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    Entries in Discipleship (15)

    Tuesday
    Dec152015

    George Herbert: The Call

    Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
    Such a Way, as gives us breath:
    Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
    And such a Life, as killeth death.

    Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength;
    Such a Light, as shows a feast:
    Such a Feast, as mends in length:
    Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

    Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
    Such a Joy, as none can move:
    Such a Love, as none can part:
    Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

    - George Herbert, "The Call"

    George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. He was a Welsh born Englishman, and an Anglican priest. He is remembered best for his poetry. His little book, The Country Parson, should be read by all ministers. If you are not familiar with his poem "Love (III)," take the time to click and read.

    As for the poem above, the first stanza uses a familiar grouping of three words. It is in John 14:6 where Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Herbert composes a progression: by being the way, we are given breath, by being truth, strife ends. With breath bestowed and strife removed, death has died, and Life remains.

    My favorite line in the poem occurs in the second stanza. Here, Light, Feast, and Strength build one upon the other. The light reveals, the feast heals, and strength binds. The word "mend," as it appears here, means both to restore to health and to repair what has been worn and broken. Christ, displaying his strength through weakness, has brought us unto himself as those invited to his table. We are his guests. I have often joked that there are too many who think, "Of course Christ died for me! Why wouldn't he? I'm such a wonderful person!" The reality, however, is that he has made us his guests because of his great love for us, "while we were yet sinners."

    Which leads us nicely to our third stanza. Joy, Love, and Heart. Joy is often understood as a changing emotion rather than as a state, but Christian joy expresses itself as thanksgiving in times of plenty, and hope in times of want. The soul of the joyful person is unmoveable, because they are bound to God in an inexhaustible love. That person's heart, then, constantly bubbles forth joy upon joy, for the love that gives birth to such joy is a wellspring unending.

    Dallas Willard was correct in saying that God is the most joyous being in the universe, for God is love.

    In Ephesians 3:14-21, it is Paul who prays that we would know "how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ." He then says that this love "surpasses knowledge." But in this knowledge, we are "filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."

    It is in that love that we are called.

    Monday
    Jun302014

    There are lots of reasons to despair. Give us a reason to hope.

    Last Wednesday Joshua Luton at The Apprentice Institute wrote an inspiring meditation on youth and the future of Christianity. Read the entire piece, "The True Narrative About Young People in the Church."

    His central claim, "High school and college age members of the body of Christ don't want to leave, they want more."

    I happen to agree. There is more than enough negativity on offer. But God is good, and deeply loves the young people whom you know. One of the great discoveries I have made over the past fifteen years of working in ministry is that young people are searching for sound answers to life's great questions. They have genuine curiosity about the Bible and a deep desire to understand the spiritual life, and to live it richly as Christians. They want to be challenged and invited to use their gifts and talents as part of a community. And they want to love and serve others as a response to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

    We often underestimate our students.

    Instead of complaining, build relationships, reach out to young people, and walk alongside them. Witness to Christ. Answer the questions they are actually asking (you might want to ask). And be open about your journey of transformation and change as a disciple.

    What you'll find will be refreshing. Jesus Christ is still calling disciples from among youth and college students. And Jesus is still calling us to point the way to him, to lead, to invite, to teach, and, most importantly, to model our faith.

    Thursday
    Jun122014

    Where are you connected? How are you growing?

    Think about that.

    I talked with another pastor in my area a few months ago, and their congregation considers an "active" member someone who has attended ONCE in the past year.

    I grew up in a family that stopped by the church about three times a week.

    Frequent attendance is no guarantee of spiritual growth or Christian maturity.

    But where are you connected? How are you growing?

    How are you making discipleship to Jesus the guiding, determinative focus of your life?

    And how does your congregation play a role in your journey toward maturity?

    And as a leader, how am I making sure that time spent with the congregation is profitable, edifying, pastoral, and encouraging?

    Tuesday
    Jan142014

    Book Review :: Mindy Caliguire's STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships

    Photo by Spyridoula Della

    Mindy Caliguire is a leading voice in the area of Christian spiritual formation. She writes with clarity and passion. In her book STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships, Caliguire helps us to understand three basic elements in the spiritual journey that can help church leaders think through how we create contexts where people move toward maturity in Christ.

    Caliguire identifies three distinct phases as we grow: Learning Together, Journeying Together, and Following Together. In the first stage, we discover the basics of the Christian faith. We learn the Bible, acquire a theological vocabulary, and are taught very simple practices, such as prayer. We establish relationships with others that are highly directive--we rely on others to show us the way, pointing us to Christ. As those just beginning, we need a foundation that is solid and dependable. We need to learn.

