I don’t know what it is about this story that’s gripped me for the last couple of weeks. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I devote a chunk of my ministry to working with younger adults. It is so very tragic that Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old–cut down before he ever got to experience life as a young adult. Then again maybe it would be easier if George Zimmerman had been 58 years old instead of 28–the sign of a generation where racism was more common. This shouldn’t be happening in my generation. It’s 2012, we should be past that stuff now. We learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in our elementary school social studies classes. Our history classes taught us about those days where racism was the fog that settled over the imagination of the society, clouding the cultural imagination and precluding us from looking at one another beyond the skin color we might see. Like I said, it’s 2012 and we should be past that now.
It sort of hits home to hear a story about a young man so gripped by fear and prejudice that he called the police nearly 50 times in the last year to report “suspicious” black men walking down his street. And it hits home that even now, in 2012, police could take the slain body of an unarmed black kid, drug test him, and wait days before calling his family. It’s 2012, but I suppose we’re not as far along as we might have thought.
As a pastor I struggle to find my proper voice when something like this happens. On the one hand, you want to trust the laws of the land and support officials to uphold their civic duty. On the other hand, you simply can’t ignore the larger questions this tragedy bring to light. If Trayvon had been white, would officials had waited to notify his family? If Trayvon had been white, would the admitted shooter still be free a month later? If Trayvon had been white, would he still be alive today? As a pastor I know it’s not my place to condemn or place judgment on anyone. God’s love is simply too radical for that. But can we not condemn sin and circumstance and mourn the fact that even thought we can elect a black President, we can’t seem to free ourselves from the shackles of prejudice?
I cannot let myself fall into the default position of privilege because I happen to white. We must always be critical of ourselves and the underlying meaning behind the ways we react to situations like this fueled with the very worst of what divides us. I’ve heard many good people say things like “Well what was he doing wandering through a gated community?” (Read: He should have known his place) or “Are you sure he was really unarmed, maybe there’s more to it than that?” (Read: Young black men don’t get shot unless they provoke it). As a white male in 2012 the tragedy of Trayvon Martin reminds me that I benefit from a good deal of unspoken privilege in life. And as a pastor in 2012 I cannot let the temptations of wealth, success, and privilege stifle the prophetic call to preach One who proclaims good news for the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for those who are captive and oppressed (see Luke 4:18). It is my duty and delight to preach and teach that God is not a God who would like us to sit quietly by while systemic sin happens right before our eyes. It’s the duty of the Church to confess our sins–for the things we’ve done and those things we’ve left undone–that we might offer forgiveness as a people who know just what it means to need it.
What probably grips me most of all about this story it sitting about 3 feet from me as I write this–my 4 week old daughter who happens to be staring at me when she should be sleeping. For her sake I simply cannot abide a world where young black men are gunned down for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I cannot be okay with the fact that while she will grow up with certain privileges, there are still young minorities in this country who fear walking down certain streets lest they become the next Trayvon Martin. I cannot be okay with the fact that racism, fear, and prejudice can grip any of us to the point that we would feel compelled to take the life of another person. You see, besides being a pastor I’m now a father. And that offers a whole new gripping reality to this tragedy for me.
Merciful God, we pray for the families of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. As we sit in our seats of comfort watching this tragedy unfold from a distance, they are living into this tragedy every day. We confess that we prefer to think that we’re above the power of prejudice and racism. We like to believe that we’re too enlightened to succomb to such an old and established form of sin. But tragedies like this have a way of reminding us just how broken we all are. Forgive us for our arrogance and willingness to turn a blind eye. Free us that we might be compelled to speak out for those whose voices are ignored by society. Grant that those of us who live in privilege might hear your call to live like your Son, Jesus Christ, and set aside our privilege, emptying ourselves in service for others, that we might obediently die to our ways of comfort. For it is in dying to the comfortable lures of this world, that we might truly live for you. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
I’ve been reading through the book, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, as part of my Lenten discipline. It’s a fantastic read from some of the greatest theologians and authors you could ever find compiled in one book. But this reading from Soren Kierkegaard is probably one of the very best essays I’ve read in a long time on discipleship and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I welcome you to share this post with folks in your church, prayer circles, and small groups. These are words all hopeful disciples of Jesus Christ should read and meditate on.
