Unprofessional Christian Leaders


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An evening fire in Jarabocoa, Dominican Republic

A while back, I was reading one of Elton Trueblood’s books, Signs of Hope. (I’ve read just about everything he wrote. I think of him as a sort of Dallas Willard of the last century. He was a philosopher and wrote deeply on living the Christian life). Listen to what he has to say about the nature of the first Christians and their leaders:

“We must never allow ourselves to forget that the Christian religion itself likewise began as a lay movement. Among the twelve whom Christ chose to receive his most intimate teaching and to carry on his message, not one was a priest, bishop or rabbi. Not one was professionally religious in any sense. Some were fishermen and one, at least, was a publican. We might go farther and say truly that the early Christian movement was essentially anticlerical. Those whom Christ denounced most fiercely were not publicans or harlots, but scribes and pharisees. In fact, he was very tender with the unrespectable sinners, but he was fiercely denunciatory of the conventional upholders of pious respectability.” (Trueblood, Elton. Signs of Hope. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950, p. 85.)

Of course Jesus welcomed those official religious leaders who came to him (like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea or, eventually, Saul of Tarsus), but he didn’t welcome them on the basis of their human position of religious authority. Like everyone else, they had to come to him for his reasons and not for theirs.

Some have said that if a true revival were to break out in our day, it would almost certainly come from within the business sector and not from within the official church gathered. I have a feeling that’s right, and I say that as one who has been in vocational (i.e. paid) ministry all my adult life.

I think there is an irony that it takes the “unprofessional” Christian to see things that the “professional” Christian has come to overlook. The businessperson does not have as vested an interest in the continuation of a Christian structure like a church, mission or ministry as it has functioned (often poorly) in the past.

We need godly men and women who lead out in kingdom service without being paid for their work. We need their strengths, gifts, experience and resources. We do not mainly need to give these men and women “church jobs” like usher, parking lot attendant and such. They are worth more than this to us.

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No Fun With Legalists


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Jarabacoa Sunset

I have had a run-in here or there with so-called discernment ministries who accused me (or The Leadership Institute) of some form of unbiblical, unorthodox or non-Christian practices. I remember something Solomon says in the Proverbs:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:3-4)

Solomon tells me not to answer a fool in his folly, but then, in the next verse, to answer a fool in his folly. I read this as a creative way to say, “There is no winning an argument with a fool. If you try answering a fool in his folly, you end up a fool yourself. And if you do not answer a fool in his folly, the fool continues to see himself as the wise one in the conversation. This is exactly my experience with these so-called “discernment ministries” out there. They are fools in the sense of being self-appointed, self-referencing, and self-authorizing without meaningful reference to anything or anyone outside themselves. They will not listen to anyone with a different opinion with any spirit to learn. They cannot be corrected. Their preconception is that they are right, their opponents are wrong, and all that is left is to continue collecting a quantity of self-satisfying evidence that supports their prejudice. It’s a waste of life and time.

I was mentioning to a friend recently that it has been my experience that these legalistic, Pharisee-like “experts” have invariably ended up being like the Pharisees in another way: they portray themselves as virtuous and righteous, but they have hidden within themselves some form of death and decay. One cannot live such a graceless life towards others without being just as graceless within. And such a heart is exactly the place where all sort of nasty things grow. It is in such hiding places that dark things flourish. Always. There is no fun to be had with legalists.

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More Fun With Legalists


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Jarabacoa Sunset

In my morning scripture readings a while back, I came across Acts 11. The substance of it is Peter’s defense before his Jewish Christian brothers of his having entered the home of the uncircumcised and even…wait for it…eaten with them (cue omninous organ music). I cannot help but think about fundamentalist reactions I’ve experienced to what they would call “unbiblical practices” like lectio divina or contemplative prayer. They would call them unbiblical because they are not explicitly mentioned by name or word-for-word.

