The Call is Constant: The Symmetry of Grace

Jesus calls us to a deeply devoted, transformative type of following, one that is ultimately expressed in agape love for God and others.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps along the way. Simon Peter knows this well. On the night of Jesus’ trial, Simon denied him three times. And in John 21, there is a poignant episode where the resurrected Christ confronts Simon Peter, asking him three times, “Simon, do you love me?” Are you deeply devoted to me? Surely those words stung Peter, calling to mind the three times he denied Jesus, even cursing as he said, “I do not know the man!”

So it is fitting, then, on this side of the resurrection that Jesus would ask him three times, “Simon, do you love me?” And each time, Simon tearfully replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.

Three denials. “I don’t know the man.”

Three affirmations. “Lord, you know that I love you.”

There’s a symmetry of grace here that is poignant and beautiful.

We’re meant to relate to Simon Peter here, because who among us has not at one time denied Christ’s lordship? Who among us has not been in that place of decision much like Peter, that crossroads moment? And when we were pressed, we replied, “I don’t know him. He’s not my Lord.” No, we’re more like Simon Peter than we care to admit.

And yet, despite all of this that is between them, despite Simon’s weakness and failures, Jesus replies to Peter with the same call he issued to him all those years ago. John 21:19, And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

The call to follow Jesus is constant and consistent. Even when we fall short – not if we fall short, but when we fall short – Jesus continues to call us in grace with these age-old words: Follow me.

The last call is the first. Call and grace ebb and flow.

Some of us have been following behind Jesus for so long that we’ve forgotten what our former lives even looked like. His transformative power has taken root so deeply that all we’ve known for a long time is the joy that comes from following Jesus. So it seems that John Maxwell is wrong. Everything does not rise and fall on leadership. What matters is following. And in particular, who you follow. Following Jesus changes everything. And his call is constant and consistent: Follow me.

Some of us received this call long ago, but like Simon Peter, we have stumbled in our following. More times than we care to admit, we’ve let Him down. We’ve declared to the world, “I don’t know Jesus. He’s not my Lord.” And yet, despite all of this, His call to us is constant and consistent. There is nothing you have done that He has not already forgiven millions billions of times over. He stands today with the same constant and consistent call on your life: Follow me.

And some of us have never accepted this call. Some of us continue to go our own way, pridefully assuming we can handle it on our own. But I suspect that in the quiet moments, when it’s just you and your own thoughts, you know deep down that you can’t. You know how tired you are of trying to figure it out on your own. You’ve heard his call and you’ve kept Him at arms length. No matter. His call on your life is constant and consistent. His call to you today is just as it has always been. Follow me.

This is your identity.

You are one who has been called by Jesus.

And He says, “Follow me.”

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Every Step An Arrival: Going Without Knowing

In his book The Pastor, Eugene Peterson cites a Denise Levertov poem that closes with this line: “every step an arrival.” Levertov uses the phrase as a description of her development as a poet but her words fire my imagination toward discipleship. Such words call to mind our experience as we follow Christ; every step is an arrival for the new creation people who are formed by chasing after King Jesus. Each day is a new reality. Each moment He calls us to enter a bit further as His imaged is formed in us more fully.

Or, to say it differently, following Jesus changes everything. Whether we examine the Gospels or our own hearts, we see that the call to follow Jesus is transformational. As I noted in my last post, Simon wasn’t looking for a new job. He wasn’t looking to start a movement or found a church or preach to thousands or, if history is correct, suffer his own crucifixion someday. Simon was simply minding his own business, perfectly content to spend that day as he’d spent countless ones before it, fishing on the Sea of Galilee. But the call to follow Jesus changed his life. From that moment forward, every day was a new reality for Simon, as illustrated by the conferring of his new name, “Peter, rock.” We see Simon rushing headlong into a new life, far from his commanding existence at the helm of a boat, a life made vulnerable by the all-encompassing call to follow Jesus.

And the same is true for us. Some of us chose to follow Jesus a long time ago; others recently. But each day since we first responded to His call has been a new experience. And this new experience is marked by fear, for to follow Jesus is to cede control of our lives to another. To say “Jesus is Lord” is to also say, “I am not.” And we follow Jesus not knowing exactly where He might lead us. Such was the case for Simon Peter; so it is with us, as well.

