Following Jesus: Marks of a disciple

[Part 2 of a blog adaptation of Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Come Follow Me”]

The second part of our recently-started series title is, “Marks of a Disciple.”

The Greek word for disciple in the New Testament is mathetes, which means learner. In Jesus’ day, Jewish disciples would follow their master around, learning how to be like him—how to talk, how to act, how to pray—and eventually, the idea was, disciples would become masters with their own disciples. But Jesus changed that up a little bit; he said, “You are not to be called master, or rabbi, for you have one teacher—me—and you are all students.”

Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message paraphrase, said this:

Disciple (mathetes) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith. (A Long Obedience, 13)

Bob Goff, who wrote a tremendous book last year called Love Does, put it this way:

“I used to think I could learn about Jesus by studying him, but now I know Jesus doesn’t want stalkers” (197).

I love that—it’s not just about learning what he said or what he did; it’s not some dry study of principles of leadership from two thousand years ago, because I mean, from one perspective, the guy only lasted three years, he irritated all the wrong people, and he ended up dead.

Fortunately, he didn’t stay dead, though; and now we don’t just get to learn about him, we get to do life with him. And that’s what discipleship is about: relationship, not perfection.

In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus addresses his disciples—his learners, his followers—and he says to them:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

We all know that salt adds flavor, right? So one way of looking at this is that we’re called to add flavor or zest to the world. Or you know that salt was used as a preservative in the days before refrigeration, so another way of reading this passage is that we’re supposed to prevent the rot of sin. But in the Old Testament—in Exodus and Numbers—we’re told that salt was also used in temple sacrifices as a symbol of the permanence of God’s covenant with his people.

So another reading of this passage is this: “You are a reminder to the world of who God is, you are a reminder of the relationship God desires with humanity.” And so, if you lose your saltiness, if you stop being that image of God here on earth, you’ve lost your purpose, you are not as you were made to be.

Is it any wonder we have a world full of unfulfilled people when so many are looking for meaning and purpose in the next thing–the next job, the next pay raise, the next relationship, the next marriage, the next campaign, the next president, the next child, the next home or car or gadget–rather than in the One they were made for?

When Matthew writes, “You are the light of the world,” he’s harking back to what God said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah:

I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. … I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

You have a purpose and that is to be representatives of God here on earth. You have a calling and that is to be images of God here on earth. You were made for something and that is to live with God here on earth, to be the body of Christ in the world.

Dallas Willard wrote about this passage in Matthew:

Jesus, surely with some humor, remarked that a city set on a hill cannot be hid (Matt. 5:14). I would not like to have the task of hiding Jerusalem, or Paris, or even Baltimore. The Gospel stories tell us how hard Jesus and his friends tried to avoid crowds and how badly they failed. Quite candidly, if it is possible for our faith and works to be hidden, perhaps that only shows they are of a kind that should be hidden. We might, in that case, think about directing our efforts toward the cultivation of a faith that is impossible to hide (Mark 7:24). (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 173)

A faith that is impossible to hide. We want to live our lives in such a way and steward our influence in such a way that our allegiance is impossible to hide.

  • “How can you be so patient when everyone else is so frustrated?” Well, I believe in a God who is sovereign over all and so I trust him and hold my own agenda loosely.
  • “How can you give up your high-paying job to help the underserved?” Well, I believe in a God who provides for everything I need and I trust that as I follow where he calls.
  • “How can you forgive that person when he treated you so badly?” Well, I believe in a God who forgave me of infinitely more and asks me to do the same for others.
  • “How can you love this person who hates you?” Well, I believe in a God who loved me even before I knew him, and who loved those who hated him, and who asks me to do the same.
  • “How can you hold onto that antiquated view of sex before marriage?” Well, I believe that sex is good, that it is such a unique expression of closeness and intimacy that that’s why God designed it for the safety of a committed, covenant relationship, because it is so precious.
  • “How can you give up a portion of your income to the church, some random group of people, many of whom you don’t even know?” Well, I believe in a God who asks for everything, actually, but it’s a reminder that all I have has been entrusted to me and I want to throw in my lot with this group of people; I want to say, I’m with these folks as we follow Jesus together, as we learn together, as we are disciples together.

