showingfaiththroughlove

The musings of a seminary student and church intern.

The Mature Leader

When I was young, I set out to change the world.  When I grew older, I perceived that this was too ambitious so I set out to change my state.  This, too, I realized as I grew older was too ambitious, so I set out to change my town.  When I realized I could not even do this, I tried to change my family.   Now as an old man, I know that I should have started by changing myself.  If I had started with myself, maybe then I would have succeeded in changing my family, the town, or even the state – and who knows, maybe even the world!

The above words are said to have been spoken by an elderly Hasidic Rabbi as he lay on his deathbed.  His words point to something that is incredibly important for leaders of the church today: that we can only get people to change if we change first.  It is a case of removing the log from our own eye before we try to remove the speck out of another person’s eye (Mat 7:1-5).  Perhaps this is best applied as follows:

A church will never mature beyond the level displayed by its leadership.

To some the idea that those of us in church leadership need to advance into maturity may come as a surprise; we have always been taught to have a high level of respect for those “in office”, those who have been called and equipped to help guide us in our faith.  Yet at the same time there will be people reading this blog who also realize that many pastors fail to show, or even actively pursue, a deeper level of maturity than that which they already display.  Personally I can recount several experiences I have had in which a pastor clearly displayed immaturity, from being unable to provide advice on how approach reading the Bible when you don’t have a library full of commentaries, through to throwing childish paddies because people did not want their church shut down.

If we are to build up this generation, and the generations to come, for Christ then we must pursue our own maturity and change as best we can.  Not only in the traditional spiritual disciplines of bible study and prayer, not only in our understanding of theology and servant leadership, but in the vitally important areas of emotional maturity and personal relationships as well.

We must mature as fully as we can in all of these areas.  To fail to mature ourselves in one will have a knock on effect to our congregations, and they will fail to mature in that area as well.   Therefore actively pursuing both your own spiritual and emotional maturity is a great act of love that you can perform for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  So next time you approach your Bible study, solitary devotion time, or spiritual formation reading, approach in knowledge that you are not performing some dull task, but are partaking in a task that will mature you more and mature your congregations.  And if you can change yourself, and you can change your congregation, then maybe, just maybe, you can change the world.

 

Lord God,

Thank you for your grace when we fail to grow ourselves to show your love.  Let your Holy Spirit fall upon us to bring us into greater maturity and guide us in showing your love to the world.  Purify and cleanse us, grant us understanding of your ways and the ways of man, and build us up in your gospel to spread your glory out into the world. Amen

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The Abuse of the Forced Burden

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” 

–  The Gospel according to Mark 8:31(NRSV)

The idea of taking up our cross is one often spoken about when looking at discipleship, that we should all have a burden to shoulder, that our submission to Christ is shown through putting ourselves aside and working for him.  When this is done properly, as a voluntary action of the individual out of the love of God, in a way that shows God’s love, it is a true action of discipleship.  But in many cases crosses are not always born out of voluntary action, but from being pressed onto us by others.

To choose to take up our cross is discipleship; but to have it laid upon us is abuse.

We have a dreadful habit, both lay and clergy, to force crosses upon one another in a way that screams “Abuse!” rather than “Love.”  The situations and reasons for this are many and vary greatly, but all of them have the potential to drastically harm the gospel message within somebody.

So let us give an example here: a small congregation hires a new pastor to help grow their church and reform their worship service.  He or she come in with plenty of ideas, but the congregation is reluctant to help out.  They were hoping that the pastor would “do their job” without too much change on their part.  Eventually after a couple of years of fruitless labor the pastor leaves the church exhausted and wandering if he or she want to stay in ministry.  In this situation the main abuse is that the congregation was not willing to bear the cross of change themselves, they wanted the pastor to bear the cross all on his or her own.

Another example is of a pastor’s spouse who comes to a new church.  Suddenly one morning she gets a phone call from the heavily tithing church seniors asking why he or she is not at church ready to drive them to their weekly luncheon.  Why?  Because the previous pastors spouse did.  They had automatically assumed the new pastor’s spouse was willing to bear the same cross.  What does the spouse do in the face of such heavy tithers?  He or she ends up bearing a cross they do not want to bear.  An abuse occurs.

It is not only the laypeople that perform this abuse though, and this was hinted at in the first example. Indeed clergy can become the worst offenders at times. Pastors can become very good at casting visions that the congregation does not have.  To then force this vision upon the congregation can be seen as an abuse.  Perhaps worse though is when because of people in the congregation rejecting the vision, it ends up being placed on the shoulders of a small handful of members, and who are they to say “No.” in the face of their lead pastor, their primary spiritual adviser?  In the end they end up taking on too much and burn out, leaving the church exhausted.  The abuse crippled their faith.

Pastors can all so force abuse upon their family.   They spend so long shouldering the burden of being a pastor that they force the cross of an absent spouse or parent upon their family.  The family is abused, and falls away from the church feeling great hurt and resentment towards the church.

