Don’t rush eldership

As Paul instructs Timothy, don’t be quick to lay hands on a brother because his character might not be tested or revealed enough, and you will be blessing an unseen set of problems. Character problems just don’t go away; they hide, not vanish. In younger and talented believers, when the pressures of ministry come, those problems will be amplified.

22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.

1 Timothy 5:22

What are we symbolizing by the laying on of hands? We are conferring a role and a sacred charge. We are also indicating that this person has the proven character not only to share the Gospel but to conform his own life to it. His private life and his public life correspond. As we confer the blessing and the role upon this brother, we are linking our lives and ministries to him, too.

Once we lay hands on a brother, we are telling the church that this man has a public and personal life which they can follow. In other words, we are saying that we trust him to demonstrate the Gospel and they should to. So, this is not an act or declaration which should be taken too quickly or prematurely. Once you do it, it is very painful to take it back. It is noteworthy that Paul immediately connects the phrase “nor take part in the sins of others.” The laying on of hands is a prayer of the bonding of trustworthy ministers together.

We are not saying that the man is perfect, rather, that the elder knows how to immediately calibrate his life back to the Gospel when he sins. He is growing in holiness together with the bride. (I’m not referring to disqualifying sins here). Therefore, his teaching will take on a sense of personal humility before Christ and at the same time, the authority of Christ will be evident in his teaching.

We all know of plenty of ministry train-wreck stories. I don’t think they can be completely avoided this side of Heaven. Even Paul shared a few with us from his ministry. However, I do believe we can wisely reduce these wrecks through patient service together and observance of a man and his family. One practice which has helped us is to have a brother serve as an “elder-in-training” for a while (at least 1 year). This has given us the necessary time to evaluate his character and his giftings. The temptation which I think many ministries face is to invent what’s not there because we earnestly want our churches to grow and multiply. So, on one hand we should be proactive in identifying and training men who could be potential elders and on the other hand wise enough not to rush them into place.

Refugees part 4: Don’t Romanticize the Work

Dark eyes and hearts

A missions trip to work with the refugees sounds so humanitarian, so helpful, doesn’t it? However, the actual work is far from “glorious”. Don’t get me wrong, the result of working in the pain-filled process is glorious — the reconciliation of sinful men and women into loving, Father-adoring children through the work of Christ Jesus. I speak of heavenly glory; the glory of the upside-down story where God shines through from the darkest corners of life. . . . . but the earthly work to arrive at the heavenly glory is not for fun-seekers or resumé-builders. It is work which conforms to and identifies with the Cross.

In the experience of our team, the most frequent and challenging question we have asked in these early years is, who are we doing this for? The work in the camps challenges us at our most basic human level. There, we are dramatically confronted with what it means to be a human being. Month after month, our men encounter wave upon wave of trouble. As each wave of trial and trouble passes over us, we see another layer of human wreckage in its wake — and another layer of Gospel character which needs work in our own lives is exposed. If a Christian does Gospel work among our new immigrant friends, even for a short time, and they do not walk away from the camp saying, “Oh Lord, I’m just a sinner saved by grace,” then something is fundamentally wrong with their theology.

Why We Do Anything At All

One might ask after reading the above paragraphs, “Then why do anything at all? It seems like it is such a futile endeavor.” And yes, while the process is long, arduous, and pain-filled, each initiative we do is pointing to something greater than itself; a hope beyond. Here are 3 reasons why we consider investing in these initiatives as a worthy endeavor:

  1. We do initiatives to help them with life skills and development. As I mentioned before, many of the men have good energy and are eager to work, but they lack the necessary skills to be of much benefit to a European context. In most cases, that is no fault of their own. It may be their parents had no more money to send them to school, or there were no education programs where they lived. So, full of energy and nothing good to do with it, they left. We are striving to put together initiatives which help them understand the safety measures, industrial theory, and working environments of Italia which are quite different from their various homelands and often different from other European nations.
  2. We do initiatives to build relationships for the gospel. The initiatives are the platforms for Christian love, and this is how the gospel works in every sphere of life. Often, gospel proclamation flows quite naturally from Gospel service. The men ask us all kinds of spiritual questions after they’ve seen our intentionality to serve and help them. In fact, the staff of the Catholic association running one of the camps in a Roman convent have begun to ask us for spiritual counsel and answers. We do everything for free, from a fountain of grace, and that provokes questions.
  3. We do initiatives to welcome God into Italia. I know this sounds a bit strange, but hear me out. Jesus brought a small child into his band of disciples to teach them. The disciples had been having one of their favorite arguments and playing one more round of “Who is the Greatest?” It seems they really liked that game. Bringing the child up into his arms as an object lesson, Jesus said (paraphrasing Mark 9:33-37), “The greatest will be found with the smallest, the least of all. Receive someone like this (no status) in my name, and you will be receiving me. Now, if you receive me, you will also receive the one who sent me — and that’s the greatest!” God is found among the struggling and hurting more than the wealthy and self-satisfied. We do initiatives because those initiatives draw us into the place where the Father loves to show up and distribute grace. The struggle is worth it because our King is worth it.

What we Encounter

A brother in our ministry who has had a good amount of hands-on experience with the men in the camps put together a list for us to realize what we often encounter in the work. The following list will de-romanticize any kind of thinking that we (whoever we are) will save them. No, we need something — no, someone — who can go deeper than any of us can and transform such incredible wickedness and soul-destruction into healthy children of God.