It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for. Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching – especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible. Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it. At the same time – as is implied in his saving work – he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that It, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of “loftiness.” No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.
What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires. To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. As such, they refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended at him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he “says nothing” against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs. And Christ’s life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower. And this can happen very quietly. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. Give heed, therefore, to the call of discipleship!
If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, who can doubt that Judas was an admirer of Christ! And we know that Christ at the beginning of his work had many admirers. Judas was precisely an admirer and thus later became a traitor. It is just as easy to reckon as the stars that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back. Admiring the truth, instead of following it, is just as dubious a fire as the fire of erotic love, which at the turn of the hand can be changed into exactly the opposite, to hate, jealousy, and revenge. There is a story of yet another admirer – it was Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1ff). Despite the risk to his reputation, despite the effort on his part, Nicodemus was only an admirer; he never became a follower. It is as if he might have said to Christ, “If we are able to reach a compromise, you and I, then I will accept your teaching in eternity. But here in this world, no, that I cannot bring myself to do. Could you not make an exception for me? Could it not be enough if once in a while, at great risk to myself, I come to you during the night, but during the day (yes, I confess it, I myself feel how humiliating this is for me and how disgraceful, indeed also how very insulting it is toward you) to say “I do not know you?” See in what a web of untruth an admirer can entangle himself.
Nicodemus, I am quite sure, was certainly well meaning. I’m also sure he was ready to assure and reassure in the strongest expressions, words, and phrases that he accepted the truth of Christ’s teaching. Yet, is it not true that the more strongly someone makes assurances, while his life still remains unchanged, the more he is only making a fool of himself? If Christ had permitted a cheaper edition of being a follower – an admirer who swears by all that is high and holy that he is convinced – then Nicodemus might very well have been accepted. But he was not! Now suppose that there is no longer any special danger, as it no doubt is in so many of our Christian countries, bound up with publicly confessing Christ. Suppose there is no longer need to journey in the night. The difference between following and admiring – between being, or at least striving to be – still remains. Forget about this danger connected with confessing Christ and think rather of the real danger which is inescapably bound up with being a Christian. Does not the Way – Christ’s requirement to die to the world, to forgo the worldly, and his requirement of self-denial – does this not contain enough danger? If Christ’s commandment were to be obeyed, would they not constitute a danger? Would they not be sufficient to manifest the difference between an admirer and a follower? The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a “Christian people,” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower’s life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many – but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.
-Kierkegaard as found in “Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter,” p. 55-60 (bold print is my addition for emphasis)
Don’t conform. Stand out. Be an individual. How often have we heard these mantras promoting the virtue of individualism?
I remember hearing an analyst of the Olympics talk about the difference between the U.S. and Chinese teams in various sports. The two countries were neck-in-neck in medal count and the roundtable group was discussing the strengths and weaknesses, similarities and differences between the American and Chinese approaches to Olympic sports.
The analyst noted, “China performs better in team sports that require synchronization and shared effort. The Americans always shine in individual sports that allow for dynamic flare.” [paraphrased]
This should come as no surprise at all. Individualism is the spirit of American life. If you want to make it in this world, you have to forge your own way and chart your own course. We live in a society grounded in the sense of individual rights and liberties. We celebrate one’s ability to stand out from a crowd and be unique. We turn those who are innovators by breaking the assumed rules of our culture into pop culture heroes .
Individualism in the Church
The Church has succumbed to the same love for individualism. So much of our Christian lives are expressed in terms of “my faith” or whether something “feeds me.” I’ve even read a very well-known United Methodist pastor argue for contemporary praise songs over traditional hymns because it’s more experience driven to sing to songs “to God, rather than about God.” (Adam Hamilton, “Leading Beyond the Walls” p. 72)
Not long ago the Barna Group released a study that found while Christianity dominated America (81% self identified as Christian), only 21% of those polled believed that spiritual maturity required a vital connection to a faith community.
