On Being Missional: Four Helpful Questions

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For years now, I have served on the board of a cutting edge cultural engagement organization called Qideas. Among other things, Qideas sponsors an event in multiple cities called Q Commons, and also a national event called the Q Conference. Below is a reflection I wrote after a Q Conference in Nashville. If you are a Christian seeking to engage your world faithfully, thoughtfully, and winsomely, I trust you will find these insights helpful.

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In 2014, approximately 1,200 Christian leaders descended on Nashville for the Q Conference, an annual event founded by Gabe and Rebekah Lyons (see qideas.org). Attendees drank water from a fire hose as various speakers and panels, several of whom are members of our church community, contributed to the conversation about how Christianity can meaningfully speak life into the culture.

Following the conference, Gabe and Rebekah were so gracious to join us at Christ Presbyterian Church during our Sunday services, where I was able to interview them on subjects ranging from church to culture to anxiety and depression to parenting children with special needs. Gabe and Rebekah’s insights were very meaningful for our community, and can be heard in their entirety here.

During the Q Conference and also in the interview at CPC, Gabe posed four questions (original source, “4 Helpful Questions,” Paterson Center) that churches desiring to be missional–to live out in the world as salt and light and a city on a hill–to participate in God’s mission to renew cities and cultures–to love people, places, and things to life–to invest our energies and resources toward the end of leaving the world better than we found it–should be asking on a regular basis. These four questions represent a framework around which our church and many others approach the outward face of our ministries.

Question 1: What is wrong?

What are the things that we, in the name of Christ, need to confront? Where is the world struggling, and what does it look like for us to follow Christ in his mission to heal and restore? What does it mean to be a people of compassion, working for a better world with the energy and grace God gives to us, by confronting evils that threaten human dignity: poverty and neglect, injustice and abuse, racism and classism, hurting neighborhoods and failing schools, illness and addiction, hypocrisy and loneliness?

Question 2: What is confused?

What will it look like for us to follow Christ in his mission to clarify and compel? What does it look like to be a truth-telling people, inviting our neighbors to consider the truth and beauty of God, to see and experience Jesus as the answer to humanity’s longing for forgiveness, hope, community, and meaning?

Question 3: What is good?

What will it look like for us to follow Christ in his mission to celebrate and cultivate? As an affirming people, what does it look like to resist cynicism, and instead to applaud, participate in, and enjoy the things that are right and good with the world—things that support and advance the common good for all of our neighbors?

Question 4: What is missing?

What will it look like for us to follow Christ in his mission to share and create? As a life-giving people, what does it look like to live well and love well, so that all of our neighbors, whether they share our beliefs or not, are glad that we are here? Whether at church, in our neighborhoods, at work or at play, what will it look like for us to be advocates more than adversaries, contributors more than consumers, givers more than receivers?

My fellow pastors and I found these questions to be incredibly helpful and clarifying. I hope you do too.

Blog post originally published scottsauls.com, May 2, 2014.

 

The Gospel Versus Moralism

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There are two toxic alternatives or counterfeits to the Gospel. The first is moralism or ‘religion.’ The second is personal autonomy or ‘irreligion.’ Here, I would like to focus on the first of these. Moralism is centered on human effort, a striving to be good apart from the resources that Jesus provides in the Gospel. Moralistic people usually appear to have their act together. Others tend to experience them as proper, dutiful, loyal, and faithful to the rules. Moralists tend to do the right things but for all the wrong reasons. Joy and gratitude about Jesus’ love is less of a motivator than a desire to feel superior to others, to ease guilty consciences with good works, or to somehow impress God.

WHAT THE GOSPEL SAYS TO MORALISTS:

According to the Gospel, being good will never be good enough. No matter how well we keep the rules, we are going to fall short of the bar that God has set (James 2:10). We are all much worse off than we think. Moralists have difficulty embracing their own inherent sinfulness. Therefore their deepest need is for something bigger and better than their own goodness and rule-keeping, something that will bring true reconciliation and peace between them and God, and between them and others.

