Responding to God: Just Keep it Simple

Mick Turner

I think one of the most comforting and encouraging truths of the gospel message is that, in spite of past screw ups, Jesus loves and accepts us as we are. Not only that, but through the actions of the blessed Holy Spirit, he is willing to help us change. And even more mind boggling, he is planning on making us a full partner in his father’s business. Author and teacher Billy Joe Daugherty speaks to these themes in a clear manner:

This is the good news of Jesus: He loves you just the way you are, yet He sees you for what you can become…..He sees you sharing the living water with others who are dry on the inside….God has big plans for you. It may seem like you have wasted your life, but with Jesus you can make up for lost years in a short time. He will not reject you for your past failures. He welcomes you to come to him and receive living water.

As I said, I find this aspect of the Lord to be most comforting because I have certainly messed up things many times. Further, I can truly relate to that feeling of having wasted my life. Yet Jesus is willing to put that behind us now and turn both His eyes and mine toward a more positive, successful future, one where I can have a positive, beneficial impact on the world in general and my family in particular.

More amazing is the fact that I never have to go it alone. Instead, the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit is walking next to me and living inside me in a miraculous way I can never understand but can fully appropriate through the simple act of faith. I don’t know about you, but when I truly take time and reflect on all this, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. The only thing required of me to receive the healing water of Christ is faith. It really is that simple. Unfortunately, many Christians fail to understand what if means to have faith. Jesus plainly told us that he has overcome the world and all that we have to do to have a life of spiritual fulfillment is to accept what He has told us in faith. As I was sitting here writing these words I was reminded of the following words, again from Daugherty:

Faith is the victory that overcomes the world. It is our faith in Jesus and what He did on the cross. In His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan and took the keys of authority from him. Now Jesus Christ reigns forever.

Jesus reigns forever and scripture assures me that I am co-heir with Him, as are you if you have accepted his gift of grace with faith. This acceptance I am speaking of here involves more than the forgiveness of sin, although it certainly involves that. By His blood the Lord purchased our forgiveness and justified our being before the Father, but the cross also accomplished something equally significant, not to mention precious. Through Christ’s cross, his death, and his resurrection, we are empowered to live as he says we should live. Just as we could never do enough to attain forgiveness and justification before God, we can never live the full Christian life under our own power. We need something more and Christ has provided that power for us in the person of the Holy Spirit.

Further, we have on the inside of us the same resurrection power that brought Jesus back to life. The ultimate nature of that power is far too profound and mysterious for me to ever get my mind completely around but, on faith, I am fully convinced that it is mine.

So what stops us from simply accepting what Christ is freely offering us? There are a number of reasons I suspect, but one I encounter with more than a few sincere believers is one you might not immediately think of. Christians seem to have an uncanny knack for taking simple truths and complicating them through debate, dogma, and doctrine. I don’t mean to imply that these issues are not important. Certainly doctrine and dogma have their place. But I often wonder if Christ smiles in approval when he hears us debating his simple truths to the point that we divide ourselves into countless denominations and sects and tear asunder the Body that he meant to live in love and unity. On the contrary, I suspect this endless hairsplitting and theological nitpicking brings tears to his eyes.

During the early 1980’s I enrolled in several Religion courses at a small university near my home in north Alabama. I recall one course in particular that centered on the life of Jesus. My fellow classmates were an interesting group. Some were undergraduate students pursuing coursework in Religion and Philosophy in preparation for seminary. Others were ordained pastors of small local churches who, after preaching for a number of years, felt the need to further their education. Others, like myself, were there seeking a deeper understanding of the Christian faith as well as its history and traditions. Then there was Henry.

No one knew exactly why Henry was enrolled. He rarely spoke and when he did, it was with a soft, slow voice with a pronounced rural southern brogue. Considering the diverse make up of the class, it was natural that heated discussions would often break out. The professor often encouraged this in fact. The class argued about many issues. The nature of the Trinity, immersion versus sprinkling, the permanency of salvation, the list is endless.

I admit I often enjoyed these ballyhoos as they lent a degree of excitement to the proceedings and made the class time pass more quickly. One night the class was engaged in a verbal free for all centering on the Virgin Birth. I remember clearly hearing a wide range of viewpoints on this, mostly in support of the indisputable validity of the doctrine of virgin birth. I for one remained on the periphery of this dispute mostly out of ignorance. The doctrine of Virgin Birth was not for me an issue of central importance to my daily experience of the Christian path. In fact, unless it was brought up for discussion, I rarely consider it. It was one of those issues that I had placed on the theological back burner.

After a lengthy discussion, the professor looked to the back of the room and said, “Well Henry, you’ve been mighty quiet in this discussion. Why don’t you share your thoughts on the Virgin Birth with us?”

After a long pause Henry folded his hands on the desk, looked cautiously around the room and said:

“Well, I’ve been a settin’ here for over an hour listenin’ to you gents discussing this here thing about the Virgin Birth of Christ. I guess ya’ll know a heck of a lot more about all this than I do. You must or else you couldn’t talk about it for so long. All I know is this. Jesus loves me and I love him and try to do what he says. I reckon it don’t matter much to me what his momma done.”

Point taken Henry, end of discussion.

Instead of simply taking Christ at his word and freely receiving his gift of both salvation and sanctification, we often enter into arcane debates over issues that are not fundamental to the issue at hand. At the end of the day, we complicate a simple offer and this confuses believers inside the church and turns away many on the outside. I could give countless examples of this because I used to do this very thing. We all too often major in the minors and minor in the majors.

One issue that I have often heard brothers and sisters discussing, often in heated tones, is the order of salvation. Some say that we repent, and then we are saved. Others say that we repent because we are saved. I imagine one could make a case for either side of this issue by citing various passages of scripture but in terms of our response to God’s grace I don’t see that it matters much on a practical level. The fact is God makes His offer and we respond. The mere act of responding is in itself an act of repentance. We accept that we are accepted, complete with our cuts and bruises, our shortcomings and short-fallings. This is the meaning of grace, pure and simple.

Our role in this process is not to analyze, dissect, or debate. Our job is to respond. We either accept the offer or we refuse it. God has so arranged this process that it is really up to us.

Grace is not something we can earn. We can’t work our way into God’s grace because, in spite of our best intentions, nothing would ever, ever be enough. We can’t even pray our way into God’s grace. We can’t plea-bargain and attempt to get a lighter sentence for our sins. No, all we can do is get it through our heads, however thick, that grace flows from God to us. Our task is to accept it fully and get on with the task of letting the Holy Spirit flow into us and do His work to make us more like Christ.

The “Doctrine of Grace” is one thing; the reality of God’s grace is quite another. It is freely offered to all who would humble themselves enough to receive it. I suspect that each of us has his or her own way of resisting God’s grace. Some of us, as mentioned above, feel we don’t deserve it; some of us are too prideful, feeling that we can fix ourselves on our own; others think the concept of grace is just too simplistic. Whatever our reasons for struggling with this basic Christian principle, until we resolve our conflict, we will not advance very far on the spiritual journey.