In Acts 11, the “circumcised believers” (vs 2) were bothered and concerned that Peter had shared the gospel with the uncircumcised and even eaten with them in violation of their understanding of God’s law. They could make what they felt was a strong biblical case against what Peter had done. And what justification does Peter give for his actions? Does he appeal first to scriptures? I’m amazed that he mentions a vision he received while he was in a trance (vs. 5) of unclean animals lowered on a sheet that the Lord commands him to kill and eat. To the circumcised, Jewish believers, this was clearly an unbiblical vision because he was being commanded to do something they understood to be against the clear teaching of their scriptures.

Peter also mentions receiving a communication directly from God’s Spirit (vs. 12) that he was to go with the uncircumcised who wanted to take him to visit with Cornelius in his home (again in apparent violation of Jewish tradition rooted in their understanding of scripture).

Peter speaks of Cornelius’s experience of an angelic visit (vs. 13) in which he was told to send for someone named Peter who would give him a message by which he and his household would be saved. And Peter seems to give credence to this angelic visit.

Finally, he testifies to the evidence of the Holy Spirit falling upon them in the very same way the Spirit had fallen on the Jewish believers before, and with all of the same sorts of signs. Peter reasons that if the Spirit fell on the uncircumcised in the very same way as on the circumcised, who was he to make a distinction between them as it related to following Jesus and being included among his people? This subjective evidence carried a great deal of weight with Peter. Specifically, he says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God (vs. 17)?” Fortunately, the Jews concur and find Peter’s testimony to be quite compelling. They concluded that God had indeed given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life (vs. 18).

For many fundamentalist Protestants, arguments of this sort would have carried no weight at all. They would not see credibility in any sort of subjective experiences like visions, dreams, angelic visits, or interior messages from the Spirit (all of which Peter experienced). In fact, the general response is to attribute anything of this nature to the work of an enemy. They attribute any subjective signs that don’t quickly and easily fit in with their preconceived view of scripture to error or even heresy. From a certain perspective, this ends up sounding an awful lot like Jesus’ description of the unforgivable sin of attributing to the evil one what is actually the work of God’s Spirit (Mk 3:29). When someone attributes a work of God’s Spirit to the evil one, they put themselves in a place where they cannot possibly receive, because of their preconceived, prejudiced perspective, this good work. And the fruit of their lives, over time, give evidence to this fact.

Some of these biased believers would hold to a theological tradition that has decided that anything of a subjective nature like visions, dreams, miracles and such are from a bygone age and are no longer necessary. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, the Bible records such experiences, but God no longer does in our day what he did for century after century throughout the record of the scriptures.” There is a fear that subjective experiences will lead people astray. Of course this can happen. But how in the world can we ignore that our own intellects and reason can also lead us astray. The Pharisees were both incredibly intelligent and incredibly misguided.

It is my belief that a chapter like Acts 13 provides a present-day guide for discerning subjective spiritual experiences that followers of Jesus might have. There are self-appointed discernment “experts” who would argue the exact opposite. They would claim that there was some sort of apostolic privilege that no longer exists today. But why wouldn’t this chapter still be of practical value to us in real-time discernment rather than only having a sort of historical value that doesn’t apply very practically today? Such a resistant perspective seems just the opposite of the sort of biblical focus these “experts” claim to be defending.

One of Peter’s basic arguments in this story is a form of “you can know what is from God by the fruit it produces.” Fundamentalist judges of anything spiritual never seem to look at the fruit. They usually point to the wackiest (and most obscure) examples of misguided people who also practice some form of the same subjective spiritual discipline. It’s cheap and lazy. Such fundamentalists would be quite offended if they got lumped in with the lovely folks at Westboro Baptist who protest funerals and proclaim that God Hates Gays. This is the very thing they do, without a twinge of conscience, with those they have never met, never personally spoken with or met or listened to in person. Theirs is a “guilt by free association” approach to “discernment.” I find it disturbing and woeful.

