Following Jesus: The stewardship of influence

[Part 1 of a blog adaptation of Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Come Follow Me”]

Jesus says, “Come, follow me …” and we have a choice to say yes or to say no, to follow Jesus or to walk away, to step into a new life or to stay where we are. There really isn’t a place of equilibrium, where we can hold Jesus at arm’s length while also trying to keep a tight grip on the reins of our lives, where we can say maybe and try to navigate the path of most convenience, the road more traveled, the more comfortable journey. John Ortberg writes:

There is danger in getting out of the boat. But there is danger in staying in it as well. If you live in the boat—whatever your boat happens to be—you will eventually die of boredom and stagnation. (If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat)

I always need to be reminded of this truth: life with God is what we were made for. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life to the full.”

We’ve just started a series at The District Church called “The Stewardship of Influence.” If you’ve been around church circles for any amount of time, you’ll often hear the word ‘stewardship’ used in the context of money—how we look after the financial resources that God has given us—or perhaps more recently, in the area of environmental stewardship—how we look after the world that God has created. But stewardship isn’t limited to those things. In Luke 12:48 (one of my favorite verses), Jesus says,

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

It’s about stewardship, being responsible for what we’ve been given, being answerable to God for what resources we have, not just of money but of time and relationships and, zooming out, your life.

despicable-me-2-minionsAnd what we’re focusing on is the stewardship of influenceEveryone has influence. You may be thinking, “I’m just an intern; I don’t have much influence,” or “I’m just a student; I don’t have much influence,” or “I’m just a minion,” like in Despicable Me, “I don’t have much influence.” But everyone has influence—you may have a large circle of influence or you may have a smaller circle of influence, but everyone has it. You have influence:

  • through your friendships: what you do or say or how you’re just present in a particular situation to a friend who’s going through a rough or difficult time is influence.
  • in your families: how you react to the dysfunction in your family or how you contribute to cultivating a culture of peace in your family is influence—it’ll impact other people, whether you see it immediately or not
  • at work, wherever on the ladder you are, or at school: how you work at something, regardless of whether or not that particular spreadsheet or paper or project or admin is life-giving, is influence.

So, to define these terms:

What you have = influence.

What you do with what you have = the stewardship of influence.

And here’s the key: it’s about what you do with what you have, not what you don’t have. In those last days, Jesus isn’t going to ask you what you did what what you didn’t have; he’s going to ask you what you did with what you had.

Here in DC, it’s real easy to point out examples of people who have influence—we usually understand that as political power. It’s also real easy to point out examples of people who have not stewarded that influence well, who have abused and misused that influence: council members who’ve used public funds for their own pleasure, elected officials who have betrayed the public trust for their own gain.

But even outside the realm of politics, it’s not hard to see where influence has been misused:

  • just this week the story surfaced about the coach at Rutgers who would throw basketballs at athletes’ heads and yell slurs at them;
  • we’re still recovering from a financial crisis where some folks who were entrusted with the influence to take care of other people’s money instead took some calculated gambles that blew up;
  • there are countless celebrities who have no idea what to do with fame and use their platform and influence not to help other people but simply for self-aggrandizement and preening in the glow of others’ attention;
  • the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church, where men entrusted with the pastoral and spiritual care of souls misused that influence and abused vulnerable children.

I point these out not as an exercise of looking out there and saying, “Oh, that’s a bad example.” As Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It’s just as important–perhaps more important–to be looking at yourself and saying, “Oh, I’m tempted too:

  • I’m tempted to use my influence in my family to side with one parent against the other.
  • I’m tempted to use my influence in my workplace to whine to others and with others about our boss.
  • I’m tempted to use my influence to work my connections so that I can get ahead at the expense of others.
  • I’m tempted to use my influence over my girlfriend to get her to please me sexually.
  • I’m tempted to not use my influence over my kids to raise them in a way that talks about tough issues of life and faith and sexuality, because, man, those conversations would be awkward and tough.”

The thing is, I think, these aren’t always conscious decisions as much as they are unconscious decisions. And by that I mean that we just don’t tend to think about these things or to talk about these things.

