Wednesday, June 1, 2011

To be or not to be .... "accountable" that is

This question, I am finding, is a "thorny" issue for some (perhaps many?), typically due to previously abusive situations, an innate sense of fear or insecurity or perhaps just indifference. Maybe it's as much a reflection of our culture and how we tend to view our significant relationships, not to mention ourselves. In the last few weeks this issue has come up with me twice. The first time in the words, "I don't want to be accountable to anyone" and then the second time someone looking for someone to help in their growth by holding them accountable.

So who's right and who's wrong? I would say neither, knowing something of the situation of both these people. We should never "put" accountability on anyone, in the sense of demanding or expecting. Accountability should only be invited by the person themselves, when they are ready. I would also personally add, that love without accountability is not really love, in the sense of being fully yielded to one another. I think that this is what the Spirit wants to produce within us with a few people within our 'community' and especially with our spouse (Eph 5:18b-22). It is a relational skill that by definition, ought best to be mutual, 2-way within the Christian community and not top-down, hierarchical.

Accountability requires honesty, and it helps to make us more dependable and trustworthy. It does not imply the need to be perfect but rather, it vital due to the fact that none of us is perfect. In that sense it is best practiced within an environment of unconditional acceptance ... another important characteristic of the Christian community (Rom 15:7). For those of us who see the Christian life as a journey, a journey of ongoing growth and transformation into greater Christ-likeness, then having some such relationships of mutual accountability is really crucial and, I would suggest, biblical (see James 5:15-16) because of the difference our prayers for one another can make. It is God who grows and transforms us (2 Cor 3:17-18), but he often does so within the context of loving community.

Here's some of the things I've been learning about myself that can be a hindrance to fostering healthy accountability, maybe they will help you in your own growth;
  1. Am I a giving person? Do I look for opportunities to express care, meet needs or celebrate with people in my life?
  2. Do I take the time to show appreciation towards people for the things they do, whether I'm a beneficiary or not? Just noticing things and expressing gratitude meets a significant need that all of us share.
  3. Am I growing in my own relational courage both in personal confession and also lovingly confronting others with the truth so as to be able to strengthen that relationship? This one is harder (and avoided by most) and requires sensitivity and care. But is probably the most vital when it comes to our mutual growth (Eph 4:15)
Deep down I personally long for more of this in my life but it's risky business. Such is love.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Walking with Jesus through Holy Week

Story carries with it an innate ability to impact us as human beings, especially when we tap into the potential of our imagination. I am coming to have an increased appreciation for the place of imagination in our spirituality as part of the means by which we connect with God. The gospels are essentially story-telling (with a purpose) and they each devote the largest share to telling the story of Holy Week, the last week plus one day of Jesus' life.

Today we begin that week with the events of Palm Sunday, most notably Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a colt. It is a powerful image that certainly feeds the imagination, especially so with young children, maybe even the 'child' within each of us. But I want to encourage you to use the whole of this week as a way of reconnecting with Jesus and hopefully coming to a profound appreciation for what he accomplished for us. I've laid out the events of the week day by day to help in this process (thanks to Michael Wilkins for this). I would invite you to use this template to re-tell and reconnect with the story in your families and friendships each day. Us your own words or the words of Scripture provided. Let it lead to contemplation, commiseration and celebration at different times.

Events of Holy Week

Arrival in Bethany (John 12:1)

  • Evening celebration, Mary anoints Jesus (John 12:2-8; cf. Matt 26:6-13)
  • 'Silent Wednesday' - Jesus and disciples remain in Bethany for last time of fellowship
  • Judas returns alone to Jerusalem to make arrangements for the betrayal (Matt 26:14-16; Mark 14:10-11)
After sundown:
Sometime perhaps after midnight:
  1. Annas (John 18:13-24)
  2. Caiaphas and partial Sanhedrin (Matt 26:57-75;Mark 14:53-65)
  3. Sanhedrin fully assembled (perhaps after sunrise) (Matt 27:1-2; Mark 15:1)
  • Roman trial-Jesus appears in three phases before:
  1. Pilate (Matt 27:2-14; Mark 15:2-5)
  2. Herod Antipas (Luke 23:6-12)
  3. Pilate (Matt 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15)
Wilkins talks about how the practice of walking with Jesus through Holy Week serves five important functions in his life:
  1. It solidifies the historical foundation of our Christian worldview
  2. We understand the disciples more clearly
  3. We are held under conviction of our responsibilities as Jesus' disciples
  4. The experience of these events impels us to more sincere worship
  5. We are drawn into a more intimate relationship with Jesus
I hope you can join me on the 'walk' this week . . .