“So let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine …

The mission of The District Church is, “To make disciples of Jesus in the District who are committed to living out their God-given mission in life.” That’s what we’re about here: making disciples, helping people follow Jesus, becoming ourselves more like Jesus.

And we try to do that through small groups, through service and outreach in the community, and through doing life together: babysitting for one another, helping each other move, supporting each other through triumph and tragedy, laughter and tears, joy and sorrow. We want everyone to be in a setting of discipleship, learning to do life with God; and we ask our leaders more specifically to be in discipling relationships, where they are learning from certain people as well as helping other people learn.

We’re here to help, to walk with you as you walk with Christ, to encourage you and challenge you and provide the space for you to work out what life with God looks like, because we’re meant to do this together, we’re meant to be disciples together, we’re meant to learn together.

So take stock of your life:

  1. What influence do you have? As you’ve been reading, maybe God has been putting a particular relationship on your heart or bringing a particular situation to your mind, maybe it’s to do with your money or your family or your significant other or your talents and gifts or your connections or your education.
  2. How have you been stewarding that influence? What have you been doing with what you have? How does that reflect what you’re committed to? How are you being salt and light in that situation—being God’s representative in that place?
  3. How are you being a disciple? How are you seeking to learn from Jesus? How are you following Jesus? How does your relationship with Jesus impact the way you handle what you’ve been given?

Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, whether you’ve heard this a thousands times or never before, the invitation is always there:

I have come that you might have life to the full. … Come, follow me.

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.

The story of your life

Journal[Adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “Story.”]

Today we’re going to talk about “Story”: about the story that we’re telling with our lives, but perhaps more importantly, about the story that God is telling in, through, and with our lives.

Story, #1: God never wastes an experience.

A mentor of mine first said this to me about ten years ago, when I could agree with it in theory but I couldn’t attest to it in experience—and maybe right now you’re where I was, but stick with me.

Let me give an example: I remember feeling for the longest time that the fact that I didn’t have one place where I could call home—I spent 16 years in Hong Kong, 8 years in England, 3 years in California, and 3 years here in DC; my parents are in Hong Kong, my best friends are in London, one brother is in California and the other is in Australia—the fact that I felt a constant sense of not-quite-fitting in, not-quite-feeling-at-peace-with-life was a deficit, something to be overcome.

But over the years, as God has continued to fine-tune my soul to his reality and his presence, he’s been showing me that this longing for home, this present discomfort—even this—is what he’s used to ground myself fully in him—that God is my home, in a way that no place ever could be.

All along, God has been weaving all the disparate and—what I thought were—mismatching threads together into a tapestry that has me here now at The District Church, doing the things I love and feel called to (theology, music, and justice)—after a long time wondering how those things would ever fit together. I’m in a place where—for my job—I get to cultivate a community that might be—even just for a few—a home away from home and a family away from family, because through my experience, I know what it’s like to not know where home really is.

God isn’t done yet, by any means, but the point is that it wasn’t until I realized what God was calling me to, less than three years ago, that I began to know in my experience—and not just in my head—that God doesn’t waste an experience. And that’s true, whether you’re in a place right now where you can see that or not.

Maybe the thing is that you’re in the middle of something right now—a degree, a job, a relationship, a chapter in your life—and you don’t actually know where it’s going, you don’t see it going anywhere, you can’t figure out how it’s connected to anything meaningful. Maybe you know what God’s called you to or what passions he’s placed within you or what kind of life he’s asking you to lead, and what you’re doing right now—well, they don’t seem to be lining up or meshing.

I wonder if the Apostle Paul, when he was a young man, learning his father’s trade as a tentmaker, wondered what on earth he was supposed to do with that craft. He already knew he loved studying the law, he knew he loved rhetoric and philosophy and debating with people; there must’ve been occasions where he thought to himself, Who needs tent-making? And yet that same skill would pay the bills for him to do just what God called him to do—though perhaps he wouldn’t see this for many years; and that’s just one—very small—way in which Paul could attest, as he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (8:28). In other words, in the story that he’s writing, God doesn’t waste an experience.