  • Prosperity Gospel
  • spirit and ancestor worship
  • Animism – the control of localized spirits to obtain blessings
  • Physical trauma
  • Mental trauma
  • human slavery
  • forced criminality
  • Families left behind
  • War
  • Genocide (both inflicted and victims of)
  • Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism — all works-saving religions and beliefs
  • deep distrust
  • Womanizing & pornography
  • Fatherless and orphaned
  • Mother with siblings from multiple men
  • Sex trafficking
  • Broken relationships
  • Greed
  • Smuggling
  • Laziness and no trained work-ethic
  • Cultural timeliness (extreme tardiness)
  • Desire to be like kings and/or tribal chiefs
  • Illiteracy and lack of education (reading, writing, speaking)
  • Majority are young and lacking life skills and experience
  • Internet/Facebook identity and image management
  • Escape based on lies
  • Medical Problems
  • Marital Problems
  • Fatherless Children
  • Desperation and depression
  • Language challenges (eg. learning Italian or other European languages)

Upon arrival, other struggles and problems begin to arise:

  • There is a deep belief that this country (or the next) is the promised land
  • They lose early enthusiasm to seek work and learn the language as depression increases.
  • Loss of motivation to establish the critical basics — for example, wanting to make money without learning the necessary work or language skills first.
  • Pressure increases to make money and send it back to family and tribe.
  • a false sense of entitlement increases
  • Islamic and Prosperity-gospel theologies polarize men and create strong resistance
  • Religious activity becomes a mask for personal ambition. There’s a strong sense of doing religious things to get God to make them money.
  • Camps are only meeting minimal needs for two years or more and not truly setting the refugees up to successfully achieve work and permanent residence

Enduring Negative Effects and Dangers

  • False documentation — there is a black market where men pay thousands to take on the identity of someone else.
  • Begging — due to the lack of small job opportunities and their lack of skill or will to work toward something more stable, a number resort to begging on the street or selling small items (often for those connected with organized crime).
  • Homelessness — if you don’t have some sort of official income, you cannot obtain a housing rental contract. So, you either pay someone else for a room or become homeless. As the amount of men exiting the camps increases in this next year, this could become a hardship in numerous cities.
  • Petty criminality — begins with stealing small things or running some kind of false marketing claim or false work. Theft and corruption only increase over time.
  • Remaining illegal within the country and hiding under the radar
  • Hatred grows and men become more susceptible to evil, radicalizing ideas.

If you take a few minutes and thoughtfully consider the scenarios we are facing, you will immediately have a missionary prayer list on your hands. If you’ve desired to pray more precisely about life-changing requests, then put your gloves on, lean into the Lord, and open some doors to the Light of the World for us! It will be a delight to share stories with you where your prayers have been heard and answered.

Click here if you would like to read part 3 of this series.

Guidance for Spiritual Gifts: part 6 – the Spirit is giving your life away

spiritual gifts logo-imageLife is given to be given away and grace-giftings are God’s beautiful way to pour out your life — for you. Let me phrase it another way. If you are born from above, the Holy Spirit has made you such a new human being (and continues to make you more and more like Jesus) that to continue his mission he not only gives you new life but gives your new life away to his purposes in the world. In the Holy Spirit, we are the walking temples of God where “Spirit-ual” things happen. Look at how Paul wrote it in 1 Corinthians 6:19 when church members were justifying sexual deviancy as an act of worship! “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own…

So, for me and you to experience anything spiritual, we have to allow that the Spirit saved us, to dwell in us, to fix the world through us, and glorify the Father because of us. We don’t own our lives; He does.

To see grace-giftings in action, we need to look at how and where the Spirit is bringing this world to see the majesty of Jesus Christ. Here are some examples. Literally, the Spirit of God is stepping into situations of disorder and bringing gifts through his church of organization and administration. Where the fog of ignorance hinders his children from hearing his truth, God sends teaching which leads men to worship him. Where illness seems to conquer, the Spirit arrives with merciful hands to show he is the ever-present Help in time of need. When the suffering of lack and oppression take place, the Spirit releases a wave of generosity through his children. We can continue on like this with prayer, faith, discernment, hope, and many more. In fact, I believe that as many different needs which you can identify, there is One Solution with the right gift for each one of them.

Therefore, God is gracing us beyond our own means to accomplish his will. He is giving evidence and signs of the Kingdom which is here but must be accepted by faith. We can say that the Spirit is operating in a way that “rights” a world gone wrong, and he is doing it so that it reveals the truth and presence of Jesus. Through the spiritual gifts, God the Spirit is gifting the message of God the Son around the world through a gracious invasion.

Yes, yes, I know we really like the spectacular stuff. It is quite tempting to want to see the miraculous for its own sake. And as a Christian journeys through the years with Jesus, we will definitely see some surprising things which only God can do. On the other hand, we should be thankful God has ordered his world so that each of us can participate in it. To enjoy the grace-giftings of God does not mean that we each need to perform miracles. It may simply mean we are giving our availability to God and serving others in simple, unseen ways.

