Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Wise Kings and the Wicked King

During the Advent season, we are introduced to many interesting characters:  Mary, Joseph, Anna, Elizabeth and Zacharias, Anna and Simeon, John the Baptist.  Most of these are in Luke’s Gospel, but Matthew’s Gospel gives us a different perspective and some new characters.  Matthew 12:1-12 introduces several kings—some wise Gentile “kings” and one paranoid king.

The individuals we call the “three kings” or Magi came from east of Palestine, probably Persia or Babylon (present day Iraq or Iran). We don’t really know how many there were; the number three comes from the three gifts they carried.  Although commonly placed at the stable and depicted in Nativity scenes, they came long after Jesus’ birth (probably two years later).

These men (and they were most likely men although they did ask for directions) were part of a unique group.  They were astrologers, men of wisdom, and advisors to the king of Babylon.
In those times, astronomy and astrology made up one not two disciplines. They were of a priestly class, probably practitioners of Zoroastrianism. 

These proto-scientists connected great happenings in the heavens to great events on earth (and vice versa).  In the ancient world, people spent a lot of time observing the night sky, making up stories about the stars and the constellations, and observing the celestial movements.  The star they saw could have been a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn or a supernova. We don’t know.

Although they were Gentiles and practitioners of a pagan religion, they felt compelled to come and worship the new King of the Jews. 

Herod the King was as wicked as the men from the east were wise.  He was from Edom and was not a Jew.  He contributed enormous amounts of money to complete the Temple at Jerusalem (money he gained from exorbitant taxation) and played the role of a faithful Jew, but he was more concerned about embracing the Greco-Roman culture and a lavish lifestyle.

Herod was paranoid, but he felt even more threatened as he got older. He killed three of his sons because he feared them as successors. Augustus Caesar is reported to have said, “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” The word “disturbed” in the text might be better translated “terrified.”  His worst fears were coming true.

Herod did not know his Jewish prophecy, so he consulted the chief priests and scribes. They identified the birthplace of the new king from Micah 5:2 as Bethlehem, only a few miles from Jerusalem.  Herod was treacherous.  Despite his statement that he too wanted to worship the new king, he did not want to worship but to destroy him.  

The men from the east did find the child, deliver their gifts as an act of worship, and were divinely compelled to return home without letting Herod know that they had found Jesus. Although the text says that they did so because they were warned in a dream, perhaps they were very wise after all.

What do we learn from this account?

First, the story emphasizes that Jesus is both a divine and human figure that even Gentiles worship, a major theme of Matthew’s gospel.  Pious Gentiles recognized Jesus as a king at his birth even if Jewish religious leaders seemed to fear him.

Second, there is a big difference between the one who had been made king and the one who was born a king. Herod had used all of his connections and power to act like a king, now he was upstaged by a real king.  Despite his treachery, Herod would not win out.  Despite the slaughter of innocent children to protect his rule, he would die and Jesus would live.  Herod’s kingdom was earthly but the Kingdom of Jesus is eternal.

Finally, the wise men were like many people today--they were very spiritual but were still looking for more.  This is a good reminder that we need to look for opportunities to share our faith with those who are seekers, nurturing the spark of truth that they perceive.

(This blog was originally posted on December 29, 2013.)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Together--Community as a Means of Grace: A Review

Community is at the center of what it means to be church.  A missional church that is engaged with its culture is constantly renegotiating exactly how community will be manifested but it will always be central. 

In this second volume of the Missional Wisdom Library, Larry Duggins draws on Wesleyan theology to show how both prevenient grace (preparation for salvation) and sanctifying grace (growing in holiness) can be manifested in various types of community.  He writes,

“As people of God, we cannot ‘save’ other people . . .  But we can work to bring people together in a way that makes it easier for them to encounter the grace of God in an environment that is encouraging, with people who can help interpret their experiences.” (pp. 80-81)

Duggins points out that any community can be a place of grace and gives examples from churches, the workplace, around food (growing, cooking and consuming it), children’s activities and schools, and affinity groups.  The Missional Wisdom Foundation with which Duggins works has developed some interesting mixed-use spaces in cooperation with churches where new approaches to community are developed.  One is The Mix, a co-working and creative space in the basement of White Rock United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas.  Another is Haw Creek Commons, an adaptive reuse/transformation of Bethesda UMC in Asheville, North Carolina.  He provides extensive examples and testimonies from each setting.

