He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Here’s what I found out years ago, and if I hadn’t I would’ve been out of the business thirty or forty years ago, and it’s this: you don’t have to make it happen. The little parable that Jesus tells in Mark about the farmer that goes out and sows seed and then takes a nap? There is a little phrase in there that says, “The farmer knoweth not how this works.” There’s a plant coming up out of the dirt, and pretty soon there’s something edible there. But although the farmer doesn’t know how it happens, you can be sure it’s going to happen, and that takes the load off of you. You don’t have to make this happen. This is one of the most important things for pastors to understand. Don’t try to get people to do anything; just speak the word of the gospel, live as a disciple, lovingly teach, be with people, and it will happen.
The other day I was part of a discussion about the felt need to “do” something in ministry moments where the person we are with is stuck. Our friend is disappointed with God, the divine will is opaque, they are confused with what is next, or they are flummoxed due to relationship difficulties.
We want to say the right thing, fix the problem, offer sound advice, provide good counsel, quote the right Bible verse, dispense sage wisdom, or prescribe the right action. But sometimes, we don’t need to do anything other than listen, be present, and pray. God is “doing” all that needs to be done, and we are watching and waiting for God to reveal, act, and direct accordingly. As a minister, it is important to remember that you are not the only actor. God may be hidden, but God is present, and God is most assuredly working.
Notice there is something to be done. Rather than tell or solve, however, we sow, rest, and then see what comes up. We then harvest at the right moment. As Willard says, “Don’t try to get people to do anything; just speak the word of the gospel, live as a disciple, lovingly teach, be with people, and it will happen.” We do what is ours to do. But we don’t have to make anything happen. That is God’s business.
Screaming at a seed does not cause it to sprout. It will do that on its own, in its own time, as God appoints. It will happen.
Truett began the spring term on Tuesday and this message from Dean Todd Still was delivered during our convocation chapel service. It is excellent. Dean Still explains the meaning and symbolism of crosses on the Truett campus and makes connections to New Testament teachings on the cross, Christ, and Christian discipleship.
Discipleship is built entirely on the supernatural grace of God. Walking on water is easy to someone with impulsive boldness, but walking on dry land as a disciple of Jesus Christ is something altogether different. Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, but he “followed Him at a distance” on dry land (Mark 14:54). We do not need the grace of God to withstand crises— human nature and pride are sufficient for us to face the stress and strain magnificently. But it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours of every day as a saint, going through drudgery, and living an ordinary, unnoticed, and ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God— but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people— and this is not learned in five minutes.
There is an emotional and even spiritual weight to life; we all feel it, especially as we age. An easy life is a myth, if not a red herring–the by-product of an advertising-drenched and social media-duped culture. Life is hard. Full stop. No comma, no but, no endnote. All the wise men and women of history have said as much; no new technology of substance or pill will ever erase humanity’s fall. Best-case scenario, we mitigate its effects as we advance Jesus’ return. But there’s no escaping the pain.
Why do you think there’s so much addiction in our world? No just substance abuse but more run-of-the-mill addictions to porn or sex or eating or dieting or exercise or work or travel or shopping or social media or even church?
And yet, even church can be an addiction, a dopamine hit you run toward to escape a father wound or emotional pain or an unhappy marriage…but that’s another book.
People all over the world–outside the church and in–are looking for an escape, a way out from under the crushing weight to life this side of Eden. But there is no escaping it. The best the world can offer is a temporary distraction to delay the inevitable or deny the inescapable.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t offer us an escape. He offers us something far better: “equipment.” He offers his apprentices a whole new way to bear the weight of our humanity: with ease. At this side. Like two oxen in a field, tied should to should. With Jesus doing all the heavy lifting. At this pace. Slow, unhurried, present to the moment, full of love and joy and peace.
Jesus not only offers us “equipment.” He offers us himself. And he not only offers us himself in his incarnation and on the cross, or from his place at the right hand of the Father, or from heaven. He lives “in” his disciples. Our life is hidden with Christ in God, even as we are called to “put on” or “clothe” ourselves in Christ.
Comer is playing here with Matthew 11:29-30, driving home the notion that we must join our life to Jesus’ life, we must walk in step with him as his students, apprentices, and disciples, and learn his way. I’m leading a retreat this weekend, and this book will serve as grounds for discussion. We will explore the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing. Notice, in all of these disciplines, all of life must be ordered in such a way that creates space for their keeping and observance. They require ordering and differentiation. They necessitate clear choices and make more plain the pace, narratives, and commitments of the everyday culture and habits of life that subvert, compete with, and challenge the pace, story, and way of life in the kingdom of God.