Is it right, then, to demand that if a gift is not spectacular, then it must not be of the Spirit? I have had people come to our church “looking” only for the showiness of the gifts only to leave after spending less than a couple hours with us saying our church doesn’t “have” the Holy Spirit. However, the more obvious thing missing and unmentioned in their research was if the Gospel was being proclaimed and lived in our church. Simultaneously with their dismissal and departure, the Holy Spirit was always working through many grace-giftings. The reality is the desire for the seen and the spectacular was more important to them than the working out of the Gospel through humble service without a spotlight.

Take careful note of how Jesus was washing feet the night before he was unjustly murdered. There was nothing spectacular about that. No power-show was happening there. It was all quite ordinary and yet extraordinary at the very same time. Jesus left them the example of loving service for how he operates in his world. Apostle Paul follows this up with, “You can do the spectacular with angels and lightning bolts included, but if you don’t have love, you’ve only lit-up fireworks.” (my paraphrase, 1 Cor. 13:1-3). The Italian words for “fireworks” are fuochi artificiali meaning “artificial fires” and are apt here. They might be spectacular like fireworks, but they’re beneficial per niente (two other Italian words meaning “for nothing”).

So, we might test a “gifting” with a few helpful questions — Does the gift in operation serve specific needs and heal the world to Jesus through the Gospel? Does the gift bring glory to God more than the person through whom the Spirit is operating? Is the gifting evident through a person’s self-giving service?

The point is there are hundreds of kinds of needs (ways in which the world just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to). And corresponding to those needs, there are hundreds of opportunities for the Spirit to work through me and you by placing Jesus right into the middle of each one of them. Let’s not overcomplicate the beautiful simplicity of gifts. Also, we must be careful not to overemphasize one, singular “gifting” at the expense of declaring one, singular Christ. Needs abound, but there is one, generous, gift-giving Solution.

Does that mean that I have all the gifts? In a certain sense, yes. If you have the one Spirit of God who operates to meet needs and you’re like me with a thousand weaknesses to operate through, the Spirit may gift you away to all kinds of Gospel settings. In fact, Paul calls us to desire all the gifts, which, if our lives are Christ-centered is a healthy desire (1 Cor. 14:1). However, no single person has all of the gifts exclusively. The Father distributes them throughout the Body that we might bring him glory together. If you had all of the gifts, then you simply wouldn’t need me or anyone else. One evidence of humility in a Christian’s life is how considerate they are toward other believers because they acknowledge how the Father is operating through others for their good. Humble believers desire and search for the way God is directing and blessing other members in the Christian family.

In closing, I would like to encourage and challenge each of us to not make church all about ourselves. Rather, let us give our availability each day to the Holy Spirit and ask of him, “Holy Spirit, would you give my life away today for your delight?” Then, just watch what he does to restore his world. I believe at that point, we will start to see how much grace he is imparting through his gifts to us and how much God wants us to enjoy him in our churches.

Note: please click here if you would like to read the earlier articles on guidance for spiritual gifts.

Refugees: Personhood and Politics

Whatever your views on the subject of immigration, do you at least see migrants as human beings? Whenever you hear the word “refugee” what do you think of first? Do you permit the fact that each human being has been formed in the glory of the Imago Dei? Or do you sense judgment like Jonah toward the Ninevites or worse, disgust like Pharaoh toward the Israelites? As I contribute my thoughts and experiences on this vast subject, the undercurrent which daily sweeps over my soul is that the Gospel for the Christ-follower must be the basis, the conditioning “first-thought” which governs all other questions and solutions pertaining to other human beings.

refugee boat

It must be stressed that I am not advocating to throw open borders, ignore national sovereignties, and invite freeloaders and terrorists to enjoy consuming and destroying our cities. I do believe that a Christian’s witness is enhanced or it is hindered by how they treat civil law. On the other hand, I am not advocating that the many foreigners arriving in our land are only a political problem and are not worthy of welcome, care, and the Christian Gospel.

Rather, as I’ve outlined this series of articles, I think the call and the urgency of the Gospel compels believers to go deeper than the news and popular, cultural opinion which tends to rest solely in the political arena. At the outset, what we face is a regular, daily tension of whether we will put our politics aside for their personhood or their personhood aside for our political narratives.

It is much easier to remain in the socio-political arena; there, everyone believes they are entitled to an opinion without many consequences, if any at all. However, we have found when someone begins to work directly with people whose lives have been ravaged and traumatized by war, famine, poverty, slavery, and maltreatment their socio-political opinions are greatly challenged. So, what happens to people between the Facebook wall and the walls of the camps where large groups of human beings are sequestered? My answer is the impact of “personhood” is happening. People are sensing both the dignity of personhood in the Imago Dei and the significance of the pain of human need. It’s the simple practice of personal contact which changes everything.