The list of examples given here could be endless and cover everything from making people fill formal church positions through to forcing them to advocate for things that they do not want to.  At the end of the day acting out such abuses is contrary to the love that we are supposed to be showing as followers of the Gospel.  It weakens our ministry, prevents true discipleship from occurring and has the potential to lead to both laypeople and clergy abandoning the church, with people hurt in the process.  So consider carefully what you may be asking of people, and when you do have to ask someone to do something, make sure that they are free to say “No” as well as “Yes.” For if you think that they cannot say “No” for some reason, you may be forcing an abuse upon them, and denying the love of the gospel message.

Lord God,

We thank you for the grace and mercy that you show us when we misuse other people, forcing crosses upon them wrongly.  Please help us to show your gospel of love to them in a way that glorifies your great name, that builds people up instead of tearing them down. Forgive all that we have done wrong and send your Holy Spirit to help guide us along the right path.  Amen.

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A Freakish Abuse – Grace and Sin, Love and Selfishness

On DC Talk’s album “Jesus Freaks” there is a track that starts off with the line, “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who profess Jesus with their lips, then go out the door and deny him with their lifestyles.”  I think that there is truth in this statement, and I feel it points to an offense of the cross that goes much deeper than just how we appear to other people:

We abuse the love and grace that we have been shown in Jesus Christ.

There sometimes appears to be an attitude in the church today that because we have grace we can get away with sinning.  By this I do not mean only the unintended sin of someone actively pursuing righteousness, but that some people do not see the need for this active pursuit at all.  They are perfectly content to come to Christ and then apathetically carry on with their lives.  They are saved by grace and not by works, so why bother with works?

We sometimes jump on this bandwagon of sinning and then running headlong into the arms of grace, without any pause for honest repentance.  We do not even try to stop doing our sinful act, we just get into cycles of sinning and running to grace, sinning and running to grace, sinning and running to grace.  We never even try to break the cycles, nor even help each other break the cycle.  Please do not get me wrong here; I recognize that there are some serious addictions out there for which this is an extremely difficult thing to do, especially dependency upon drugs or alcohol.  But we do this sin/grace cycle even with less ‘addictive’ things, with lying, with adultery, with financial greed, with putting ourselves before others.  What does this say about our attitudes to grace that even when these things are pointed out to us we still do not try to break the cycle.

When writing to the church in Rome Paul stated that we should by no means keep sinning, even in the face of grace (Rom 6:1).  Personally, as you have probably guessed, I ardently agree with him here.  As I see it we have been given out of love a wonderful gift in grace: when we stumble in following God’s path for us, we need not fear our status before God being lost.  But in using it as an excuse to continue sinning without active repentance and effort is to abuse that gift, it abuses the cross, it abuses and takes advantage of the love that we have been shown.  We will have to use grace, for we will fail in pursuing righteousness, and to that end it is one of the most glorious gifts we have, but we should not treat it as an excuse for apathetically putting in no effort.

If we continue to abuse grace then we also abuse the love that we have been shown.  We are returning love not with love, but with selfish gain, trying to get both salvation and the right to keep sinning at the same time, despite the inherent contradiction of the two.  We defy scripture, “We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)  How are we supposed to show to others the very love that we abuse?  The truth is that we cannot truly display that love unless we try to stop abusing it.  I think that non-Christians are far more aware of this abuse than we would like to admit, and that is what lies at the heart of the quote by DC Talk.

So, with the Holy Spirit as your helper, turn away from repeating past offenses; honestly repent and make an active decision to try your best to pursue righteousness.  It will greater display the love you that have been shown in the cross, it will deepen your relationship with God, and perhaps it will even bring someone else to know God.

Lord,

We thank you for your amazing gift of grace,and promise to respect it as best we can.Please forgive the abuse with which we have treated it and help us to turn away from sin and follow your ways. Let that grace overwhelm us with its beauty so that we dare not defile it further, and help us shine your loving light upon the nations of this earth.

Thank you Lord, Amen.

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Accountability is an act of love.

Some of the worst abuses of love and trust can be carried out by those of us in power, and they may not even be intentional.  We see in Matthew 18 a system of discipline in which one believer goes to the brother or sister with which they have a problem directly to solve the issue. This is all very well, but there is an assumption lying under the text: that the two parties at odds with one another are on an equal power footing.  As soon as one of the parties holds more power than the other the situation becomes much more complex.

It is likely that the less powerful party (say an administrative assistant) may feel unable to approach the leader (say an assistant pastor).  They fear the consequences of such a confrontation: would they be forced to stand down?  Would they be brushed off?  Perhaps then they will circumvent and go to a third party who is over both of them to help sort out the issue.  This person creates a safe place for the scared party to go; the issue can be sorted out without a direct confrontation that risks humiliating both parties.  The third party creates a safe place for the victim.

But what if this third party is not present?  What if the lay member or a staff member is having a problem with the lead pastor, but there is no one to hold the lead pastor accountable?           

