Learning An Estimate of the Cost for Following Jesus

money-coinsJesus makes several tough comments.  Few of them are as hard to swallow as Luke 14:33. 

Until now, I have not considered submitting an inquiry for an estimate of the cost for following Jesus.  I am not sure the crowd that was following Jesus in the book of Luke, chapter 14 were either.  I suppose it is implied they are interested in the cost since they do follow him wherever he goes.  To the other side of the Sea of Galilee, check.  To Gentile territory, check.  To the middle of the desert with no hope for food, double check.

To this unsuspecting crowd that follows him everywhere, Jesus tells them it might be wise to estimate the cost” of becoming his disciple.  A builder estimates the cost (Luke 14:28-31).  A king about to wage war estimates the cost (Luke 14:31-32).  Why shouldn’t one do the same before following Jesus?

Still, the crowd does not explicitly ask Jesus for an estimate.  He makes the decision to give it to them anyway.  Are you ready for it?  He says to them, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33, NRSV).

This quote must be for this particular crowd only, right?  That’s what I am thinking, or at least hoping.  There’s no way it’s possible to give up all my possessions.  I can’t do that.  I have a family to support.  I have worked hard for all these things.  God doesn’t want me to be poor.  My estimate must be much lower.

I don’t know anyone who is willing to self-impose this cost on themselves for following Jesus.  It seems somewhat excessive.  Maybe even too idealistic.  But, why?

God help me lay aside every sin that clings so closely (Hebrews 12:1, NRSV), and forgive me for burdening others with a weight heavier than mine.

Have you estimated the cost of following Jesus?




Learning to Imagine Faith as a Burden

Rodeny ClappWhenever we cannot imagine faith as a burden and instead begin to presume it as “a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status,’ we are sentimentalizing faith.”  –a quote from the book Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction:  Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation by Rodney Clapp

Burden is normally not the word we associate with “faith.”  If it is, we may speak of a burden being lifted.  We may think of the verse in Matthew 11:30, when Jesus says, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  

The first moment you first believe is a credible experience of a burden being taken off your shoulders.  The weight of the guilt and shame of our past is removed by God’s graceful act of forgiveness.  The indebtedness of our sin(s) is wiped clean.  We are liberated from the pressure to make things right with God in our own power.  Jesus bore the weight of reconciliation on himself.

So, it is good to experience faith as lifting a burden.

But, as Clapp eloquently describes, it is also good for Christians to imagine faith as a new burden to bear.  Your faith is not meant to be without toil or trial.  The burden of sin holds you back from doing and becoming good.  The experience of burden in your faith leads to transformation.  Faith’s burden is not oppressive, it is liberative.  Jesus calls to his disciples, saying “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38 NRSV).

Faith is a life-long journey of transformation into a new person.  On the way, the role of sin is diminished as the reign of God’s love takes its place.  At times, it may feel like a burden because we are sinners “in need of ongoing redemption” (Clapp).

One of our greatest struggles as Christians is the temptation to misplace the burden.  Our inclination is to displace the burden of my faith by projecting it onto the back of someone else.  We smokescreen the areas still in need of redemption in our selves by magnifying sin in others.  Our faith becomes everyone else’s burden.

From Clapp’s book, I am learning that the Christian faith doesn’t make me an arbiter.  Faith gives me renewed understanding of my reliance on God.  I am a sinner in need of a savior.  Every day brings new possibilities for growth in my life.  So, instead of looking at others with a sense of superiority.  Faith causes me to join with others in our solidarity against the oppressive nature of evil and sin.

Has your faith become sentimentalized?


Learning Middle School Ministry Can Make Me Cry

prayer stationsI have never cried while serving as a leader for Middle School Ministry, until last night.

What reason would I have to shed a tear?  The 8th Grade boys life-group I lead barely settles down long enough to answer simple, impersonal, not-too-spiritual questions.  They are caught up in the last selfie they took of their abs, or whose school is more dangerous.  If we ever have a serious moment, it usually concerns their struggle to show respect while an adult is speaking.

I was caught off-guard.  By the person who chased me down in the parking lot to let me know one of my 8th grade boys needed me.  And, by own emotions.

As I returned to the room from where the students had just been dismissed, he was curled in a ball on the steps next to Brooklyn, sobbing a puddle of tears.  Brooklyn looks at me and says, “I think he needs you.  He is having a hard time dealing with the loss of his mom.”

I invite him to sit with me in the lobby, away from the eyes of onlookers.  As soon as we sat down he lost again, cries of sorrow flowing from his eyes, mouth, and heart.  Not knowing what to do or say, I start asking questions.  How old were you when your mom passed?  Do you live with your dad?  Do you have siblings?  How does he deal with his sorrow?  What has been the most difficult for you?

