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Friday, April 27, 2018

Disciples

     …[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. 
-Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)


If you’re a college student looking for a summer internship, and you don’t mind the wind in your hair and the sun on your neck — and sitting on a motorcycle for hours each day — I may know just the thing for you.
     Harley-Davidson is looking for eight college students to spend the summer riding Harleys around the country (and possibly overseas), attending motorcycle events and documenting their travels with photos, videos, and stories on various social media. The program is open to students looking to pursue careers in social media, communications, public relations or marketing. Harley-Davidson will teach the students to ride, give them bikes, and send them out for the summer. And, here’s the thing: you get to keep the motorcycle when you’re done.
     Harley is doing this because they recognize that young adults aren’t gravitating toward motorcycles in the same numbers as previous generations. They believe that the only way to ensure their health as a company going forward is if they grow the next generation of riders themselves. By teaching students, equipping them, and sending them out, they hope to create a whole new market for their products. Their 10-year strategy is to train 2 million new U.S. riders.
     They want to train new riders. They don’t mean by that, primarily, that they want to build large buildings where people interested in motorcycles can come to hear lectures about building, riding, and repairing them. They aren’t interested in creating spaces for people who might be interested in motorcycles to come and eat together or watch movies together. They aren’t going to be content with gathering those with a casual interest in motorcycles for singalong versions of Born to be Wild or Roll Me Away or Wanted Dead or Alive. They want to get people on bikes, get them to adopt biking as a lifestyle, an identity. And they believe that lifestyle will be contagious and create even more new riders. And, incidentally, grow their market.
     The book of Acts tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians” at a town called Antioch, in Syria. The sentence is kind of a throwaway reference that, by the time Acts was written, those who had once been known as disciples of Jesus were now also called Christians.
     In some ways, that is a better name. Disciples isn’t as descriptive: disciples of whom? Christian removes all doubt. The way we mostly use the term “Christian” in our day, though — well, I’m not sure disciple isn’t better.
     What Harley-Davidson is trying to do, by way of illustration, is to create disciples. They’re training people to ride, equipping them, then sending them out to adopt biking as a lifestyle and an identity
     Those 12 guys who followed Jesus around: before they were called apostles, they were disciples. Before they were “sent out,” they were learners. Students. Apprentices. They didn’t sit in a classroom. They didn’t do assigned reading. They did listen to him teach, but then they taught too. He sent them out in his name to heal and serve. He trained them, equipped, them, and sent them out. So when they took the message of Jesus to the world, it was natural to call those who came to believe in him disciples.
     I don’t want to lose the word Christian, but I would like to recover the word disciple.