Monday, March 28, 2011

There is one body and one Spirit

The title above is part of a quote from the letter to the Ephesians, "For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all" [Eph 4:4-6]

This last week I felt I should do justice to the furore surrounding Rob Bell's latest book, 'Love Wins' by reading the source text, if a digital Kindle version can be described as such. I enjoyed the read far more than the running commentary on the 'warfare of words' that has been taking place around our e-world ("e" for 'electronic' rather than 'evangelical'!) Most saddening has been the apparent dismissal of Rob as a serious voice even before the book had been released. I suspect that the 'future' referenced in the Ephesians quote may include a fair amount of 'egg-on-chin' for many.

It is all too easy to point the finger at the 'splinter' over there and yet miss the 'plank' in our own eyes. Recently (as in during this Lenten season) I have been pondering our belief in and commitment to these verses within BridgePoint, our network of simple missional faith communities. I have found myself wrestling with a nagging suspicion that the pendulum has swung a little too far on the organized to organic continuum. One seems to emphasize our corporate identity whilst the other promotes more of an independent free-spirit. There are dangers in both extremes.

Just as it is not good for man to be alone [Gen 2:18], neither is it good for a church community (of any size) to be alone, independent, unsupported and unaccountable to anyone. That would be an approach and a conviction more in line with the flesh than the (one) Spirit. We become more vulnerable and therefore prone to temptation and deceit if we think we can operate as a 'detached limb' of the Body. We live in a culture (& state) that exalts independence and selfish ambition but we truly belong to a Kingdom in which the opposite is true [cf. Psalm 133].

The example of Rob Bell demonstrates that it is not always safe to be real within the Church and that is a tragedy because it means that we tend to remain hidden from one another, out of fear. This happens in our communities when someone disagrees or expresses something with which I disagree and I remain (or go) quiet out of fear. I have been guilty of this myself and guilt is the right word. I am guilty in that moment of not trusting the Father and not being vulnerable with the family of which I am a part. The one Spirit is grieved and I remain unchanged.

So what might all this mean for our shared life within BridgePoint? Well, first and foremost, that we make love (as Jesus loved) a priority in our dealings with anyone and everyone. We are both beneficiaries and dispensers of grace, undeserved favor. We are also to be those who seek to foster with some the kind of close relationships in which mutual accountability is a natural byproduct rather than a fearful imposition.

I would love to see more shared, prayerful and loving leadership teams emerge within our communities where it was safe to hold and express differing passions and priorities. I would love to see leaders 'huddling' with other leaders for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (not unlike the purpose of prophecy [1 Cor 14:3]]. I would love to see us personally reaching out and showing hospitality to those who are different to us and who are unlikely to take the initiative (whether in our community or beyond). I would love to see us occasionally, yet regularly, gathering in celebration and worship of God, bringing delight to our one Father by giving expression to our common identity and purpose - His glory and not ours.

The Christian life is a battle, not primarily externally but internally, between selfish, me-centered living and selfless, God-centered living in the power of the one Spirit. Too many of us fight that battle alone, unobserved and isolated. We need to be known by someone at that level and vice versa. We need to enter the battle for one another's souls as the Spirit leads and guides us. Until Christ be formed in us - one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering"

In 1732, two Moravian men decided the best way to win the slaves of St. Thomas for Christ was to voluntarily sell themselves into slavery. As their ship left the harbor, friends and relatives heard them shouting “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering.” Those were the last words heard from these brothers. This became the rallying cry of the Moravians for more than a century as they led the way in the evangelization of hostile peoples, often enduring unbelievable hardship and horrific martyrdoms for the name of Christ. A missionary movement was birthed by the Spirit through the united prayers of a once theologically divided community. This is what is possible when we turn our gaze and our focus away from ourselves and surrender afresh to Christ and his purpose.

This week, in one of our readings from Hebrews, we read, "Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest" [Heb 3:1] We too are "holy", which means we 've been set apart for God's purpose. What is God's purpose, this "heavenly calling" in which we share? Well look to Jesus - he is the model, the example, both the messenger (Apostle) and the message (high priest who re-connects us to God through the gospel). Our purpose is to make him known to this end, to all people groups of the world.