Power without accountability creates an environment of fear, not of love. 

A pastor who does not have to take in oversight, criticism and correction is scary to his or her congregants.   Whilst most reading this will think that they do have a level of accountability, think again.  Most pastors have some oversight board and many would say that they listen to their congregation closely, but imagine if you have a problem with some of them.  Trying to address the problem as equals can be a big mistake, simply by being in a position of power your words carry clout, and so you will always come across more demanding and authoritative than you think, leading to someone being hurt.  Sometimes the pastor will avoid the issue for this very reason, bottling the issues inside themselves until they implode and have to leave the ministry.  The accountability is for the pastor’s sake too.

Another problem can be boards appointed by the pastor themselves.  Out of insecurity the pastor can surround themselves with “Yes” men and women, who hold the pastor in such high regard they would never go against him or her.  For a pastor this is profoundly narcissistic, and does not create true accountability, thus fear can ensue.  Perhaps even worse than this are those pastors who claim only God can hold them accountable: believe me, there is nothing scarier to the lay man or woman than a pastor telling them as such.

            Not having accountability is a recipe for disaster, it is likely to produce situations where people do not feel safe when they are hurt, abused or sidelined, and they have nowhere to turn, especially if the issue is in part with the lead pastor.  This is the atmosphere that destroys churches; it causes congregants to leave, and clergy to implode, leaving a wake of disillusionment and hurt behind them.

So set yourself up with true accountability partners.  Not just a board in the church, but friends outside of your church who will take you to task on things and challenge your decisions. Having other people for your oversight can be one of the greatest acts of love that you perform.  So go out and do it for the sake of the gospel and the glory of Jesus name.

Dear Lord,

Let us step forward faithfully in our leadership of your church,

Let us hold ourselves accountable for the sake of your people, your gospel and your name.

Help us to show love to all who we minister.

In your name,

Amen.

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St. Francis of Assisi – Showing love through action

St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel constantly and, if necessary, use words.”

This is probably one of the most striking quotes that I have come across in recent months.  So often when people mention words such as ‘evangelism’ or ‘witnessing’ the image in people’s head is of arena filling preachers, or soap-boxing preachers calling down hell and damnation from the street corner.  But St. Francis points us to a different meaning:

Evangelism is not centered upon verbal discourse, but upon non-verbal actions.

For the most Christians this idea should come as liberation from the feeling that sharing the gospel is out of our reach because we do not preach or have skill in speaking.  Our stutters and our accents, our rhetoric and our volume are irrelevant in the presence of loving action.   We can speak of loving the poor, but actively giving out bags of food to them speaks of our love so much more.  We can speak to people outside of church of caring for them, but helping rake up their leaves or washing their car can speak of our care so much more.  We can talk of loving those who are alone, but how much more does it say to phone, or even better drop by once in a while and visit them?  We preach the gospel far more by what we do than what we say.  Without action the words are empty and the gospel message loses its power.  We become hypocrites, denying the Holy Spirit and denying God the glory that can be shown through our lives.

St. Francis of Assisi was a man who spent his life trying to model Christ as best he could.  He did not come to faith and then happily settle down into a pattern of justified apathy.  For him having faith in the gospel meant living the gospel message.  Do you truly live the gospel message in your life?  Do you go out and intentionally love, displaying the gospel message? Maybe if you do then people will wonder ask you why, and then “if necessary, use words.”  They need not be long sermons or discourses, simply saying, “Because God loves you” can speak far more than a preacher ever could.

  Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.                                                                                        -St. Francis of Assisi

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Faith shown thorugh acts of love, an introduction

The alert amongst you have probably realized that the title for this blog is a reference to a passage in the Bible, Galatians 5:6.  For several years now this verse has been a guide towards my actions as a Christian and is somewhat a cornerstone of my theology.  Personally I struggle with the concept of a faith that can be held behind closed doors, despite my inherent nature as an introvert.  Our faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ should spur us on to action.  How  else can such beautiful love, such wondrous mercy, such amazing grace, and such willing sacrifice be shown?  Is the cross of Christ so dull that we can just accept it, and then shrug it off as though it is not that important?

All too often I think people do that, they proclaim Jesus but then shrug him off and do nothing more, in some state of spiritual apathy.  They start to fight over minor points of doctrine and minor issues that distract them from expressing the wonders of the gospel and of God, or perhaps they will content themselves with an internalized faith that slides easily into an already postmodern lifestyle.

For me I see no other way but to express my faith, my joy, my thanks, my wonder, my amazement and my salvation through loving others.  For me this is a Christian’s greatest witness.  What way to better testify about The Love to the human race than through love itself.   There will be times that I catastrophically fail in this I am sure, and their will be times when it seems I’m not getting through, but I will not stop in my attempts to love.  I hope you will come with me as I move forward in trying to allow God’s love to better shine through me.  Let us discuss how we can love better and better show Jesus to the world.

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