The Great Samaritan

We can see this plainly applied in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Hebrew traveller is mugged and left to die, the two surprising aspects of those who pass by are who they are and the distance they keep. The fellow Jews (who would have had a moral and societal obligation to care) kept their distance and masked both their fears and their disdain for the man-in-need behind their societal robes and roles. In shocking contrast, the Samaritan comes close and personalizes the situation at his own expense. As Jesus recounts the parable, it seems as if proximity to the brokenness caused an immediate melting of any prejudice that the Samaritan could “rightly” claim.

good-samaritan-sculpture

Jesus told this parable to answer the question, “So who really is my neighbor?” At face value, we can discern that our neighbors are human, in need, people along our path, often different than we are, and can also be our socio-political opposites. The question came from an attorney, an interpreter of the law, and it was designed to force Jesus to reduce Heaven’s compassion to man’s comforts. Little did the attorney realize he was trapping himself by putting his politics before personhood — and it takes the invasion of Jesus himself to liberate the lawyer. Indeed, it takes Jesus himself to liberate our sacrifice from our opinions. I cannot overstate how challenging and uncomfortable this practice is for us. Nothing short of the resurrection power of Christ can bring us even close to what Jesus called us to in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This is a good starting point to advocate for the challenge of our own hearts in how we view humanity — humans who are different than us, messier, and often more broken. It ought to grieve Christians first when another human is in difficulty or suffering before we quickly judge whether they deserve it or not. Ninevites can repent, and God looks forward to their repentance. Did we listen to Prophet Jonah in our Bible classes or did we only color the picture of the fish with a belly full of bitter prophet?  Imagine what the Gospel could do in the hands of energetic, young men who have risked their lives and faced death for much lower causes. Can you visualize how many missionaries and church planters could return to the shores of their homelands from today’s incoming waves? Just imagine how the Gospel could shine and show the upside-down and right-side up story of Jesus Christ among the nations. For this I advocate — the Gospel to humans first and foremost.

How do you gospel you?

In a recent conference, I had the opportunity to share a workshop on developing one-to-one discipleship in your church. One of the questions in the seminar that we sought to answer was What does every believer need? We discovered at least 5 helpful answers to that question, and one of the foundational answers is – a healthy understanding of their identity in the Gospel. If you’re going to live by the Gospel, you have to know how to identify yourself in Christ, get back to the Gospel when facing various situations, marinate in it, and calibrate your every step to it.

Well, the above all sounds good, but for a new follower of Jesus it sounds daunting. So, how will a young or new believer really gain a healthy understanding of a life permeated by the Gospel? They “get it” in a one-to-one relationship; by asking, watching, and relating to more mature believers. Titus 2:4,6 says to “train the younger women… and urge the younger men…”

 

friendship is the key to discipleshipSo, the value of intentional discipleship relationships is that new and younger believers can feel safe enough to simply ask, How do you gospel you? In fact, whether they say it or not, each gathering which young believers attend (whether large or small) they are asking that very question. I think they are simply saying, I am here, so teach me the Gospel. Show me how to love and obey Christ.”

Yet, one of our current challenges in the church today is that many people who may attend our gatherings believe the length of time they have invested in attendance = maturity in the Gospel. Therefore, what is closer to reality is that we have many young believers who have been sitting a long time. I believe that maturity in Christ is understanding how to get back to, live in, and press forward in the Gospel. So, we need to take a healthy look around our ministries and inquire to see if we have ever asked others the question, “How do you Gospel you?”

If Luke Wrote About Your Church

In our small group leadership training plan, we ask the question, if Luke were alive today to write about the impact and effects of the Gospel in your community, what would he say?

Some Context

When Luke wrote the second chapter of the book of Acts, he began it with the spectacular inauguration of his new family. The Holy Spirit of God, full of divine delight, was freed to accomplish what he had ached to do for millennia past — to fall upon us and sweep us up into wedded bliss and power and union with Jesus. The church was consummated and what a celebration it was; complete with heavenly wind, fire, and good news proclamation in all languages. In fact, it was such a powerful and joyous occasion, some hardened onlookers thought Jesus’ bride was drunk!

Then, Luke writes in Acts 2:42-47 about the happiness of the bride and her honeymoon as it were in those first weeks of her union with Christ. Look at how filled-up she is with the mission and heartbeat of Jesus and look at some of the things Luke celebrates:

  • They eagerly devoted themselves to hearing and learning more about their groom with the apostles’ teaching.
  • They shared all that they could with each other and invested their earthly resources in each other.
  • They spent time together and invited others to join them.
  • They were in the marketplace telling the Good News message through selling items of value and property for the benefit of others. (quite possibly at inopportune times to sell their goods for the “highest value” for themselves just to be able to benefit others.)
  • They praised and adored God both publicly and privately. Worship became integral and contagious.
  • They ate meals together in Jesus’ name.
  • They were socially winsome and found favor among all the people.
  • They were welcoming in whatever they did in their homes (house-to-house). So, their homes became centers for community and moved away from being personal castles.
  • They saw answers to their prayers abounding as the Holy Spirit delighted to shower them with love through his special signs and wonders.
  • There was no line or barrier between “my church life” and “my regular life”.

Did you notice how different these things were from the first part of chapter 2? Married couples don’t have a wedding ceremony every day. Luke is highlighting how ordinary life with Jesus was filled-up with purpose and power that stretched into the spiritual and the eternal. The church is not dating Jesus in a paramour relationship. No, He is her everything.

Back to the Question

Now, how much do we recognize the integral and united nature we have with Christ while living in our communities? You see, our goal is not to replicate what the early church experienced in Luke’s list. If we do that, we turn our marriage relationship with Jesus into something mechanical and heavy by thinking that if we can just copy what they did, “church will work!”

