True Christian?

Just read a great post by Jim Herrington.

He raises such a great set of questions about what it means to be a Christian (literally, “little christ”). Acts 11:26 tells us that it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christian”. These believers were Greeks, they first heard the Gospel from other believers who scattered in the midst of persecution after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). And they were raised up in the faith under the instruction of Barnabas and Paul. And they were called Christians.

To be a Christian in Acts 11 was to be called to a new view of the world – away from one in which many pagan gods called for shared allegiance – into one where Jesus pointed to an exclusive God, and even revealed that God in His own flesh. Called away from the practices of pagan ritual, Greek cultural values of sexuality, and into a life of purity through faith in Jesus.

Integrity seems to be so important in scripture – today we might say, “Walk your talk.” Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount from Matthew 5 that our interior thoughts and attitudes should match our outward actions – don’t just be good on the inside, but, as Paul says, “allow your mind to be transformed so that you may be made new.” (Rom 12:2).

So, Jim’s question is – who’s more a Christian? The person who openly admits that they are a sinner struggling to be faithful to Jesus. Or the one who acts outwardly like he has everything together, keeping his sins hidden from view. Neither is finally God’s full desire – we are called to be righteous, not to say, “Yep, I’m a sinner, but thank God I’m saved by the grace of Jesus,” and to just go on sinning without concern (Rom 6:1). Rather, we are to acknowledge our sins before another (James 5:16). No one is without sin – we are either seeking to be honest about our sin, or we are seeking to hide it. And then we either are comfortable with our sin, or we repent and seek to be transformed.

The challenge, or a challenge, that we face is remaining a community of integrity that both holds one another mutually accountable to move toward lives of righteousness through faith in Christ, while at the same time remaining communities of amazing grace – where the fallen have a home, a place of refuge, a sanctuary. Striking this balance seems a large enough task that it can only be accomplished by the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of God through the Holy Spirit in our lives.

May we know both as we seek to serve and to lead according to the call upon our lives.

The Valley of Ruth

Ruth Grace Wagner Crawford. My Mom. She died of cancer in October 1997. She was 62, and I was 27. By this time I’d seen death professionally for several years, but never lost a close family member. I clearly remember thinking that I would/could be a better minister – that this was part of how I would hope God to redeem my own loss and her suffering – but teaching me how to enter into the valley with others.
Our family entered into that valley in the Spring of 1988 – my senior year in High School. My dad told my sister and me in May. I graduated several weeks later, and then went off to Europe to work and travel for the summer. Home for a few weeks in August, I then went off to college at Texas Tech in Lubbock. All this to say, I didn’t really walk that valley with my family, not at that time. My sister on the other hand, came home every weekend and was there to help dad care for mom during her treatments. Mom went into remission and stayed fairly healthy for 5 years.
Year six brought a new occurrence of cancer with my parents living on the East Coast, and me still in Texas, in graduate school, and married. Again, I was not really present in the valley with them. Yes, I suppose I had my own kind of valley from a distance, but that distance also enabled/allowed me to avoid thinking and feeling the experience daily. My sister, again, went for extended periods to walk that valley with them.
Again, Mom’s treatment was ‘successful’ and the doctors said the cancer was in full remission. Several years later our folks made their way back to our home town of Tyler. Mom came out to visit us for a week when we were living in Midland. I began to make a move closer to them. Over a period of several months, I job hunted until I found work 30 minutes from my parent’s home. At nearly the same time, my mother got sick again, with a high fever and weakness while traveling in Canada. She was so weak that she had to leave the plane in a wheelchair. Weeks later, she was dead – 2 weeks before Laura, Camille and I actually moved to East Texas to be near them.
Turns out the cancer hat returned, and her oncologist predicted that future occurrences would follow the same accelerated rate – 6 years remission, then 3, then 18 months, next nine months, etc. The only hope would be a massive chemo attack on her system followed by a transplant of her own bone marrow that had been harvested years before as a part of her first treatment. The idea is to take her to the edge of death, destroying the entire immune system and the cancer with it, and then to bring her back with the bone marrow therapy. Days after the first chemo treatment she acquired a serious infection, got a rash, and died days later. This final trip through the valley was brief, for her anyway.
I was around this time. We’d made the trip home, and were down the hall making funeral arrangements when she took her last breath. I remember standing in the hall with my wife, father, pastor, and others – crying, screaming, cursing – F**K NO – – F**K NO!!!
Some time later, my sister arrived – she’d gone back home because we thought Mom was doing better. Interesting that Kim had been there for so much of their previous journeys through the valley, but not this conclusion – and I had just the opposite experience. (As Kim reflected on this at the time, she said that Mom must have known Kim couldn’t have handled being there when she died. We struggle to make sense of why things happen as they do.)
So my dear friends gathered at my parents’ home and offered the comforting ministry of presence. Sometimes that’s what we have to offer – just ourselves, here and now. No matter what else happens in my life, one of the most precious moments will standing in my Dad’s living room with these few intimates, and knowing that, hurt as we were, we were not alone in the world. And for me, their presence manifest the presence of Christ with us in our grief. Nothing to say, nothing to do, just be. And that is precisely how Ruth Grace Wagner Crawford lived her life – first and foremost, she was present. And she still is…