  • When we don’t think about these things and talk about these things, then we fall back on what we’ve been conditioned to do;
  • What we’ve been conditioned to do comes from what we’ve spent the most time being around;
  • What we’ve spent the most time being around is usually TV shows where sex just happens or movies where violence is the way to solve problems or magazines or blogs or websites that tell us that we need things, that we need to live like these people and we need to dress like those people.

How much time do we spend being immersed in the word of God and the community of God and the Spirit of God, who instead challenge us to seek right relationships with everyone, to live holy lives, to defend the poor and the widow and the orphan, to be humble and loving above all, to seek the peace of the city for in that you will find your peace, to care for the least of these, to die to yourself so that you might truly live?

Jesus says that to truly live–to experience life to the full, to do life with God–we will die to ourselves–we will put others before ourselves, we will not seek our own good but we will seek God and his kingdom.

So, as people who follow Jesus, as people who call him our Lord and our King and our Teacher, we want to be good stewards of the influence we have, to use it for his purposes rather than our own: in our relationships, in our workplaces, in our homes, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our political system, and, yes, in our social networking—because we live in a world where I can put something on Twitter or on Facebook or on a blog and people half the world away whom I’ve never met may read it and be impacted by it.

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Lent

In case you weren’t aware (or aren’t liturgically-inclined), the season of Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday (which means today is Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday). While Lent has become, in pop culture, a time for simply giving up unhealthy habits, the tradition is to take this time to humbly and thoughtfully prepare our hearts and lives to commemorate Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and culminates with Easter Sunday; it’s supposed to be a focused time of self-denial, just like Christmas is a focused time of celebrating the birth of Christ–not that we don’t do these things every day, but that we take seasons during the year to elevate and examine particular aspects of our faith.

I didn’t grow up in a church that was particularly liturgical, and so didn’t really mark Lent at all (beyond gorging myself on pre-Lenten pancakes) until I moved to the UK. And in recent years, I’ve begun not only giving something up, but taking something on. Not simply for the purpose of ditching unhealthy habits and collecting healthy ones, but because these are beneficial for me–mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The journey that we are all on as Christians is to be more like Christ, more of who God made us to be, both in our own lives (bodies, relationships, habits, practices) and in the ways that we relate to God and others. (I talked about some of this in a Lenten post from two years ago, too.)

So my plan this Lent is twofold:

  1. To give up my time first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve already begun implementing the practice of spending time with God before I start my day (even before checking email!) and before I go to bed, but I want to double down on this.
  2. To pick up working out every day. Since last summer, when I got injured playing soccer, I’ve been recuperating. And then recuperating turned into relaxing. And relaxing turned into indolence. And that’s just not a good feeling for someone who’s naturally inclined toward activity! So this in itself serves the dual purpose of being a physical manifestation of what I’m hoping is going on spiritually (training!) and getting me ready for the next season of soccer as well!

And as we think about what it means to deny ourselves, I hope this word from John Stott is as challenging and encouraging to you as it was for me this morning:

We need to rescue this vocabulary [of self-denial] from being debased. We should not suppose that self-denial is giving up luxuries during Lent or that “my cross” is some personal and painful trial. We are always in danger of trivializing Christian discipleship, as if it were no more than adding a thin veneer of piety to an otherwise secular life. Then prick the veneer, and there is the same old pagan underneath. No, becoming and being a Christian involves a change so radical that no imagery can do it justice except death and resurrection—dying to the old life of self-centeredness and rising to a new life of holiness and love.

(Through the Bible Through the Year, 210)

P.S. If you’re in the DC area, please join The District Church, Church of the Advent, and National Baptist Memorial Church as we hold a joint Ash Wednesday service tomorrow evening at 7pm at NBMC (on the corner of 15th St and Columbia).

What are you hoping for this year?

There’s a general sense among all the people I’ve talked to recently that 2012 is going to be a good year. There’s a tangible feeling of optimism and anticipation for this year.