What do these two example hold in common? For starters, I think both of these examples show that much of what we call “Christian” is rooted in an individualistic approach to faith.
It’s a fine idea to sing songs to God. The Psalmists regularly wrote psalms addressing God directly. And I’m a big fan of the idea of giving people a more personal glimpse of worship–one that links head and heart and life in real ways. But we must remember that the psalms describe the character of God just as much (if not more) than they personally address God. A steady diet of songs to God will eventually create a world where worship is primarily about me and God and where God is little more than what I make God to be at any given moment.
Likewise, one’s personal relationship with God is very important. That same Barna study showed that 78% of those polled felt strongly that spirituality is very important to them. But if only 1 out of 5 see that spirituality as dependent on one’s connection to a faith community, then spirituality simply becomes a personal affair. Spiritual maturity is not served at a table set for one. And as I’ve argued previously, true discipleship must not be limited to one’s own personal experience.
Spiritual But Not Religious Christians
Much has been said recently about a group labeled, Spiritual But Not Religious. Many consider this to be a growing group (often younger) of folks who want the spirituality of faith without the rigidity of organized religion. But I believe the Church in America has long been creating members who prefered individual spirituality over being accountable to a community. The 20th Century presented a paradox where evangelicals made famous the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” while liberals spent a great deal of time and energy conflating biblical justice with individual rights and liberties. Either way you slice it, the 20th Century did a great deal to produce a Church marked by individualism. Even now, as we decline in membership we try to be one-stop shops tailored to everyone’s personal needs. So before we get too high on our high horses about the “secular world” and what it’s done over the last 50 years to contribute to the decline of the church, let’s remember that the individualism we bemoan now has been alive and well in our churches for some time.
A Shift in Culture
For all of the talk about reform and realignment in The United Methodist Church, very little has been said as to how we can integrate a culture of discipleship in our churches. Sure, we can all identify the need for more discipleship, commitment, and faithfulness. But we can’t seem to go into much detail as to how we do this and what it will look like. I would like to offer a few suggestions for changes in church culture that could address this need for more discipleship in our local churches. These are in no particular order:
1) Church attendance and giving do not equate discipleship
2) Discipleship MUST be a culture of accountability
3) Discipleship means nothing short than a transformed way of living
“To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Individualism has its place in our world. And personalized faith has its place in the life of the church and how we practice discipleship. But we cannot divorce personal belief from accountable living if we’re to have any hopes of creating a culture of discipleship in our churches. To emphasize conversion, and then to leave faith solely in the realm of personal experience would be to have an abortion of the new life God promises in Jesus Christ. Personalized grace is cheap if it doesn’t come with the cost of submitting ourselves to one another in love.
American individualism might be a praise worthy virtue but it’s not the way of the Church. So if we hope to have any substantive conversations on church renewal, let’s ponder that idea for a while, collectively confess our sins accordingly, and begin anew the complex and rich life of accountable discipleship together.
Next Post: Why Covenant Disciple Groups Are More Effective at Discipling Than Our Small Groups
There was once a town that was full of life and abundance. Love and peace were staples of this community and people gathered to share each other’s burdens and build each other up. Hospitality was a way of life practiced all over this little town. In fact, people from far and wide wanted to come to this town after they figured out their own towns just didn’t offer the abundance of life and love that this little town offered. It was the kind of little town that seemed to transform its residents into beacons of joy and the residents just couldn’t help but to extend that joy to everyone else. Even on the bad days–and yes, there were bad days–this town just had an amazing way of banding together around one another in such a way that no resident ever doubted the faithfulness of the little town.
The mayor of this town was wise and full of love for the people. Every policy instituted was weighed and measured by what was best for the people and how love and peace could be extended even further. This mayor was steadfast to the people and to the mission that this town would be open to all who wished to come and be transformed by the alternative lifestyle this town exemplified.
One day, the mayor decided it might be a good idea to let more people from outside of the town know about the joys of this little town in a new way. The mayor decided it would be a good idea to build a beautiful sign that could direct people to the little town. Surely this way people from far and wide would know of the abundance of life and love and joy that was present in the little town. So the mayor commissioned a group of residents to form a team to oversee the project of building this sign. The mayor’s only instruction to the team: Make sure it’s a sign that easily points people directly to our town.