In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus paints a picture of moralism in his portrayal of the ‘elder brother.’ Most of us assume that Jesus’ story is primarily about a lost son who leaves home, sows his wild oats, and eventually comes back and is forgiven by his father. But in reality, Jesus’ focus is on two lost sons, not just one. The second son is actually more lost than the first because he has no idea that he is lost. To the listener, however, the elder son is exposed by a bitterness that bleeds out of him when he discovers that his father’s favor, love, and embrace comes to his children on the basis of mercy, not merit.

Jesus’ parable suggests that people approach God in a similar way as we do an art museum. We tend to look at art for one of two reasons. First, we can do look at art for the purpose of using the art to achieve a different end—a good grade in art appreciation, the attention of a person we are trying to get a date with (who happens to like art), or to look like cultured and sophisticated people. Or, we can view art for the sheer beauty and worth of the art itself…for its own sake and for the pure enjoyment of human creativity. Moralists follow the law without really obeying. Like the insincere person visits the art museum—moralists ‘obey’ not to experience or enjoy God but to use him—to get a kickback from him—to put him (and the world in general) in their debt.

MORALISTS WEARY THEMSELVES WITH ‘GOOD WORKS’

Moralists lack joy in their obedience. Consequently, they are generally either self-righteous or morose. When they feel they have succeeded at keeping the rules (especially rules they have decided are the important ones to keep), it tends to result in self-righteous smugness and superiority. The elder brother, for example, becomes quite critical of his younger, less dutiful brother upon his return home. Simultaneously, he feels ripped off by the father who allegedly has not paid him his due (v. 29).

On the other hand, if moralists fail at the laws they impose on others and themselves, they tend to get very depressed. A biblical picture of this is Judas, who hanged himself after realizing he had betrayed the innocent Jesus. Peter, who also betrayed Jesus but did not depend on his own moral behavior to make him right with God or to keep him in God’s favor, followed a different path into the forgiving grace of God.

ALL OF US ARE MORALISTS

We are all prone toward moralism and rule-keeping. If you are a conservative (especially a religious one), you may feel superior to those who aren’t as religious or conservative as you are. On the other hand, if you are a ‘tolerant’ progressive, you may feel superior to (and intolerant of!) those who appear intolerant and conservative by your standards. In your superiority, whether you are conservative or progressive, you are basing your worth as a person on how right you are compared to those who are not right according to your particular laws. Your laws can include anything, such as how to ‘be a good Christian,’ how to parent well, how to dress properly, and so on. You may also find yourself measuring yourself and others on the basis of intellect, income bracket, race, culture, place of residence, driving skills (ever get road rage?), or even how people eat a bowl of soup or squeeze a tube of toothpaste. Moralism is present when you judge yourself and others against the laws, rules, beliefs, and behavioral norms that you think are important for you and others to keep. The more superior or right or ‘enlightened’ you feel in the keeping of your laws, the more you will feel God (and the world in general) owes you and should be impressed by you.

MORALISTS, THOUGH DUTIFUL, TEND TO BE RESTLESS PEOPLE

We see this in Jesus’ elder brother. First, he feels sorry for himself and withdraws when he doesn’t get his way, when he feels he isn’t getting a fair shake compared to his brother (v. 29). He gets angry and won’t participate in family life (v. 28). Also, he is critical and judgmental toward the world in general, and toward those who aren’t like him in particular. His basis for accepting himself is also his basis for rejecting others who fail at his laws (v. 30). Finally, the elder brother is blind to the grace and love of the father (vv. 30-31). The father is inviting all of the family, including the elder brother, to feast and to dance with him—but instead the elder brother bickers about lesser, token things like never getting his own goat.