     Most churches today are likely struggling at some level with declining membership. We explain it in lots of ways: increased immigration of non-Christians, failure of the church’s witness, the secularization of our culture. Could it be, though, that people don’t need another vicarious experience? Could it be that they aren’t looking to be told what following Jesus is like? Could it be that they’re not looking for another cause, another ism? Maybe they’re looking for an identity. A lifestyle to adopt. Something, or someone, to give their life for.
     That’s what Jesus offers: “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We’ve sometimes acted in the church as though that’s something to be hushed up until people are ready to hear it. But maybe we should own it. Maybe discipleship is something people are looking for. Maybe some people, at least, are looking for someone who’s so good, so liberating, so freeing that following him is the easiest decision they’ll ever make. 
     And we offer them an hour on Sundays: a few songs, a sermon, the chance to throw a few bucks in a plate. 
     Could we, church, take a page from Harley-Davidson’s strategy? Could we start to spend more of our money, time, effort, and other resources to train, equip, and send out disciples
     We’ll have to begin by being disciples ourselves. If you’re a church leader, ask yourself if you’re more enamored with corporate leadership models and “vision-casting” than you are of following Jesus. Do you spend more time in meetings or in prayer? Telling people what to do, or showing them how to do it? More time standing before the church teaching, or standing beside other disciples trying to do what Jesus says?
     Let’s get rid of the notion that making disciples is about conversion. Conversion is the beginning. We baptize, sure — but then we teach. We tell people that they should come to Jesus, yes — but then we have to show them what they do once they get there. Baptism is the beginning of being a disciple. Not the end.
     Let’s finally, once and for all, let go of the idea that making disciples is just about the transfer of information. Teaching people to obey what Jesus commands isn’t just about telling them what he says, explaining what he meant, and ending with “go and do likewise,” any more than teaching someone how to ride a motorcycle is about those things. At some point, you have to get them on a bike and show them. Let them give it a try, and maybe even fail a time or two. Be there to cushion the landing and help them learn from those mistakes. Show them a better way to do it. Keep them excited and focused on the lifestyle they’re learning. Don’t leave them alone with frustration, fear, grief, or guilt.
     Living as disciples is something a community of faith does together. It’s relational. We teach each other by serving together. The greatest lessons I’ve learned about ministry were not learned in a church building, or a classroom: they were learned by seeing others live out what Jesus teaches in the world, among the people that he sends us to. When we serve together, share expertise and encouragement with each other, combine the gifts the Spirit gives us, pray together, even mess up together, we learn better what being a disciple is all about.
     May we never forget, finally, that disciples are eventually sent. If we’re faithful in creating disciples, then goodbye will be a word we’ll say and hear often. We aren't creating disciples of ourselves, or of our church or our leaders. We’re creating disciples of Jesus, and sometimes he will send them out of our range of influence and association. But that's as it should be, so they can create more disciples.
     Let’s never be content with the polite form of church life that doesn’t really require all that much of us. Let’s live as disciples, willing to give up everything. Let’s train, equip, and send disciples. Let’s go where discipleship takes us and tell the stories that come about because of it.

