One Opinion

The older I get the more I realize how opinionated I am becoming. I even form strong opinions about things that don’t matter much. One of these is about award shows. (Seriously, does anyone else think this is simply marketing disguised as entertainment)? I have friends who love them. I know people who throw parties on award show night. I am that guy sitting in the corner wondering when real entertainment will ever make a comeback. 

If there have to be award shows, why do we give so many? Let’s just give awards that matter. I think we can narrow it down to one award. One hit song will not get you mentioned. One great performance will not earn you a nomination. Let’s give the award to someone who has done it again and again. Someone who has given years of performance that shapes, influences, and entertains. I understand that no one would go for this idea, we can’t just give the awards to Betty White and Willie Nelson every year. 

I realize that some may think my opinions are a bit over the top. But I do struggle with the people that are put in front of us as people to admire and imitate. I can’t understand what makes the masses stand in line to be amused by trivial stuff that will be out of season next year. 

There are people to admire. There are people it would be worthwhile to imitate. But these people do not get invited to news shows, they don’t become internet sensations, they aren’t interviewed by journalists. No one gives out awards to people for their integrity or humility or their ability to do the right thing for a long time. 

On wiser days, we might check to see what the Bible says. As it turns out, the Bible is full of people who aren’t very heroic. Check the resumes of these people, they lie and cheat and commit adultery. It almost seems like the Bible does this on purpose. We don’t get a lot of people to admire. Instead, what we find in the Bible is a lot of God. When one of these people fall, God picks them up. We start to realize these stories aren’t about floods and giants and lions and big fish, these are stories about God. 

The Bible doesn’t want us to become roadies for some heroic spiritual superstars. The Bible doesn’t let us celebrate one good hit along the way or allow us to follow religious celebrities. Instead, we are encouraged for a long-haul journey with God.

Seeds, Soils and the Family Soul

I was recently asked to speak at a retreat and given a dual assignment of addressing the family and a text from the gospels – a parable about a sower, seeds and soils. Other texts may come to mind more quickly or seem more appropriate when we think about family. Yet I rather like it when the church puts us in a conversation with the text that does not seem to naturally fit and then expects us to proceed.

The family may not be the first thing we think of when we read the parable, yet the family is always a context where we attempt to apply the text. The family is a field where we learn much about the Christian faith. In the family we scatter seed in the hope of growing fruit. The family is a field where we learn how to relate to one another and to the world and to God.

Perhaps the family is a perfect context to speak of people as soil. In a family we plant, nurture, feed, water and weed – all in the hope that growth might occur. This may be as good a place as any to point out that it is not our end goal to grow happy, productive people. Our end goal is not to turn you into awesome parents with successful marriages and perfect children. It’s not that we are opposed to such things. It’s just that this is a church retreat and we have much bigger goals. We are raising disciples.

It is basic thought about families and texts to be attentive to what is present and what is not. It is important to realize that the entire system is influenced by who is present or who is absent. This is important to know because the family is dependent on the way the individual pieces work together. Behaviors and actions and words of any one individual will significantly affect the others. The text works the same way. The presence of rocks, thorns, and birds make a difference. Shallow roots, worldly worries and the presence of Satan make a difference. This is not a chance adventure. This is a context where it is important to be intentional. This is where seed grows.

As an aside, it follows the family should be very careful about who is invited into the system. A pet, X Box, cell phones, Netflix, fantasy football, a Visa card, Jack Daniels… these things may seem like casual accessories. But they will fight to become influential in the family system.

A common theme in the family and the parable is growth. When one looks at the reasons for growth or lack of growth in the text it appears to be the type of soil and what is attracted to these soils. In the family it is not birds, rocks or weeds that prevent growth. That would be convenient. When things aren’t going well to blame it on the stinking rocks, lousy weeds, angry birds. Instead we must be intentional about who and what is invited into the family.

We do not want to overlook the cosmic struggle in the parable. In both parable and family we may be interacting with seed, thorns and rocky ground, but also Satan. In what we thought was an ordinary farmer’s field – Satan shows up. In what seems like the everyday activities of raising a family – Satan shows up. The fact is, Satan wants your family. There is a cosmic battle of supernatural forces engaged against one another for our families. If we ever have doubts about whether our families have value, that alone should convince us we are wrong.