In Disciples Indeed, Oswald Chambers wrote, “I have no right to say I believe in God unless I order my life as under His all-seeing Eye.” The gospel we often preach focuses on life in the world to come. But the good news of Christ is not only concerned with what’s next. It has implications for life as it is lived today. Following Jesus will not make life easier in the immediate. In some ways, it may make it harder, at least in the short term. But in the long run, faith in Jesus is wisdom, not only for the resources that will be near at hand for this life as a citizen in his kingdom, but for the ways in which it will prepare us to serve in God’s great universe in the coming world without end. Our souls are made for eternity. Apprenticeship to Jesus prepares us for all that eternity will hold, not only for lasting fellowship with God, but for service.
Slightly more than 1 in 5 Americans (22 percent) say they accurately could tell the Christmas story found in the Bible from memory. A plurality of U.S. adults (31 percent) say they could tell the story but may miss some details or get others wrong. Another quarter (25 percent) could only give a quick overview and 17 percent say they couldn’t tell any of it.
I guess this is news, insofar as the Christian community should know we have a story to tell that others are unfamiliar with. We shouldn’t assume everyone knows how the gospel writers recorded this event. And, within the Christian community, we don’t know it as well as we ought, and that’s a reality that needs to be faced. Therefore, we need to tell this story first to ourselves, so that when we tell it to those outside the community of the faith, we tell it right.
You may already know the Christmas story. The details are recorded in two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us the story of Jesus’ life. Only two of these writers focus explicitly on the events of Jesus’ birth.
These accounts are not identical. That’s important to note.
Rather than harmonizing the two and telling the story as a seamless whole, I think it is more faithful to the story to be clear concerning which details come from which account, and to understand why the authors present the story of Jesus’ birth as they do.
Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience living in the Gentile world, and includes details in his gospel to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope for a Messiah.
Luke wrote for a Gentile audience who would have been familiar with the stories of the Old Testament, but had different concerns, such as how Israel’s Messiah could also be the Lord of all the world.
Matthew’s account tells us of Joseph’s inner conflict following the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, the appearing of a star, and the journey of wise men who came to visit Jesus from the East, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Luke’s account includes the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, Caesar’s census, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, an inn with no vacancy, shepherds, the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields, and the first visitors to see Jesus in the manger.
The Christmas story, for Christian people, is one of those stories that is important enough for us to learn and to be able to tell it with ease. If you have a Bible on your shelf, however, you can pull it down, crack it open, and read an account. Many people can search on their phone or use an app even if there isn’t a Bible handy. Then, you can talk about what it means.
Christians believe that on the very first Christmas God entered history in Jesus of Nazareth. This event was a continuation of God’s involvement in history and the marking of a significant new chapter.
God appeared to us as a human being.
Tiny. Vulnerable. A gift.
This is the miracle of the incarnation. God brought to fulfillment the promises regarding the Messiah, a Savior, a King who would redeem humankind from sin.
The world has never been the same.
The wise men came in reverence and the shepherds came with wonderment and awe.
Carl Trueman has written an article at First Thingsin which Protestant Christians are asked to consider COVID-19 and the meaning of the term apocalypse.
“Apocalypse” is often associated with the end of the world, depicted in films as a cascading onslaught of geopolitical chaos, natural disasters, environmental decay, unstoppable global disease, and, maybe, the unleashing of evil spiritual forces. Think of The Book of Eli, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, 12 Monkeys, End of Days, Soylent Green, Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Strangelove, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Children of Men, The Road, The Matrix, 28 Days Later, or Wall-E. Ghostbusters really nailed it. Long live Peter Venkman.
In the New Testament, the Greek term apokálypsis means an uncovering or unveiling. Revelation 1:1 begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” That word translated “revelation?” That’s apokalypsis.
A hidden thing is revealed. That’s an apocalypse.
Look At All These Rumors
Trueman has been hearing that Protestants fear that the pandemic has not only decimated budgets and worship services, and uncovered stresses and strains which exist in the relationship between church and state, but that online worship services and habituated non-attendance will lead to a massive reduction in church participation. Trueman writes:
In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.
Theology nerds will find Trueman’s claims about Catholic/Protestant arguments for meeting physically together worthy of contemplation. For Catholics, Christ meets with his people in the Eucharist. For Protestants, Christ meets with his people through the preached Word.
But really, it’s the last paragraph which provides the Scorpion uppercut punch:
So what will be revealed if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID finally settles down? Surely that the theology of preaching as God’s confrontational presence in and through proclamation has at some point been supplanted in the minds of many by a notion that it is merely a transmission of information or a pep talk. And that listening as active, faithful response has correspondingly been reduced to a passive reception, of the kind that televisions and countless other screens have made the default position. To put it another way, it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.
Let’s say, for a moment, that churches do experience a thirty percent reduction in active participation in weekend services once this storm passes. Trueman may have nailed all the causes.