As I have previously shared on this website, I can attest to this fact from my own experience. Paul says that the idea of “Christ crucified” as the means of salvation would be foolishness to the Greeks. Well, for many years it was foolishness to me. I much preferred the complexity of Buddhism and Hinduism, or the sanity of New Thought. Still, somewhere down in the pit of my being, the Hound of Heaven was chewing on me. God was unrelenting in his pursuit of me and I, like Jonah, headed for the hills more than once. Still, God’s grace kept surrounding me and I could not escape. In fact, I came to treasure the comforting feeling of being surrounded by God. Finally, I accepted that I was accepted.

Once I stopped running; once my struggles with God came to a halt, it was like a whole panorama of spiritual reality opened before my eyes, including a deep sense of optimism and hope. As a result, I began to view the world, including its problems and pain, with a greater degree of compassion and a genuine desire for healing involvement.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, I came to understand at a deeper level that I was in fact accepted. Accepted in my weakness because this is where the strength of Christ is seen. Accepted in my brokenness because this is where the healing of Christ is seen. Accepted in my faithlessness because this is where the fidelity of Christ is seen. Accepted in my wandering in the wilderness because this is where Christ’s true and stable mansions are eventually discovered.

What we can do is express our gratitude by being thankful, expressing our heart-felt appreciation for what God has done for us. Our gratitude must further be translated into positive action and a repentant lifestyle, which expresses itself in obedience, faithfulness, humility, faith, trust and, above all, a selfless love. In other words, we accept God’s gift of grace, forgiveness and adoption into his family, then get on with the work of growing in Christ-Character. Again, get this down and get it deep. Grace comes from God, not from anything you have done or will ever do in the future. Listen to Gary Collins:

Grace is not a loan from the past. It is a gift that extends through all eternity. It is a gift that helps mold our lives so that our spirituality is God-centered, Christ-honoring, Spirit-guided, life-influencing, and ultimately, fulfilling.

Don’t you just love that? God-centered, Spirit-guided, and life-influencing. Once we accept God’s gift, and importantly, once we accept that we are accepted by God, our duty is to live a life that is focused on God and makes Him the fulcrum of our thoughts, words and deeds. The amazing thing here is that God’s grace extends even to the point that we are aided in making him the focal point of life. The Holy Spirit comes along side of us, in fact, comes to reside in us and guides us as we seek to open our ears so that we can hear Him speak. As this happens, we increasingly become equipped to do Christ’s work on earth, to be his hands, his feet and his heart in a broken, dysfunctional world. Our life is influenced so we can influence other lives. In essence, once we accept God’s gracious gift, we are empowered to become God-centered, Spirit-guided servants that can make a positive difference in the world.

(c) L.D. Turner/All Rights Reserved

Responding to God: Just Keep It Simple

Mick Turner

I think one of the most comforting and encouraging truths of the gospel message is that, in spite of past screw ups, Jesus loves and accepts us as we are. Not only that, but through the actions of the blessed Holy Spirit, he is willing to help us change. And even more mind boggling, he is planning on making us a full partner in his father’s business. Author and teacher Billy Joe Daugherty speaks to these themes in a clear manner:

This is the good news of Jesus: He loves you just the way you are, yet He sees you for what you can become…..He sees you sharing the living water with others who are dry on the inside….God has big plans for you. It may seem like you have wasted your life, but with Jesus you can make up for lost years in a short time. He will not reject you for your past failures. He welcomes you to come to him and receive living water.

As I said, I find this aspect of the Lord to be most comforting because I have certainly messed up things many times. Further, I can truly relate to that feeling of having wasted my life. Yet Jesus is willing to put that behind us now and turn both His eyes and mine toward a more positive, successful future, one where I can have a positive, beneficial impact on the world in general and my family in particular.

More amazing is the fact that I never have to go it alone. Instead, the Paraclete, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit is walking next to me and living inside me in a miraculous way I can never understand but can fully appropriate through the simple act of faith. I don’t know about you, but when I truly take time and reflect on all this, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. The only thing required of me to receive the healing water of Christ is faith. It really is that simple. Unfortunately, many Christians fail to understand what if means to have faith. Jesus plainly told us that he has overcome the world and all that we have to do to have a life of spiritual fulfillment is to accept what He has told us in faith. As I was sitting here writing these words I was reminded of the following words, again from Daugherty:

Faith is the victory that overcomes the world. It is our faith in Jesus and what He did on the cross. In His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan and took the keys of authority from him. Now Jesus Christ reigns forever.

Jesus reigns forever and scripture assures me that I am co-heir with Him, as are you if you have accepted his gift of grace with faith. This acceptance I am speaking of here involves more than the forgiveness of sin, although it certainly involves that. By His blood the Lord purchased our forgiveness and justified our being before the Father, but the cross also accomplished something equally significant, not to mention precious. Through Christ’s cross, his death, and his resurrection, we are empowered to live as he says we should live. Just as we could never do enough to attain forgiveness and justification before God, we can never live the full Christian life under our own power. We need something more and Christ has provided that power for us in the person of the Holy Spirit.

Further, we have on the inside of us the same resurrection power that brought Jesus back to life. The ultimate nature of that power is far too profound and mysterious for me to ever get my mind completely around but, on faith, I am fully convinced that it is mine.

So what stops us from simply accepting what Christ is freely offering us? There are a number of reasons I suspect, but one I encounter with more than a few sincere believers is one you might not immediately think of. Christians seem to have an uncanny knack for taking simple truths and complicating them through debate, dogma, and doctrine. I don’t mean to imply that these issues are not important. Certainly doctrine and dogma have their place. But I often wonder if Christ smiles in approval when he hears us debating his simple truths to the point that we divide ourselves into countless denominations and sects and tear asunder the Body that he meant to live in love and unity. On the contrary, I suspect this endless hairsplitting and theological nitpicking brings tears to his eyes.

During the early 1980’s I enrolled in several Religion courses at a small university near my home in north Alabama. I recall one course in particular that centered on the life of Jesus. My fellow classmates were an interesting group. Some were undergraduate students pursuing coursework in Religion and Philosophy in preparation for seminary. Others were ordained pastors of small local churches who, after preaching for a number of years, felt the need to further their education. Others, like myself, were there seeking a deeper understanding of the Christian faith as well as its history and traditions. Then there was Henry.

No one knew exactly why Henry was enrolled. He rarely spoke and when he did, it was with a soft, slow voice with a pronounced rural southern brogue. Considering the diverse make up of the class, it was natural that heated discussions would often break out. The professor often encouraged this in fact. The class argued about many issues. The nature of the Trinity, immersion versus sprinkling, the permanency of salvation, the list is endless.

I admit I often enjoyed these ballyhoos as they lent a degree of excitement to the proceedings and made the class time pass more quickly. One night the class was engaged in a verbal free for all centering on the Virgin Birth. I remember clearly hearing a wide range of viewpoints on this, mostly in support of the indisputable validity of the doctrine of virgin birth. I for one remained on the periphery of this dispute mostly out of ignorance. The doctrine of Virgin Birth was not for me an issue of central importance to my daily experience of the Christian path. In fact, unless it was brought up for discussion, I rarely consider it. It was one of those issues that I had placed on the theological back burner.