While Jesus may not be talking explicitly about family here, he is not really talking about farming either. Jesus often seems to be talking about some subject and then we learn he is actually talking about the Good News of the kingdom. In fact, when Jesus starts talking in parables, Matthew tells us he is sharing secrets of the kingdom.

We do not want to forget the parable is a kingdom story. We read the parables and are put immediately into a context of competing kingdoms. Allegiance is an issue that we must wrestle with. We will be choosing a king. Even an examination of family is within the context of kingdom. It does not escape us that the parable follows a discussion about family. “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, Behold My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” This family discussion and the parable share space in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospel. Yes, family is kingdom discussion. It is noteworthy that the bio family takes a backseat to the family that does the will of the Father in heaven. The text presents us with an unorthodox definition of family.

The parable carries some significance for Matthew, Mark and Luke all include it. And it is always the out front parable. We are challenged to “Listen.” It may be noteworthy that Jesus starts telling us to listen in the gospel and in Revelation he is still telling us to listen. Perhaps it is implied that we are not only to start listening but are then to never stop listening.

Listening is a big concern in both text and family. Perhaps a tangent is in order; let us talk about the discipline of listening. Let me guess, your children do not listen. Let me guess again, you do not listen to your children. And again, you fall into a trap of thinking that listening to your child is the same as agreement. You feel that listening is the same as giving in to your child’s demands.

This is worthwhile conversation. While the text is interested in listening to words of Jesus, we want to acknowledge what I will call “spillover.” I hope the following helps with what I intend as spillover. 1) We are to love God. 2) We learn that spillover of loving God insists on loving one another. 3) This love is not to stop with loving other followers; we are to love our neighbors as well. 4) This spillover does not stop here; we are to even love our enemies. Thus, while there is not an explicit text that tells us to listen to one another, I suggest that the spillover causes us to listen to one another (including our children). I am suggesting that as followers of Jesus, we become respectful people who graciously are interested in what others have to say (even when we are not in agreement). When the text does not give an answer to the particular situations of our lives, the spillover can help us determine how we should respond. Listening becomes an activity of discipleship.

As this conversation concludes, I suggest the family is a laboratory for discipleship. I am glad we gather as church. For some reason the text is intent on an unorthodox view of family. The text may suggest then that we are gathered as family. We gather as those who desire to do the will of the Father in heaven. This unorthodox New Testament definition of family cannot help but spillover into our bio families. There we are to share the secrets of the kingdom.

Mud Pies and Treasure

Richard Louv is a journalist who writes about nature. He can be rather convincing about getting outside. He explores the dangers of a sedentary indoor lifestyle. He takes readers into territory they may not think about on their own. Many have read Louv’s books. I suspect many have agreed with what he says about schedules and fresh air and things we take for granted. Yet I suspect many of them have not changed their lifestyles.

Michael Pollan writes about food. He discusses health of both body and the land. He can be rather convincing about eating differently. He explores the dangers of poor eating habits. He takes readers into territory that many do not think about on their own. Many have read Pollan’s books. I suspect many have agreed with much of what he says about food and nutrition. Yet I suspect many of them have not changed their ways with food.

I suspect this type of thing occurs all the time. Agreeing that health is important does not make one take steps to become healthy. Agreeing that practice makes perfect does not make one practice. Agreement does not always result in action. Thinking something is right does not cause us to behave differently. As convincing as Louv’s suggestions about changing lifestyle are, it is possible to love our current lifestyle of convenience more than his suggestions. As convincing as Pollan is about food, it is possible to love processed fatty foods more.

My interest is not really whether we watch television or eat sodium filled foods. I am more interested that many of us read the bible. I suspect many agree with what the bible has to say. I suspect we agree with loving God and loving our neighbor. I suspect many are pulled into the poetry and narratives and teaching we find there. I suspect many agree with the ideas about grace, forgiveness, generosity and sacrifice that are abundant. I suspect we are glad the bible takes us into territory to explore things we would never have thought about on our own. Yet I suspect that many have not changed their ways.