In her 2008 book “Followership”, Barbara Kellerman notes the essential nature of following:

We fixate on our leaders and on the similarities and differences among them. But followers are different. We do not bother even to distinguish one from the other, either because we assume they make no difference or because we assume they are all one and the same….By and large we scarcely notice that, for example, followers who mindlessly tag along are altogether different from followers who are deeply devoted; and we scarcely notice that the distinctions among followers are every bit as consequential as those among leaders.

As far as I can tell, Kellerman doesn’t write from a Christian perspective (Harvard Business Press is her publisher). But what is true in industry is even more applicable to following Jesus. Biblical discipleship is a deeply devoted, transformative type of following. God’s steadfast mercies are made new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23), powerfully available to make us anew, to awaken us once more to a transformed experience in Christ. This is a deeply devoted kind of following, one that is ultimately expressed in agape love for God and others.

Such following leaves us feeling vulnerable as we cede control of our destiny to a higher power. But this is the story of faith. Hebrews 11:8, By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. Thinking back to the call of Abraham, the Hebrew writer says he was going without knowing. To modern ears, this is counter-intuitive. And yet, this is the nature of God’s call on our lives. This is the nature of faith.

No road map.

No script.

Only the call of a God who says, “Follow me.”

Every step an arrival in the pilgrimmage of going without knowing.

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Following Comes First

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. — Matt. 4:18-20

In many respects, it was a day just like any other. Simon probably spent that day as he had spent countless ones before, wrestling the wind and the water and the nets, hoping for a good catch. The work of a fisherman was a full-body experience, a back-wrenching, hard day’s work, a work that required complete devotion. We see Simon with calluses on his hands from pulling the line every day. We see the sweat on his face, a man in his element, at home in his work. We hear Simon as he barks out orders to his crew, a natural born leader of men.

Simon is a man at work when he encounters Jesus. He’s not expecting a sermon, not expecting his life to be interrupted. But with these words, Simon’s life is about to take a drastic turn.

Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.

And the Bible only gives us this line of response, beautiful in its simplicity: At once they left their nets and followed him.

What strikes me most about this moment is that Simon responds to the call to be a follower.

In our modern culture, we are enamored with leadership. Conferences and podcasts on leadership abound. A quick search of the Amazon bookstore reveals nearly 180,000 titles on the topic of leadership. Some of the best-known titles are written by John Maxwell, Stephen Covey, Simon Sinek and Tom Rath; I’m willing to bet that many of you have a copy of something written by at least one of these authors. One of Maxwell’s most quoted lines is this: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” And we believe it. We’re always looking for leadership advice; we study the effective habits of leaders, the proper thought patterns for leaders. It seems safe to say that we are in love with leadership.

All of which impacts us at the church level. Of the nearly 180,000 books on leadership found at Amazon, over 40,000 of these deal with church leadership! And this has to be a good thing for the church. Even here at our church, we preach the importance of spiritual leadership. We even have leadership training classes for our young men, equipping them to lead the church in worship. Again, this is a good thing.

But given our cultural infatuation with leadership, the call of Jesus in this passage is striking. Jesus says to Simon Peter, Come, follow me. With all this leadership language rolling around in our minds, you could forgive a modern reader for expecting Jesus to say, Come, and I will make you a leader. But that’s not the call. The call is to follow.

And immediately we have a problem. Just as much as we love the word “leader”, the word “follower” doesn’t have a very positive connotation for us. We tell our children, “Now, don’t you be a follower!” How many of you heard these words growing up: “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” That’s like Parenting 101; it’s in the handbook! From the earliest of ages we learn that being a leader is a good thing. Followers end up at the bottom of the proverbial pit. Or in jail. Either outcome is not desirable.

But listen again to what Jesus says to Simon Peter: be a follower. In our cultural pursuit of leadership, I’m afraid we might have lost sight of an essential truth as it pertains to our identity. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower. The word the early church used to describe the activity of a disciple more than any other was akolouthein, to follow behind. The Bible doesn’t share our disdain for the word “follower.” In fact, the Scriptures seek to ground our identity here, as a people who follow behind Jesus as our Lord.

In 2007, Lee Iacocca (former CEO of Chrysler) wrote a book entitled, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” Perhaps we should turn that question around and ask, “Where have all the followers gone?”

What if Jesus isn’t looking for leaders first and foremost?

What if Jesus is simply looking for followers?

Instead of asking how we can become better leaders, maybe we should be asking how we could become better followers.