After a lengthy discussion, the professor looked to the back of the room and said, “Well Henry, you’ve been mighty quiet in this discussion. Why don’t you share your thoughts on the Virgin Birth with us?”

After a long pause Henry folded his hands on the desk, looked cautiously around the room and said:

“Well, I’ve been a settin’ here for over an hour listenin’ to you gents discussing this here thing about the Virgin Birth of Christ. I guess ya’ll know a heck of a lot more about all this than I do. You must or else you couldn’t talk about it for so long. All I know is this. Jesus loves me and I love him and try to do what he says. I reckon it don’t matter much to me what his momma done.”

Point taken Henry, end of discussion.

Instead of simply taking Christ at his word and freely receiving his gift of both salvation and sanctification, we often enter into arcane debates over issues that are not fundamental to the issue at hand. At the end of the day, we complicate a simple offer and this confuses believers inside the church and turns away many on the outside. I could give countless examples of this because I used to do this very thing. We all too often major in the minors and minor in the majors.

One issue that I have often heard brothers and sisters discussing, often in heated tones, is the order of salvation. Some say that we repent, and then we are saved. Others say that we repent because we are saved. I imagine one could make a case for either side of this issue by citing various passages of scripture but in terms of our response to God’s grace I don’t see that it matters much on a practical level. The fact is God makes His offer and we respond. The mere act of responding is in itself an act of repentance. We accept that we are accepted, complete with our cuts and bruises, our shortcomings and short-fallings. This is the meaning of grace, pure and simple.

Our role in this process is not to analyze, dissect, or debate. Our job is to respond. We either accept the offer or we refuse it. God has so arranged this process that it is really up to us.

Grace is not something we can earn. We can’t work our way into God’s grace because, in spite of our best intentions, nothing would ever, ever be enough. We can’t even pray our way into God’s grace. We can’t plea-bargain and attempt to get a lighter sentence for our sins. No, all we can do is get it through our heads, however thick, that grace flows from God to us. Our task is to accept it fully and get on with the task of letting the Holy Spirit flow into us and do His work to make us more like Christ.

The “Doctrine of Grace” is one thing; the reality of God’s grace is quite another. It is freely offered to all who would humble themselves enough to receive it. I suspect that each of us has his or her own way of resisting God’s grace. Some of us, as mentioned above, feel we don’t deserve it; some of us are too prideful, feeling that we can fix ourselves on our own; others think the concept of grace is just too simplistic. Whatever our reasons for struggling with this basic Christian principle, until we resolve our conflict, we will not advance very far on the spiritual journey.

As I have previously shared on this website, I can attest to this fact from my own experience. Paul says that the idea of “Christ crucified” as the means of salvation would be foolishness to the Greeks. Well, for many years it was foolishness to me. I much preferred the complexity of Buddhism and Hinduism, or the sanity of New Thought. Still, somewhere down in the pit of my being, the Hound of Heaven was chewing on me. God was unrelenting in his pursuit of me and I, like Jonah, headed for the hills more than once. Still, God’s grace kept surrounding me and I could not escape. In fact, I came to treasure the comforting feeling of being surrounded by God. Finally, I accepted that I was accepted.

Once I stopped running; once my struggles with God came to a halt, it was like a whole panorama of spiritual reality opened before my eyes, including a deep sense of optimism and hope. As a result, I began to view the world, including its problems and pain, with a greater degree of compassion and a genuine desire for healing involvement.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, I came to understand at a deeper level that I was in fact accepted. Accepted in my weakness because this is where the strength of Christ is seen. Accepted in my brokenness because this is where the healing of Christ is seen. Accepted in my faithlessness because this is where the fidelity of Christ is seen. Accepted in my wandering in the wilderness because this is where Christ’s true and stable mansions are eventually discovered.

What we can do is express our gratitude by being thankful, expressing our heart-felt appreciation for what God has done for us. Our gratitude must further be translated into positive action and a repentant lifestyle, which expresses itself in obedience, faithfulness, humility, faith, trust and, above all, a selfless love. In other words, we accept God’s gift of grace, forgiveness and adoption into his family, then get on with the work of growing in Christ-Character. Again, get this down and get it deep. Grace comes from God, not from anything you have done or will ever do in the future. Listen to Gary Collins:

Grace is not a loan from the past. It is a gift that extends through all eternity. It is a gift that helps mold our lives so that our spirituality is God-centered, Christ-honoring, Spirit-guided, life-influencing, and ultimately, fulfilling.

Don’t you just love that? God-centered, Spirit-guided, and life-influencing. Once we accept God’s gift, and importantly, once we accept that we are accepted by God, our duty is to live a life that is focused on God and makes Him the fulcrum of our thoughts, words and deeds. The amazing thing here is that God’s grace extends even to the point that we are aided in making him the focal point of life. The Holy Spirit comes along side of us, in fact, comes to reside in us and guides us as we seek to open our ears so that we can hear Him speak. As this happens, we increasingly become equipped to do Christ’s work on earth, to be his hands, his feet and his heart in a broken, dysfunctional world. Our life is influenced so we can influence other lives. In essence, once we accept God’s gracious gift, we are empowered to become God-centered, Spirit-guided servants that can make a positive difference in the world.

© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved

The Apologetics of Incarnational Living

Mick Turner

Any thoughtful, observant Christian should be aware by now that the Western church is in crisis. Don’t be deceived by the growth of the so-called “mega-churches” and the various and sundry “evangelistic explosions” that we see taking place. The fact is, people are leaving the faith in droves and fewer new faces are coming through the doors. Moreover, these dwindling numbers, along with our culture’s increasing negative view of Christianity, have relegated the church to a position of peripheral social influence.

Once the bedrock upon which our culture’s value system was built, the church is now little more than marginal voice in the constantly shifting tides of post-modern America. Identified by most Americans as joined at the hip with Right-Wing Conservatism, the church is viewed with increasing disdain and animosity. Traditional attempts at evangelism and apologetics only seem to make the situation worse. Evangelism is seen as an attempt by elitist Christians to ram their faith down people’s throats and apologetics is viewed as an archaic attempt to make the unreasonable make sense.

If the church is to survive, drastic changes must take place. It should be obvious by now that the old ways of “doing church,” especially evangelism, is doomed to failure.

Personally, I have come to believe that the most effective form of Christianity involves being faithful to our calling to incarnate Christ to a hurting world. This is the essence of what is often called “Kingdom living.” It is a lifestyle which, if carried out with compassion and commitment, will in and of itself draw people to the faith. It involves a simple paradigm: find a pressing social need and address it.

Put simply, it means giving flesh to grace. This is what Christ did and we are called to no less.

When people of faith express the love of God through acts of service and kindness, people take notice. These simple acts of grace accomplish far more than reasoned arguments, stadium rallies, popular seminars, and best-selling books. These simple acts of grace, especially given the church’s increasingly negative image in our culture, are the most effective forms of evangelistic activity we can engage in. It was not so different in the early church, which can serve as a model for what we should be doing.