In twenty-five years of witnessing what happens when men and women spend time alone and quiet seeking God with a listening heart and mind (and which one might call Christian contemplative prayer), it is impossible for me to agree with the ignorant opinion that such subjective experiences are exactly like new age or Eastern versions of similar practices. I see the good fruit of profound peace, deep joy, a growing sense of the real love of God that is borne in people through such practices. On the other hand, the spirit I witness in the writings of so-called discernment ministries is angry, hostile, ridiculing, harsh, fearful, accusing and self-important. And they claim that they are doing God’s work in such a spirit?

Over the last twenty years, we have trained hundreds of well-trained, biblically rooted pastors and Christian leaders through the Journey. In dozens of retreats, I cannot remember having been accused by one of these participants of promoting something unbiblical. These “discerners” are going to say that these well-trained, godly pastors have failed to discern unbiblical practices through weeks-worth of personal witness that these so-called and self-appointed experts have somehow discerned as error with absolutely no personal exposure encounter or conversation at all?.

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Fun With Legalists


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Jarabacoa sunset

It is my usual habit to read the scriptures based on the lectionary readings for the day. (Here is one online source you can use for this purpose). I love when the readings intersect providentially with what is happening in my life.

Acts 10:28 NRSV, “…and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

This word from Peter comes as he speaks to Cornelius, his family and his friends. His first instinct as a Jew was to consider them impure and outside his circle of conversation. He would have had biblical reasons for this conviction.

For many conservative Evangelicals, something being “unlawful” like this would be enough to keep them from engaging in any way. They would not have listened to any voice, angel or otherwise, that told them to do what they deeply held (and with biblical rationale) to be against God’s law.

A while back, I was scheduled to speak at a particular ministry. Someone, having read my book, objected to my speaking because it would amount to “promoting unbiblical practices.” This sounds like a horrible thing, of course. I’m not sure exactly what unbiblical practice I was going to promote. I wasn’t aware of any such practice in my arsenal.

It’s possible that this objector was worried about “Lectio Divina,” which I find to be a rich way of engaging the scriptures that are very much in keeping with loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The objector would claim that the words “Lectio Divina” are not specifically in the Bible (though “lectio” is Latin for “reading” and “Divina” is a form of “divine”—I’m pretty sure both of these are biblical words).

But in this sense, the objector means that the exact words are not used in their English translation. But this is a pretty silly literal understanding of the scriptures. The common Protestant practice of taking communion in little individual thimbles is, in this sense, unbiblical, perhaps even anti-biblical because it is definitely not how the first Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The New Testament speaks of “one cup” and not “many thimble-sized cups.” Sitting in rows when we gather for church is unbiblical in that Christians would have gathered in homes in a much more interactive, social arrangement. Sitting in rows came many centuries later. In fact, a service in which only one or two leaders spoke and every one else sat in largely silent attention would have been completely unfamiliar to the first followers of Jesus. There was a lot more “one-anothering” in their form of church.

I hope I never allow the accusations of biblical unlawfulness prevent me from continuing to obey God’s clear direction for me and for my ministry. Would Jesus allow the Pharisees, with their social authority and strict biblical interpretations, deter him from obeying the clear voice of the Father?

And it struck me yesterday that this person who objected to my speaking might actually be guilty of the same sort of offense of which Jesus accused the Pharisees:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Mt 23:13 NIV)

These objectors would probably object that they were not keeping people from being Christians (whatever in the world that would actually mean to them). But I would say that there was a clear kingdom invitation that I planned to extend as God’s direction to the group to whom I would have spoken. But these objectors would not enter in, and prevented anyone else from entering in either.

I continue to believe that those who hold such rigid, angry positions against others are almost certainly like the Pharisees in another way: they are fine-looking white monuments that hide within all kinds of death and decay. How can one who so resists obvious grace be anything else inside? I have yet to meet someone who finds it easy to condemn who doesn’t have something unpleasant hiding in their own closet.