    Once the foundation is set, we transition to Journeying Together. We find other Christian friends who are walking alongside us, committing themselves to the cause, and providing us with both direction and discernment. We are being taught, but we are also listening with others, discovering the will of God for us, in our lives as they unfold. This phase might be bolstered by participation in a community group, a small fellowship, or as part of a retreat.

    Maturity leads us to a place of Following Together. Having gained foundational knowledge, faced obstacles, and increased in our love for God, we have now become steadfast. We're running the race. As Caliguire writes, the primary goal of this stage is to keep going. We act as God has called us to act, and we invite others along. We impart the wisdom that we've gained, and we remain faithful to the end.

    At each stage, Caliguire helps church leaders to identify where we might find ourselves, and how to break through when we feel stuck. She describes what someone ministering in each stage might possess in terms of giftedness, the makeup of their character, and what their next steps might be. Caliguire's model is meant to establish a frame for a church ministry, calling people within that ministry to identify where they are on the journey, and to find a place where they are challenged to step forward as they continue to follow Christ. The entire model, being relational, requires not only participants, but leaders.

    As far as model books go, this is a good one. It clearly expresses basic principles and key narratives that lead to the creation of environments that are conducive to formation in Christlikeness. If you're familiar with contemporary writings on Christian spiritual formation, you won't be surprised with new information in this book, but you will be helped by the clarity Caliguire brings to the application of these ideas to the local church. Her emphasis on the relational side of formation, of the essential aspect of community, is a needed balance, considering some spiritual formation literature focuses primarily on individual practices.

    But the book is not without a couple of shortcomings. First, I think there is a great deal of overlap between the ideas of Journeying Together and Following Together, and while I do find Caliguire's shades or degrees of maturity somewhat illuminating, the division here, in my mind, is rather small. Perhaps this is a limitation in myself as the reader, and not in Caliguire's presentation. But if I understand her correctly, the Journeying phase is where our commitment is deepened and our focus is established. During this period, we have set our mind on Christ, and we are determined to pass through any obstacle, even the challenge of the desert, to remain faithful to him. But once we transition to the Following Together stage, our primary goal is to stay the course. We're to remain with it. Everything that was established in the second phase of the model is solidified in the third. We cultivate our inward life, we commit ourselves to God's purpose, and we bind ourselves more fully to our company of Christians. There is a division, perhaps, but it is very fine, and I'm not sure how I'd fully apply these distinctions if I was developing my own model or asking those who I lead to locate themselves within this framework.

    As a second desire, I would've liked one example of how a local church has put the STIR model in to practice. An appendix with a narrative description of a single person's growth, and the relationships that were most helpful, would've created a fuller picture. If there are programs that have been used to foster the kinds of relationships Caliguire describes, I would've enjoyed a description of how those settings made an impact. While Caliguire provides examples of contexts where the stages can be experienced, I would've liked to see those elements compacted in to a single narrative.

    But however significant these shortcomings were for me personally, they do not negate the value of the book. If you're a church leader who is seeking to apply principles of Christian spiritual formation to your context, Caliguire is an instructive and clear voice. She gives you much to consider, and forces you to establish a narrative frame within which those you lead can find themselves. She knows and understands that the Christian life is a growth process, and that maturity does not come overnight. I'm thankful that Caliguire helps us to see that there is movement within our own spiritual journeys, and with God's help, there is progress. As church leaders, we are called to show others the way, to help those we pastor and shepherd to discover God's grace, and to fully rely on his power for transformation. Oftentimes, the vehicle through which God brings our greatest challenges is found in the lives of other people--change comes directly through relationships.

    I've already introduced these ideas in my student ministry, and they'll continue to serve as a subcurrent running beneath our efforts. Check it out.

    Wednesday
    Dec112013

    The Matthean Narrative and the Birth of Christ :: Letting the Text Determine Us

    Photo by Pradeep Javedar

    As I prepared to teach on Wednesday evening last week, I spent time with the insights of Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew, a Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. My text that evening was Matthew 1:18-25. I wanted our students to focus on the story of Jesus' birth, without sentimentalizing the story. I focused on two key ideas. First, I wanted to share that in Jesus, we believe that God came to us in the flesh. Christians refer to this as the doctrine of the incarnation. Second, I wanted our students to see that the coming of Christ is a sign of God's loving care for us. As the angel told Joseph, the child was to be named Jesus, for he would "save his people from their sins." Even though we may face trouble, we are not without a deliverer. I did not cite Hauerwas in my talk, though some of his ideas stood in the background. I'd like to share some of what I learned.