In the middle of the Third Century a terrible plague devastated the Mediterranean world, dealing death to large swaths of the population. Many of those stricken with the disease were sent out of the cities, destined to die agonizing deaths alone and terrified. The Christian faithful, however, responded in a much different fashion. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, describes the acts of grace this way:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting t heir pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

Many people were drawn to the fledgling church by the acts of service and sacrifice that so typified the early Christians. I am of the belief that it is here that the modern church can find its methodology of renewal. Crafting theological arguments is not the answer in today’s post-modern culture; nor is allying the church with a political party or ideology. Withdrawing into our own “Christian culture” is equally misguided. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves into the hurts of this world and find creative ways to bring God’s healing light to those hurts. Anything else misses the point.

Paul stressed that in order to be effective witnesses for the gospel, we must become “living epistles.” We must become open letters that anyone can read and by reading, come to a deeper understanding of just who this radical Galilean was and is. It is a high calling, indeed and not one to be taken lightly. If we take Jesus’ words about the final judgment as recorded in the 26th Chapter of Matthew as true, then it should be obvious to even the most dense among us that the litmus test for defining a Christian is not belief in Christ, but in embodying Christ.

Michael Frost, in his excellent book Exiles, points out that this incarnational living is incumbent upon all who would claim Jesus as Master and Teacher:

Practicing the presence of Christ means being a living example of the life of Jesus. This raises the stakes enormously. It means that our lives need to become increasingly aligned with the example of Jesus. It doesn’t require sinless obedience – as if that’s possible anyway. It means, though, increasingly becoming people of justice, kindness, mercy, strength, hope, grace, generosity, and hospitality.

Yes, this divine calling is an invitation to a life of fulfillment and reward beyond our imagining, if we will only yield ourselves to it with complete abandon. Yet for many of us, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Still, it is necessary to move forward as best we can, relying on the promises of God and the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For many of us, we get better in spite of ourselves. I know that is often true in my case.

This call to emulate Christ is a call to give flesh to grace. The whole story-line of God’s Great Saga is one of proactive grace. God saw that we needed grace and gave us Christ and Christ saw that the world needed grace and gave the world us. Just pause and chew on that one for a minute. What a great honor and what a great responsibility.

As “living epistles” we have the opportunity to meet God in the divine moment, what Erwin Raphael McManus calls the “epicenter of God’s activity.” When we consistently engage in these acts of Christian kindness, we in essence become what Gary Thomas accurately calls “God Oases.” Thomas explains:

A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the ways they listen and use their eyes to love instead of lust, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy men and women are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation threatens to tear this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out, and they will have something to say.

I find this description of godly men and women highly inspirational, not to mention vivifying. Thomas’ words encourage us to sensitize ourselves more and more to God’s activity in this world and further, to take compassionate action in emulating Christ’s acts of grace and healing. In ways both great and small, we can locate that epicenter of God’s activity and get to work.

It is nothing less than our calling, our responsibility, and our honor. And in so doing, it is my earnest prayer that more and more of us can become living epistles – God oases – and give incarnation to the godly image described in Isaiah 32:2:

Each man will be like a shelter from the wind

and a shelter from the storm,

like streams of water in the desert

and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.

© L.D. Turner 2010/ 2014/All Rights Reserved

Commitment to Christ: A Dangerous Proposition

English: Tomb of Jesus, inside the Edicule. Ch...
English: Tomb of Jesus, inside the Edicule. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Français : La tombe du Christ, église du Saint-Sépulcre, Jérusalem. Română: Mormântul Domnului (Sfântul Mormânt), Ierusalim. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mick Turner

As the Body of Christ we are now in a similar cultural milieu as existed at the time Jesus walked the earth. Granted, times are different, but the themes are much the same. Like it or not, the Church now lives in a post-Christian culture. America is Christian in name only, certainly not in practice. Over the past 50 years the dominant worldview and subsequent value system has undergone marked change. Post-modernism and situational ethics now hold sway. It is within this mix that the Church must now carry out the essentials of its mission. The question at hand is: How will we reintroduce Jesus to the world, given the realities of the culture we now live in?

Answering this overriding question is a complicated affair, certainly beyond the scope of this short article. Additionally, we, as the Body of Christ, need to reflect deeply on how we may best go about meeting this aspect of our calling. Much prayer is called for. One thing is certain, however. We must present a more realistic portrait of who this man Jesus was, and still is. When he enters a person’s life, things are not always meek and mild. In fact, taking on Christ often results in an inner revolution. The Revolutionaries fully understand this and also understand that Jesus calls for a radical change that fuses the personal with the social and the spiritual with the political.

As we take Jesus on board we must recognize we are giving accommodation to what can be a dangerous entity; one capable of challenging our conventions, our preferences, our habits, and ultimately, our character. Jesus does not come into a person’s life in order to affirm the status quo. Quite the opposite, this dangerous being takes up residence within your inner kingdom with the stated aim of fomenting revolution. Yet for most of us this inner revolt is sorely needed. It can, in fact, change us from wandering, confused, and empty vessels into vibrant, vital, world changers. David Foster gives us a glimpse of just what Jesus is up to:

Jesus is like air to the lungs and water to a desert dweller. He is not a religious artifact. He’s not dead. He is alive. He is engaged and engaging. He is here now, changing lives all over this world this very moment. When He walked on earth He changed everything for everyday, for all time. What started then continues today. It can’t be stopped though many have tried. Jesus is the rock of redemption and His church will prevail. He is here in this moment with you, doing what He always does, calling you to a higher place, calling you to break free from convention and stop going to church and start being the church everywhere you go. Let’s be “Jesus people” again. Let’s be men and women whose hearts are captured, redeemed, renewed, enlivened, ignited, set fee! Let’s return to the revolution to be the change we want to see in the world!

If you decide that you are fully ready to commit to this deep calling deep brand of Christian spirituality, recognize that you may very well experience responses that are less than positive. These negative reactions to your commitment to Christ may come from people important to you, like your friends, your family, and especially from other believers. It is for this reason that each of us must individually and prayerfully follow the advice of the Master who told us to simply “count the costs.”

I think one of the reasons that Christians as a whole are at best lukewarm in their commitment to following Christ stems from the church’s long-standing efforts to tame the Master. Instead of the subversive revolutionary that he was, Jesus has long been presented as a non-threatening cardboard figurine on burlap bulletin boards, either holding a lamb in his lap or rubbing children on the head. Rarely have we seen him for the rebel that he really was and as a result, the church has given a false impression of Jesus “meek and mild” and by proxy, turned God the Father into a distant and kindly Daddy who expects little from us other than a modicum of worship and a check in the collection plate.

This is not the Jesus nor the God revealed in scripture.

Annie Dillard, one of my very favorite writers, talks about how Christians ought to be a bit more reverent in the presence of God. In her provocative yet compelling style she says:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have any idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares: they should lash us to our pews.