(written 10/25/06)

Protecting the Vulnerable

Sermon for 4/22

TEXT: Deuteronomy 10:12-22

God calls us to care for the widows and orphans in our midst, along with the stranger and foreigner. What is it that these groups have in common? In their culture, all of these were vulnerable. Orphans have no parents to care for them, Widows have no husband to care for them, strangers and foreigners have no claim to land, and therefore are at risk of being homeless and unable to support themselves financially. As the most vulnerable in Hebrew society at the time of the Exodus, they represent those who are most vulnerable to abuse and neglect at any time in any culture. So, we can take this principle, and look at our own culture and ask, “Who are the most vulnerable among us, most at risk of neglect and abuse?

But why should we care for them? What is to be our motivation? It is not simply out of our obedience and love for God that we are to care for the vulnerable among us. Rather, we are to do so out of our own personal connecction, our own life story. But, what if we personally have not been poor and vulnerable? Well, in the argument from Deuteronomy, the LORD says, “you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Deut 10:18b) But all those who left Egypt as adults died in the wilderness during the 40 years of wandering. So the call from 10:18 is a call to historical and ancestral memory, not only personal memory. It is the same call that motivates African Americans today to continue to connect with the sufferings of their ancestors who were slaves – which according to this text should then motivate them to care for the least and lowest and most vulnerable.

For us, the connection with children is easy – all of us were once children. As such, we were all vulnerable, so that as we hear this text, we hear a direct call to care for those who are now vulnerable as we ourselves once were. Our compassion is to be motivated by our ability to make a personal connection to those who are vulnerable.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, thus we have chosen to partner with the Collin County Children’s Advocacy Center to raise money and awareness in support of work with abused and neglected children. CCCAC has as part of their mission statement, “A place where healing begins.” If you have any sharing in sympathy for children who have or may experience abuse and neglect, support CCCAC, and support the Children’s Festival next week – This is a concrete expression of our willingness to do what God asks of us, as followers of His Son, Jesus.

And speaking of Jesus, what’s his connection to all of this? How does the life and ministry of Jesus connect with this call? In several ways:

  1. It is suppposed that Joseph, Mary’s husband when Jesus was born, had died by the time Jesus begins His ministry, thus explaining Joseph’s absence from the gospel accounts of that period. So, Mary was a widow. We see Jesus, even from the cross, taking care of His mother by asking His disciple John to care for her after His death, as though she were his own mother: “Woman, behold your son. Man, behold your mother.” (John 19:25-27).
  2. Jesus cared for the vulnerable in His own culture. He welcomed and blessed the children, giving them a place of importance in His life and countering the Apostles’ inclination to send them away as unworthy of Jesus’ attention. He showed compassion on the sick, cripple, demon-posessed – even on the Sabbath, and in opposition to the teaching of the Pharisees and Saducees. He made room in His life and ministry for women, accepting them as people worthy of His attention, and even worthy to sit at His feet and be taught along with the men.
  3. Most importantly: Jesus became vulnerable himself, becoming like us in every way, taking on human flesh, being found in human form. He understands human frailty, brokenness, sorrow, lonliness, suffering, temptation…. “15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb 4) AND, as Paul says, perhaps quoting a very early Christian affirmation of faith, hymn, or creed, “5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ” (Philippians 2). Christ humbled himself, becoming not just a human, but like a slave, like one vulnerable to the point of death!
  4. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the judgement with the image of separating all humanity into two groups, based upon how each one responded to the needs of those around them, specifically – “the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick or imprisoned.” – in other words, the vulnerable and those in need of help. And He goes so far as to say that when we serve the vulnerable, we are serving Him!

So, my only question is, how could we not? How could we ever turn our backs on those in need and refuse to help, refuse to even acknowledge their need, and our call, opportunity, and responsibility to answer that need? What we choose to do is not always easy – perhaps rarely is it. But the question of whether to act, that should be very easy indeed. Afterall, where would you be if Jesus had not acted on your behalf, when you were vulnerable, lost, and dead to God because of the sin in your life?

Jesus or Christ

OK, this one is another of my posts as a part of the continuing conversation from the Transforming Congregations yahoogroup refrenced below. It was prompted by some discussion about our (Disciples of Christ) use of “God” language generally without “Jesus” language specifically, and of some groups talking about Christ but not about Jesus, as though they could be separated out and one could believe in Christ without believing in Jesus (no, I don’t know what that means, thus my response below.)

Listening to God and being in relationship with God through faith in Jesus the Christ are not the same thing – lots of folks in their own faith traditions seek to listen to God, and maybe God even speaks to them in some way. As a disciple of Jesus, I am called to listen to God as revealed in Jesus, who is among other things The Christ.

Faith in “The Christ” disconnected from Jesus is not biblical faith, is not Christianity.

As Disciples, our foundational and core profession/confession of faith is….

drum roll please….

“I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and proclaim Him Lord and Savior of the World.” Its called Good News.

Now you might play with the wording a bit, but the gist is pretty much the same, i.e.

JESUS = Christ, Son of God, Savior, Lord

My own elaboration…
Christ – the one called, annointed, appointed, sent by God the Father.

Son of God – as participant in the godhead, Jesus the Son bears all the attributes of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and according to John, Paul, and the writer to the Hebrews (if not Paul) the fullness of God was in Jesus, which qualifies and enables him to accomplish the work for which He came/was sent

Savior – In the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection Jesus joins humanity and divinity, lives a sinless human life inspite of facing every temptation that humans have or will face, gave his god/man life rather than denying God, became and was received as an attoning sacrifice by the Father, entered into the full restoration of humanity as the risen one and was glorified by the Father (Phil 2)

Lord – He was Lord, and his position was restored by the Father after the death/resurrection event, so that He is Lord over all, and also that as followers of His we give Him preeminence in our lives and recognize and yield our will and desires to His lordship “we are not our own, we were bought with a price.”

Why do we feel it necessary, appropriate, helpful, or whatever, to relinquish the language of Christian Faith to people who can not or will not affirm these essential biblical truths about Jesus? Said folk may be wonderful – some of them are my friends and family – but I reserve the right to argue that they are not Christians if they do not “fix [their] eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

And, all this brings me to one of my core frustrations as a lifelong Disciple….
Because we are inclined sometimes to be the place where, as folks in the pews and the pulpit may say, “you can believe whatever you want”, how do we then teach. What do we teach? What do we ask, expect children, youth or adults to be able to affirm at their profession of faith for us to be able to affirm for them, “Yes, what you have just articultated is Christian Faith,” versus simply some vague spirituality or belief in God. The God revealed in Scripture is very specific, and self-revelatory very jealous. So, as a teacher in the church, I feel a huge burden to not affirm as Christian Faith that which is not.