Instead, Jesus will orchestrate all kinds of new gospel gestures, sacrifices, activities, and rewards to impact your community right where you are. So, imagine if Luke was walking around your church this month.

• How would he celebrate the gospel happening among you?

What might he write in his list to show how Jesus is orchestrating the impact of the gospel in YOUR everyday lives?

This is a great exercise to do right now personally and/or in a group of friends. If you sense that Luke wouldn’t have much to say, then you might be experiencing more of a cultural Christianity than a vibrant, communal, gospel-fueled Christianity. At that point, it would be wise to evaluate if you really understand the gospel and especially the Ascension of Jesus. And, it would be wise to deeply ask what has been radically transformed in your life and the lives of your church community. What can we celebrate as evidence of the gospel in action?

Life as Extraordinary

A little catch-up:

It has been a while since I have sat down and written here at HM. Some have asked me when I would start again. All I can say to that effect is that I have eagerly desired each and every day to write something I’ve newly discovered in this glorious gospel to share with you. However, over the last couple of years, ministry life and responsibilities have dramatically increased for me which has netted the result of a high desire to share and a low output rate. I hope to match the two a bit more this coming year and that all of it will be a blessing and encouragement to you.

Now for some cibo (food) in the gospel and community

There is a line of thought which is often expressed in our churches from well-intentioned Christians (at least in Europe) that goes something like this:

I can’t do very much for God, and I don’t have much to offer God:

  • I’m not wealthy.
  • I’m not a leader.
  • I’m not talented.
  • I am timid.
  • I don’t have time like others do.
  • I’m not as smart as others.
  • I’m more of a private person.
  • My career prohibits me.
  • Nobody listens to me.

What our friends are expressing is an exaggeration of the ordinary; living with the gospel at an unreachable distance. The main problem with allowing our inner voice to talk like this is twofold.

First, it is poor theology which puts pressure on the mind and heart to try to generate something useful for God. Grace does not work that way. We do not generate-up good works in the hope that they will be something profitable that will satisfy God. In fact, this kind of thinking causes us to feel like we are never doing enough. God is rarely, if ever, happy with me. Instead, a true Christian is provided every day with the fountain of grace and providential goodness to live in the glory of Christ who gives his child good works to walk in (Eph. 2:10). For example, yes, it may be that God opens the door for you to visit with a neighbor about Jesus and grace, but it is also a God-glorifying work to respond with patience when your children won’t get ready for school in time during a hurried morning. Both situations require the Gospel and both are an opportunity — not to generate-up something useful — but to give-up something glorious back to the Lord who guided you into that very situation.

Second, this negative response creates a sense of desperation or fatalism because it is a response based too much on the circumstance of today and not governed by the reality of Jesus over us now and for eternity. Simply, this kind of thinking is poor theology because it denies who we are in Christ Jesus now, and who we are becoming in Christ Jesus tomorrow.

Applying the extra to the ordinary

holy_spirit1Here is how we need to help each other “get back to” the gospel and live it. In Acts 2, we see the marriage ceremony of Jesus to his bride. He brings his church into himself and collocates her to himself in Heaven before the Father. This is the privileged position of being united together in Christ.  The temple veil was torn and God the Holy Spirit is rushing out to indwell his people from all over the world! The physical sign of this was the beautiful manifestation of the flaming tongues of fire and the good news invitation of Jesus shared across the languages. These fire-tongues were both sign and signal that his people were now in him, and if Jesus is the new temple then they are also representative temples with the specific presence of God in them.

The follow-on results in Acts 2:42-47 do not strike us as spectacularly as the first wonders do in the early verses with the rushing winds and hovering flames of fire. No, on the contrary, we see people are doing quite ordinary things but with a completely new position and perspective. Yes, there are signs and wonders, but Luke does not elaborate on those and seems to emphasize the Christians’ desire to know more about Jesus, to praise Jesus both publicly and privately, to share food by eating together in Jesus’ name, to sell their possessions for those in need, and to invest in caring gestures toward each other. It is still Jesus directing his church, but he is not doing it through human greatness or achievement. Rather, he is guiding his church through service and care.
And here is the delightful response of Jesus to his bride as they live this ordinary-extraordinary life of the gospel:

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:47

So, the point for true Christians (I’m not speaking about cultural Christians) is that the reality of being married to Christ is the same for us today as it was for the early church. We are directly under and in the temple-reign of the Lord Jesus — right now.

Therefore, when we hear each other say that we can’t do much for God, we must be active to remind and challenge each other that — you say you cannot do much for God, but what you must see is that if you are in Christ, every thing you do is already done for God! Yes, each ordinary thing is given to you by Jesus. You think you have a powerless, ordinary life because of what you feel you can or cannot achieve. However, you have an extraordinary life not based on what you do, but based on who you are — on who Jesus has made you to be.

You simply have a choice to make in every action and circumstance. You will have to decide whether you will acknowledge that, “…this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” and give it back to the Lord Jesus in honor for his glory or whether you will claim it for yourself. But if we can see that God’s mission is not simply “out there“, but rather, being providentially directed from “in Him in here“, it is truly extraordinary to think of what Jesus will do with our ordinary-extraordinary lives when we care for him and for each other in this gospel-centered way. The challenge is to realize and appropriate who you are in him — right here & right now.