MORALISTS TEND TO BE UNHAPPY PEOPLE

If you base your relationship with God on how well and how well you think you are living your life, when even small disappointments come you will cry out with bitterness and resentment that the universe—and behind the universe, God himself—is not giving you a fair shake. Moralism is a breeding ground for unhappy, dissatisfied, demanding hearts. In Scripture it is the religious scribes and Pharisees who are the most insecure, self-righteous, self-centered, and bitter people. Moralists take themselves very seriously. Because moralists are so focused on themselves, they miss out on the fact that God has offered them everything in Jesus. Moralistic ‘lostness’ is aptly described by Henri Nouwen:

(The elder brother), when he was confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him that boils to the surface…The lostness of this resentful ‘saint’ is hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous…There is a very strong and dark voice in me that says, ‘God isn’t really interested in me, he prefers the repentant sinner who comes home after his wild escapades. He takes me for granted. I am not his favorite son.’[1]

THERE IS HOPE FOR MORALISTS

In Jesus’ parable, the father lovingly tells the elder brother that he is missing out on reality, forfeiting a grace and a joy that could be his. “All I have is already yours!” the father says to him. The elder son does not have to strive and work and perform to earn it a place of honor in the father’s home. All of the father’s blessings are already in his possession.

As the father says to the elder son, so the Father in heaven says to the moralist in us, “Receive it! Take it! Drink it in! Come into the feast and dance with me!”

Shall we dance?

This article originally appeared on scottsauls.com, September 8, 2014.

Two Things "Sola Scriptura" Does Not Mean

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I recently had the honor of preaching on a subject that is dear to my heartreading Scripture. My sermon was part of the larger series entitled "A Love Supreme: Anchor Doctrines of the Reformation." My "anchor doctrine" was what many know as Sola Scripturawhich literally means Christians live by Scripture alone.

What does it mean to live “by Scripture alone?” It means we view Scripture—the Old Testament which Jesus says He did not come to abolish but to fulfill and the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as preserved and taught by His apostles through the New Testament—as our authoritative rule for life and faith. In other words, we embrace and yield to the authority of Scripture above all other authoritative voices.

Time did not allow me to cover all that I wanted to. The reality of preaching is that much of what the preacher could say, and may even desperately want to say, ends up on the editing room floor due to time constraints. So I thought I would offer here two points I edited out, but think are valuable to understanding the doctrine of living by Scripture alone. These are two points about what Sola Scriptura does not mean.

First, Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible says everything about everything. Of course it doesn't. It doesn’t include schematics for how to build foundations for sky-scrapers. It doesn’t explain how to filter potable water for an entire city. It doesn't classify all the species of creatures living on the ocean floor. Is this a weakness with the Bible? Not at all. Why? Because Scripture has a focus, an aim. The Bible not general, but specific. It is, specifically, God's revelation of Himself to we who are made in His image, and it tells us how to live in relationship with Him. This is the story of why Christ lived, suffered, died, and rose again. 

So, much in this life is there for us to discover. God puts us into a working worldbroken, but working. And gives us minds to apply to the world we observe. Through this process, we come up with things like light bulbs, penicillin, and airplanes. Scripture does not tell us how to do those things, but it certainly does tell us why we can—we are made in the image of the Creator, making us, by definition, creative beings.

Second, Sola Scriptura does not mean all I need in life is me and my Bible, and I’m free to interpret it however I see fit. Some call this view Solo Scriptura, which says “It’s just me and my Bible.” Scripture itself doesn’t support this view. Every page of your Bible was written for a community of faith and every page of your Bible calls you to belong to a community of faith that is always working together to better live out what is written in those pages.

Christians do not belong solely to themselves. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians about sexual morality, said, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" (2 Corinthians 6:19-20). One way we glorify God with our bodies is by being physically present and connected with other believers, growing in our knowledge and obedience of Scripture together.

Scripture is evidence of God's kindness to us. He has not chosen to be silent. Instead, he has revealed himself through his word, and has called us to follow him alongside others who share the same calling. Thanks be to God for the great gift of his word.

 

What Do We Mean By 'Missional Living'?

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At our church in Nashville, we have ideas – ideas which we believe come from God – about the purpose and trajectory of spiritual formation. The more invested and comprehensive we are in the various facets of ‘following Jesus,’ the more we will flourish in the world as children of God and kingdom contributors.