Dillard’s point is clear and to a large extent, irrefutable. Far too many of us who claim to follow Christ either don’t really believe what we profess or we have never taken the time to truly consider what it is we signed on for. I personally think it is high time that we became more honest with ourselves. Here is a diagnostic indicator: If you faith has yet to make you very uncomfortable, you might want to spend some time in prayer and reflection trying to discover what is amiss.

When we fail to understand what the Christian faith is all about, we wind up with a church that misses the boat in terms of its vital functions of worship and teaching. Pastor Robin Meyers gives this biting but wholly accurate assessment of what we often find in sanctuaries today:

Worship consists of high-tech, high-volume, effusive praise and tearful thanksgiving for what God has done on behalf of each and every one of us – followed by preaching that circles the wagons of what is falsely assumed to be a besieged and righteous minority doing battle against the forces of secular humanism. The rhetoric is that of a western movie, the “last stand” between the chosen but misunderstood and legions of depraved liberal heathens whose worldly logic has led them to worship false gods (mostly in the temple of the flesh) and who are out to destroy the only true religion by removing it from the public square……For those who would never think to raise their hands in worship (because they sit on them), mainline and liberal churches offer something as tedious as many evangelical services are self-centered: a dull and droning list of politically correct announcements that go on interminably. No detail is too minor and no story too trivial to escape the sentimental displays of communal therapy. The hymns are often contorted by a preoccupation with inclusion at the expense of meter and particular power, and the sermon continues in the same vein – offering enlightened ways to cope with the aches and pains of daily life, instead of submitting to a vision so compelling as to redeem suffering and death itself.

No matter which side of the theological aisle you find your pew, you ought to be sweating bullets by now. In case you are among the especially insensitive, however, rest assured that Meyers is not quite finished:

In a world that is desperate for something real, many mega-churches today are like Disney World plus God, while too many mainline churches are serving up bits and pieces of the Great Books Club. One wonders which fiction is most cruel, that all your dreams come true if you pray the “Prayer of Jabez” or that discipleship is the same thing as enlightenment. Odd as it may sound, we need to recover something as old and dangerous as it is transformative: following Jesus.

For many Christians, whether Evangelical or Mainline, such a shrill indictment is hard to swallow. Surely there are exceptions, but what Meyers is describing here is not those few. Instead, he is taking direct aim at those of us who find way too much comfort in the status quo; those of us who start accumulating sweat on our upper lips at just the mention of thinking out of the box. Meyers, in very direct terms, is talking about the frozen chosen.

In juxtaposition to these lukewarm pew-fillers stand the renegades, rascals, and revolutionaries mentioned earlier. These sincere Christ-followers understand that if the church is not only to survive, but thrive, it must get back to its roots in obedience to Jesus. We need to imitate Christ, not “believe in” him. With the aid of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we need to push forward with every effort to become more like the one we profess to serve. Many of this new breed of Christ-followers understand this and apply this wisdom to their daily living. Robin Meyers speaks clearly about what we must rediscover if we, as a faith tradition, hope to survive:

If the church is to survive as a place where head and heart are equal partners in faith, then we will need to commit ourselves once again not to the worship of Christ, but to the imitation of Jesus. His invitation was not believe, but to follow. Since it was once dangerous to be a follower of The Way, the church can rightly assume that it will never be on the right track again until the risks associated with being a follower of Jesus outnumber the comforts of being a fan of Christ. Until we experience Jesus as a “radically disturbing presence,” instead of a cosmic comforter, we will not experience him as true disciples.

Meyers concludes by stating that churchgoers need to answer one basic question before all else:

What am I willing to give up to follow Jesus?

Sociologist and researcher George Barna speaks at length about the movement of committed Christ followers that he calls “Revolutionaries.” Barna speaks particularly well to the issue of sacrifice that is so often part of the life of the “Deep Calling Deep Christian.” If you are seriously considering this path of consecrated endeavor, then pay attention to Barna’s words:

Know this: just as the prophets of old were unwelcome in their own hometown, so are Revolutionaries looked at askance by even their closest friends and family members. The skepticism of those who lead conventional spiritual lives is a palpable reminder that growth always comes with a price tag.

Be forewarned: just as Jesus Christ, the ultimate lover of humanity, was scorned, misunderstood, persecuted, and eventually murdered for His extreme love, goodness, compassion, humility, wisdom, and grace, so are Revolutionaries abused by a culture in crisis. The mere presence of Revolutionaries makes the typical American citizen – yes, even the typical churchgoer – uncomfortable. It is not uncommon for Revolutionaries to meet with rejection – verbal, intellectual, relational, or experiential – simply because of their determination to honor the God they love…..Like their role model, Jesus Christ, they ignite fierce resistance merely by being present and holy. It is perhaps that holy presence that will get Revolutionaries in the deepest trouble they will face – and that will bring lasting healing to a culture that has rebelled for too long against its loving Creator. These Christian zealots are radically reshaping both American society and the Christian Church. Their legacy is likely to be a spiritual reformation of unprecedented proportions in the United States and perhaps the world.

These ideas that Barna discusses and more cogently, that are lived out in the daily lives of countless “Revolutionaries,” bring to mind the spiritual philosophy and practical tactics used by Doctor Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights Movement. Basing his own methods on those of Gandhi, Dr. King used radical non-violence to expose the injustice, brutality, and prejudice of the existing social order. The more the powers that be reacted to those involved in the movement, the deeper the darkness of their hearts appeared to all whom witnessed what was happening. Perhaps in a similar way, the commitment, sincerity, and Christian love exhibited by these Revolutionaries may well shed light on how far many in the status quo church are from the true example set by the Master.

Describing David, an example of this new breed of Revolutionary Christian, Barna writes:

His life reflects the very ideals and principles that characterized the life and purpose of Jesus Christ and that advance the Kingdom of God – despite the fact that David rarely attends church services. He is typical of a new breed of disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not willing to play religious games and aren’t interested in being a part of a religious community that is not intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s Kingdom. They are people who want more of God – much more – in their lives. And they are doing whatever it takes to get it.

Two questions are immediately relevant, my friend. Do you want more – much more – of God in your life? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to get it?

Listen closely. In your inner sanctuary, your heart of hearts, can you hear him calling you? Will you go with him, even if it means breaking free of convention? Will you follow him, even if it means you stop going to church and start being the church? Are you ready to be counted among the Jesus people? Are you ready to join the revolution?

If so, welcome aboard!

© L.D. Turner 2010/2013 All Rights Reserved

Lazarus, Come Forth (Part Two)

English: Church of Body of Christ in Kaunas. L...
English: Church of Body of Christ in Kaunas. Lietuvių: Dievo kūno bažnyčia, Kaunas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mick Turner

As the Body of Christ finds its way in our post-modern, post-Christian culture, I believe we will see major chances in the way the Church goes about its business. In addition to shifts in organizational structure and a reduced role of the ordained clergy, the churches that survive will be the ones that are innovative, transformative, and incarnational.