At the last question, he burst into loud crying and a constant rocking back and forth.  “I feel like I could have been better for my mom.  She tried to reach out to me, but I just ignored her.  They wouldn’t let me see her in the hospital before she died.  I didn’t get to see her one last time, to say, ‘I’m sorry.’  I miss her.  I wish she was still with me.  I could have done better.”

Tears welled in my eyes, and I found myself saying, “It’s okay.  Your mom forgives you.  She isn’t mad at you.  She loves you.”  The pain of this fifteen year old boy rushed my own heart.  For a moment, the feeling of letting a loved one down flooded my own soul.  With all I had, I wanted him to know he was forgiven.  I felt helpless.

I’m learning behind every Middle School student is a story waiting to be shared.  Not just shared as in being told, but shared in the sense of walking beside them along the way.  Masked by disruptive behavior or an apathetic attitude or clown-play are cries for a sojourner.  In the years between dependency and independence, our middle schoolers are not meant to walk alone.  They need loving, caring, vulnerable male leaders to brave the journey with them.

Will you?


Learning One Pastor’s Response to the Movie “Heaven is for Real” and How I Would Respond Differently

heaven is for realLearning:  Christians don’t need to censor or jettison popular culture’s view of our world.  It is crucial for Christians to engage these views in healthy dialogue because it opens the possibility of growth and transformation for both perspectives.

I admit, I have not read or watched the best-selling book and now movie, Heaven is for Real.  Chances are you or someone you know has, since it has sold millions of copies and become the “best selling evangelical book of the past decade.”  Needless to say, the story has gained our attention.

The story’s impact has certainly caught the attention of one well-known evangelical pastor, David Platt.  Through an email sent to me by Verge Network, I clicked on the link PLATT:  WHY YOU SHOULD NOT BELIEVE “HEAVEN IS FOR REAL.”  As the title suggests, the clip shows Platt taking four minutes and forty-four seconds to passionately discredit any truthfulness of this book and movie.

To be fair to Platt, I want to mention two things.  (1)  The clip does not allow us to hear the whole context of what he is saying.  What he said leading into this clip and how he followed it up are missing from our purview.  (2)  I agree with the majority of his biblical and theological points, which are:

  • “Make no mistake.  There is money to be made in peddling fiction about the afterlife as non-fiction in the world of Christian publishing today.  
  • “Our level of discernment in the Church today on this topic is extremely low.  Because the whole premise behind every single one of these books is contrary to everything God’s Word says about heaven.”
  • All the accounts of heaven in scripture are visions not journeys taken by dead people.  And even visions of heaven in scripture are very, very rare.  You can count them all on one hand.”
  • “Four Biblical authors had visions about heaven, and wrote about what they saw:  Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John.  All of them were prophetic visions, not near death experiences.”
  • “Not one person raised from the dead in the Old Testament or New Testament ever wrote down what he or she experienced in heaven.”
  • “Notably missing from all the Biblical accounts are the frivolous features and juvenile attractions that seem to dominate every account of heaven currently on the best seller list.”

I struggle with his method.  Based on how he said it and the lack of context from the whole message, it appears he is taking the defensive.  I am hearing his approach as one that is on the attack.  It gives off the impression of aggressiveness and one-sidedness.  I did not pick up on any hint of cordiality.  It is a one-way message.

With books and movies like “Heaven is for Real,” I think both perspectives are hurt by a grenade war.  One side launching an argument from a distance and walking away from the damage.  Without healthy dialogue, neither perspective is given permission for growth or transformation.  You have probably experienced this in one of your own relationships.  The other person feels compelled to share his or her opinion of you without interest in your response.  It hurts, both of you.

Christians shouldn’t shy away from engaging an open discussion, they should be the first to initiate it.  Disagreement with culture or popular Christian views isn’t an opportunity to flex our theological muscles, it is a chance to hear what it is really being said.  Rather than obsess over what’s wrong, why not allow what’s different to teach us about others and about ourselves?  We could ask, What does the book or movie say about our culture today?  How does it help us understand its perspective better?  How does it challenge my perspective for greater growth?  How can I speak truth back into culture without ignoring what I’ve learned about it?  What does it mean to engage a cultural view without projecting moral superiority?

I am not suggesting “Heaven is for Real” should be your source of truth on heaven.  It most likely is very far from our future reality.  It is also sad to think it is in many ways a source of revenue.  But, I am not ready to ban it from every Christian’s library.  Like any other book, I believe you can read without guilt.  When you do, be courageous enough to engage the story in dialogue.  Ask it the hard questions.  Let it ask you some as well.