A key verse in my own ordination call comes from Romans, "“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”" [Rom 10:13-15] I fear that this has not always remained a consistent priority in my life and ministry. It seems, as I talk with various people in our network, that this outward purpose of God is often missing from our community's rhythm of life. We score highly on the inward dimension of relational care and discipleship, medium on the upward dimension of drawing near to God, but the collective outward dimension is missing. Can we really be a Christ-follower yet not be proclaiming, "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!" [Jesus' first recorded words in Mark 1:15]

Tomorrow, someone I know is leaving with two others to travel to Libya for this express purpose. It is dangerous, foolish (in man's eyes) and yet strangely inspiring. I read recently of someone who commented on how exciting it was at how many Christians lived in their community. I understand that sentiment and the difference it can make at home and at work. But I wonder also whether we are collectively broken over how many around us do not know Christ, are not following him and have no assurance of sins forgiven, the Father's loving presence and future hope.

There is much being made of Rob Bell's new book, "Love Wins", and the suggestion of a 'heretical universalism' (all are saved regardless). We love our theological skirmishes it seems. But maybe by our actions most of us demonstrate a 'practical universalism'. The Moravians learned to put aside some of their differences, be reconciled in love and focus more upon the beauty and supremacy of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. It led to a great expansion of the kingdom as Jesus received (some of) the reward for his suffering. We are invited to stand in that same tradition, with our spiritual forebears. As we pray together, he will similarly inspire and guide us, the major question is, will we heed the call?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Oh the joys of sacrifice and suffering . . .

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent within the Anglican (and other) Church's calendar. Lent is traditionally known as the forty-days (excluding Sundays) preceding Easter Sunday, the resurrection of our Lord, and the climactic feast day on the Christian calendar. The Scriptural basis of this season stems from Jesus’ own forty days of wandering in the desert and subsequent temptation by the devil.

Lent has come at a good time for me this year. I feel a greater sense of purpose and timing this year due to the circumstances of my life and my desire to hear God's call for the next phase of ministry. I therefore feel more compelled to observe this time and use it to devote myself to a season of drawing near, questioning and listening. Most of that will probably be directed towards God, some of it to fellow sojourners. I want to let go of some things (alcohol and TV) so as to be able to take hold of other things (listening prayer, Scripture and friendships).

I sense the call to personal examination but also community examination so my hope is that others within my community will join me in different ways. Over the last few weeks, as we have worked with 2 groups of people looking at the process of spiritual formation and the place of spiritual direction to that end, one Scripture has been uppermost in my mind. "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it." [Mark 8:34-5] These words were spoken to the disciples and the crowd following, and interestingly come just after Jesus' rebuke of Peter for not having in mind the concerns of God (his own crucifixion). Hence the "joy" of sacrifice and suffering! I sense God wanting to speak more deeply to me through these words.

If you are connected with us and the work here in Austin, TX, then I want to invite you along to use this season in your own way so that we might be led to a deeper trust in the promises of God and a willingness to repent of any self-obsessed self-protection that has put us more in line with Satan's rebellion than the Son's submission to the Father. We have been learning about the cycle of transformation for the Christ-follower that always begins with brokenness leading to repentance and a yielding to the Spirit. This brings new revelation (an unveiling of what already is) bringing confidence and a release of the Spirit's life.

For now though, through a time of renewed consecration, our focus is the first part of the cycle - brokenness, repentance and yielding to God. Hence the desire to be still and to listen ... to God and to one another. Let us invite the Lord to speak into our communal life and to reveal his call upon our lives for his glory. I have been thinking much recently about place, wondering where the 'right' place is for this time. Carol and I are currently living in an inbetween place (or so it seems), but maybe that is always the case when we think geographically. The place God wants us is in His Son, following Jesus on pilgrimage and on mission. There's no other place I'd rather be but sometimes I am distracted by rabbit trails, or just simply fall off the path. Fortunately I can continue to lay hold of another promise of God found in the Psalms;

"You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand." [Psalm 16:11]

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Power of "Being With"

In Mark 3:14 we read that Jesus appointed twelve that they might (first) "be with" him and then later that they might be sent out. We have not learned this well in the church, nor at times within our natural families. "Being with" is a godly trait ... it is even reflected in one of his revealed Names (Immanuel). It is what Jesus promised to his disciples before he ascended to heaven. It is the wonderful gift of "presence", the purpose for which Jesus died on the cross, and for which he ascended into heaven. I want to suggest that it is the foundation for helping form and shape the life of another - be it children in our natural family or believers in our spiritual family.