So the residents set out together to begin the process of planning and crafting this sign.
As the planning took shape, one of the team members suggested they add a little extra color. “People will surely see the sign better if we add a little extra color. And if they can see the sign better, they’ll more easily know how to get to our little town.” So the group took a vote and decided that the sign would be better with a little extra color. They just knew the mayor would be proud of their decision to enhance the sign.
When it came time to put the plans down and create the physical sign, another idea emerged. “What if we made the sign larger than we originally planned? That way even more people could see our sign and know how to get to our little town.” So they made the sign 3x larger than they had originally planned. They just knew the mayor would love knowing this sign would be even larger than originally planned.
Soon the day came when the sign was to be completed. They hoisted up their extra large, extra colorful sign and stood around to admire their handiwork. But there was something missing.
“We need lights,” one of the team members suggested.
Everyone on the team thought that was a fine idea. Lights would make their sign even more attractive and easy to see. If the sign was more attractive and eye-catching, then surely more people would know how to get to their little town. The team just knew the mayor would be proud of them for adding such a useful feature to the sign.
Finally the team stood around and admired their extra large, extra colorful, abundantly lit sign and marveled at their handiwork. It wasn’t long, however, before concerns were raised among members of the team.
“What if it rains, how will our sign stay dry?”
“What about the heat, will our sign overheat and get damaged by the sun?”
“What about vandals who might damage our sign? What do we do about the sketchy folks we don’t want around our sign? Do we need security to keep them out?”
The group went on and on. They came up with one scenario after another of how their precious sign–the result of many long, agonizing hours of work–could be protected from various elements and conditions that could damage it.
After some time of debate, the team decided the best thing to do would be to consult the mayor. They knew their top priority was to protect this sign but they couldn’t agree as to the best way to do so. Surely the mayor would have a thoughtful answer! They decided it would be best to organize their various plans and write them down. This way they could present the various scenarios and their solutions in an orderly fashion. So they spent some time crafting all of this in writing and then went back to the little town to seek the counsel of the wise mayor.
The group arrived at the mayor’s office and began by telling the mayor how beautiful the sign had turned out. They delighted in telling the mayor that this sign was so much more beautiful and eye-catching than they had originally planned. And it was because of this that they grew concerned about possible ways the sign could be damaged. So they began to present their plans and scenarios according to their reports. In presenting these plans they conveyed to the mayor just how much they loved this sign and wanted nothing more than to protect it so that it could be a lasting symbol of their little town and the team’s hard work.
To the amazement of the team members, the mayor responded with a disappointed sigh.
“All of this sounds fine but you seem to have forgotten the original mission of this project,” the mayor said.
“What do you mean?” one of the team members answered. “You sent us to make the most beautiful and eye-catching sign ever. And we just want to protect the sign so that it will last for years to come.”
“Yes, it’s a beautiful sign for all to see,” the mayor answered. “But you forgot something even more important. The sign was meant to point people to our little town–nothing more and nothing less. And you’ve spent so much time working on the sign, protecting it and trying to preserve it, that you’ve made the sign itself the top priority instead of its ability to clearly direct people to our little town.”
And with that, the team left the mayor’s office with their heads hung in shame.
A funny thing happened last week…
Well, maybe it wasn’t all that funny. We did have 9 months to prepare and plan for it. But they were right–whoever “they” are–there are no words for what happens when the miracle of life unfolds before your very eyes. Even more amazing than that is when that miracle somehow contains the same DNA that you carry around.
My first Facebook status update after Olivia Kate’s birth read:
“I’d like you to meet Olivia Kate Gosden. For one who fancies themselves in using words, I can’t find any that quite fit here.”
It’s been a week now. 9 days to be exact. I’m learning a lot. For example, did you know it’s possible to change a diaper with very minimal lighting and with one eye half-closed? Also, did you know diaper bags are a necessity when you leave the house? I know what you’re thinking but if you were trying to rush out the door to make an 8:30am doctor’s appointment on 3 hours of sleep you might not have been so smart either. We didn’t tell her to poop as soon as we sat down in the exam room. It’s pretty amazing to learn just how ignorant you’ve been over the last few years of adulthood.