If you are not part of our church, I hope that this list can be as helpful to you as it has been to us as you consider Jesus’ call for you and for the community you are part of.

Scripture excerpts are in italics.

FOLLOWING JESUS INTO (AND OUT FROM) WORSHIP AND COMMUNITY

Following Jesus starts with worship and then leads to more worship, both personally and corporately. Just as faith without works is dead, good works separated from active trust in the person and work of Jesus, is also dead. Being about the mission of Jesus means first entering his rest…receiving his easy yoke and light burden of grace. To help encourage pursuit of this reality, we will:

  • Remind our people often that the only way to become like Jesus is to prioritize being with Jesus daily. The most mundane, ordinary, and common spiritual practices like Bible reading, prayer, and life in transparent community are at the center of this. Apart from (Jesus) we can do nothing.
  • Emphasize worshiping God with God’s other daughters and sons each Lord’s Day — encouraging our people to order the rest of their lives around worship, versus the other way around. Do not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another.
  • Encourage life together among the people of Jesus — the kind that leads to mutual support, the sharing of goods and space, confession and accountability, and participating in one another’s encouragement and character growth.

FOLLOWING JESUS INTO THE WORLD THROUGH PUBLIC FAITH

Our life in the world is meant to be an expression and extension of our worship. In other words, worship moves out from Sunday into our Monday through Saturday lives as well. As carriers of heaven’s DNA and the aroma of Jesus in his world, we want to carry his grace, truth, and beauty into all of the places where we live, work, and play — primarily through:

  • Parties. We want to live hospitable, life-giving and celebratory lives by opening our church, homes, and lives in such a way that strangers become friends, and friends become family. We have to celebrate.
  • Loving friends and neighbors well. We want to intentional, thoughtful, and creative about being the ‘first responders’ wherever opportunities exist to extend the kindness, love, support, and hope of Jesus to people who are hurting, lonely and alone, and feeling ashamed. Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Public forums and conversations (some church sponsored and others in living rooms and public spaces) about things that matter to us and also to friends and neighbors who do not believe as we do. Subjects of common interest like sexuality, race and class concerns, family-related issues, the arts, politics, loneliness, and anxiety / depression are a few examples of subject matter. Whether you eat, drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God, AND As some of your own poets have said…

FOLLOWING JESUS INTO THE WORLD THROUGH THE INTEGRATION OF FAITH AND WORK

Because so many people spend the majority of their waking hours working — whether as a volunteer or for hire – we want to help our people see that their work, whether for hire or voluntary, is a dignified calling from God. The workplace is a primary realm for following Jesus and loving the world. We express these truths by:

Affirming that all creative work — work that takes raw material and makes something new for the benefit of the world and the human community — is an expression of God’s creativity through people who bear his image. God created…and it was good.

  • Affirming that all redemptive work — work that fights decay and seeks the restoration and healing of people, places, and things — is an expression of God’s redeeming grace, also through people who bear his image. All creation groans…eagerly awaiting freedom. Jesus is making all things new.
  • Launching the Nashville Institute for Faith and Work.

FOLLOWING JESUS INTO THE WORLD THROUGH MERCY AND JUSTICE

Because the poor in spirit are called ‘blessed,’ and because Jesus gave special attention to the poor, the weak, the under-served, the overlooked, and those living on the margins, we too will dedicate time, energy, service, and a significant portion of our church’s financial resources to mercy and justice efforts. We will do this by:

  • Repeatedly emphasizing the importance of the poor, the weak, the overlooked, and the under-served in the economy of God’s kingdom.
  • Creating intentional, supportive space in our community for children and adults with special needs.
  • Forming partnerships and providing financial support to Nashville’s ‘best in class’ mercy and justice organizations.

So there you have it!

What about you? What does following Jesus look like in your life and community?