Although the work of MWF is strongly tied to the United Methodist Church (see the first book in the series, Missional, Monastic,Mainline:  A Guide to Starting MissionalMicro-Communities in Historically Mainline Traditions), Duggins also realizes that not everyone reached through these alternative communities will be comfortable in a traditional church.  Other ways of engaging interested individuals in their growth as disciples must be provided.

In fact, the writer provides a strong argument that theological education must change in order to expand this type of outreach:

“Pastoral leaders must be trained in community development and spiritual direction as well as in leading a Sunday service, and a new generation of ordained and lay leaders must emerge who are capable of organizing and leading these new forms of Christian community.”  (p. 79)

The book is a study guide, strongly rooted in Wesleyan theology and tradition but one that can be used by any faith community to challenge its laity and clergy to embrace new forms of community and social entrepreneurship to do the work of evangelism and discipleship in the 21st century.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Strange Way to Save the World

My wife, our daughter, and I were returning from the memorial service for a friend in east Tennessee.  Stephanie, our daughter, was providing our music from Pandora on her iPhone.  A song came up that I had probably heard before, but the words suddenly got my attention.  “A Strange Way to Save the World” is written from Joseph’s perspective and points out the incongruity of the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem.  Joseph voices his wonder at the strange way that God has chosen to work.  Imagine, God was placing the plan for the salvation of the world in the hands of a teenage girl and a village craftsman!

The song reminds me that our God works in unusual and paradoxical ways more times than we imagine.  So many of us are obsessed with planning and control that we rarely leave time and space for God to intervene in our lives.  Is this because we do not really believe that God might break through the ordinary, mundane things of life?  Are we so satisfied with the way that we are doing things that we don’t think that God can improve on our plans?

As I reflect on my own spiritual walk, the challenge for me is to be more open to the intervention of the Spirit of God into my life.  I am sure that there are many times that I have missed a blessing that God had for me because I was too organized, busy, or self-assured.  I need to leave more space for the Spirit to step in and surprise me!

The lesson of Bethlehem is that God works in simple ways that sometimes seem foolish to us but accomplish God’s purposes.  As the writer of Job noted, “God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways; God does great things beyond our understanding.”  (Job 37:5)

As it was then, so should it be today.

(Originally posted on December 22, 2011)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Tell Me About Coaching

Sometimes we get so involved in our pursuits that we assume everyone understands what we are talking about.  As a leadership coach, I am often surprised when a person says, “Tell me about this coaching thing.  What’s it all about?”

In Growing Agile Leaders, Bob Dale writes, “Coaching is a growth-oriented, strategic relationship.  Coaching links two peers, equals who are in distinct roles, to collaborate as thought partners and to find the way forward for the person being coached.”  I love Dale’s definition because it applies to a number of ways that coaching can be used in the church.

First, practically every professional leader (including ministers) would benefit from working with a coach.  Unlike many conversations, the coaching conversation is all about the client.  The coach provides the framework and monitors the process, but the person being coached sets the agenda.  In this case, it really is “all about you” and the person you want to become.

Ministers often find it difficult to open up to others, even other clergy, fearing they will appear either inadequate and unsure of themselves or egotist and self-centered.  A coach provides a safe place to reflect, dream, plan, and work for a better future.  The client is challenged to achieve deeper insights and to respond accordingly.

Second, clergy leaders can be more effective if they add coaching to their “tool box.”  Too often, lay leaders go to the pastor for their answers.  This allows them to avoid finding out things themselves and, often, avoiding responsibility.  When the pastor uses coaching skills, he or she is encouraging lay leaders in self-leadership and to use their talents to discover answers for themselves.  A good athletic coach takes a talented team and makes it better by investing in individuals.  A coaching pastor can do the same.

Third, lay leaders in the congregation can use coaching skills to lead teams and groups as well as equip the other leaders with whom they work.  The Disciple Development Coaching © training provided by Pinnacle Leadership Associates prepares laity to use a coach approach to call out, encourage, and empower others.  One does not have to be a professional to use coaching skills effectively.