A friend recently blogged about her thoughts on raising children and fostering authentic spiritual life so as not to "lose them to the surrounding culture" (you can read about it here). I would suggest that behind her positive suggestions for how to best influence them for good, lies the idea of "being with". However this does not simply mean being in the same room or under the same roof, but rather learning how to build intimacy as a foundation for life, meaning and growth. This intimacy must be mutual - a vulnerable sharing of oneself whilst also seeking to deeply know the other person/child. The end of this is not simply knowledge however, but loving care. That is most likely to happen when know one another at an intimate heart level. Someone else once said, 'if you're bored with someone, you've probably not truly met them. If you're irritated with them then you haven't seen their heart.'

Such intimacy and care is what builds trust (aka 'faith') and authentic community. That is a process however, and calls for personal transformation and growth ... from us all. Jesus sought to connect and be with us at the start of this process thank goodness! We know this spiritually but I suggest that he also modeled this as a man in his appointing of the disciples. Another 'hard saying' of Jesus that I read this week as I was pondering these things, was his words in Mark 3:33-34 "Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother."

Jesus seems to be putting a high value on his spiritual family, the family of God. Can we begin to see the parallel between raising our natural children and being a part of the spiritual formation of God's children (or at least a few of them!) and that the principle of "being with" holds for both. Perhaps one of the reasons that
so often 'church-goers' are seemingly lost to the culture around us, is that we are not following the example Jesus gave in inviting people to "be with" us and seeing intimate friendship as foundational to our being formed into devoted followers of Christ. It is through this connection that people are best shaped by not only conceptual truth (of the Scripture) but also the experienced truth of love as the energy of the Holy Spirit is released from us (see John 7:38).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Growing in Love for One Another

I occasionally find myself listening to someone talk about their frustrations about the 'community dynamic' within their home church. Names are not usually shared but the experience often resonates with my own experiences after working with small group dynamics over the last 25 years. Lots of factors contribute towards this but when you 'boil it down', the consequence of genuine needs being neglected is always painful. It hurts and can lead to not just negative emotions but also faulty thinking and unproductive behavior.

We must learn to grow in love and to do so more and more as Paul says to the Christians in Thessalonica. I have come up with my own list of ways we can do this in our simple churches. Love is a choice, so why not take a look, reflect on those that 'hit home' and resolve to put some into practice more often, maybe even sharing that with another trusted friend who can give you feedback in a month or so as to how you're doing. Beware of trying to do too much though and then feeling self-condemned. Better to aim at 2 or 3 for a time.

Ok, so here's the list, in no particular order. Also, think about this in terms of your whole life, wherever and with whomever you find yourself;
  1. Respond to emails promptly about participation and contribution at the meeting

  2. Bring something to share of what is happening in your life

  3. Be more punctual - respect other people's time

  4. Take initiative to connect with others outside the group gathering so as to get to know them

  5. "Give first" - call people more, give a small meaningful gift, etc.

  6. Seek to become more accountable/vulnerable/real - remove the mask with some

  7. Listen well

  8. Be curious/dig deeper by asking open-ended questions and don't move on too quickly

  9. Don't be too quick to write yourself off as to the impact you may have on someone else

  10. Be ready to commit or at least explore with someone why that's hard for you

  11. Offer to help someone you see struggling - a little bit goes a long way

  12. Beware of triangulation - speaking badly about one person to another. If someone does that to you, interrupt and encourage them to address the person directly, offering to help if necessary

  13. Be a peacemaker

  14. Celebrate special occasions (birthdays and anniversaries) and other's achievements

  15. Pray for people - maybe just one a day or as at the Spirit leads you

  16. Offer to make/bring main dish at least once in a while -can be simple, maybe team up with another

  17. Offer to host

  18. Ask for help - shows you're real

Hope this helps us grow together and in the Lord. Let us not withhold the Spirit's life.