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Leadership Energy: Holy and Unholy  


Oranges-and-Lemons-704x333Here’s another word of wisdom from a good spiritual director from the last century: Baron Friedrich von Hügel. I’d be very interested in your response. He talks about the difference between excitement and zest. Zest isn’t exactly a word we use very often, but zest carries with it the idea of vitality, gusto or passion. His use of “excitement” is in the negative. Zest is what he’s recommending. I don’t want to get wrapped up in semantics. I just think von Hügel has touched on something today’s Christian leaders need to hear:

“A wonderful thoughtful friend insisted to me that the soul’s health and happiness depended upon a maximum of zest and as little as possible of excitement. Zest is the pleasure which comes from thoughts, occupation, etc., that fit into, that are continuous, applications, etc., of extant habits and interests of a good kind–duties and joys that steady us and give us balance and centrality. Excitement is the pleasure which comes from breaking loose, from fragmentariness, from losing our balance and centrality. Zest is natural warmth–excitement is fever heat. For zest–to be relished–requires much self‑discipline and recollection–much spaciousness of mind: whereas the more distracted we are, the more racketed and impulse‑led, the more we thirst for excitement and the more its sirocco air dries up our spiritual sap and makes us long for more excitement.” (von Hügel, Baron Friedrich. Letters to a Niece. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1928, p. 96.)

Maximum zest. Minimum excitement. There is a kind of energy that doesn’t come from deep roots but from stirring things up at the surface. Zest plays well with joy, peace, holy zeal and love. Excitement stirs our hearts and minds in a way that we might just lose track of the real presence of God with us. Again, I know we may well be playing semantics here, but it’s a fair question to ask: What is the source of your excitement or energy? Is it a fruit of God’s Spirit, or is it something merely human with little rootedness and spiritual reality?

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A Heartfelt Prayer: Eyes Off Myself


IMG_2738Most days I begin by journaling. Here is a prayer from my journal. It is good for us as leaders to be open to God about our shortcomings. It is also good to remind ourselves who he is, to tell him how we feel about him. 

Good morning, Lord. I realize as I begin my journal today that I often begin with me—my shortcomings, my frustration, my depression, my anxiety, my concerns, my needs—me, me, me. Even if I had the most unfaithful yesterday in human history, it would be better to start this day (and every one) focusing on You. Even if I had the most amazing yesterday ever, I am not the focus of my life!

Thank You, Father, that You are good. I am not good in myself, but You are always good. You are consistent, reliable goodness. You don’t go bad like the strawberries on our kitchen counter this morning. You are always fresh and true. Your care for me doesn’t wear thin or grow old. You don’t get tired of who I am. (You may lose patience and grow angry with the ways that I walk away from You rather than towards You, but You do not grow weary of me).

You are always right, but not in a small, “I-told-you-so” sort of way…

To read the rest of this post, please visit The Leadership Institute blog. I am posting there at least twice a week these days.

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A Weighty, Shining Glory


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[Remember, while I only post here about once a month, I am posting twice a week over at The Leadership Institute blog. Come over and visit!]

Ps 105:3-4 NIV, “Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.”

The name of Jesus is a name I can glory in. I understand that two metaphors underlying biblical words for “glory” are weightiness and shining. Glorying in his holy name is acting in ways that make the name of Jesus more weighty in my thoughts, feelings, choices, and actions. I can let my heart choose joy as I seek the Lord. And I can let the person of Jesus shine in my heart and mind, exposing the darkness of fear, anxiety, and distorted desire.

Throughout this day, in each task, project, conversation or whatever, I can look to the Lord and trust in his strength. I say to my soul, “What do you need?” I hear the answer, “Many things.” I respond to my soul, “What do you lack in him?” My soul has to admit, “Nothing.”

I can keep looking today into his face of love, delight, interest, and companionship. Glorious!

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