Dialogue with culture doesn’t draw a hard line between us and them.  It is less about proving I am right and you are wrong, and more about learning and growing together.  Taking the risk to engage in a conversation rather than lecture is less likely to create impenetrable walls between people with differing views.  Christians don’t need to construct more walls or create more divisions.

As for my response to “Heaven is for Real,” I’m learning to approach it this way.  Heaven is not a topic worth initiating a theological war over.  Our doctrine of heaven or how we imagine it might be is not essential to our salvation.  It can be, I believe, a catalyst for redemptive conversations.

How do you think Christians should respond to books and movies like “Heaven is for Real?”

Learning a Prayer for Good Friday

Savior of the world, what have you done to deserve this?  And what have we done to deserve you?  Strung up between criminals, cursed and spat upon, you wait for death, and look for us, for us whose sin has crucified you.

To the mystery of undeserved suffering, you bring the deeper mystery of unmerited love.  Forgive us for not knowing what we have done; open our eyes to see what you are doing now, as, through wood and nails, you disempower our depravity and transform us by your grace.  Amen.

A prayer from the Church of Scotland, taken from This Day:  A Wesleyan Way of Prayer by Laurence Hull Stookey


Learning to Understand Success from a Woman’s Work-Life Balance

photoboothLearning: Trying to understand a women’s work-life balance brings men a greater understanding of what constitutes success.

If you have ever struggled over the choice of career opportunity or advancement versus time spent at home caring for your house and family, then you know what I am talking about.  I will guess most women reading this post are nodding their head, yes, in agreement.  I will also guess the thought has never crossed the mind of most men.  Alice Dreger wishes it would in a post, Leaning Out, she wrote for Pacific Standard.  She writes:

I also have a dream that some day men will think, agonize, write, read, and talk about the work-life balance as much as we women do. But I’m not going to struggle to live their vision of “success” while I wait for them to try and understand mine.

Her reason for such a dream?  She was asked if stepping down from a commitment to her career was worth an estimated $750,000 in losses.  To her, it is.  If she dies tomorrow, she wants to be remembered for more than her career accomplishments.  She lists what those things are in Leaning Out. 

As a dad, I share her experience.  I have thought, agonized, written, read, and talked about the work-life balance.  The day we moved to Florida when our youngest daughter turned four months old, we made the decision for me to focus on home and family first.  Taking care of our baby and organizing the house became my primary purpose during the week.

Six years later, I am splitting time between part-time work and two daughters (now 4 & 7 years old) at home.  My day to day can be summarized as a work-life balance.  Having had this experience, I too have come to dream that someday more men would attempt to grapple with balance as much as women do.  Not because I am bitter and think every other man should know what I’ve gone through.  No.  It’s important because through my experience I have come to a greater understanding of what constitutes success.

Contrary to what most of us men were taught, success cannot be reduced to the amount money one makes, the level or position one achieves, or the size of organization one builds.  Success is more than conquering every financial or career goal that stands in your way.  It is greater than the hours you put in at work and the kingdom you build for you family on earth.  It is not proven through your brawn or intellectual prowess.

Success is providing enough margin in your everyday to show your wife you love her, teach lessons and make memories with your children, lend a hand to a neighbor, get know a stranger, and right what is wrong in our world.  This success comes much harder, but the reward is much greater.

I look forward to the day when the measurement of success is greater than the goals we get paid to reach.  A healthy family is success.  Love of neighbor is success. Struggling for justice is success.   A clean environment is success.  A strong faith is success.  Growth in character is success.

Balance is required.  The women in our lives have much to teach us about this work-life balance.

What is your vision of success?  Is it informed by a work-life balance?





Learning Hypocrite is NOT the Correct Term

Words&ActionsLearning:  A popular reason for rejecting Christianity in our culture is the opinion that Christians are hypocrites.  To recover the good of Christianity, you (we) need to define what makes one a hypocrite.

Hypocrite, in most cases, is not the correct term.  I think you will agree.

There is a difference in our understanding of the term today, and its more strict and narrow meaning.  Today, when you call someone a hypocrite, you most likely are referring to someone who says one thing and does another.  A Christian you know might go to church on Sunday, but the Saturday night before live like God doesn’t exist.  Hyprocrisy in the strict sense derives from a term used in Greek Theater.  It is closely tied to the actor or actress.  He convincingly takes upon himself a character.  He plays a role from which he can totally detach himself.  Once the purpose of this character has been fulfilled, the actor nonchalantly discards it.  The actor doesn’t believe in the role, he merely plays it for utility sake.  For entertainment.  A hypocrite is someone who plays a role for the benefit it imbues.  An authentic conviction to play that role in real life does not exist.

