Monday, September 29, 2008

Missional Community

Last Saturday night, I was having some serious fun – and I wasn’t with my church family. That’s not meant to be a criticism of St. John’s – just an expression of “wonder” that I could carve out some time to be with people who are not part of my church, and enjoy it. If you must know, my two daughters dance in a local hula dance troop, and I was koholo-ing with my oldest in a father-daughter number along with several other dads. The song was “Pineapple Princess” and let’s just say that only a dad and his daughter could do it justice with words like “Pineapple Princess, I love you you’re the sweetest girl I’ve seen / Someday we’re gonna marry and you’ll be my Pineapple Queen!” Practicing that song with Corynn has been a terrific bonding time; and an unintended benefit has been the opportunity to get to know some men who are not part of my “church circle.”

Perhaps you’re getting the idea that one of my biggest challenges is building relationships with those who are not members of my congregation. Admittedly -- so much of my time is spent studying and preparing for worship services, attending the steady stream of administrative and leadership meetings, engaging in pastoral care, and simply enjoying the rich friendships we’ve made with our St. John’s family -- it would be quite easy for me to go weeks without meaningful contact with the people in our larger community. That’s a problem…because I firmly believe Christ calls us to be invested in relationships with those who don’t know him and have no experience of his transforming grace.

No doubt Jesus’ original disciples experienced a similar tension. Theirs was a close-knit fellowship of men, and not a few women, who experienced a richness of life together. “Jesus called those whom he desired, to be with him (Mark 3:13-15) in a deep and abiding friendship. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” Jesus said. “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends” (John 15: 15). He made it clear that his followers were his true family (Matthew 12: 46-50); and in calling together 12 men – mirroring the 12 sons of Jacob and the 12 tribes -- he was making clear his intention to reform the broken and scattered family of Israel. No, Jesus did not form a corporation or a political action committee or even a religious institution -- he formed a family.

That being said, I want to suggest that the very things we cherish about our own church family (the closeness, the honesty and forgiveness, our inter-generational and multi-ethnic variety) could actually be a hindrance to the mission of Christ….if we hold them too tightly. Perhaps you’ve caught yourself or heard someone else say, “You know, I just love this church because people know my name and I know theirs. If the church grew any larger…I’m afraid we would lose the closeness that we cherish.” I too can say that “I love this community, and those ten or one hundred people who know my name” -- but I have to be careful not to make that “community” into an idol. For Jesus called the twelve “to be with him,” and then sent them out. He called us to be a missional community… a community with a cause. The “us four and no more” attitude is what flash freezes our hearts, closes off the outside world, and remakes the church into a private club that is ours to enjoy at the expense of the seeking, lonely, and hurting people outside who need the love of God as much as we do.

Lately, I’m finding that to push myself beyond the walls of the church is not as difficult as it first would seem. Christ calls me to begin by being aware of where I already naturally connect with people in my everyday life – whether talking with a new friend at the local gym where I work out, extending myself in hospitality to one of my neighbors, having dinner with some international students from UCLA Village who want to practice English, or dancing “Pineapple Princess” with a bunch of crazy dads in my daughters’ hula dance troop. I'm thinking about a friend right now who loves to play the "cruise director" and invite friends over for a fun time of board games. What a great answer to the lonelines and isolation of a big city like Los Angeles, and what an opportunity for deep and meaningful friendship -- Jesus' style.

Building authentic friendships with those who are outside the church community…and including them intentionally in my own circle of relationships is where I need to begin. God will give you and me the words to speak as we live out a Christ-honoring life before others, for his desire is to welcome these new friends (like you and me) into his forever family. Now here are two questions for you: (1) In thinking through the idea of missional community, what would it mean for you to personally bring together believers and seekers in a circle of friendship, and so lay the foundation for the sharing of love, real life and faith in Christ? Or, (2) name 3 ways that your Lifegroup could become a 'community with a cause'?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Missional Authority

“Don’t trust anyone over thirty” was a maxim of the 1960’s, but the phrase didn’t originate with the Boomers. The rejection of tradition and its authority is a movement that began with the Enlightenment in the 18th century. In the words of Leslie Newbigin, it was “a summons to have the courage to think for oneself, to test everything in the light of reason and conscience, to dare to question even the most hallowed traditions” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, p. 39).

Today, we continue to challenge the legitimacy of authority. The legitimate authority of government leaders is questioned every four years (if they’re lucky). The authority of the medical profession is no longer established by a nicely framed diploma on the wall (We may seek second opinions, consult cyber doctors, alternative medicines and homeopathics – wisely or not). The legitimacy of the clergy is also questioned today with the knowledge that, yes, they too are quite capable of hypocrisy and deceit (ouch)!