     Get your motor running. Head out on the highway.       

Friday, April 20, 2018

Infiltration

     …[E]ven if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins,  the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. 
-1 Peter 3:14-18 (NIV)


Chick-fil-a has infiltrated Manhattan.
     The restaurant chain showed up in the dead of night, unannounced, stealthily building four restaurants, including the largest in their chain, without anyone knowing about it. I mean, I guess it was something like that, since Dan Piepenbring used the word “infiltrated” in a hard-hitting New Yorker exposé, and as far as I know “infiltrate” implies a lot of secrecy. It’s kind of tough to believe that a company could open four stores, even in a town the size of New York City, without someone knowing about it, but I’m sure Mr. Piepenbring must know what he’s talking about.
     Mr. Piepenbring seems to have a lot of problems with Chick-fil-a. That’s his right, of course. He clearly doesn’t care for their famous “spokes-cows” — his issue there is apparently with an ad campaign “in which one farm animal begs us to kill another in its place.” (I hope no one tells him that the meat other restaurants serve doesn’t come from animals who have willingly given their lives, or died of natural causes.) 
     It seems, though, that the cow evangelists (cowvangelists?) aren’t the main problem Mr. Piepenbring has with Chick-fil-a. He doesn’t care for a well-known quote by the late founder of Chick-fil-a, S. Truett Cathy, expressing his belief that America is “inviting God’s judgment” by supporting same-sex marriage. The fact that Cathy, a Southern Baptist, was speaking to a Christian news organization and more or less echoing the position of most Christians for centuries doesn’t seem to throw Mr. Piepenbring off his stride at all.
     That’s kind of the crux of the matter, as I see it. Think of it this way: if Chick-fil-a were outspoken supporters of same-sex marriage, I doubt Mr. Piepenbring would have penned an article blasting them for their outspokenness. Neither, probably, would he excoriate in print a halal restaurant that made no effort to hide its owner’s Islamic beliefs, or a bookstore devoted to Buddhism. The real problem that Mr. Piepenbring has with Chick-fil-a, I think,  is summed up early in the article:
“…[T}he brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism. Its headquarters, in Atlanta, are adorned with Bible verses and a statue of Jesus washing a disciple’s feet. Its stores close on Sundays.”
     What makes Chick-fil-a an infiltrator? What makes them outsiders, as far as Mr. Piepenbring’s New York is concerned? Bible verses. Jesus. In his eyes, they’re a “Christian” company. Or, at least, “Christian Traditionalist.”
     Leaving aside the question of whether or not a corporation can be in any sense “Christian,” Mr. Piepenbring can believe and write what he wants about Chick-fil-a, and it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me one way or the other. (More chicken sandwiches for me!) His words certainly don’t rise to the level of persecution. I even understand where an attitude like his could come from: The church, historically, hasn’t always practiced love as much as we’ve talked about it. Too often we have reflected society’s prejudices instead of our Lord’s love and grace and used the gospel for our own selfish ends. We should, and will, receive our Lord’s judgment for that sort of thing.
     But I would like to point out to Mr. Piepenbring — but more to my sisters and brothers in Christ — that for people who believe, faith is not a buffet where we pick and choose what we’d like to keep and what we’d prefer to discard. Our faith is in Jesus, and he tells us to be light and salt in the world, to make our presence known by doing and saying the things that we learn from him. He tells us that when we do sometimes people will insult us and persecute us because they don’t really care for him, but that even if that happens we have to be faithful. Following him makes us Christian. If it makes us traditionalist as well, I’m OK with that.
     We’re called to follow the Scriptures, too. Admittedly, figuring out what those Scriptures from another time and place have to do with us in our time and place is not always easy, and undoubtedly we’ve made mistakes — and likely will again. Yet, part of our faith tells us that those Scriptures are God’s word. Believing it and obeying it is part of what makes us Christian. If it makes us traditionalist as well, so be it.
     Keeping our faith to ourselves isn’t really an option, either. Sometimes people who don’t believe seem to expect that those of us who do should just not talk about it, should separate our public personas from the faith that means so much to us privately. That isn’t something we can readily do, though. Nor should we have to. Faith that means anything at all — even if it’s faith in science, or reason, or words — will inevitably show itself in the things we say and do, the priorities we set, the values by which we live. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. 
     My suspicion is that believers are going to encounter assumptions like Mr. Piepenbring’s more frequently, that our faith is going to be increasingly pushed to the margins, that the pressure will increase for us to keep it to ourselves. One way to respond to that is to panic, to lash out, to try to push back into the center of power. But Jesus didn’t do that, and millions of his followers through the centuries never had that option. Our faith doesn’t lose its legitimacy if it loses its majority. 
     Another way to respond is to go into stealth mode, to do exactly what Mr. Piepenbring and those who share his opinions of faith think we should do and just be silent. Jesus didn’t do that either, and neither have millions of his followers who those in power have attempted to muzzle before us. 
     May we respond like Him, and like them. May we live without fear, anxiety, or defensiveness. When insulted, slandered, and told to be quiet, may we respond with gentleness and respect, keeping our consciences clear. But may we never hesitate to continue to speak about the hope we have. And may we learn — in this world in which every injustice, every slight, can immediately be exposed — that suffering for doing good can actually be a blessing. May we remember that we learn that from our Lord, who suffered for the sins of others in order to bring us to God. May our sufferings, if they should occur, bring many to God.

     And may we be as earnest and clear about our message as those cowvangelists are.     

Friday, April 6, 2018

Nobodies

     …Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
-1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NIV)