And that applies to myself as well: as I alluded to yesterday, I’m stoked to be able to focus on the one thing that God has called me to–serving as Associate Pastor at The District Church. (And there’s definitely something satisfactory about approaching 30.) I’m looking forward to a couple trips to California, including one in June to celebrate the wedding of my dear friend Kristin to her awesome fiancé, Joey. I’m looking forward to seeing what God is going to do in and through this toddler-aged church these next twelve months–I have no doubt we’ll trip and fall on occasion, but I’m excited to see how we learn and grow and start walking. I’m looking forward to growing more as a pastor, a preacher, a worship leader, a small group leader, a communications director, a graphic designer, and of course, a son, a brother, a friend, and most of all, a follower of Christ.

Growing up, the most common refrain my parents would hear from my teachers at their parent-teacher conferences was, “Justin has a lot of potential; he just needs to apply himself. He just needs to focus.” And I was reminded of this because I realized that was true for most of 2011. I was severely lacking in focus, and leading a very reactionary life, running from one thing to the next without any understanding of the larger narrative I was inhabiting, and it led me to do everything I wanted to do (and, indeed, felt called to do) poorly.

So choose to be intentional in 2012. There are things over which we have no control. That’s what life is like; that’s reality. But there are things over which we do have control—our lives, our attitudes, our decisions—and as Paul writes to Timothy: “God did not give you a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). Having within us the power of the Holy Spirit of the God for whom nothing is impossible, we are more than capable. So commit to living intentionally, to living healthily. Take the time to look at your life, to look at your schedule, to look at how you’re living, working, doing, being.

And hope for this year. Plan for this year.* Prepare for this year. Ask God to give you a vision for this year. Write it down–from the large scale, generic ideas that you want to see come to pass this year, all the way to the specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely goals that you set deadlines for.

And come back to the vision. Again, and again. In the inevitable peaks and troughs to come, come back to the vision. Remind yourself where you began, reflect on where you’ve traveled, look up to where you’re going.

Live intentionally.

* Some people don’t like making plans. They say that they’re never going to come to pass anyway, so what’s the point? They quote Proverbs 19:21 (“The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”) as their supporting verse. But that doesn’t tell us not to make plans! My philosophy? Make plans, hold them lightly, trust that God is ultimately the Lord of the Universe and of our lives, and that he has things in hand.

To whom can we go?

Because of [Jesus’ words] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:66-69.

Social justice & human rights (4)

The following is the fourth and final part of a paper I wrote last summer (2008) for Advocating for Social Justice, adapted for this blog. The paper looks at the biblical mandate for justice and at the particular way this may be worked out with regard to human rights.

Words of Caution

Advocacy for human rights is one way of doing justice in the world, of defending the image of God that abides in every human being. But just like every part of the work that God calls us to on earth, it will not be accomplished without opposition. “In truth,” writes Gary Haugen, “we live in an exceedingly dangerous world in rebellion against its Maker, a world filled with prideful, frightened, willful, violent people who have incrementally chosen to cut themselves off from the Creator’s goodness, love, mercy and justice” (112). There is much injustice in the world, there is much that needs to be done to participate in God’s redeeming story, and there will be many dangers and obstacles that will seek to dissuade us from pursuing God’s agenda. One such danger is to be overwhelmed by the immensity of the task: Gary Haugen names this as the church’s malady over the last century, observing that “somewhere during the twentieth century some of us have simply stopped believing that God actually can use us to answer the prayers of children, women and families who suffer under the hand of abusive power or authority in their communities. We sit in the same paralysis of despair as those who don’t even claim to know a Savior—and in some cases, we manifest even less hope” (14).

Another danger in engaging these issues is to take the messianic mantle which belongs to no person other than Jesus Christ. We are graced with the honor and entrusted with the responsibility of participating in God’s mission, recognizing that though we bear the image of God, we are also afflicted by fallibility: “the tension between what Christians are called to do and what they actually do remains a problem. Therefore, Christians should never claim that their achievements or their aims in politics or in any other arena of life represent God’s will. They should only claim that they are trying to respond obediently to God’s call to love their neighbors and to do justice” (Skillen: 3). All we can do is be faithful.