But has this pandemic been truly necessary to reveal these things to be true? Or will the pandemic only make these matters even more plain, pushing those remaining in denial about the overall health of Protestant Christianity in North America to finally face the reality that cultural forces, including those within the church, have weakened our efforts at discipleship?
No Need for Anxiety
Long ago I gave up hand-wringing over matters like this. I’ve faced the fact that we are in decline, and that there is work to do. The monastics taught me to remember that God draws people unto himself and into community, and while I might be called to intercede for the world and to call upon God to bring the lost to saving faith, I am not called to be anxious about the future of the church. The Father sovereignly prunes the vine to foster future flourishing. I trust the vine dresser.
Dallas Willard once said “The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus.” Indeed, that is a great challenge. But it echoes the commission given to all disciples of Jesus. Jesus has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth and has promised to be with us to the end of the age. Those are reasons for confidence, and hope.
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Jesus, Matthew 16:24-26
Christians believe there is only one person to whom we can surrender, to whom we can cede authority, giving that person everything, and who, in return, offers us gain that cannot be taken away. Jesus is that person. To acknowledge God as God means conceding we are not God.
Formation in Christlikeness depends on surrender; failure to surrender is a sickness unto death; I cannot find rest until I surrender; I am exchanging a lesser for a greater; and giving what I cannot keep in exchange for what I cannot lose is wise, not foolish. Deep reflection on these realities goes a long way toward helping me choose to take up my cross and die to myself.
Some surrender to cultural pressures, social pressures, familial pressures, or fashionable pursuits of money, sex, or power. Surrender to Christ instead. Only in him will you find an eternal, inexhaustible gain, a life that truly is life.
I was crawling through the Truett Seminary chapel archives and came across a message from Paul W. Powell, offered November 5, 2013. Here is a link to the video, and here is a link to the audio. I wish I had an easy way to embed the files, but Baylor’s hosting service doesn’t provide code I can easily integrate into my site. The message is titled, “Learning from the Long Walk.”
Brother Paul was pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas for seventeen years, my home church. Paul baptized me and, years later, preached the charge on the occasion of my ordination on April 10, 2005 at the First Baptist Church of Allen, Texas, pastored then and now by the Reverend Chad Selph. Paul died at the age of 83 in December of 2016.
While digging around the internet doing a little bit of background research on Paul, I came across a 2005 “Pastoral Letter” he wrote while serving as Dean of the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Here’s a quick story he told:
Baptists are people of the Book. The Bible is the rule and guide for our faith and practice. We have a Baptist Faith and Message, but it is not a creed. No one has to sign it; no one is forced to subscribe to it. It is simply a statement of what Baptists generally believe.
We claim no creed but the Bible. Several years ago Richard Jackson gave me a Bible that had embossed on the front of it in gold letters, “The Baptist Faith and Message.” He had it right.
One more reason I will continue to be a fan of Paul’s.
In 1963, Thomas Merton published Life and Holiness. The book is a brilliant, succinct encapsulation of the Christian vision with five major sections: 1) Christian Ideals, 2) The Testing of Ideals, 3) Christ, the Way, 4) The Life of Faith, and 5) Growth in Christ. There are passages which address matters of relevance in the 1960s which could have just as well been written today. Such is the timelessness of truth.
From the outset, Merton makes clear that the primary emphasis of the book is grace, “the power and the light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory.” Merton also stresses “the nature of work and its place in the Christian life” and how “one’s daily work is an important element in the spiritual life.” Merton well understood that a life of holiness is one that encompasses human activity in every sphere, not only what which we traditionally associate with the sacred.
I appreciate the ways in which Merton exhorts the reader to strive after holiness, or growth in grace. But he balances that exhortation with a reminder that God is the catalyst, the carrier, and the one who grants completion to that work. Merton writes, “If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness of life is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need. If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift.”
This notion of sainthood is one which Merton addresses directly. It is a common temptation to elevate our exemplars to heights which we believe are beyond our reach. Merton says it well:
The popular idea of a ‘saint’ is, of course, quite naturally based on the sanctity which is presented for our veneration, in heroic men and women, by the Church. There is nothing surprising in the fact that saints quickly become stereotyped in the mind of the average Christian, and everyone, on reflection, will easily admit that the stereotype tends to be unreal. The conventions of hagiography have usually accentuated the unreality of the picture, and pious art has, in most cases, successfully completed the work. In this way, the Christian who devotes himself to the pursuit of holiness unconsciously tends to reproduce in himself some features of the popular stereotyped image. Or rather, since it is fortunately difficult to succeed in this enterprise, he imagines himself in some sense obliged to follow the pattern, as if it were really a model proposed for his imitation by the Church herself, instead of a purely conventional and popular caricature of a mysterious reality–the Christlikeness of the saints.