If the Church is to reach the growing post-Christian culture in ways that are relevant and effective, several things must be seen with clarity and focus. First, the primary question that must be answered is not, “How can we evangelize these people?” Instead, the relevant question must be, “How can I help you?” It is through this sort of proactive Christian service that the Church’s evangelistic witness can be best fostered. Secondly, the Church must reconsider how it can best present the truths of the faith in new wineskins that are more appropriate than the 19th Century model that is commonly used even today. We must re-introduce people to God, to Christ, to the Scriptures, and to the Church and this must be done in ways that are both practical and palatable, given the parameters of the environment in which the Church is now operating.

One salient and ubiquitous feature of 21st Century America centers on the increased interest in all things spiritual. Increasingly, people are seeking spiritual experience, not just dogma, doctrine, and didactics. Many Americans find themselves encountering the reality that something important is missing from their lives and they are quite active in their search for an answer. It is here that the Church has consistently fallen short of the mark.

Protestant Christianity in particular has long been suspicious, even paranoid, regarding spiritual disciplines and spiritual experience. As a result, the Church as we know it has been narrowly focused on belief and doctrine, ignoring the experiential, subjective side of an individual’s walk of faith. Discipleship programs have traditionally been focused on regimented Bible study and the central aspect of the overwhelming majority of Protestant worship services is the pastor’s sermon. Is it any wonder that many churches see dwindling numbers? The spiritual seeker of today finds the typical church service and discipleship program as unsatisfying and irrelevant. As a result, they turn elsewhere. Spiritual paths such as Buddhism, Yoga, Wicca, and many self-help programs are flourishing, primarily because they are more likely to address the needs of today’s spiritual seeker.

Connected with this lack of deep discipleship on the part of the Church is a general lack of transformative experience among the faithful. According to the majority of sociological and spiritual research done by Gallup, as well as George Barna, the typical believer is not significantly different than the non-believer in terms of worldview. Our pews are filled with sincere people who are, in the words of Thoreau, living lives of quiet desperation. This unfortunate reality accounts for the fact that a tour of any Christian book store will reveal a plethora of books with dust jackets that claim the book will, “change your life.”

Why do so many Christian experience such a desperate quality of life and seek something life-changing? Precisely because the Church has not provided a consistent means for spiritual growth and fulfillment. Let’s get real about this. A few praise songs, a couple of corporate prayers, a didactic Sunday School lesson, and a sermon just doesn’t cut it. If the Church is to thrive in the context of the current culture, it must be transformative. Few people speak as clearly and consistently on this issue as Dallas Willard:

“The overshadowing event of the past two centuries of Christian life has been the struggle between orthodoxy and modernism. In this struggle the primary issue has, as a matter of fact, not been discipleship to Christ and a transformation of soul that expresses itself in pervasive, routine obedience to his ‘all that I have commanded you.’ Instead, both sides of the controversy have focused almost entirely upon what is to be explicitly asserted or rejected as essential Christian doctrine. In the process of battles over views of Christ the Savior, Christ the teacher was lost on all sides…..Discipleship as an essential issue disappeared from the churches, and with it there also disappeared realistic plans and programs for the transformation of the inmost self into Christ-likeness. One could now be a Christian forever without actually changing in heart and life. Right profession, positive or negative, was all that was required. This has now produced generations of professing Christians who, as a whole, do not differ in character, but only in ritual, from their non-professing neighbors….”

Finally, the Body of Christ must develop innovative methods of giving flesh to its primary mission: incarnating Christ. The new Church must be mission-driven and willing to get its hands dirty. I believe the 21st Century churches that thrive will increasingly be those that arise out of the culture where a need exists. These types of congregations will be largely unconventional in terms of make up and methodology. Numerous examples already exist and can serve as models upon which new, innovative churches can be built. Congregations like “Mosaic” in Los Angeles, “Solomon’s Porch” in Minneapolis, and “The Rock” in Huntsville, Alabama are but three among many examples to build upon. These churches are thriving because they encounter the surrounding culture and grow within the context of that culture.

If the Body of Christ can incorporate progressive innovation, transformation, and incarnation into its calling and its mission, the consistent answer to the naysayers who are blowing Taps on Christianity will be a resounding, “No!”

The Church faces major challenges as it learns to live within a cultural context in which it finds itself increasingly marginalized. We can either put our heads in the sand and pretend the storm isn’t on the horizon, or, we can come up with creative new wineskins to fulfill our commission being salt and light in our world. Realistically, we can assume some churches will do well, while others will become flavorless seasoning and blown out light bulbs. Some will become, in the words of Paul, a pleasant aroma to the nostrils; while others, unfortunately, will stinketh.

How individual churches choose to respond to the realities of the situation will determine whether they will die, survive, or thrive.

Redefining the Church’s Mission

Assessing the purpose of the Church is a timely issue and one subject to much debate, not to mention wailing and gnashing of teeth. As the Christian Church moves forward into the 21st Century, in all quarters theologians, clergy, and laity are all involved in the task of defining the purpose of the Church in general and the role it will play in society in particular.

Nowhere is this discussion more relevant than in the traditional Mainline denominations. Often criticized for being theologically liberal and rigid in structure and function, these denominations have seen a drastic decline in numbers over the past three decades. If these churches are to survive well into the new century, it is obvious that significant change must occur.

I am of the belief that the Church will continue to undergo radical changes over the next decade and these changes will be driven by two primary forces. For most churches, the changes will be brought about by the desire to remain relevant to the post-modern culture in which it finds itself. The second force driving change, for other churches, is survival. Across America, even though some elements of the Christian faith are enjoying growth, others are on the verge of extinction. As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, this critical situation is seen especially in the Mainline denominations such as the United Church of Christ, several types of Presbyterian Churches, the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, and the American Baptist Church, just to name a few. Unless these denominations make radical alterations to their structure and focus, they may well go the way of the dinosaur.

An exhaustive treatment of the process of redefining the purpose of the Church is beyond the scope of this article. With that caveat, let’s explore a few principles upon which any new mission of the Church must be established.

Underlying all of our efforts as the Body of Christ is the notion of working along with God to establish the “Kingdom.” I can’t stress this notion of Kingdom enough and, if you take a close look at the gospels, neither could Christ. His first public statement was “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” After beginning this way, Christ repeatedly stressed that his mission was to inaugurate the Kingdom. As ongoing agents of incarnation, it is now our mission to pick up where Christ left off. This is the foundational mission of the church. Even the great commission is aimed at this and this only: Bringing God’s Kingdom to Earth.

The coming of the Kingdom is really the heart of the gospel. The forgiveness of sins and the work on the cross, although of central significance, is not the heart of the gospel. It is not that which brings life to the body. No, it is the coming of the Kingdom that constitutes the life of the gospel. Unfortunately, the church, especially since the reformation in general and Calvinist theology in particular, has primarily defined the gospel in terms of the remission of sins by the work of Christ. Again, I am not downplaying the importance of this. All I am saying is that it is not the core of the gospel. Jesus repeatedly stressed the coming of the Kingdom.  The remission of sins is part of this, but it is far from the whole enchilada.