Nonetheless I’m a little sleep-deprived these days but I think I’d like to take a stab at some of the words that so readily eluded me in the afterglow of the events of last weekend.
The Opposite of Faith
Olivia Kate didn’t make things easy. We came to the hospital that day preparing for a long morning and afternoon of childbirth. But around noon the doctors informed us that she wasn’t doing so well with natural birth. Her heart rate was dropping after contractions. They wanted to do an emergency c-section before she became too distressed. And so in a matter of just a few minutes, I went from my comfortable rocking chair in the labor room to a cold, hard bench in a holding area dressed in full scrubs and mask. I sat on that bench and all I can remember was how dark it was. I guess they don’t like a lot of florescent lighting in that area. Nevertheless I sat there dumbfounded as I waited to be summoned to the operating room where Katie was. Within the next 15 minutes a doctor was whisking our newborn baby off because she wasn’t breathing. Another 5-10 minutes later (it might as well have been 5-10 hours!) they were ushering me into a room where our Olivia Kate was crying and squirming all over the place–delightfully angry at all the fuss being made over her. Already my little drama queen!
For those who wants to intellectualize matters of faith as “things we must understand” to appreciate, I say you’ve never been witness to the miracle of a child being born. There is very little in that entire series of events that I “understand.” For me it hit home in a real way that faith is, if nothing else, an eternal trust that God is alive and present with us no matter what. In fact, I would say that I realized an important theological truth over the course of Olivia Kate’s birth: the opposite of faith is not doubt but knowledge. You see, it doesn’t take an act of faith to know with certainty how events will unfold. It doesn’t take faith to understand in great detail how things operate. Faith is what you turn to when plans change midstream and you find yourself charting a course you never expected to be on. And it’s in the mystery of those confusing moments that God is most present.
Grace is Real
If grace is first and foremost a gift, then being a part of the miracle of my own child’s birth made grace very real for me. Thankfully I had some wonderful advice from good friends (I’m not smart enough to have come up with this on my own) who said that no amount of prep would ever make one “ready” for a baby. This freed Katie and I up to simply live into the wonder that is childbirth and parenthood. The concept of God’s prevenient grace–the grace that goes before you–has become all the more a reality for me. Even before we could take in the miracle of birth, God was at work in that labor room, operating room, and eventually the recovery room and hospital nursery. Modern medicine may have made sure the complications we experienced didn’t let matter get out of hand. But make no mistake, God was present even before the medical professionals arrived. And no matter how things turned out, God was with us.
I’m also taken by the notion that before I could even conceptualize love for Olivia Kate I felt it. Grace, and only grace, is to credit for love being such a compelling emotion that it overtakes reason. And even greater than that is before I was overcome with the feeling of love for Olivia Kate, God was already over-the-moon in love with her. My greatest hope is that we’re somehow able to convey God’s love for her as she grows up–but more on that later.
More Than Perfection
It’s common to hear someone exclaim, “Oh she’s perfect!” when they see a newborn baby. And there’s a part of you as a parent that believes there’s nothing more perfect than that wiggling, cooing little creature that will let you endlessly hold it for hours. But the truth is, those creatures eventually grow up–actually I hear it happens all too quickly. And what was once a vision of perfection will give way to a reasoning human being who is prone to be tempted and even to make bad choices. There’s no avoiding this conclusion.
But what if perfection is overrated? God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. God loves us because God is perfect and full of love and because we belong to God. So if we’re called to exemplify that love to others, aren’t we called to love them precisely because they’re created in God’s image? By the same token, I love Olivia Kate not because she’s perfect, but because she’s mine–and there’s nothing she’ll ever be able to do to change that fact.
One of the greatest graces I’m living into everyday is that just as she grows daily, her mother and I grow as well. We don’t do everything right. And hopefully one day Olivia Kate will learn the power of God’s grace when she realizes that she loves her parents despite our faults and mistakes. The good news is we’ve got plenty of time and dirty diapers to get through before we have to cross that bridge.