Article originally appeared on ScottSauls.com, July 7, 2015

Vows Kept

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On April 23, 2011, at 5:00pm, a group of people gathered at a wedding venue called Houston Station in Nashville to witness the joining of a young man and a young woman in the bonds of marriage—John and Amanda. The groom’s two brothers stood in as best-men together, and the bride’s college roommates were there as maid and matron of honor. The bride’s father walked her down the aisle. I officiated.

On that day, the young couple spoke vows to one another in our hearing. They promised to take each other as loving and faithful spouses, for better or for worse, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, to love and to cherish, as long as they both shall live.

Wedding vows confess that we do not know what is coming in this life. They take us out to the edges of possible sorrows, struggles, and losses. When people take these vows, they affirm that marriage is a relationship based on a promise, not on circumstances. The couple tells each other that though both sickness and health will come, as will both joy and sorrow, they will honor and cherish one another until death separates them. With their wedding vows, the couple says, “I do not just give you everything I have. I give you myself—all of me for all of our days together.”

None of us knows how many days we have. It felt to us all that as this young couple danced out of the wedding hall to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” they were dancing their way into a seemingly limitless future of two lives made into one thing. And though we all hoped for them to have many, many years together, the vows they had taken affirmed that their marriage was never founded on the promise of time, but on devotion to one another, come what may.

Last summer the bride discovered she had an advanced form of Leukemia. Ten months later, during Holy Week, she died, leaving behind her husband and their two year old son. Her husband asked if I would say a few words at her funeral, remembering their marriage.

I was struck by a couple of thoughts. First, this was new territory for me as a pastor. I had officiated weddings and performed funerals, but never had I done both for the same person. Second, this couple kept their vows under very difficult circumstances. I deeply admired their courage, and hope my marriage, when it ends, will end with vows kept.

On the Saturday of Holy Week—the only full day in which the dead body of our Lord Jesus Christ lay in a tomb—I stood in an old chapel with the groom and his family in front of me and his wife’s casket behind me. I spoke these words:

John, I hate cancer. I hate what it does to those who have it, and to those who love them. But I am honored to stand here with you and your family and friends to tell you how proud I am of both you and Amanda for the ways you have honored your vows to one another. Your love for her has been a picture of Christ’s love for his people. And her love for you has been the same.
I am proud of Amanda for the way she let us in to her suffering. This was one of her gifts to us. Her strength, humor, courage, love for you and Rowan, and her love of life itself has been evident in the words and pictures she gave us along the way.
I am also proud of her for the way she bound her suffering to her faith in Christ. She did not give up—and we know this is not because of a strength that was hers alone. This was evidence of the Holy Spirit living in her and through her because of her faith in Christ. That same Lord lives even still, and will forever. And because Amanda’s faith was in him, though her body has died, Amanda has not perished. She lives in the presence of the Maker and Lover of her soul. And she will forever.
John, you remain here. For now.
I was the man the Lord appointed to pronounce you and Amanda husband and wife at your wedding. Today at her funeral, here is what I want to say to you. John, you have been a loving and faithful husband, for better or for worse, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow. You loved and cherished Amanda as long as you both lived. I know that love will continue.
I am proud of the way you and Amanda have honored your vows out here at the edges of the hardest parts of promises you made. There are few things more beautiful and sobering than honored wedding vows at a funeral. You, friend, kept your vows. And so did she.
John, thank you. Well done. I’m so sorry. I love you. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

(A version of this article originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition.)

© 2017 Christ Presbyterian Church. All Rights Reserved.

Russ Ramsey is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is a graduate of Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary. Follow Russ on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Gift of Limitations

“At the crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.” – Iris Murdoch

We live in a world of limits. We all run up against them. We all have them. If you’re like me, you wish this weren’t the case. But limits are a fact of life, part of God’s design. Even our first parent, Adam, looked around and said, “I need help. I need another.”

Eve didn’t solve the problem of Adam’s limitations. God didn’t put the man to sleep and then put into him what he lacked. Instead, God took something out of the man and made a partner to come alongside him—helpful but distinct. The gift of Eve confirmed that this was how things were going to be moving forward—how they were meant to be. We wouldn’t merely help ourselves. We’d be given help—and we would be given to help.

