
In contrast to countercultures that separate, antagonize, or copy culture, the next Christians are a counterculture for the common good that is centered and immoveable. They don’t concern themselves with popularity, what they can achieve for themselves, or whether the masses are following. Instead, they boldly lead.
Preserving Agents in a Decaying World
Christ said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). For ages, salt has been understood as the key agent for preserving and protecting food from decay or spoilage. This was especially true in the ancient world where the modern technology of refrigeration didn’t exist. Jesus likely used the idea of salt to define how his followers should interact in the world.
Salt is only useful when it’s good, active, and engaged—doing what it’s supposed to do where it’s supposed to be. Salt doesn’t preserve anything by itself; it must attach to something in order to provide its life- sustaining and preservative value.
Salt is only useful when it’s good, active, and engaged—doing what it’s supposed to do where it’s supposed to be. Salt doesn’t preserve anything by itself; it must attach to something in order to provide its life- sustaining and preservative value.
Left on its own, even in proximity to meat, salt will do nothing to keep the meat from going bad. And meat left alone, without salt, will rot and be rendered useless. But when the two intermingle— when the salt is rubbed deep into filet mignon— it not only preserves the steak but expresses its greatest attributes in taste, quality, and flavor.
The next Christians see themselves as salt—preserving agents actively restoring in the middle of a decaying culture. They attach themselves to people and structures that are in danger of rotting while availing themselves of Christ’s redeeming power to do work through them. They understand that by being restorers they fight against the cultural tide. But they feel called to restore and renew everything they see falling apart.
Although they know they may never see the full manifestation of their work, they honor God by living in this way. Their commitment to hold back evil, to repair systems and structures, and to heal people who are broken and suffering from the fall gives an alternative trajectory to the average life (see How Now Shall We Live? by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, page 33). They bring peace to situations and are constantly about the work of putting things back together.
Rather than fighting off culture to protect an insular Christian community, they are fighting for the world to redeem it. This is the essence of being countercultural for the common good.
Making Sense of the World
When I lived in Atlanta, I would often fly to New York City for meetings—sometimes up and back in the same day. Anyone who travels there frequently knows to map out his transportation plan ahead of time: which airport to fly into, the time of day to avoid gridlock traffic, and which train line to take into Manhattan. For me, this meant getting up early and catching Delta’s first flight into La Guardia Airport. Once I deplaned, I’d get in the taxi line to wait my turn. If you’ve ever been to La Guardia, you can appreciate the scene. Out the doors and a glance to the right exposes you to a sea of yellow: hundreds of cabs lined up, drivers hanging out waiting for their turn to cash in on a $40 fare into the city. The line moves quickly as a constant flow of arrivals jump in cars, state their destination, and head to their first appointment.
Almost every time I’d leave the airport and take a cab toward the Triborough Bridge, I’d notice a strange experience happening on a slightly isolated corner of the sidewalk. Anywhere between five and ten faithful Muslims, turbans on, lay prostrate on their prayer mats facing east. Whether it was ninety-five degrees or sleeting ice, these men were committed to practicing their faith while on the job awaiting their next assignment. What intrigues me, though, is how committed these men are to their way of life. For me, it piques a genuine curiosity. I want to know more, to understand what is motivating them to be so faithful to such a culturally odd practice in the public parking lot of an airport. Even though I don’t fully get it, and even though I’ve never felt the need to pray like this in public, I respect their countercultural commitment. The odd and curious practice of seeing a grown man put his face on a rug in the middle of a parking lot makes a statement. It says, “I’m serious about my faith. I’m committed to expressing it and don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’ve found a better way to live!”
And this is true of the next Christians. Although you likely won’t find them on prayer mats in the middle of a parking lot, they believe just as passionately that they have discovered the best way to live. They’re proud of it. And others seem genuinely curious about what it is that is motivating the change. They certainly don’t flaunt it in the faces of those who aren’t as far along on the journey. They simply live it out and invite others to join in along the way. They live with gratefulness that they’ve providentially stumbled upon a better, truer, alternative way of life. Taking seriously their responsibility to embody the gospel, they trust the Holy Spirit to work through them in his time to persuade others to join up. Occasionally, that leads to others’ choosing to become Christian and pursue the journey alongside them. At other times, it sheds light on a new way of being Christian to which they’d never been exposed. Maybe you’ve heard some of their stories throughout this book and created your own perception that these Christians, as countercultural as they are, still seem quite hip. It’s a bit understandable, but don’t be confused by the simple distinction. Labeling someone “relevant” is a subjective tag, usually just a matter of style; but it’s the substance of these Christians’ commitment to restore that’s driving the curiosity of the world.
I can think of no better example of this than Shane Claiborne. As an activist-turned-author, Shane embodies this countercultural lifestyle. Living in a communal house on Potter Street in the Kensington neighborhood of urban Philadelphia, Shane chooses not to own a car. Not because he can’t afford it, but because he believes it would place his level of material possession above that of his neighbor. And in his view that’s not showing love at all.
He’s a radical by most people’s standards. He travels the world in John the Baptist-style hand-sewn clothes, doing anything he can to fight injustice, stand for peace, and genuinely love others. This has taken him everywhere from the streets of Baghdad during the initial Iraq War bombing campaign to planting a community garden in his neighborhood. Though some people disagree with Shane’s theology, no one would question his commitment. Shane cares about people.
He lives out his first commitment of following what he understands to be the way of Jesus and restoring anything broken that presents itself along the way. And when he does, the world’s curiosity is piqued. Shane was featured in Esquire magazine as one of their “Best and Brightest.” It’s not his long dreadlocks that are drawing the interest, but his oddness to believe that Jesus’ way is a better way for the world. He’s a Christian who has radically changed the order of his life to align with the ways of Jesus. People are curious to know what drives someone like Shane to live in such a countercultural way. They are responding to the substance and to a man whose life authentically models their greatest hopes. I think deep down most people long to have such a willingness and humility to submit to live in a better way— but it takes people like Shane to open their imagination that this kind of life is even possible.
Christians like Shane represent the type of people and lifestyles that fly in the face of the values of contemporary culture. You may not feel called to make your own clothes or protest war by placing yourself in harm’s way, but as a Christian, when you restore where you are, people take notice. You become the model of a person who pursues deep relationships, lives with purpose and meaning, commits to the service of others, and reconciles injustices wherever they exist. If you strive to be faithful to Christ, your life will paint a picture of what every human soul is longing for. In turn, the world will take notice that this way of being Christian might just be a better way.
These countercultures are changing the face of Christianity in our world. No longer embarrassed by false representations of the Gospel, the next Christians are communicating something authentic and true through their lives that gives pause to those who encounter them. By being faithful to how Jesus calls them to live, they offer an attractive alternative for the spiritually hungry.
Excerpted from The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. Copyright ©2012 by Gabe Lyons. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.