Here is an essential tenet of biblical leadership: Following comes first. In a culture obsessed with leadership, the church exists as a culture of followership. This definitely cuts against the grain of our society, but that’s okay; that’s the nature of the gospel. Anything we have to say about leadership in the church is played out beneath the banner of Christ’s lordship. We need Christian leaders, yes, but the nature of that leadership is formed by the nature of discipleship, by following behind Jesus. The church needs leaders, but she needs those leaders to be followers first.

In order to put love first, we must begin by accepting the call to follow.

Following comes first.

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NFL Playoff Picks: Championship Round

Barely getting these picks in before today’s conference championship games. (These look to be fantastic games, by the way.) But first, a quick look at the leader board:

  • Jason / Jackson: 7-1
  • Joshua: 7-1
  • Sunny: 6-2
  • Abby Kate: 5-3

A good week for Joshua puts him right there in the mix. And Sunny’s lurking. Here are our picks for this week.

New England at Denver

  • Sunny: Denver
  • Abby Kate: Denver
  • Joshua: New England
  • Jason / Jackson: Denver

Looks like everybody stands to gain a game on me here if I miss this one. But I think Brady wins his final matchup with Peyton.

Arizona at Carolina

  • Sunny: Carolina
  • Abby Kate: Arizona
  • Joshua: Carolina
  • Jason / Jackson: Carolina

I really like Arizona in this game, but I can’t pick both road teams to win. Going to go with Carolina’s grind it out run game.

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The Culture Wars and Engaged Alienation

(Note: this is part of a series of posts based on some of the things I’m currently reading and reflecting on. Click here for part one.)

For most of our nation’s history, a Judeo-Christian worldview could simply be assumed. You could simply assume that your neighbors all held basically the same views: the existence of God, the lordship of Jesus, the importance of church, respect for authority, allegiance to God and country. Many of the Christians I know grew up in this kind of world. But something happened along the way and the prevalent worldview has shifted. We live in a time when our world is changing quite rapidly.

This shift has been described as the shift from modernity to post-modernity. For many Christians, the term “post-modernity” conjures up plenty of confusion and troublesome thoughts. Most of us don’t know much about post-modernity. But context clues tell us that it’s a buzzword for all that’s wrong with our world. Technically, post-modernity is value neutral; it’s neither “good” nor “bad”, but rather simply a description of the seismic shift away from the modern worldview. Actually “post modern” is less of a description of reality than simply an articulation of what is not — our times are decidedly not “modern” any more, at least not in the way the term has been used to describe the last 500 years of human history.

There are plenty of others more well versed in the nuances of these terms. I’m certainly no expert here. But I only use this as a way of explaining what we already intrinsically know to be true. The times they are a-changin’. And as the structures of this old order continue to crumble, my interest is primarily in the fallout for the church and the followers of Jesus.

There was a time when authority figures were respected in our culture simply by virtue of their existence. Parents, police officers, elected officials, religious leaders…these were unquestionably respected because of the offices they represented. Many of my older friends wistfully recall growing up in this world. But over the past 30-40 years, much has happened that has caused these authority structures to lose some of their luster. Watergate, Vietnam, the war on terrorism, Michael Brown, Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, child abuse scandals in the priesthood, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Rodney King…the list goes on and on. Our youngest generations have seen how authority figures have been “found out” as “false” or “unworthy” of respect. None of this necessarily excuses a widespread lack of respect of authority figures, but it surely helps us understand how we ended up here.

Perhaps this is a good way of describing the impact of post-modernity in our time. The post-modern worldview is suspicious of all over-arching meta-narratives, the “big stories” that hold our lives together. These larger stories are increasingly called into question because there is seemingly always a counter narrative to the absolute statements.

And that leads us to the Christian worldview.

As you’re no doubt aware, the Christian worldview has not been spared in the post-modern assault on meta-narrative. Darwinism and the Scopes trial brought the categories of “fundamentalist” and “modernist” into our national discourse nearly a century ago. These categories are evidenced in the ongoing conversations surrounding the Big Bang theory, creationism, and, most recently, same sex marriage. For quite some time, Christian rhetoric has been concerned with “culture wars”, combating the erosion of the Judeo-Christian worldview by trying to “win back” what we have lost. But the tide seems too great. If there is a war for our culture, clearly we seem to be on the losing side. As people of faith, what are we to do?