Planting Ecclesiology as a way of life

Immediately apparent when commencing to plant ministries in Italy is that all people use the word church, but rarely anyone uses it biblically. The very idea of church here is something ‘private, cold, judgmental, obligatory, an event, passive, traditional, cultural, heavy, & Roman’. Therefore, we have a great crisis when it comes to the understanding of what actually constitutes a church.

Embedding Believersplanting ecclesiology

This is one of our major concerns, in that, if we enter a city and open a traditional church structure, it will be viewed through the cultural lens and automatically disregarded. Similar to the seasonal circus that comes to town, people in the general culture will ask, “What’s that?” And others will naturally respond, “Oh, I think that’s one of those foreign churches, evangelista or something…” Instantly, a perceived level of distance and safety is established.

However, if there are people who they know and have had experience with, the conversation might go a bit differently,

“Who are those people?” they might ask.
“Oh, that is the group that Daniele is a part of… you know Daniele, the mechanic that helps a lot of people with their cars over on Viale Venezia… His wife teaches some language classes and they run activities in the park with the kids.”
“Ya, that’s right — a classmate I went to school with works for him. It’s a bit surprising they opened a business in this crisis!”

We are not seeking to plant more institutions in post-catholic Europe, but rather, we emphasize planting people who are energized, holy, and evidentially part of the New City and the Christ culture. If the people of our Italian cities will find a refuge in Jesus, then, it will most likely come from people who have lived in their city with them through all of its positives, negatives, ups, and downs. These embedded believers do familiar-looking things, but they do them with an entirely different set of motives and attitudes.

“Church Work”

Embedded believers approach their lives and cities in an integral and theological way. Like an under-current that courses through their actions, they show gracious respect to local authorities but they reject that their sustenance comes from the state as their sovereign provider. Embedded believers are not getting all they can but giving all they can. In a suffocating economic market, demonstrating that you are not “on the take” but “living to serve” speaks loudly into people’s lives.

Furthermore, embedded believers are not demanding jobs, instead, they are developing them in the full realization that the “Earth is the Lord’s and all of its fullness.” With health, creativity, holy determination, persevering faith, and youth (life is said to begin at 40 in Italia) – their mission is pan-vocational because their theology is integral to all of life; impacting every aspect.

The Reformers of the 1500’s (especially Luther & Calvin) rediscovered this in their theology of work. One of their main emphasis was on the subject of consecration. They moved the emphasis off of the job or the talent and rested it upon the worker’s devotion to God. You could be a joyful, contented farmer or a deceptive, adulterous religious leader. The issue was not whether one was called as a religious leader versus called to farm. Rather, it was what kind of farmer or religious leader you actually were that made all the difference. To this day in Italia, the mindset lingers that work is unholyIt is a necessary evil and not a gift from God. Work should be avoided or oppressive and therefore, cheating others is rampant. Yet on the other hand, a person is more holy or powerful by the garments he wears or the buildings he enters. Life is divided into two categories: what to show (pride) and what to hide (pleasure).

“Home Work”

It is at this point where a marginalized, periphery church begins to touch the fabric of the city when she helps holy farmers, devoted teachers, and Christocentric entrepreneurs. Not only does the church assist these believers to establish their livelihoods, but she is also training them to grow up into the city through opening their homes for ministry as a regular rhythm of life. It is their gospel character on display throughout the city that makes them a community of light.

Embedded believers are not hidden behind their jobs where people cannot determine if they are truly kind or just trying to earn money through quality customer service. Their home is a refuge for seekers to come and find peace, and in turn, embedded believers are seekers who reach out to their cities in peace. I believe this balance of a ministering home coupled with a ministering business is critical to planting churches. It is a salty model because it does not stay confined to four walls of a comfortable structure. Integral home-life and work-life stimulate missional-life.

If you have read this far in the article, I am voicing some of our developing ministry philosophy as we face a church and market crisis here in southern Europe. I am not saying that this is a formula, but rather, an approach to life and work as missional theologians.

  • Have you experienced Life-work in this way? 
  • As you read this, would you have any helpful suggestions or comments?
  • How do you think an approach like this would impact where you live?

The Thanksgiving Conundrum

I’ve been thinking today about how “Thanksgiving” has been made a holiday instead of it simply just being a way of life. We all know that Thanksgiving was a British marketing endeavor to exploit the new world and make an international holiday of tasty food since their cuisine is was so bad. It just took a little longer to catch-on than the marketing groups thought because their trans-Atlantic internet speeds were so slow.  😉

Actually, one of the common sentiments that I’ve heard in these last years (mostly from my American friends and family) is that Thanksgiving has lost its meaning and significance. Sadly to many, Black Friday has become black everything. Stores now stay open incessantly. Families don’t eat together. Restaurant dining instead of family gathering is the new thing. Meals are inhaled because football (versione Americana) is starting. And worst of all, many people find it difficult to list more than one thing for which they are thankful. The culture has shifted, and for many, that’s difficult turkey to swallow.

The Conundrum

The conundrum is if we are a self-absorbed culture, we can only be thankful for what we achieve and what we take. Also, the only person we really desire to give thanks to is ourself, but we’re not satisfied with that person, ever. Yet, the reality of gratitude is that giving thanks demands acknowledgment of another, greater person who has acted favorably on your behalfSaid differently, if we struggle to give thanks, it’s simply because we’ve adopted our culture over the Christ story and we’re too auto-centric.