    First, Hauerwas's commentary is unique in approach, for he takes certain assumptions to the reading of the text, foremost that Matthew means what he says and intends for his telling of the Jesus story to transform us. Hauerwas writes that we should read Matthew in a way that is determinative for us, naming realities we are invited to enter. Matthew presents Jesus in a way that gives witness to God's redemption of our world as an accomplished fact, and invites us to enter this reality as disciples of Jesus. Hauerwas states:

    For Matthew, Jesus has changed the world, requiring that our lives be changed if we are to live as people of the new creation. Accordingly, the gospel is not information that invites us to decide what we will take or leave. Our task is not to understand the story that Matthew tells in light of our understanding of the world. Rather, Matthew would have our understanding of the world fully transformed as a result of our reading of his gospel. Matthew writes so that we might become followers, be disciples, of Jesus. To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes that change visible. (25)

    Second, as an extension of this idea, Hauerwas believes that the church itself, and those persons who make up the collective, constitute a way of being in the world that makes the change God has enacted--the kingdom life--visible, tangible, and powerfully compelling. Hauerwas continues:

    A theological reading of Matthew...reaffirms that the church be an alternative politics to the politics of the world. . . this commentary is guided by the presumption that the church is the politics that determines how Matthew is to be read. That politics, moreover, is one that presumes, as the gospel of Matthew presumes, that the whole life of Jesus is to be understood as determinative for the life of the church. (29-30)

    To clarify, Hauerwas refuses to allow our reading of the birth narrative and the story of Jesus' death and resurrection as told in Matthew to squeeze out the middle years.  Notice, he says "the whole life of Jesus is to be determinative for the life of the church." Hauerwas notes that the birth narrative lends itself toward sentimentality (we know this all too well), and our focus on the cross and resurrection, though justified, leads us to wrongfully assume that the gospel of and about Jesus is solely about our deliverance from hell and our future hope of life eternal in heaven (stated differently, we in the West often employ a theology that is individualistic). A focus on "the whole life" leads us back to the teachings of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the significance of Jesus' healing, reconciliation, and restoration ministry, the application of which in the present leads us to a greater focus on ecclesiology (or community) and sanctification (or personal holiness). This does not mean that the significance of the incarnation is lost, nor the reality of the atonement minimized. Rather, they are magnified when seen through a wider lens, properly contextualized in a way that equips the church to live more fully in to the calling to "go and make disciples of all nations."

    Matthew's narrative is meant to determine us. We do not go to the text seeking to determine what is insightful or inspiring. Rather, we read Matthew's story as those invited to a new way of seeing through Matthew's way of saying. As we learn to tell the story Matthew tells, and come to the recognition that Matthew's story is, in fact, true, our vision is reformed, and our lives are transformed in accordance with the change God has already accomplished in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We take on a new being; we are made a "new creation." Matthew invites us in to this story in a direct and forthright address. Hauerwas writes:

    Matthew does not try to prepare us for the story of Mary by providing a transition from the genealogies to the story of Mary's pregnancy. Rather, he tells us in a straightforward, if not blunt, manner that 'the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.' Again we see that Matthew does not assume it is his task to make God's work intelligible to us, but rather his task is to show us how we can live in light of Jesus' conception and birth. (35)

    Lastly, I'll close with one more insight from Hauerwas--something I have pondered for several years. In Matthew 1:21, Joseph is told in a dream that the child to be born of Mary will, "save his people from their sins." Though we may be tempted to read this verse cosmically rather than first in its particularity, Joseph certainly understood the angel to mean the people of Israel, for it is through Israel that God had promised to bring about the salvation of the world. And if Christians today are to live most fully as the people of God, we must never forget this very fact. Hauerwas states:

    [W]hen Christians lose the significance of Mary in the economy of salvation we also risk losing our relation with the people of Israel. Jesus is born of a Jewish mother. His flesh is Jewish flesh. To be sure Jewish flesh is human, but Christians dare not forget that the flesh that is 'very man' is particularly the flesh of Mary. Matthew will not let us forget that the one born of Mary is he who has come to free Israel from its sins. Jesus is very God and very man, but that formula does not mean we can ever forget that the God he is, and the man he is, is the same God that has promised to be faithful to the people of Israel. (36)

    The nations have been engrafted in to a history, the history of God's salvation. May we be humbled by this fact, living in light of 1 Peter 2:10: "Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."