BH-Onward_ShareSquares6In his new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore notes that the Christian worldview is increasingly understood as offensive, particularly in light of our sexual ethic. One might see the acceptance of same-sex marriage in our nation as the most recent movement that contrasts the fundamentalist Christian worldview with secular culture. But then again, it has always been this way. A generation ago, it was the issue of abortion. Before that, it was the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. The further back you go, the more you see that this is an age-old conflict. As Moore notes, “Walking away from our own lordship — or from the tyranny of our desires — has always been a narrow way,” (p4).

But that’s who we are as followers of Christ: we are people of the narrow way. That might be one of the better descriptions of Christianity for our day.

Moore uses another phrase that arrests my attention: engaged alienation. Moore sees the current cultural landscape of North America as an opportunity for the church to reclaim a prophetic proclamation of the gospel, even if we now operate from the margins of society rather than from the epicenter. The biblical narrative of Israel in exile reminds us that the people of God have long operated outside the halls of secular power and our current moral drift, while lamentable, provides an opportunity for a fresh declaration of the power of the gospel. If you believe the book of Revelation, it seems that the church does her best work outside the corrupting and tyrannical influence of empire.

And so, back to the notion of a culture war. Moore contends that Christianity lived apart from cultural friction is a Christianity that inevitably dies on the vine. We should remember that we have always been a people of the narrow way. Our tendency is toward a version of the faith that “absorbs the ambient culture until it is indistinguishable from it, until, eventually, a culture asks what the point is of the whole thing,” (p7). Many of us can relate to this. Faced with the prospect of fighting a losing battle, we might choose to simply acquiesce to our culture, adopting a “when in Rome” ethic. Still others will choose to retreat from culture, forming a Christian sub-culture, a ghetto of Christian music, Christian movies, and Christian coffee shops, contentedly biding our time on this God-forsaken rock until the Lord swoops down to take us all home. Many of us can relate to this impulse as well, despite the fact that it severely negates the very call of Christ to be salt and light witnesses in our particular context.

Neither of these options are viable, not if we are to be the fullness of Christian community in our day.

And again, Moore issues a much needed reminder:

The gospel we have received is a missionary gospel, one that must connect to those on the outside in order to have life. Our call is to an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens. (p7)

This is where the culture war crusades of previous generations missed the point. As followers of Jesus, the end goal is never about “winning” — at least not in the way our culture understands the term. Much like our spiritual forebears, we have a hard time understanding a crucified Messiah as anything other than “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:17-18). But here is the power of God, focused not on winning the culture war but on reconciling the world to himself in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19).

In our attempts to wage war against our culture, I’m afraid we’ve lost an essential component of the gospel. The writer of Hebrews refers to the OT people of faith as strangers and exiles on the earth (Heb. 11:13). Simon Peter applies this same idea to the followers of Jesus, referring to the early church as those who are elect exiles of the dispersion (1 Pet. 1:1). Peter goes on to say:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. — 1 Peter 2:9-12

In each of these texts, the biblical writers use the same word to locate the people of God. Throughout history, God’s people have been identified as exiles, as people of an alien existence. The idea is not simply of passing through, despite the lyrics of one of our revered hymns (“This world is not my home / I’m just a-passin’ thru…“). The Bible declares just the opposite; this world is, in fact, our home. God has uniquely positioned us in this place and time for His purposes, for the good works He has prepared for us in advance (Eph. 2:10). Our call is more than simply a transient existence of “passing through.” For if we are content to simply pass through, our eyes will never be open to the very real problems of pain and sin and death all around us in the present. The people of God live as foreigners, yes, but more pointedly as resident aliens, strangers who have settled here, however briefly, among the natives. We cannot retreat. And we cannot acquiesce. This is not who we are.

As exiles, we are people of engaged alienation.

Exiles are people of the narrow way.

Exiles are people of an alien existence.

Exiles live missionally in their community.

Exiles don’t wage culture wars.

Exiles don’t retreat into ghettoized sub-cultures.

Exiles live strangely and expectedly.

If need be, exiles endure persecution and revilement.

Above all, Christian exiles live in love, declaring the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness.

This is as true today as it has ever been: in the end, it must be love.

For love comes first.