Christocentric people are Thanksgiving people.

The affectionately called Pilgrim Fathers were repeatedly ridiculed and threatened by their ship’s crew for their thankful worship. As an insult, they were called Psalm-singers because of their gratitude toward God while they sang with the waves both smooth and rough on their passage. What was so “awful” to the mariners was the Pilgrims’ pursuit of Christ together which manifested in a communal gracious spirit over difficult waters and sicknesses. How could they have been so thankful when we have abundance and complain so much about it?

Thanksgiving for a Christian is not just something we say, it’s a mark of who we are. It is a vocal realization of favor, toward us, from the Father. Favor comes in pleasurable forms like blessing and not-so-pleasurable forms like discipline. But it’s all from God, and it’s all good. So, now you have a huge list for which to be thankful.

But here’s the underlying motive:

Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Three times in verses 15-17, thankfulness is mentioned and connected to Jesus. In verse 16, a fair understanding would be that when the message of Christ (the Scriptures) is given a royal priority and permeates God’s children then wise teaching, correction, all kinds of Spirit-borne songs, and thanksgiving is going to result. In fact, seeing that Jesus is enough and filling up with him will literally draw gratitude out of you toward God. Gordon Fee wrote it well, “The focus is not so much on our attitude toward God as we sing, but on our awareness of his toward us that prompts such singing in the first place.” [God’s Empowering Presence, p. 655]

The best way to be un-thankful is to get so distracted (turkey, football, 75% off sales, whatever…), and turn inward so that we have no fresh vision of the anointed Christ. We will be isolated, materially contented, spiritually lazy, wayward, song-less, and simply ungrateful toward God and others. I once had a self-assured guy come to my church for a while and one of his complaints was, “I don’t know why we have to sing songs anyway.” Sadly, he would skip our music times. Also, sadly, I think he only had a notion of what it meant to know the real Christ Jesus.

If you know Christ, then enjoy filling the air with thanksgiving today (and perpetually) as the Father draws it out of you. In Christ, it is who we are.

Communities of the unburning bush

The Lord himself – who is who he is – has bound himself inextricably to his people.

Immanuel: the-with-you-God

 

That key phrase caught my attention in a smaller but similar way to Moses noticing an unburning bush. I’m currently enjoying a read through the newly released work, Covenantal Apologetics by Scott Oliphint. In chapter 2 (Set Christ Apart as Lord), the author draws special attention to the essence of who Jesus Christ is and claimed to be. Jesus is the embodiment of the I AM that spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting the I AM (Yahweh). Here is the quote in context and then a brief application.

Covenantal Apologetics by Scott OliphintThe revelation that Moses has of what is really the unburning bush is, in part, designed to reveal to Moses both of these truths [wholly satisfied God alone is who he is and also commits himself to his covenants]. The fire, which represents The Lord himself, is in no way dependent on the bush in order to burn. The fire is, in that sense, a se. It does not need the bush for fuel; it is able to burn in and of itself. But it is also with the bush. It could easily appear on its own, because it is in need of nothing to burn. Or it could appear beside the bush. Instead, it is linked inextricably with the bush, even as The Lord himself – who is who he is – has bound himself inextricably to his people.

One of the unique and glorious truths of being knit together by the Gospel in community is the presence of the wholly satisfied God. That presence is what sets redeemed friends apart from any other form of community in this world. Moses must have seen a billion bushes but only one like the I AM’s. Similarly, the people of our cities will see tens of thousands of friends, families, and homes but what makes all the difference is the connected lives of unburning believers. I desire my home to stand out like that, and the fire has already united with me because he loved me first.

We might ask, “Where’s the sign? You know, the unburning house or unburning church so people will be shocked out of their shoes?” The answer is to look into the ordinary and the mundane which contains the extraordinary (like the ordinary manger holding the Creator and Redeemer of the universe). This is using the eyes of faith to see the hidden, blazing reality.

One day, the I AM himself took off the sandals of his desert pastors and washed their feet (Jn 13). There, he showed us how to be an ordinary bush but ablaze with transformed hearts. After all, he is seeking people who worship him in spirit and in truth. Are we not a people bearing and reflecting the image of the sovra-natural God who in no single way needs us but loves and binds himself to us? Instead of consuming us for what we rightly deserve, he is now revealed through us; converting the ordinary into the remarkable.

Guidance for Spiritual Gifts: part 5 – gifts meet needs

spiritual gifts logo-image

In this series on the Spirit-giftings, let’s take a step back and simply ask what the Holy Spirit is actually doing when he graces a gift to us?

At surface level, we can say that God is actively fixing stuff. Literally, the Spirit of God is stepping into disorder and bringing gifts through his people of organization and administration. Where the fog of ignorance hinders his children from hearing his truth, God sends teaching that leads men to worship him. Where illness seems to conquer, the Spirit arrives with merciful hands to show he is the ever-present Help in time of need. When the suffering of lack and oppression take place, the Spirit releases a wave of generosity through his children. We can continue on like this with prayer, faith, discernment, hope, and many more. In fact, I believe that as many different needs that you can identify, there is One Solution with the right gift for each one of them.