I am not here talking about breaking fellowship with folks – Jesus ate with everyone and we should too. At the same time he did not shrink from affirming clearly who God is and to what God calls us. So neither should we.

AND we’ll never be transformed into anything approximating God’s will for us as the mature Body of Christ if we don’t look to Him. After all, isn’t that what Ephesians 4:11-16 is about – and “not being children any more, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine” but being mature, growing up in to him who is the head, into Christ.

OK, rant’s over


Being transformed by Christ

In response to a post by Jay Dozier on TransformingCongregations

Jay –

I love that you regularly remind me why I like you so much.

I had a similar response, but am undergoing therapy for my messiah complex, so was able to resist the temptation to come to your aid.

I don’t mind following your lead though.

Our board met last night – a group that over the last year has matured significantly, and is accepting the challenge to let go of things that are others’ responsibilities – like letting the personnel committee hire a youth minister without reviewing the candidate first! And taking back to the property committee the responsibility of figuring out why our utilities are so high, rather than trying to micromanage that in the meeting (ok, we tried, but caught ourselves and stopped!) which is to say that process and structure are impacted by all of this, and, Lord willin’ will change and be transformed.

So, in my report to the board – which is usually leadership training (“how can we manage our own anxiety?”, “nurturing those around us” – stuff like that) or its more devotional/inspirational/prayerful/theological. Last night was the latter. Post Easter, I’m watching the disciples to see how they respond to such a dramatic, world changing event as the resurrection of the crucified God/Man. They go fishing. Not ‘fishers of men’ fishing. They go fishing-fishing. HUH!!?? Having experienced the risen Lord, how could they do anything but go and tell others? How could anyone….

So this phrase is ringing in my ear “Taking Christ to the World” – a google search of which returned 591 hits, mostly seeming to be about missions or media ministries in developing countries. None of which i’d encountered recently, so i’m not sure where the wording originated for me. But it is both evocative and provocative. It evokes in me an experience akin to the women of Matthew 28 who returned from the tomb, “with fear and great joy”. Yes, that’s it exactly. Fear AND joy. Fear of the unknown, of the implications of it all – (which my wife says is why they guys went fishing – “when you don’t know what to do, you do what you know…” – yes, she’s the smart one!)

And I stumbled a bit last night in sharing this, because I wanted to be sure that the group did not hear me criticizing them, their faith, their commitment, their ministry, their sacrifice, etc. Jesus was challenging me – “take me to the world” Challenging, asking, pleading. Fear and Joy. Yes, I believe Jesus is saying this to our board as well, and that they are called to lead out in this. But that will happen when it happens for me, in me, through me.

In staff meetings we’ve been talking about strengthening and deepening our experience of community, and what fruits we would expect to see in Christian community. One we chose to focus upon is “gratitude”. And we began to ask how to teach or foster gratitude in the congregation. We’re kind of slow, but we finally realized that the thing to do was to express gratitude ourselves. So, during staff meeting we took an hour to write thank you notes to our elders and board and ministry council.

The church leadership folks seem to agree that congregations take on the personality of their leadership, particularly the pastor(s). for better or worse! Which perhaps is why Paul says, “Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1) and also why Hebrews says:
13:17Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

And as the writer to the Hebrews likes to say, “someone said somewhere…” ‘a teacher is held to higher account’

We might wish that folks would look straight to Jesus, we might teach and preach and pray it, but the reality is that we all look to human examples around us of what we want to become.

So, I agree with Jay that transformation is about the transformation of leaders first, and congregations secondarily and as a byproduct – for congregations are simply gatherings of people. What needs to happen in my life so that I will transform, so that my christ-self (Christ in me – the hope of glory) might emerge.

Isn’t that what emergent is, really, or should be – Jesus emerging again out of the church and the world to become visible for a new generation.

The reason, ultimately, that the disciples were fishing in stead of running around “taking Christ to the world.” is that they had met Jesus, knew Jesus, believed in Jesus, but had not yet experienced the power of the Holy Spirit that would fill them and transform them.

We will not transform congregations – we will not create emergent worship.

we must find Jesus again, and allow Him to fill us and transform us.