The danger is that we love our current appetites and lifestyle more than we love what God wants to give us. C.S. Lewis, in a sermon preached at Oxford one day, said this, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The danger is that we love these things more than we love God.

The problem is we have already been discipled. Everyone is in the discipleship business and some are very good at it. The democrats, the republicans, Wall Street, and Madison Avenue are all after your allegiance. The fact is, every commercial is an attempt to make you a disciple. Advertisers do not give information about the products they sell; they spend their resources to appeal to our loves. There is no getting around it – the world wants your soul. Our allegiance says a lot about us. We are disciples of what we love. This is what Jesus meant when he said “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Discipleship is all about being attentive to and being intentional about what we love.

We sometimes try to make discipleship a cognitive exercise. We convince ourselves that enough knowledge will help us become who we ought to be. However, we are simply not a sum of what we know. We are not driven by information; we are driven by what we treasure. We like to tell ourselves we love the right things. We like to think we are immune to becoming disciples of the world. Perhaps we should check our closets and garages for evidence. We cannot avoid the idea we are driven by treasure. Acknowledging this is but the first step of beginning to change our lives and not just our ideas. Because to be a disciple of Jesus is to learn to love the right things.

Parents, Children, and Church

We cannot over emphasize the responsibility of parents.  We are called to be more faithful than we are able to do on our own.  That is why it is important to remember that we are part of a larger family, the church.  This raises the question, what is the relationship between church and parent as we nurture our children in faith?  The church can become the community where parents receive the support, guidance, and forgiveness that Christian parents require.  Also, the place where children are given the nurture, limits, and story that growth into faith requires.

The church ought to join the parent in prayer for the salvation of children.  When we pray for others to follow Christ no matter what the cost, we do so with the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith.  Prayer is a bold expression that there is One greater than yourself.  Praying for your children is an honest confession that you are unable to raise children on your own.  Such prayer recognizes that there is no greatness in our parenting skills, but only in God.

Raising children is not so much about parents or children as it is about God.  We are to be always about His business, parenting is no exception.  In fact, the problem with many modern evangelism strategies is that the focus leaves God and becomes business about people.  We are always to be witnesses.  Sometimes we are also parents.  Therefore, we want to include our children in the Gospel story.

While this task falls to the entire community of faith, it is the parent who has the greatest influence.  The natural moments at home provide a great opportunity.  We will transmit our convictions in the ways we talk with children, walk with them, put them to bed, and greet them in the morning.  The Christian family is all of us living, working, eating, drinking, teaching, learning, and growing together.  The relationship between church and parent must be one that encourages children in ways that include them in the story.

Children are not intended to be chosen but to be received.  Children are not achievements, but gifts.  We are not to control them for our own ends.  Nothing so disrupts our tidy, well planned futures.  Nothing so clearly mirrors our best and worst.  Nothing demands from us, humbles us, or gives to us as does the blessed burden of a child.

Some may see children as a worrisome bother to be avoided.  Some feel that children should be avoided because of the uncertainty of the future.  By saying yes to children, we do not demonstrate a faith in the future or faith in our abilities to provide for our children.  Rather, faith in God who holds the future.  Evangelism of our children is not a matter of parental effort.  It is God’s work in which we are privileged to share.

A Strategy for Parents

Our children are being seduced and discipled by the world.  We have learned this over and over by watching others who have preceded us struggle in the effort to encourage children in faith.  How can we respond to these same struggles without watering our witness down to principles to live by or a how to manual?  How do we train our children in a way that they will become Christian and in turn train their own children?  We may find ourselves wishing for a simple program that when completed, results in children that are Christian.  Yet, when honest, we realize there is no such program.  Obviously, we are not the ones who will save our children, but our role is not to be underestimated.

The meeting between parent and child goes on and on, it does not end.  It is imperative that parents take this responsibility seriously and do not take vacations from being a witness to their children.  This is a constant, tireless responsibility.  In this way, parents will communicate what matters most to them.  Do we respond to God or to the world?  Our children will be able to answer that question for us.  What children need are adults who are quite literally crazy for them.