The third and final danger I will mention is to think that the structures and systems that dominate the world stage need not be addressed. While Christians have traditionally been good at rescuing individuals or helping communities, we have often failed to consider and address the various social, cultural, economic and political frameworks which influence us. Missiologist and theologian David Bosch wrote:

It was a stupendous victory of the evil one to have made us believe that structures and conditions in this world will not or need not really change, to have considered political and societal powers and other vested interests inviolable, to have acquiesced in conditions of injustice and oppression, to have tempered our expectation to the point of compromise, to have given up the hope for a wholesale transformation of the status quo, to have been blind to our own responsibility for and involvement in a world en route to its fulfillment. (quoted in Haugen: 63)

It is a daunting task to change the political, economic and social systems which ensnare people in cycles of poverty, which entrap people in forced prostitution, which allow the abuse of children, which turn a blind eye or give an approving wink to anything that devalues the image of God in any person. But we are called to nothing less.

Words of Encouragement

But we should not let the dangers—though there be many—discourage us. One of the core messages of Gary Haugen’s book Good News About Injustice is that “we can change things. Our despair, cynicism and laziness may insist to us that nothing ever really changes and that we can never really make a difference. But on high we see a great cloud of witnesses stand to their feet with a different testimony” (60). We have the witness of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., of Rosa Parks, of William Wilberforce, of Oscar Romero, of Mother Teresa, to name but a few reminders to us that where God is the propelling and compelling force, change will happen. Moreover, we can take heart in the fact that “God does not call us to a ministry that he will not empower” (Haugen: 104).

Conclusion

Love God; love your neighbor; love your enemy; do justice; love mercy. I have sought to show that advocacy of human rights is a natural extension and implication of these biblical commandments, whether we choose to argue from the creation story—highlighting humanity’s creation in the image of God—or from Jesus’ instruction to love as he loved—a love which defended this very image. I have not promoted an individualistic understanding of human rights, but a perspective of human rights that focuses on “the least of these” (Matt. 25)—a perspective that mirrors Jesus’ own. “Those who read in the biblical text a sheerly personal, individualistic morality have not understood the Torah, have not sung the Psalms, have not been burned by the prophets, have not perceived the implications and the very burden of Jesus’ message, and must inevitably fast and loose with St. Paul” (Burghardt: 12). If we are to read and live Scripture faithfully, we must also work out the gospel’s implications for our lives (and for the lives of others). As I mentioned previously, truly living faithfully to the gospel will have implications for every part of life, and I have understandably not been able to explore all of these. For example, the narrow definition of human rights as found in the UDHR is not focused on non-human creation but environmental and creational issues have an enormous impact on human rights—for instance, it is the poorest who suffer most as a result of the global warming to which the richest contribute most. But I hope in brushing the surface I have begun a conversation about justice and about a broader understanding of human rights that may stimulate more conversations. And more action.

***

References Cited & Further Reading

Bales, Kevin. 2004 (revised ed.). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Brueggemann, Walter. 1982. Genesis. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Burghardt, Walter J. 2004. Justice: A Global Adventure. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Claiborne, Shane. 2006. The Irresistible Revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Gempf, Conrad. 2003. Jesus Asked: What He Wanted to Know. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Goldingay, John. 2003. Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1: Israel’s Gospel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Haugen, Gary M. 1999. Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Hertzke, Allen D. 2004. Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Hollenbach, David, S.J. 2003. The Global Face of Public Faith: Politics, Human Rights, and Christian Ethics. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Lewis, C.S. 1978. Mere Christianity. Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins Sons and Co Ltd.

Mahoney, Jack. 2007. The Challenge of Human Rights: Origin, Development, and Significance. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Romero, Oscar. 1988. The Violence of Love. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Skillen, James W. 2004. In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Stassen, Glen H. 1992. Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

———. 2008. “Human Rights.” Not yet published; obtained and used by permission of the author.

Stassen, Glen H., & David P. Gushee. 2003. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Storkey, Alan. 2005. Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Traer, Robert. 1991. Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

van der Ven, Johannes A., Jaco S. Dreyer, Hendrik J.C. Pieterse. 2004. Is there a God of Human Rights? The Complex Relationship between Human Rights and Religion: A South African Case. Leiden; Boston: Brill.