Coaching can be an effective tool to develop all types of leaders in the body of Christ.  If you would like to learn more about coaching in church, contact Ircel Harrison.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Apostolic Entrepreneurs

Faith-based social entrepreneurship is gaining traction.  Visionary leaders, many of them young adults, are seeking to meet needs outside of ecclesiastical structures.  Their motivation for doing this might be addressed in another blog, but the trend is growing.  In a recent article published by the Association of Theological Schools, writer Linda Kay Klein identified the top five qualities of a successful faith-based entrepreneur.

Purpose-driven.  Faith-based social entrepreneurs are driven by internal rather than external motivation.  Rather than seeking recognition, money, or freedom from guilt, these trailblazers have a clearly identified positive goal in mind. They see a need and want to meet it.  When they encounter barriers, they are driven to overcome these difficulties because they have a clear focus on what they want to accomplish.

Resilient.  Successful social entrepreneurs have often overcome personal challenges in their past.  Therefore, they are ready to meet the challenges of a start-up--limited funding, lack of support in the community, changes in leadership.  They realize that flexibility is a virtue if you still can accomplish your goal.

Two-channel thinking.  Klein writes, “It’s as though they are simultaneously on two channels--at once seeing the muck and mess of today, and the beauty that could be tomorrow.”  They can own the vision and communicate it to others while developing pathways to achieve the vision and inviting others on the journey.  They are the chief advocates for the vision.

People-centered.  They are not simply serving people and fulfilling their needs but inviting others to co-create the best solution.  They learn from those affected by the problem or possibility.  They also seek to network with those in various fields--business, government, social services--who share a common interest in achieving the goal.

Outcomes-oriented.  Successful social entrepreneurs realize that they must address the root causes that create the need and not just the symptoms.  The only path to permanent, life-giving change involves changing the system. 

Churches, judicatories and theological schools are beginning to recognize the impact these faith-based social entrepreneurs can make, but these entities usually lack the flexibility and creativity to support their work.  If the 21st century church is to be truly missional, we must find ways to empower, encourage, and resource those who can be our contemporary apostles to the world.  They will make a difference, but will we help or hinder their work?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Holiday Stress—Dealing with the Contradiction

We are now immersed in the “holiday season’ that is inaugurated with Thanksgiving, reaches its peak with Christmas, and then closes out with New Year’s Day.  This is a time of feasting, visiting, giving, reflection, and worship for most of us.  As McIntyre notes, however, it is often a time of stress as well.

So how do we deal with the stress?  What are some things we can do to deal with the stress?

First, we can set priorities.  What do we really value not only during the holidays but everyday?  If we value family, we will make sure that the holidays are times of sharing and creating positive memories together.  If we value giving time to others, we will structure such time into our lives.  Holidays are different from the normal flow of life but they can still reflect the values we embrace and put first.

Second, we can take the time to give back. During the holidays, we become even more aware of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  Many struggle in a number of ways—to have food on the table, to have safe and comfortable housing, and to provide for their families.  Those of us who have so much become more aware of those who have little.  Providing meals, support, and assistance for those in need may give us a head start on a new way of behaving in the New Year.

Third, we can take the time to nurture and enjoy relationships with family and friends. Take the time at parties, dinners, and other gatherings to really connect with others and show appreciation for them.  Even if we are geographically separated from those we love, we can call, write (remember old-fashioned cards and letters?) and find other ways to communicate.

Finally, we can commit time to prayer and reflection.  This is a holy season. We give thanks for the fulfillment of God’s promise in the Son, Jesus Christ, and consider what it means for our lives.  Although the change in calendar from one year to another is totally arbitrary, the move from 2017 to 2018 provides opportunities for us to assess where we have been and where we might go in the future with God’s help.

Holiday stress is a reality, but we can commit ourselves to emphasize the first part rather than the latter part.

(A version of this blog was originally posted December 2, 2013.)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Stephen: Breaking the Paradigm

My Dad was a great story-teller. He had to go to work as a teen-ager to help support his family and finished high school GED, but he was an avid reader and knew the Bible better than many of us who have studied it all our lives.  He told stories about Bible characters that made them come alive.

Stephen was that kind of story-teller.  When he was called upon to give a defense of his faith before the Assembly (Sanhedrin), he began with Abraham and told the story of the Hebrew people up to the time in which he lived.  The point of his story was not the one that his accusers were used to, however. The difference in his story and that of those who opposed him was that their story ended at a particular point with the Law and the Temple.  They considered the status quo as God’s ultimate expression.  Stephen shifted the paradigm and said, “The story doesn’t end there.  God is still working among God’s people.”