Story, #2: Conflict is an opportunity, not a setback.

In our day and age, we like things to be a certain way, specifically our way; we like things to be comfortable, and we do whatever it takes to keep from being uncomfortable, from facing any sort of conflict. But, as author Don Miller writes, every good story involves—indeed, needs—conflict:

Conflict fills a story with meaning and beauty. Not only this, but conflict gives value to that which we are trying to attain. And conflict is the only way a character actually changes. There is no character development without conflict.

Think about it: every time you’re faced with a challenge or a hurdle or an unknown, you have a choice, either to go back to the comfort of what you knew and the way things were, or to move forward, through the discomfort, and learn a new skill, a new way of life, a new perspective, and to grow.

In American culture, we’re conditioned to avoid conflict.

  • We build highways that bypass poor neighborhoods so we don’t have to walk through them and be reminded that there are people in need living right among us.
  • We watch news channels we agree with and read books we’re pretty sure we’ll agree with and subscribe to blogs we already know we’ll agree with, so we don’t have to deal with that opposing viewpoint or how it just irritates us.
  • We hang out with friends we mostly agree with and we avoid those difficult conversations, those conflict moments, where we’ll realize how different we are and we’ll have to talk about why we think what we think; or maybe we don’t give our friends permission to truly love and care for us by challenging us, having difficult conversations with us, saying the things we need to hear but we really don’t want to.
  • In our relationships, we avoid commitment and vulnerability and genuine intimacy—not just physical or sexual intimacy because we run to those things, often using them as facades to block out genuine intimacy—so that we won’t have to deal with things like sacrifice and confrontation and tough but honest conversations, those things that are integral to the success of a healthy relationship.

And yet each of these moments could be an opportunity instead:

  • an opportunity to be challenged to mobilize your community to help the poor;
  • an opportunity to see things from a different perspective, to see how God has been working in someone else’s life in a way different from how he’s been working in yours, and to experience a little more of the vastness of God;
  • an opportunity to see growth in your character, to become a better person, more like the person God created you to be;
  • an opportunity to love and be loved, to know and be known, to see and be seen, to experience genuine intimacy.

So don’t let conflict moments drag you down; don’t let difficult encounters drop your head; don’t let yourself get cynical and jaded or whiny or self-pitying; don’t simply shrug your shoulders. God wants so much more for you than that; God is capable of doing so much more in your life than that.

Instead, look through God’s eyes: how can you instead make this—whatever it may be that’s in front of you—an opportunity not just to speak out the story of what God has done in your life but to live a better story, to allow God by his Holy Spirit to tell his story in and through and with you? It’s an adventure we’re on, and we get to be a part of the best story that’s ever been written by the most imaginative and resourceful Artist that’s ever created!

BUT it’s not all sweetness and light; that’s not the world we live in. Jim Collins writes in Good to Great that one of the characteristics of a great leader is that he or she faces the brutal facts of reality, so here’s the honest truth:

Story, #3: We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.

You may have seen the amazing video, “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You,” by now. Kid President is a boy called Robbie Novak, and he actually has a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta—that’s “Brittle Bone syndrome.” In his ten years of life, he’s had over seventy breaks. But Robbie hasn’t let the tough parts of his life get him down, he hasn’t seen his condition as a setback but as an opportunity—the pep talk video is actually dedicated to a two year-old girl who recently had a liver transplant. And he’s not trying to be successful—it’s not about fame or money; he’s just trying to do a little something to spread hope and joy and to encourage people to make the world more awesome and maybe to dance a little more. That’s the story he’s telling with his life. [See below for “The True Story of Kid President.]

It was actually Mother Teresa who said, “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.” There is no guarantee that if you follow Jesus, if you seek the kingdom first, if you allow God to use every experience, and to see conflict as an opportunity rather than a setback, then you’ll immediately be wildly successful and life will be smooth sailing.