Merton sees that our efforts to imitate these “plaster” saints is ultimately silly. Rather, God is calling us to become most deeply ourselves in Christ. He writes, “It is the strict truth, and until we realize that before a man can become a saint he must first of all be a man in all the humanity and fragility of man’s actual condition, we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word ‘saint.'” Merton points to Jesus, who “was himself the most deeply and perfectly human being who ever lived on the face of the earth. We must remember that human nature was, in him, quite perfect, and at the same time completely like our own frail and suffering nature in all things except sin. Now what is ‘supernatural’ if not the economy of salvation in and through the Incarnate Word?”
By grace God not only conforms us to the image and likeness of Christ, but while doing so mends and remakes us in the divine image, as God intended for us to be, free from sin, and freed to live for the glory of God.
One of the matters that keeps us from pursuing this kind of life is distraction. In a paragraph that has held up, Merton writes, “We must reflect more deeply than we do on the effect of modern technological life upon the emotional and instinctual development of man. It is quite possible that the person whose life is divided between tending a machine and watching TV is sooner or later going to suffer a radical deprivation in his nature and humanity.” Hello, Twitter. This observation still rings true.
What, ultimately then, is a saint? Merton states:
The true saint is not one who has become convinced that he himself is holy, but one who is overwhelmed by the realization that God, and God alone, is holy. He is so awestruck with the reality of the divine holiness that he begins to see it everywhere. Eventually, he may be able to see it in himself too: but he will see it there last of all, because in himself he will continue to experience the nothingness, the pseudo reality of egoism and sin. Yet even in the darkness of our disposition to evil shines the presence and the mercy of the Saviour.
In my pastoral experience, those furthest down the road to sanctification are the least able to perceive it. They are too busy living a life of holiness, living a life that is focused upon God’s will and work. It is others in the fellowship who note those who shine like stars in the darkness (Philippians 2:15), who most evidence they have been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). They whisper, maybe with awe, “That person is a saint.”
Any person who has believed on and in Jesus Christ, who has placed their faith in him, is counted among the company of the saints. A saint is not someone who has arrived, but someone who is on the way. The further they have traveled, the more brightly they shine. Sainthood is the calling of every Christian, not as a static reality, but as a dynamic relationship with the Savior who sanctifies.
What is our next step? Where do we begin? The answer remains, as Jesus said so long ago, “Come, follow me.”
F&L: How should Christian leaders think about formation and desire?
JS: I think people who have leadership responsibilities should first of all shift their self-understanding so that leadership doesn’t just mean that they are the articulators-in-chief. They’re not just the ones responsible for the message, so to speak.
In some ways, leadership is really about being an architect of the ethos of a community, which means that some of the most significant influence that leaders exercise is their ability to shape the rhythms, rituals, routines and practices of a community or an institution.
As the curators of the repertoire of practices of a community, leaders need to do a sort of liturgical audit of our institutions and ask ourselves not just, “What does our mission statement say we believe?” but, “What story about being human and human flourishing is being rehearsed in the rhythms and practices of our institution?” That informs how we think about how reform and renewal have to happen as well.
The “JS” is James K. A. Smith. The “F&L” is Faith & Leadership (Duke Divinity). Professor Smith was interviewed by Faith & Leadership about his book On the Road with Saint Augustine, which I have read. I found the book to be very good. And I found this snippet from the interview to be very interesting.
Too many Christian leaders assume their primary task is to provide people with the right information. They talk, talk, talk, teach, teach, teach, and tell, tell, tell. That is very important. But the most significant leadership task facing Christian leaders is addressing “what lies beneath.” Moderns might call it “culture-making.” The ancients called it “the cure of souls.” And you can’t just preach your way there. There is a great deal of prayer involved. There is also discipleship, or apprenticeship to Jesus, which, as Dallas Willard observed, will address any and all human problems, and to great effect.
I guess I’d say culture, as it is understood today, is the reflected sum of the overall spiritual health in a place. Culture always has a spiritual dimension, even when it is “secular.” In Christian contexts, culture includes “right belief,” or proper information about God, reality, etc. But it goes deeper, to the level of desire, want, and love. There is a difference between loving right information about God and loving God. There is a difference between adhering to right religious practices and living a life that is lived in accordance with mercy, not sacrifice. In a church, something unique takes place when law and love merge together to constitute a language, a unique expression of God’s activity, grammar, and gospel (that’s a nod to Herbert McCabe). A culture is established where people discover the life that is really life: knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one who was sent (John 17:3).
Look at how people live. That will tell much of what you need to know about what people really believe. Then, get creative. How do you romance people away from error, and instead turn their gaze toward the greater beauty that has been revealed in Jesus Christ? It won’t just be a matter of what you say. It will have to be woven in to how you live.
Show, then tell. Tell, then show. Show while you tell. Tell while you show. Trust yourself, and your people, to God, the master craftsman. Trust formation to the divine hand. Offer yourself as an instrument. And a vessel.