This doesn’t describe the majority of Christians I know.  Yes, it may be true that I’ve known Christians who say they believe one thing, yet contradict that belief with their actions.  The same could probably be said of my life.  I am sure my actions have been inconsistent with my beliefs at some point, probably many points.  As true at this may be, it does not qualify one as a hypocrite.  Inconsistencies or contradictions are not concomitant with role playing.  It is possible for one to be living a life of tension, authentically.  You may be convinced God is real and even desire to follow God’s ways, yet struggle to actualize it in your life.  A Biblical writer admits his experience of this internal conflict in Romans 7:15-20:  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (NRSV).

Hypocrite is not the correct term to describe Christians because very few are acting with inauthenticity.  The ordinary Christian is not merely role-playing in order to receive some payoff in life.  You might be able to call attention to certain celebrity Christians to gain some strong support for hypocrisy.  Possibly, you could even call out a few who use their claim to faith in support of a political agenda.  But, they represent less than 1% of Christians.  I believe your everyday-Joe-Christian possesses true Christian conviction, yet is tortured by the tension his personal lifestyle creates for him.

By defining what makes one a hypocrite, you can disclaim a popular opinion that all Christians are hypocrites.  In doing so, you (we) accomplish three things:

  1. You make room for others to live in the same tension.    Christian or not, all of us live with some form of tension in our lives.  It’s quite acceptable in most areas of life, but higher expectations have been placed on the church (mostly by itself).  An idea germinated that to be a Christian means to get everything right all the time.  No room for mistakes or inconsistencies.  Admitting your life is lived in tension as a Christian, you provide a safe place for others to experience the same.
  2. You discover a good in Christians they can build on.  To corroborate the opinion that Christians are hypocrites, you are basically throwing your hands in surrender.  “You’re right.  We’re wrong.  We don’t deserve to be called Christians and there is no good reason you should follow the same God.”   Most Christians are not acting a role, they just aren’t getting everything right.  They may be getting many things wrong.  But, a good exists in their life or beliefs somewhere.  Once the good is discovered, it can be fanned it into flame.  God is active in the tension.
  3. You can call it what it is.  Our modern critique of Christianity has given it it the wrong name.  It is less about hypocrisy, and more about a self-righteous claim to moral superiority.  The problem isn’t with the tension that exists in Christians’ lives.  Tension is understandable, especially when you consider the challenge of following Jesus.  The problem is living with inconsistencies while claiming a privileged moral status:  “I am better than you.”  It is the attitude that “I can do whatever I want, but because I believe in Jesus, I am at least a better person than you.”

According to a popular understanding of hypocrisy, no Christian will be able to get it right.  Moments will come when you say one thing and do another.  That’s not hypocrisy, strictly speaking.  Neither is it the problem found in many critical opinions of Christianity.  To accept the stereotype discredits the possibility of recognizing the good inherent in those who are doing their best to live out the way of Christ.  People reject Christianity when a claim to moral superiority ignores the inconsistencies.

Do you think hypocrite is the correct term for Christians in America?







Learning We Can Think Different And Love the Same

I sat across the table from someone who thinks much different than I do.

His theological perspective is Reformed (Calvinist/Predestination).  Mine is Wesleyan (Armenian/Free Will).  We both agree God’s grace is necessary for salvation.  As humans, there is nothing we can do to earn a right standing with God.  It is wholly dependent on God granting it to us.  Our differences ride in on the tail of this thought.  From my friend’s perspective, God chooses a select number for salvation.  Everyone else is predestined for eternal punishment.  From my perspective, God offers salvation to everyone.  It is up to each person whether or not they accept it.

We are not the first to disagree on this point.  Nor will we be the last.  Debates have been waged.  Treatises have been written.  Heresy has been declared.  Schisms have ensued.  Credibility has been threatened.  Disunity reigns supreme.

As we sat across from each other at the table, we realized it is not the story we want to tell.  Despite thinking different, we believe that we can love the same.

Love is what defines a Christian, not dogma.  God’s greatest concern is not our rationalizing and systematizing of the Bible without flaw.  God’s mission is redemption.  The trajectory of God’s movement throughout history isn’t set on a course that will land on knowledge.  God is moving creation toward a beautiful new reality.