Part of our mission also involves reintroducing the world to Christ. I don’t mean to say that the world does not know who Christ is. What I am saying is that they don’t really know who Christ is nor have a grasp on just what he said his mission was. Further, I believe it is imperative that the Church begin this process of reintroducing Christ with its own membership.

The fact is, a great many professing Christians don’t have a clue who Christ was and still is.

For over 2,000 years the church, at times mistakenly and at times deliberately, has weakened the image of Christ and smoothed over the rough edges of his message. That way, a person could be a Christian, remain a Christian, and still be comfortable with the status quo. This has nothing to do with what Jesus was really all about. The fact is, Jesus was far more radical and revolutionary than we have been taught to believe.  Listen to Bruxy Cavey as he describes what happened when he took the blinders off and got a glimpse of the real Jesus:

I entered a season in my life when I began to realize that the Jesus described in the Bible was far more attractive, exciting, and scandalous than the meek and mild Jesus many churches proclaimed. I was young and beginning to study the Bible for myself and, in the process, came to believe that I held a volatile document in my hands – one that had the potential to destroy all religion from the inside out…The writers of the Gospels – the four biblical books that record the life of Christ – us a fascinating Greek word to describe the effect that Jesus routinely had on his religious audience. They describe Jesus as a “scandalon,” meaning a stumbling block, an offense, a scandal. Their point seems to be that Jesus is a rock, but one you can trip over just as easily as build your life upon. Anyone who holds too tightly to his or her religious preconceptions will sooner or later become offended at Jesus. That is, of course, they do what countless Christians have done and tame the historical Jesus through years of conservative tradition.

As the new century progresses, an increasing number of Christians, especially those involved with what has come to be known as the “EmergentChurch,” are coming to see Jesus in a more radical light. Jesus, with his message of the kingdom, was a revolutionary in the real sense of the word.

A third foundation for redefining the Church is the need for a return to “disciple making.” In order to establish new, dynamic and transformative methods of discipleship training, I think it is important to begin with a workable definition of just what a “disciple” is.

From all evidence, it would seem the church at large has lost touch with a crucial element of its mission – disciple-making. Just prior to his ascension, Christ did not tell his inner circle to “go and make converts.” No, he told them to go and make disciples. It is obvious that constructing a workable definition of a disciple is a high priority. Margaret Campbell gives us a great jump-start:

A disciple of Jesus is a person who has decided to live in attentiveness to Jesus. We live in attentiveness in order to become like Jesus on the inside and, thereby, able to do what Jesus would do on the outside. As maturing disciples we progressively learn to live in attentiveness, adoration, surrender, obedience, and thankfulness to God, and all of this, without ceasing. Through the hidden work of transformation, God writes his good way on our minds and hearts and this is very good. By his grace, our hearts are divinely changed. We are progressively conformed to be like Jesus in mind and will and soul and word and deed. What we say and what we do more consistently reflect the glory and goodness of God.

If that isn’t clear enough, let’s listen to George Barna:

True discipleship is about a lifestyle, not simply about stored up Bible knowledge. Often, churches assume that if people are reading the Bible and attending a small group, then real discipleship is happening. Unfortunately, we found that’s often not the case. Discipleship is about being and reproducing zealots for Christ. Discipleship, in other words, is about passionately pursuing the lifestyle and mission of Jesus Christ.

From these two definitions it should be clear that real discipleship, the kind of Jesus-following that makes a difference in a person’s life and the life of others, involves more than wearing a “What would Jesus Do?” bracelet.

Without doubt, the new century presents both great challenges and vital opportunities for the Body of Christ. In some ways, these challenges and opportunities are highly unique, mostly because of the complexity of post-modern culture and the rapidity of social change in the contemporary world. Any new definition of the Church’s purpose and mission must take these factors into account. This reality means that the new wineskins that come to house the 21st Century Body of Christ must possess an inordinate flexibility and fluidity. What works this year may not work next year.

In closing, it is noticed that many people are asking the question, “Can the Church survive in these post-Christian times, even if it redefines itself, its mission, and its purpose?”

It can not only survive; it can thrive.

(C) L.D. Turner 2013/All Rights Reserved

Resurrecting the Church: Why I Am Optimistic (Part One)

Church of the Holy Spirit in Dúbravka
Church of the Holy Spirit in Dúbravka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mick Turner

Christ left his heavenly abode and came down to earth in order to accomplish a multi-dimensional mission. His task involved setting in motion in the physical realm God’s plan to restore humankind to spiritual life and right relationship with him, to provide a mechanism whereby we might be cleansed of our sins, teach us the proper way to live in relation to God and to one another, and to pave the way for the advent of the Holy Spirit. In addition, Christ accomplished numerous other themes, some quite subtle and others quite obvious. His primary mission, however, we have yet to mention.

Christ came to this planet first and foremost to inaugurate his kingdom on earth. This is how he kicked off his mission, by admonishing listeners to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Christ indeed made progress toward laying the foundation of his kingdom on earth, but when he left our world and went back to the celestial realms, there was a monumental amount of work left to do. Amazingly, he left us in charge of carrying out that mission. Frank Laubach cogently speaks to this startling fact when he says:

When Christ was here on earth, He was limited to performing His ministry in one place and at one time. He was one man, walking beside one sea in one little corner of the earth. He healed whatever He touched, but His touch was necessarily limited by time and space.

Now, does it make sense that the Father would send His son for this limited ministry? I don’t think that is tenable. He made provision to carry on the work through the Holy Spirit: we are to complete His mission. We are his multiplied hands, His feet, His voice, and compassionate heart. Imperfect and partial to be sure, but His healing Body just the same. And it is through the Holy Spirit (Christ’s love which is everywhere at once),  that we receive the power to carry on the work of the apostles. It is a challenging and sobering thought: when we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives, we receive the same urgent and life-giving force that led our Master.

Whenever I sit down and prayerfully reflect on the fact that Christ left us in charge of establishing his kingdom here on the planet, I am amazed and awe-struck. Yet that is exactly what he did. When taking an objective look at the church and all its foibles, it would not be a reach to conclude that maybe the Master, in his exuberance and his love for us, may have over-estimated our talents and capabilities. Even a superficial examination of the problems and petty squabbles that have typified church history, along with the current chaotic state of doctrinal disunity and dwindling membership, points to we have, at least to this point, fallen quite short of where we should be.

In spite of these facts, I am hopeful that the Body of Christ will eventually move forward and make great strides in laying a positive foundation for Christ’s kingdom on earth. In fact, I am more than hopeful, I am downright optimistic! A few weeks ago, as we were discussing these very issues, a good friend was stunned when I told him I was optimistic about the church’s future and that I felt that the prognosis was far more positive than generally  forecasted by the many pessimistic, hand-wringing naysayers who have all but blown Taps on the church in America.

“How can you possibly be optimistic about the church and the kingdom?” said my friend as he almost choked on his fish taco. “Given the fact that so many people are leaving the church and so many churches are closing their doors, I see no grounds for hope, much less optimism.”

In truth, as a firm believer in the integrity of Christ and the teachings of the New Testament, I cannot be anything but optimistic. Although the numbers of this and the statistics of that are anything but positive, I am optimistic because I rest on the promises given to us by God in the Holy Scriptures.