Let me say that I don’t believe questioning the legitimacy of authority is a bad thing. We know from experience that authority is often abused, leading us to question rather than to simply accept everything that is told us. In fact, the Bereans of Acts 17: 11 were said to be “more noble” because “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Nor did our Lord hesitate to question the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites on more than one occasion. Jesus understood and modeled the importance of legitimate authority. Matthew 7:39 states that “The crowds were astounded at [Jesus’] teaching for he taught as one having authority and not as the scribes.” We get the sense that Jesus stood out from the other religious leaders because he spoke of what he knew; lived what he commanded, and proved by his actions what he claimed.

The power of Jesus’ healing words was matched by his deeds; but what many of his followers don't realize is that he gives that same authority to them. For Matthew tells us that “Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 10: 1). The gift of Jesus to his disciples, is the gift of legitimate authority; not the authority to misrepresent him…but to share his words and do his works with authenticity. In the words of the Apostle Paul, it means “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 1-3.).

Last week I was at the UCLA Medical Center to witness a miracle. It was the day that John – who has a genetically inherited disease affecting his kidneys – was to receive a new kidney from Tiffany, both of whom are members of our church. It was an incredible privilege, as a pastor, to simply be there for this God-orchestrated event. I was awed by this act of love and courage and sacrifice. May I say that both John and Tiffany represented Jesus very well that day! Now, as a pastor – you’ll have to forgive me – but I often observe things that seem to me worthy of illustrating a spiritual point and I want to share just one….

I’m not speaking of Tiffany’s courage and sacrifice or John’s deep faith and gratitude to God for the gift he received. These were truly awesome to behold – I’m speaking of something more mundane – hospital uniforms. Every staff person wears a uniform that has the name of the hospital embroidered above the pocket. From the maintenance crew to the nurses and surgeons, whether in the pre-op ward, the nurses’ desk or behind the cash register in the cafeteria, every staff member was identified by that uniform and -- in particular -- by the words “UCLA Medical Center.” And it's that name which symbolized both their authority and their responsibility to represent the hospital well. Before the surgery I met Tiffany’s anesthesiologist, a very capable and professional doctor who put Tiffany at ease. Hours later, who did I see eating a bowl of tortilla soup down in the cafeteria? It was Tiffany’s anesthesiologist again, on her break -- smiling and very cordial -- and still wearing her uniform. Why? It occured to me that whether she was in the surgery ward or down in the cafeteria she knew that she represented the good name of that hospital.

Here is a question to consider as a church, as lifegroups, or as individuals. When considering our community and its particular needs and challenges -- what is the unique gift, specific authority, or capacity which you believe Jesus has given us in response? Whether we are over 20, 30, 60 or 90, Jesus entrusts his disciples with the authority to represent him. May we represent him well -- engaging in the healing ministry of Jesus at home, in the surgery ward, the factory, in our neighborhood, or the classroom -- and so draw others to him.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Missional Prayer

It was the one-time professional wrestler and Minnesota governor, Jesse Ventura, who said, “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people.” No doubt he has a very low view of one of the principle aspects of true religion – namely, prayer. I agree that prayer may be thought of as a crutch or “support” that enables one to do what would be difficult or impossible without it. Prayer is a powerful and effective support – just as an electric wheel chair increases the mobility of a disabled person; or eye glasses enable a brain surgeon to do his lifesaving work. Prayer is a powerful support because it puts us in touch with the One who is the power behind the powers.

We like to think of ourselves as a pragmatic society. We’re much too busy doing to bother with things like prayer. Jesus seems silly to us when he scans the crowds with compassion in his eyes and then turns to his disciples and says – of all things – “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9: 37-38). We wish that Jesus would have said, “The harvest is huge…so get out there and get to work.” Instead, he calls a prayer meeting. Is this another example of what skeptics say “weak minded” religious people do – namely, nothing?

Before going any further I want to say that Jesus’ call to prayer does not mean we should sit around and have a prayer meeting when someone is bleeding to death in front of us. Check Matthew 9: 35 and you’ll find that Jesus called his disciples to pray after he himself had been out in the field “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness.” In other words, Jesus was a first responder -- as surely as the LA City Fire and Police Dept. were first responders after the train wreck on Friday in Chatsworth, CA when a Metrolink train had a head on collision with a freight train and at least 25 people were killed…a terrible tragedy.