This became apparent as we traded stories of how God has used our lives to influence the lives of others.  With tears in our eyes, we sat in disbelief at how God worked through us to touch the life of a someone else despite our inabilities.  Sitting next to us, at the same table, is one of the most precious stories of all.  His daughter.  A long time alcoholic, estranged from the family for years.  Barely over a month ago, doctors gave her less than three months to live.  Love put his wife and him in car.  It drove them three states away to pick up their daughter and bring her home.  It motivated them to commit every hour of their day for over 30 days to sit by her side.  Not once did they leave her by herself.  It wakes them up in the morning to arrange the medications, as confusing as fifteen pills can be.  Love leads them to fill a syringe with insulin and inject it into their adult child unable to do it on her own.  Love made possible 60 days of sobriety.  Love birthed new life into diagnosis of death.  Love made a woman finally feel the purity of her youth again.  Love.

All the reasons our differences give to divide us are impotent to the love that rises to unite us.  We can think different and love the same.


Learning the Big Idea that Andy Stanley and Nancy Duarte Have In Common

Every sermon needs a big idea.  Without it, what I say has little power to produce change.

Nancy Duarte defines the big idea as that one key message you want to communicate.” Put another way, she describes it as “a clear statement of what’s at stake for those who do or don’t adopt your view. She believes it “it contains the impetus that compels the audience to set a new course with a new compass heading.”  

A big idea for Andy Stanley is “the one thing they (the audience) need to know” (I added the word “audience”).  It is “the burden you have to unload.”    It is not just about about knowledge, or the transfer of information.  It should be something that teaches people how to live a certain way.  The main idea is shaped by a goal of influencing people to do something.  In his case, it is “showing people how to do what the Bible says.”  

Duarte and Stanley agree every speech or sermon must begin with a big idea.  More importantly, they share a common emphasis on speaking for change.  It is not enough to convey information or data.  Every great speech or sermon has a greater purpose, which is influencing others to adopt a new way of being and doing.

Stanley describes it as “motivation.”  It is convincing others why they need to know what you are about to them.  Without it, the information seems irrelevant.  Duarte describes it an “audience journey” of “moving from to moving to.”  It involves moving the audience from “one manner of being/doing to another manner of being/doing.”

As one who preaches on a regular basis, I need to remind myself of the commonality of Duarte and Stanley.  My theological and biblical training has equipped me with an expanse of knowledge.  The temptation is to simply transfer said knowledge.  That’s it.  As long as I explain what the Bible says, that’s enough.

My task as a preacher is much greater than that, though.  Jesus initiated a new way of being in this world.  As a communicator of God’s story, my purpose is to speak in such a way that motivates others to actualize that change in their lives.  God doesn’t need me to sound smart.  God wants to use my words to bring about new ways of being and doing.

What Andy Stanley and Nancy Duarte have in common should be a common part of every speech and sermon.

What is the best “big idea” you have heard in a speech/sermon?  How did it change or move you?

**The quotes and thoughts from Andy Stanley are taken from his presentation, How to Give a Talk.



Learning Improvement is Uncomfortable

Feeling uncomfortable is normally our breaking point.  At the first sign of discomfort, our inclination is to give up.  We throw up our hands in surrender.

Our body tells us, “It hurts.”  Our minds scream, “This is too painful.”  And, we listen.  But, we shouldn’t.

lmprovement is uncomfortable.  It feels weird, unnatural, strange, and yes, even painful.  It is like childbirth: a  new reality is born by pushing through the pain.  Every mother I know describes having a baby as extremely uncomfortable.  They also tell me their child is worth every second.

Most of us are pregnant with possibilities waiting to be born.  The fear of discomfort keeps us waiting.  We misinterpret the pain.  We experience feeling uncomfortable as a sign something is wrong, rather than the path to new life.

You know what I am talking about if you have ever worked out.  As soon as breathing is difficult or muscles are fatigued, my mind tells my body to quit.  Our lungs may have the potential to handle more cardio, just not right now.  The size of my lungs can’t handle the stress, but they could if they were stretched.  The process of stretching is possible, but it’s uncomfortable.  The longer I endure the discomfort of breathing heavy the greater the possibility for making more room the next time.

The same is true with playing an instrument.  At first, it feels uncomfortable.  With practice over time, it begins to feel more normal.  Eventually, it becomes second nature

Working through the uncomfortable to experience improvement is relevant to most areas of your life, including relationships.  A friend emailed me one of the greatest examples this week.  With photos and personal testimonies, The New York Times Magazine follows the story of reconciliation in war-torn Rwanda.  Twenty years after genocide, perpetrators and victims pass through what’s uncomfortable to experience improved relations.  See it here, Portraits of Reconciliation.

I’m learning not to give up too soon.  Feeling uncomfortable isn’t always a bad thing.

How often does feeling uncomfortable convince me to give in too soon?