Sometimes the help we’re given requires us to adapt to a new course, especially when a person has a personality that changes the rhythm of how we might work on our own. Perhaps they’re faster than us, or more contemplative. Perhaps they think in concrete terms while we favor the abstract. They bring nuance into our otherwise rigid plans, structure to our hazy vision, or economics to our dream. Sometimes, we inherit the work of others, and it falls to us to carry it across the finish line. Sometimes others inherit our work.

Whatever the situation, our limits and need for others often end up producing results—beautiful, helpful, and unexpected results that none of us would’ve expected on our own. The story behind how Michelangelo’s David came to be helps us see this point.

Michelangelo Wasn’t First

Michelangelo’s David is confounding. He’s simultaneously vulnerable in his nakedness and imposing in his size, standing more than 13 feet tall. One hand grips a sling, ready for action; the other is relaxed, cradling a stone. The warrior is alert but calm, equipped but patient, daring but confident. His posture conveys motion, as though he’s just shifted his weight or taken a step. The sling and stone signal to us that David is looking at Goliath, who is about to die. The look in David’s eye tells us he has no doubt.

The shepherd’s hands, his torso, his battle-ready stare, his posture all seem to animate Michelangelo’s block of marble. David is a living stone. He’s a masterpiece.

Yet Michelangelo wasn’t the first sculptor to take hammer and chisel to this marble. Nor was he the second. In 1464, the city of Florence commissioned Agostino de Duccio to sculpt a statue of David as part of a series of 12 Old Testament figures begun in 1410 by Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi—better known as Donatello. After the city brought in a block of marble masoned from the Alps in northern Tuscany, Duccio began his work. But he only got as far as roughing out the legs before he died in 1466.

Ten years later, another sculptor named Antonio Rossellino was brought in to pick up where Duccio left off, but for reasons unknown he was soon removed from the project, and the work-in-progress sat unfinished for the next 25 years.

Finally, in 1501, a 26-year-old Michelangelo convinced city officials that he should be hired to finish the sculpture Duccio started 11 years before Michelangelo was born. He had to accommodate the work of others whose creative choices determined, at least to a degree, how David stood, which affected everything about the end result.

How different would Michelangelo’s David have been if he began with a virgin stone? What artistic choices would he have made differently? Would that sculpture be as beloved as the one we’ve been given? We’ll never know, because Michelangelo was given a block of stone others had a hand in shaping.

No Untouched Foundations

Isn’t this a metaphor for life? None of us builds on an untouched foundation. Many people and their many decisions—for better or worse—have played a role in determining where our feet are planted. Consequently, we ourselves are in the process of shaping future foundations on which others will one day stand. Lord, have mercy.

We work with what we’re given. We live in a world of limits. Michelangelo chipped away at the stone set before him, improving on the vision of other sculptors. But even before that, he had to accommodate the dimensions handed down by the stonemasons who first hewed the marble from the Tuscan Alps. Further still, he had to accommodate the written word of Scripture.

These limits played a role in the creative decisions Michelangelo had to make in order to sculpt the shepherd he’d read about and imagined. Some of those choices had already been made for him—and had they not been, we wouldn’t have Michelangelo’s David. We’d have something else.

I can’t think of a single thing in my life that doesn’t bear the touch of others. I bet you can’t either. Of course we wish some of those chisel marks never happened—the ones that draw from us pleas for mercy and for the renewal of all things. But if we’re honest, many of the marks have been necessary to give us eyes to behold God’s glory, glory we wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Recognizing both our limits and also our need for others is one of the ways we experience beauty we wouldn’t have seen, good work we wouldn’t have chosen, and relationships we wouldn’t have treasured. It’s one of the ways we’re shaped to fit together as living stones into the body of Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5Eph. 2:22). As much as our strengths are a gift to the church, so are our limitations.

 

(This article originally appears on The Gospel Coalition.)