I would bet that no one knows the value of prayer better than many first responders. Their eyes are wide open. They see the tremendous need. They understand the limits of what they can do. I’m thinking about that moment when an officer was found dead and then gently carried out of the mangled wreck, through lines of police and firefighters with their hats and helmets over their hearts. They paused for a minute of silent prayer. It was a moment of reverence and humility…after everything they tried to do wasn’t enough, and they handed him over to Another.

Jesus asks us to pray not just because the need is great, but because his heavenly Father is greater. He asks us to pray not because he wants us to sit on our hands when trains collide, but because the labor that a compassionate God inspires is what this world truly needs. Listen to Jesus’ words again: “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” The phrase “to send out” is a translation of the Greek verb ekballō, and it means “to cast out or throw out.” It’s a request that God would catapult his workers out into the harvest field with Jesus’ message and ministry. The fact is, there are plenty of workers available in every church and community. What we need to pray for is that God will light a fire under us…and catapult us into a world of need; that he will empty our church pews…so that we might join the awesome work of harvesting the field of God.

I began by speaking of a deadly collision; let me end by telling you about a divine one. On September 17th Tiffany, a relatively new woman to our church, will be giving a gift to a man she hardly knows, a gift that is like no other. John has a genetically inherited disease that has left him with less than 8% of normal kidney function. Earlier this summer, John’s sister was ready to donate her kidney, but discovered that she had health problems of her own…and could not go forward with the procedure. Time was running out. John’s kidney function continued to deteriorate, and he would soon need to go on dialysis like his father did years before. Tiffany first heard about the crisis during a Sunday service in July; and though she has had challenges of her own, she felt the compassion of God move her to begin the screening process. She learned that she was not only the right blood type, but that she was a near perfect genetic match – it was a divine collision of one person’s need, and another another’s compassion. Last Sunday we thanked God for providing this gift of healing through Tiffany -- who not only prayed that God would raise up help for John…but was ready to be that help. Please keep them in your prayers this week.

“God of all compassion, Lord of the harvest, we ask that you would do more than open our eyes to see the sick and grieving, the lonely and the hungry, the harassed and helpless, the rebels who think that ‘religion is a crutch for weak-minded people,’ we pray that you would catapult more laborers into your harvest field – laborers that can bring the redemptive works and words of Jesus to this community – and we pray that we might be those workers today…for the good of this world and the glory of God.”

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Missional Heart

Whether or not you've ever darkened the door of a North American church the word mission, when used in a “religious” sense, evokes thoughts of missionaries traveling to distant lands and unfamiliar peoples. For many, the word mission is associated with the financial support of others who go to distant lands and unfamiliar peoples in the name of Christ. Don't get me wrong, I have a great love for those who engage in mission to far away places. Our particular church supports a variety of mission organizations whose primary focus of ministry is beyond North America. Recently, we've been able to send short-term mission teams to Cameroon, the Philippines, and the Middle East, for which we give thanks.

That being said, when we speak of being missional, we are talking about more than supporting God's work in distant lands. For while the word mission is a noun that we can support from afar or for a summer, the word missional is an adjective that describes our personal participation in God’s ongoing mission all around us. Mission comes from the latin word missio, meaning “sent.” The missional church is nothing more than individuals who realize they have been sent by God, and in particular to their own place and time.

I heard someone complain to his pastor, “I just don’t have time to be missional.” I have to agree. With the busyness of our 21st century lives there’s simply no time left to be missional -- unless of course we make the time. For we will make time for the things we care about, the things we are concerned about, the things we are moved about. Friends, to be missional we need a heart change. In Matthew 9: 36 we discover a primary reason why Jesus was missional. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus had a heart – a heart of compassion for people. The word “compassion” translates a Greek word (splachna) meaning “to be moved from the gut.” Jesus had a gut-level compassion for the sick, the grieving, the lonely, the hungry, the harassed, and for those who were running from God as fast as they could. The compassion of Jesus begins at the exit doors of the church – and in a time when cynicism comes easy, this same compassion is the gift that Jesus wants to give us.

As we seek to understand more deeply what it means to be God’s missional people, and to be sent by God to this city, I’m asking our Lifegroups to ponder and respond to this important question: What are some of the things that really move you with compassion in our immediate situation, place, and time? In particular, what are the things that move you with compassion and concern right here in West Los Angeles…or in your own particular corner of God’s world? Let’s talk about it together…and pray that God will develop within us, his missional heart.