She’s nobody.
     I suppose I should say “spoiler alert,” but if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi by now, I think it’s safe to say that you don’t have a lot of interest in it and don’t much care if I spoil it for you. 
     Rey, the character introduced in the previous Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, has been the subject of two years of fan theories, mainly because The Force Awakens left a huge hole where her backstory should have been. All we knew about her history was that she was left by her parents to fend for herself on a remote planet for something like twenty years. There were all kinds of intriguing hints as to who her parents might be. Fans theorized that she was everyone from Luke Skywalker’s daughter to the reincarnation of Darth Vader (and everyone in between). The more outlandish the theory, the more it seemed to catch on. 
     And then The Last Jedi came out and it was revealed that she’s nobody. Rey’s parents, the film’s main villain, Kylo Ren, says, “were filthy junk traders” who “sold [Rey] off for drinking money. They’re dead in a pauper’s grave….” “You come from nothing,” he tells her. “You’re nothing.”
     So many fans hated that big reveal. Hated it. (I loved it.) They wanted her to be somebody. They wanted an easy explanation for her power. They wanted their theories confirmed. More than that, they wanted it confirmed that greatness could spend 20 years toiling in absolute obscurity. 
     Maybe we like the idea, more than we would even want to admit, that people can be important and significant, even if nobody knows it.
      Actually, though, that’s what the movie’s saying. It just doesn’t want us to make the mistake of thinking that greatness comes from your bloodline, your inheritance, from the privilege you enjoy or the DNA you’ve been given. Rey is, apparently, chosen by the Force. That’s why she’s special. Who her parents were has nothing to do with it. By listening to and following her calling, she makes a difference in spite of the fact that she’s nobody.
      We live in a world where, to successfully run for public office, you have to be able to get your hands on large sums of money. You have to be wealthy, or know a lot of people who are. Leaders in business and finance are generally from important families and have the connections to get into exclusive schools and run in exclusive circles. Sure, nobodies from nowhere sometimes make good through exceptional talent and hard work, but that’s the exception and not the rule in our world. 
     That was even more true in Paul’s world than in ours. In his world, it was almost impossible to escape your social class. And that’s why the gospel was so earth-shaking and revolutionary. Imagine a plebeian in Rome or a member of the Dalit caste in India hearing these words: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” Imagine a kid in American’s inner city hearing them, surrounded by poverty and crime, decaying property and hopelessness. Imagine a young girl in Appalachia, or an old woman alone in a nursing home hearing those words. The foolish things, the weak things, the lowly things, the despised things, the things that are not — there are a lot of people in our world who know those terms well. 
     The aged. The infirm. The mentally ill. The socially awkward. The deformed. The unattractive. The depressed.  Those who have been marginalized for their gender or race. They can identify with every category Paul mentions. And if the church would only preach the gospel like this, we might just change the world. People who everyone else dismisses or ignores just might start to believe that God loves them and can do great, significant things in the world with them. If only.
     In that scene in The Last Jedi, when Kylo tells Rey who she is — and who she’s not — he doesn’t stop there. “You’re nobody,” he tells her, but it isn’t in a sneering, villainous way. Kylo wants Rey to join him, see. He doesn’t care that she isn’t seemingly important, that she doesn’t have a name or a bloodline. “You’re nobody,” he tells her. “But not to me.” And he holds out his hand. 
     It has to be tempting. For someone to know you don’t matter, you’re not important, you’re nobody…and they want you anyway, they love you anyway — man, that’s compelling. You don’t have to pretend with someone like that. You don’t have to be someone you aren’t. 
     But see, that’s the gospel: God chose what the world dismisses and devalues. When Jesus was made human, it was as a nobody. The people in charge of the world around him would have said he didn’t matter. He collected the ignored and despised around him as followers. He spent most of his time with the dregs of society. He died as the worst of the worst would have died, in the worst of the worst of all the ways possible to die. When God raised him from the dead, it was with the promise that anyone who put their trust in him could share in his new life. Even the nobodies. Especially the nobodies, because how better to prove that God takes what the world doesn’t know better than to discard and does beautiful things?  
     But the church too easily forgets this. We market ourselves as successful, hip, and slick. We trot out the best and the brightest as leaders. Our websites feature smiling, happy, people who seem to have it all together. And we send the message that it’s those folks we want.
     But those folks don’t want us, by and large. Jesus said they wouldn’t. They have too many other options. 
     But those nobodies — they need to know that God values and loves them just as they are. And how better to show it than for us to own the truth: most of us are nobodies, and that’s just as it should be. And even those few of us who might be somebodies will choose to be nobody here. And instead of praising ourselves we’ll praise our Lord. And instead of recruiting the successful so we’ll feel better about ourselves we’ll proclaim to the other nobodies that they’re somebody to him. And to us.   

     God does beautiful things in the world with nobodies. He always has. May we embrace who we are so that we can embrace who he makes us. And so we can embrace the other nobodies who he might call. 

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