Comments and additions very welcome!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Train yourself for godliness

"Train yourself for godliness ... For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." [1 Tim 4:7 & 10]

At breakfast this morning with 2 friends and fellow Christ-followers we pondered this Scripture. One friend reminded us that when Paul talks about toiling and striving, it is not about "huffing and puffing" to make something happen, but ultimately about yielding to the Spirit and his work in us. This is meant to take the pressure off of us, especially as we increasingly rest in the knowledge that God is with us (Immanuel) and for us. He is willing as Jesus once said to the leper who said, "if you are willing, you can make me clean". Peter would also want to encourage us by reminding us that through the gospel we have been given everything we need for godliness ALREADY. "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence" [2 Pet 1:3]

The heart of the new covenant message of the gospel is 'Christ in us, the hope of glory'. So we always have hope, we are never totally at a loss, though there is still a part we play in the process of yielding. At Larry Crabb's School of Spiritual Direction we were reminded of this same truth in thinking about how we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. He puts it like this:

Brokenness --> Repentance --> Abandonment --> Revelation --> Confidence --> Release

Abandonment equates to yielding, a turning from a self-obsessed lifestyle to a God-obsessed one. Though we would like to think that this was all done at conversion, when we first turned to Christ as Savior and Lord, the reality is that spiritual formation is a lifetime of repeated repentance and abandonment as God reveals to us new areas of our lives that still need to be conformed. This is not easy 'work' nor something that is meant to be done alone. This is why the Lord sets us in families/communities - the primary place where our self-centredness gets exposed. Hopefully within these communities we will also foster the kind of closer, more intimate friendships where this work can be embraced.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Truth About Fitness

Friday morning, 7:30am at a certain Starbucks, is one of my favorite times of the week. For the past year or so I've been meeting with 2 guys who have become good friends. We are "Men of a Certain Age" as the title of the show goes. It's a time to catch up but also a time of spiritual reflection. This last Friday one of the guys talked about a secular article he had been reading in which people in their 50s (I think) talked about the things they regretted most as they looked back on life. Here's the top 3 answers:

(1) About 60% wished they had made wiser choices when it came to money so that at this stage of life they had less debt and more savings.

(2) The second most popular answer had to do with physical health. Today they were living with the regretful consequences of poor diet and lack of exercise.

(3) The third answer was to do with relationships and their regret at not investing themselves enough in building healthy, intimate relationships with family and friends.

It got me thinking about (and threatening to preach about!) the three foundational areas of the Christian life to which we should give significant attention and how they related directly to each of the points above;

(i) Stewardship - the strategic and faithful use of our time, treasure and talents in the service of God
(ii) Spiritual Formation - seeing our destiny as the conforming of our lives to the image of Christ Jesus and our need to be devoted to this process of transformation .... in ourselves as well as in the lives of others
(iii) The New Commandment - given to us by Jesus that we love one another as he loves us.

As we enter a new year, what better time to do some personal reflection on progress through 2010 but also prayerfully seeking a vision for what the Lord wants for you in each of these areas. Growth is a process, a long one for most of us, understanding that can be a liberating truth. But it is also a process to which God is committed and with which he is involved as a loving and compassionate Father.

This week I wanted to share some thoughts about Spiritual Formation or Health. Interestingly enough, later on Friday I went for my regular workout at 24 Hour and noticed that they had some new posters up that picked up the theme of physical health. They were highlighting "The Truth about Fitness" and there were three topics;

(a) Look Around We're All In This Together: working out with a friend will help keep you motivated
(b) At One Point, I Wanted To Throw In The Towel: establish a routine and stick with it, the results will follow
(c) No Matter How You Feel Walking In, You'll Feel Great Walking Out: regular exercise can help relieve stress and elevate your mood

When it comes to our own Spiritual Formation, the development of the inner life with God, where we grow in freedom to love and give ourselves to others, I thought about the importance of having close intimate friends. A saying of another friend of mine is 'you can't grow yourself by yourself'. We have too many blindspots and are easily prone to self-deception. I want to have a few people in my life to whom I can ask the question, 'when you are around me, what do you experience?' Scary though it is, I believe we need this kind of input and people who'll love us enough to be truthful.

There is also a place for spiritual discipline and ritual. We would all like to be spontaneous (well some of us), but daily/weekly/monthly rhythm is important also. For me this year, I would like some of that discipline to include more consistent times of quiet/aloneness/meditation and journaling. I enjoy and am energized by being with people but I also need time alone with God and my thoughts.

Just as physical exercise can make us feel better inside (once the aches and soreness subside), spiritual health and balance in our lives can also bring inner peace and joy. Which can in turn, impact us physically and relationally, giving us greater freedom to reach out and risk ourselves with others. Oftentimes I can sense in myself and others a tendency to withdraw or remain hidden, often motivated by fears within. This is one of the greatest hindrances to authentic community and friendships. Jesus said that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. I wonder if oftentimes our hiddenness is an indication of a certain hardness or 'emptiness' of heart, reflecting our aloneness in that no-one really knows us deep down, something which God says is not good.