At a greater level, God is gracing us beyond our own means to accomplish his will. He is giving evidence and signs of the Kingdom which is here but must be accepted by faith. We can say that the Spirit is operating in a way that “rights” a world gone wrong, and he is doing it so that it reveals the truth and presence of Jesus. Therefore, God the Spirit is gifting the message of God the Son around the world through a gracious invasion.

Yes, yes, but we really like the spectacular stuff. It is a very tempting desire to see “the cool of God” and the miraculous. If you have been around the work of God for any length of time and witnessed his power, you know that he trademarks some surprising things at times. On the other hand, let’s ask ourselves if that is normative in how God ordered his world? Is it right to demand that if it’s not spectacular, then it’s not of the Spirit?

Notice that Jesus was washing feet the night before he was unjustly murdered. Nothing spectacular about that. No power-show happening there. It was all quite ordinary and yet extraordinary at the very same time. Jesus left them the example of loving service for how he operates in his world. Apostle Paul follows this up with, “You can do the spectacular with angels and lightning bolts included, but if you don’t have love, you’ve only lit-up fireworks.” (paraphrase di Rob, 1 Cor. 13:1-3). The Italian word for fireworks is fuochi artificiali meaning “artificial fire” and aptly applies here. Spectacular yes, beneficial niente. So, we might test a “gifting” with this helpful question — Does the gift in operation meet needs and show the greater way of Jesus’ love?

The point is that there are hundreds of kinds of needs (ways the world just doesn’t work) and correspondingly, hundreds of opportunities for the Spirit to work through me and you by putting Jesus right into the middle of each one of them. Don’t overcomplicate the beautiful simplicity of gifts. Also, be careful not to overemphasize one, singular “gifting” at the expense of declaring one, singular Christ. Needs abound, but there is one, generous, gift-giving Solution.

Does that mean that I have all the gifts? In a certain sense, yes. If you have the one Spirit of God who operates to meet needs and you’re like me with a thousand weaknesses to operate through, you might experience all kinds of the works of Jesus as you serve. However, I would say that not one person has all the gifts exclusively. Then you wouldn’t need me and I wouldn’t need you. What kind of a holy minestrone is that?

God parla “Son”

Check out this glorious gospel insight from Hebrews 1:1-2

1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,

2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

parlo Son

Verse 1 says long ago, God used many times, ways, and voices to get his message across to humanity.
Verse 2 says that now God speaks Son. Literally, the construct in the Greek says, “God spoke once for all – to us – in Son.” (for readers who have fun with Greek — the verb is aorist, the preposition is “en”, and there is no definite article before huios speaking to the nature or kind of speech)

A Taste of Hebrews

The book of Hebrews teaches about the Messiah-community here on Earth and how God is speaking the Son language to them and through them. Hebrews unpacks the language of Jesus that the Father speaks through Jewish references, stories, and metaphors. One of the main Hebraic themes of the book is about the new Messiah-community in a glorious “wilderness wandering” similar to the one of the Israelites. The first wandering was a foreshadow and a time when God would woo his bride, Israel, to himself and away from the lovers of Egypt.
Today, however, the difference lies in the fact that Christians are led by the ultimate Moses and ministered to by the superior Aaron from the true Tabernacle. Jesus has emerged from the shadows and become the reality (the “heir” of all things; the ultimate truth the whole world is searching for). The new covenant and new identity binds Christians to Jesus and indelibly writes the Son language all over our lives. This new relational identity in Jesus works through God’s people like never before as Christians walk with one foot in this world and the other in the heavenly sphere because of their union with Son.

What Do You Speak?

As mentioned, God now speaks Son through his new covenant to his covenant people. The new covenant is the last one God will ever make. It is also a new kind of relationship, in that, it is a liberating covenant which permits us to please God a thousand different ways instead of offending him repeatedly. This new covenantalism brings his people (the covenant community) into the law of love to serve God and one another thus demonstrating that God’s presence is with his people. And that is why the Hebrews preacher can declare so confidently that God has fulfilled his promise by saying, “I AM their God, they are my people…” Hebrews 8:10
So, God spoke Son to you, and if you have received his new relationship, he now speaks Son through you. In fact, everyone in the new covenant will speak this new language as they are being conformed to the image of his Son. This is not a theory to try, but rather, a way of life. The Father is expressing Son through us. God is invading this world with Grace. This is wonderful news because it also means we don’t have to make up our own language to try to make sense of this world and life.
Therefore, permit me to spice things up and provoke you with a few questions:
  • When you gather together in Christian community or when you do any activity with your friends, what language do you speak?
  • Is it cruciform and does it resemble “Son”?
  • Does Son language go away when you are with certain groups of people at various times?
    • some friends were recently sharing with us that years ago they felt it was an obligation (“un dovere” in Italian) to speak Son to others around them. However, now the life of Son has so filled them that curious friends and acquaintances frequently want them to talk about Jesus and spiritual things. In other words, those who don’t yet know the Father are asking for our friends to speak more Son!
  • Do you hear the Son language calling out from the communion table, “Justice is done. Come and receive mercy again and again!”? Does that excite you and invite you, humble you and enthrall you all at the same time?
  • How has the Father been teaching you Son lately?

Shalom! and as we say in Italia at this time of year, “Buone Vacanze!”