Actually, you may face more trials and more opposition, and you may be asked to give up more, to sacrifice more. One of the things Jesus said to his disciples was, “In this world you will have trouble.”

I’m sure you can attest to that; I’m sure you can see in your own experience that life is not easy, that opposition is great, that things are not as you wish they were, even when you’re trying to do what God asked you to do or what God called you to do.

  • God called you to love these kids, but man, couldn’t he have made them easier to deal with?
  • God called you to be in this city, but couldn’t he have made it a little less expensive or a little safer?
  • God called you to be generous with your time and with your money, but couldn’t he have made it cost a little less?
  • God called you to safeguard the sanctity of marriage and to value the gift of sex, but it’s hard to be faithful, even in your thoughts, and it’s hard to wait.
  • God calls all of us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him, but the world in which we are called to do justice is so broken and sometimes seems to be beyond redemption, and the people to whom we are called to be merciful are just so irritating and ungrateful and unworthy and sometimes just plain bad, and it’s so hard to walk with God when there are a hundred other things pressing on our time and, “Well, God, you’ve just been too quiet lately …”

But do you remember what else Jesus said to his disciples, several times just so that they wouldn’t forget it? “I am with you.”

Whenever I’ve had to make big decisions in my life—about a school or a job or a relationship or moving to another country—God has always said the same thing to me: “You choose; and whatever you choose, I am with you.”

Maybe God didn’t tell me what to do at those moments so that I couldn’t blame him if things didn’t go the way I thought they would; maybe God wanted me to grow up and take responsibility, to think through my decisions wisely, to exercise stewardship over the intellect and the relationships and the community and the connections that he had given to me—we’re not just called to be responsible with our money, after all.

That’s what faithfulness is: to do what we can, where we can, when we can, with what little knowledge and resources and time and faith we may have. If you have but a mustard seed of faith, God will use it. If you have only two pennies to give, God will use it. We’re not called to give what we can’t give; but we are called to faithfulness, trusting that God will do the rest.

Remember, as Kid President says, “You were made to be awesome,” because you were made in the image of God and our God is an awesome God. So:

What story are you telling with your life? What story are you allowing God to tell through your life?


Keeping busy

There’s a great piece from the weekend by Tim Kreider, entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” which speaks into the cultural inclination toward busyness–something that’s particularly prevalent in cities, with Washington, DC being no exception. It gives an insightful look into one of the ways by which we try to give ourselves meaning:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

This is framed in non-faith terms but the truth remains (I’m in agreement with Aquinas and Augustine here that all truth is God’s truth, but this opens another discussion for another day), and it raises a whole lot of other questions about worth and value and purpose and meaning. And for Christians especially, it should give us pause; we shouldn’t simply be thinking about the external symptom of busyness–though many of us need to think about this, for starters!–but also about the deeper questions of what we’re about and who we are.

Now, I disagree with Kreider on one point; he says, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” But Scripture tells us that God created us for work as well as rest and relationship–when humanity was made in the image of God, each of us was commissioned to have dominion and to bring order to the world he had created (Genesis 1:28). The outcome of the disobedience in the garden of Eden was that the work would be accompanied by toil and struggle, that the relationship between humanity and creation had been corrupted (Genesis 3:17-19).

Work is a good thing, but we have a way of making good things into idols (sex, power, relationships)–and I’d say that work has become, for many of us, an idol.

One of the things I’ve done recently is reach out to friends who’ve been or served in pastoral ministry for many years to ask what practices or habits they would recommend for a young pastor. Without exception, one of the things that everyone has said is, “Take a sabbath.” I talked about this six months ago–“In the beginning … rest.” Establish a rhythm of work and rest–of working from your rest. Remind yourself that it’s not you who’s in charge but God, and that even if you don’t do anything for a day, the world will still turn and things will still get done. Don’t be defined by your work. Don’t let work become an idol. Live out the gospel story, which says that, because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are no longer defined by what we do, how much we do, or even how we do it, but first and foremost by the God who calls us his own, who invites us into his family, and who asks us to join him in telling the tremendous story of grace with our lives.

So … take a break.