To be continued…

(c) L.D. Turner 2013/All Rights Reserved

The Path of Sacrificial Service

English: The Lord Jesus Christ in the image of...
English: The Lord Jesus Christ in the image of Good Shepherd. Early Christian trsdition of symbolism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mick Turner

In examining Jesus’ life we have seen that he was a complete incarnation of God’s wisdom and compassion. In conducting his life the Master exhibited these traits consistently in thought, word and deed. These twin foundations of Christian spirituality, wisdom and compassion, are not ends in and of themselves. Instead, wisdom and compassion are the means leading to another end: sacrificial service.

Even the most cursory examination of Jesus’ life, from his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, right on through his washing of his disciples’ fetid feet and his death on the cross, we see clearly the consistent theme of sacrifice. Indeed, the Master’s life was one continual incarnation of his teaching that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground” and his words to the rich young wanna-be, “ go and sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor.”

Yet this kind of sacrifice does not come natural to us. At least I know it doesn’t come natural to me. I have within me a fibrous root of self-centeredness that, without divine assistance, will rule my life and in the long run, bring me to ruin. Scripture teaches that we all have this selfish core and left unchecked by the Holy Spirit, can infiltrate and poison all aspects of our being. Tyler Edwards, in his excellent book entitled Zombie Church, describes how this tendency toward self-cherishing can even get its tentacles into our prayer lives:

It sometimes seems like we want God to be a genie in a bottle. Sometimes we pray asking God to do everything for us and then expect it will just magically happen. We pray for patience and want to wake up a more patient person. We pray for wisdom and expect that God will just download it into our heads. We just want to put it on the Almighty Santa list and wake up with it under the tree. Then when God puts us in a situation where we can learn the very things we asked Him for, we get upset. We don’t want to have to work at it; we just want God to make it happen. I know I’ve tried to use Him like this………………..I have tried to make my faith a spiritual investment where I get as much out of it as I can while putting in as little as possible. Ever done that? This attitude degrades the church. Oftentimes we show up looking for what we get, not what we have to give.

“Ever done that?” I know when Tyler Edwards asked that question in the quotation above, it hit me right between the eyes. Yes, I have done that, many times over. Thank God I am less prone to do that than I once was. Increasingly, I have come to see the Christian walk of faith, contrary to what many of the “Prosperity Gospel” teachers will tell you, is more about what I can give than what I can get. The fact is, if you really deep down get what  the gospel is all about, you fully understand that you can never give enough to equal what you have already been given by God. When I truly and prayerfully reflect on what Christ’s mission to this world did for me, I am humbled beyond description, filled with not just thankfulness, but more than that, I am imbued with a motivational gratitude that creates in me a desire to be of service to the divine source that has been so gracious to me. Consider:

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. (Ephesians 1:3 NLT)

Or this:

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. (2 Peter 1: 3-4 NLT)

Just prayerfully reflect for a time on what has been said in these scriptures. Paul tells us in Ephesians that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In the “heavenly realms” does not mean they await us after this life, but instead, means that these blessings are already ours. All we have to do is be open and receptive in order to move these blessings down from the spiritual realms. Once we grasp this, once we fully understand that God has already provided everything we could possibly need, we take possession of these blessings by “reckoning” that it is so. (See Romans 6:11 ).

Even more astounding, however, it that in addition to all these promises and blessings that are ours through God’s gracious provision and Christ’s completed mission, we are also able to “partake of the divine nature.” We share the very nature of Christ and from a personal perspective, when I truly grasp this incredible truth, I am rendered speechless.

In an often overlooked passage of scripture, we get a glimpse of how this is possible. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:10 that Christ ascended “higher than the highest heavens so that he may fill all things with himself.” Just chew on that one for awhile. With Christ’s ascension into these realms, the entire universe underwent a complete change. Since his ascension, everything that exists has within it the fullness of Christ. Granted, for some aspects of existence, that fullness remains latent, but if scripture is to be trusted, it is there nonetheless and only needs to be awakened. These are metaphysical mysteries too great for me to get my understanding around completely, but even taken on faith, they stagger the mind.

As followers of Jesus we must understand a cardinal truth when it comes to these spiritual blessings. We are not to squander them. Instead, we are to do everything we can to appropriate these blessings, especially spiritual gifts. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, we develop these gifting and, in the process, become closer to the optimal version of who and what we are. In essence, we become what the Master intended and what scripture describes when it talks about being “in Christ.”

My point in discussing these spiritual blessings and our spiritual gifts, along with the process of becoming the kind and caliber of beings God intended, is that we engage and develop our blessings and gifts in order to bless others through sacrificial service. Just as Christ was wholly obedient to the Father through his service to others, so we are obedient to the Master by our service to those in need. In this way we become the hands, feet, and heart of Jesus in our hurting, needful world.

In essence, we can say that God blesses us so we can be a blessing to others. In doing so, we emulate Christ in carrying out much-needed sacrificial service. Jesus’ entire life can be seen through the lens of what biblical Greek terms “kenosis.” Kenosis is typically translated as “self-emptying love” and from beginning to end, Jesus’ mission exemplified this spiritual virtue.

It is this very concept of kenosis that makes the Christian path unique. Even within the faith itself, it seems there were and are still many who missed the boat, so to speak, in terms of understanding what Jesus was bringing into manifestation on this planet. Traditionally, the path of spiritual development has been seen as one of “ascent,” where the spiritual aspirant engages in spiritual practices in order to purify themselves. Growth is seen as an upward spiral or ladder.

His entire life can be seen through the lens of what biblical Greek terms “kenosis.” Kenosis is typically translated as “self-emptying love” and from beginning to end, Jesus’ mission exemplified this spiritual virtue.

Paul gives us a clear description of how Christ’s entire life and mission was characterized by this kenotic ethic:

Though his state was that of God, yet he did not deem equality with God something he should cling to.

Rather, he emptied himself, and assuming the state of a slave, he was born in human likeness.

He, being known as one of us, humbled himself, obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

For this, God raised him on high and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name.

So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

And so every tongue should proclaim “Jesus Christ is Lord!” – to God the Father’s glory. (Phil. 2:9-16)

Built upon the twin pillars of wisdom and compassion, the spiritual formation within the Christian tradition is kenotic – a journey of self-emptying love and sacrificial service. Although most faith traditions have an element of sacrificial service within their framework of spiritual development, the Christian faith tradition is somewhat unique in that it places the ethic of kenosis at its core.

Granted, many contemporary churches are far from this ideal, choosing instead to go off the rails in terms of theology, practice, and especially political alliances. Still, there remain pockets of genuine kenotic spirituality and it is in these pockets that the true presence of authentic Christian spirituality may be found. It is in these living, vibrant churches that the vision and tradition inaugurated by Jesus is alive and well, making life better for all who come in contact with its heart and spirit. It is in these authentic pockets of Christian practice that the people understand that on the path begun by Christ, the motivational emphasis shifts from “me” to “we.”

© L.D. Turner 2012/ All Rights Reserved