In his story-telling, Stephen shifted the paradigm or way of seeing things.  A paradigm shifter sees the same thing as everyone else but sees it in a different way.

The priests, scribes, and Pharisees accepted and defended a static view of the world.  They had God in a box and were happy with the ways things were.  Stephen, as a spokesperson for the Way, proclaimed that God’s story was still unfolding.  God’s plan of redemption goes on.

God is a paradigm breaker.  During the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention, I heard one prominent leader in the movement say, “God can’t do that. It would go against what He [sic] said in the Bible.”  In other words, this person believed that his particular interpretation of the Bible held God hostage.  God is not so easily restricted and continues to work among God’s people in unusual and unexpected ways.  This was Stephen’s message.

Stephen also proclaimed that God had sent spokespersons in the past who pointed the people in a new direction and every time those persons were rejected.  Joseph was rejected by his brothers.  Moses was criticized and opposed as God’s leader by the refugees from Egypt.  The prophets were scorned by their people.  Now finally, Jesus the Messiah had been rejected.  And Stephen, as a witness to the emerging Kingdom, would be rejected as well.

When a new paradigm comes along, not everyone accepts it.  Most of us are blinded by the familiar and too comfortable with the status quo.  Stephen was not that kind of leader.  He saw what God was doing, proclaimed it, and gave his life for that new reality.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Stephen: Innovation and Opposition

In regard to Stephen, theologian N. T. Wright comments, “You never know, once you lay hands on people and pray for God to work through them, what new things they will get up to, or rather what new things God will do through them.”

In Acts 6:8-15, the ministry of Stephen, a deacon (servant) in the church at Jerusalem, expands.  He moves from administering aid to the needy to healing and teaching.  As Wright notes, once the Spirit starts to work in a person’s life, you never know what will happen. 

When Stephen saw need, he responded.  He saw the sick and, through the power of the Spirit, offered healing.  He saw spiritual ignorance and responded with teaching about the Messiah.  As he did so, he was raising the profile of the Way and the church as well as himself. 

Throughout Christian history, there have been men and women like Stephen, who saw a need and responded.  They saw sickness and started hospitals.  They saw ignorance and started schools.  They saw children without families and started orphanages.  These innovators stepped outside the paradigm that the church had embraced and addressed the needs of the world in creative ways. 

When you do a new thing, you will upset someone.  Although his dissenters “could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (Acts 6:10, NIV), this did not stop them from trying.  They brought him before the Sanhedrin or Assembly and asked him to justify his work.  Although they had the ability to coerce him, there is every indication that Stephen willingly accepted the challenge as an opportunity to share the mission of God.

The church today needs women and men like Stephen who will respond to the leadership of the Spirit of God.  John’s gospel explains the work of the Spirit in this way: The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8, NIV)

For those of us who are control freaks, this can be frightening.  For leaders like Stephen, it was exhilarating.  He was ready to listen, act, and witness through the power of God’s Spirit.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Stephen: A Person of Faith and Wisdom

Throughout the history of the church, men and women have stepped up to renew the church and stretch its ministry in new directions.  These are pathfinders, entrepreneurs, or pioneers who see new opportunities for Kingdom work and respond accordingly.

Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church at Jerusalem, provides a good model of a true “thought leader,” one who moves things in a new direction. Although originally chosen as one “to wait on tables” or care for widows, Stephen had the ability and the opportunity to do much more than this simple task of service.  A servant leader in the best sense of the term, he was ready and willing to follow the leadership of the Spirit.

In the descriptions of Stephen in the Book of Acts, a pattern is clear.  He was “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3); a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5); and “a man full of God’s grace and power” (6:8). 

There was a spiritual vitality in Stephen that issued forth in service to others.  His walk with God empowered and motivated him to perform “great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8).  In the familiar phrase, he walked the talk.

Stephen was also deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures.  In the lengthy discourse credited to him in Acts 7, he shows a deep understanding of scripture, the history of his Jewish forebears, and a remarkable grasp of the role of Christ in ushering in a new age for all people.  He was an articulate and faithful spokesperson for the Kingdom of God.

A person of faith and wisdom, Stephen exhibited the key personality characteristic of a leader--personal integrity.  People responded to him because his actions backed up his words.  He understood his motivation and lived out his values.  We want to follow people like Stephen.

(All scripture passages are NIV.)