Posted in 1 Corinthians 13, 2 Corinthians 5, Books, Church, Devotional, Faith, God, Gospel, Jesus, Kingdom Values, Love First, Scripture, Social Issues, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NFL Playoff Picks: Divisional Round

No posts this week because I was in Honduras visiting some missionary friends. I hope to write more about that soon.

But on the eve of the next round of NFL playoffs, it’s time for our family picks. (As I explained here, this is something of a family tradition.) Based on last week’s selections, here’s the leaderboard:

Jason / Jackson: 4-0

Joshua: 3-1

Sunny: 3-1

Abby Kate: 3-1

My strategy of selecting the team with the better quarterback worked like a charm last week, although I needed help from Blair Walsh, Adam Jones, and Vontaze Burfict to preserve the perfect record.

Aside: Blair Walsh. That poor guy. But at least this story maintains my hope in humanity.

I’m proud of the perfect record, but it was a good week for the entire crew. Only one game separates our whole clan. That makes this week’s picks awfully important.

Kansas City at New England

Abby Kate: New England

Sunny: New England

Joshua: New England

Jason / Jackson: New England

A little bit of gamesmanship here. I really think Kansas City could pull the upset here, but given that I’m in first place a) I get to make my picks after everyone else has made theirs and b) I really don’t have much incentive to go opposite field here. As Herm Edwards would say, “You play to win the game.”

Green Bay at Arizona

Abby Kate: Green Bay

Sunny: Green Bay

Joshua: Arizona

Jason / Jackson: Arizona

I’m thinking Arizona is in good shape for a title run. I know Green Bay really turned it on against Washington last week, so that gives me pause. But I’m choosing the team with the better overall offense (as opposed to the best quarterback). Throw in Arizona’s top five defense and I think they could win it all.

Seattle at Carolina

Abby Kate: Seattle

Sunny: Carolina

Joshua: Carolina

Jason / Jackson: Seattle

Seattle got lucky last week, but don’t expect them to produce back-to-back clunkers on offense. This is a team that scored 36 points on Arizona a couple weeks back. Carolina has had a great season, but the NFC title will go through the West this year.

Pittsburgh at Denver

Abby Kate: Denver

Sunny: Denver

Joshua: Denver

Jason / Jackson: Denver

Without Antonio Brown and with Big Ben banged up, this pick is made much easier. Come on, Peyton. I hope this isn’t the last game of a great career.

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NFL Playoff Picks: Wild Card Round

Each year, our family has a little fun by making picks throughout the NFL playoffs. It’s fun because Abby Kate and Sunny don’t really follow the league through the regular season, yet they are usually better at picking winners than the talking heads on TV.

So here are our picks for this weekend’s Wild Card games.

Kansas City at Houston

  • Sunny: Kansas City
  • Abby Kate: Kansas City
  • Joshua: Houston
  • Jason / Jackson (Jack likes to be on my team): Kansas City

At first, Sunny was leaning Chiefs. Then I told her about Houston’s defense and she was leaning Texans. Then I told her the Chiefs hadn’t lost since baseball season and she made her KC pick official. (Fun fact: the Royals have lost three times since the last Chiefs loss and their season ended two and half months ago.) Joshua likes Houston’s chances at home, so he went against the grain. My thought process if simple: I usually choose the team with the better quarterback.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

  • Sunny: Pittsburgh
  • Abby Kate: Pittsburgh
  • Joshua: Pittsburgh
  • Jason / Jackson: Pittsburgh

A clean sweep here for Pittsburgh. With no Andy Dalton, none of us are going to put much confidence in A.J. McCarron. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one go down to the wire.

Seattle at Minnesota

  • Sunny: Seattle
  • Abby Kate: Seattle
  • Joshua: Seattle
  • Jason / Jackson: Seattle

Another sweep, this time by the red hot Seahawks. Interesting development as we had this discussion: I learned that Sunny “can’t stand” the Minnesota Vikings. No discernible reason that she can remember, just doesn’t care for them. I’ve been around her for 20 years and never knew this!

Green Bay at Washington

  • Sunny: Washington
  • Abby Kate: Washington
  • Joshua: Green Bay
  • Jason / Jackson: Green Bay

The ladies like Washington in this matchup while the boys prefer Green Bay. Buoyed by her mother’s comments re: Minnesota, Abby Kate chimed in and said, “I hate Green Bay!” With her, it’s all about their color scheme. My take: this is the easiest game to pick all weekend. I expect Green Bay to take care of business in this one.

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