There is nothing novel in this.  Christian parents do not win battles.  They prepare the ground and change the mood toward hope and belief, so that when Christ appears there will be others waiting for Him.  The Christian parent often works quietly.  He or she is committed to Christ’s victory and so is willing to do small things.  The Christian parent rarely does anything big.  Instead, they are always planting suspicion that there is something more than what society perceives to be final.

This is unnatural.  But the methods that recruit people for other kingdoms are not suitable to making the Kingdom of God strong.  A good dose of information is not enough.  Legislation, economy, and technology all fall short.  Unlike other kingdoms with which we are familiar, this one is not built on gadgetry, money, or force.

Parents need to faithfully include their children in the conversation of faith on a regular basis.  What children need to witness are parents who believe more than anything else that a new Kingdom exists.  A Kingdom that is not always visible to the naked eye.  A Kingdom where the sole ruler is the Lord God.  Our method is saturation.  It demands long-term patience.  It demands a belief that nothing is more important.  It demands that we live in a way that demonstrates Jesus as Lord.  It demands that we keep His words constantly before us.  It demands that we talk about them while at home and while away, while lying down for the night and when rising in the morning.  It demands that we teach these words to our children.

Wisdom and Witness

We want our children happy, healthy, and of benefit to others.  We want them to be moral and productive.  We want them to be good citizens.  Yet, none of these good things become our top priority.  The Christian parent desires that children make the decision to live under the authority of the Lord Jesus.  Since that is the case, we want to spend time shaping the behavior of our children, talking with them regularly about how to live.

What is it that parents do to shape the behavior of children?  Wisdom literature suggests that it is everything we do.  Nothing we do is so small that children will not notice.  Perhaps some reflection is in order.  Does our lifestyle allow children to recognize honesty and integrity as a priority?  Do we live in a way to encourage or discourage prejudices?  Do our children witness parents who make proper choices in the practical areas of their lives, like with money?

Are our children learning a lifestyle of convenience?  One where they pursue their own rights?  Or do they learn an ethic that is faithful to the God who has performed great and mighty works?  Have they been taught to listen to His instruction and to keep His commandments?  Are they equipped to pass this wisdom on to the next generation?

Have they realized that true wisdom comes from God?  Do they understand that God is over all – the simple and the complex, the routine and the miraculous, the secular and the religious?  The good news is that sometimes, partly because of us, partly in spite of us, our children respond and come to faith.

Evangelism at Home

Do not underestimate children.  They notice what parents give attention to; they may even ask questions about the things that we find important.  Do not think that they do not know the things we actually believe and the times that we just go through the motions.  As adults, it is our work to be serious enough about the particulars of our faith to pass them along.  Parents will pass along what is important to them.  If it is a priority to the parent, children will notice.  If the Gospel is a priority to us, the kids will catch on.  If we live as if faith is not relevant to “real life”, they will notice that as well.

Evangelism will flow naturally out of the context of everyday lives.  Parenting is a major part of that natural flow.  This is important because evangelism is not a set of formulas or memorized scenarios.  Witness is not something we are called to do nearly as much as it is who we are.  Our children will recognize who we are.  May they grow to recognize that above all else – we are followers of Christ.

Discipleship on the Front Row

Despite much attention given in the area of evangelism, there does not appear to be much emphasis placed on sharing faith with the children that live in our homes.  We are careful to provide good food, stylish clothes, and plentiful activities, but often overlook intentional seeking of ways to share what matters most.  Perhaps we have ideas of what we want our children to become, but have forgotten the real matter – “who does God want them to be?”

We cannot overemphasize the importance for parents to witness in bold ways.  Parents must demonstrate that in a world of real danger, where others appear to have the upper hand, we find our true identity as part of a community that follows God.  Parents need to demonstrate that God is indeed the one who shapes our lives.

The fact is that children will receive faith more readily if they witness their parents demonstrating it in every facet of their lifestyle.  Instructing children in the faith involves an ongoing conversation.  This is to go on whether at home or away from home.  Our worship of God is to shape us so that we will be witnesses that God has changed everything and we are obedient to His desires.  The call to parent is certainly a call to discipleship on the front row.

Matthew: a Gospel of Treasures

Matthew invites us to participate in a hunt for treasure.  This is not separate from his emphasis on teaching.  Followers of Jesus find practical instruction and wisdom to live by as disciples.  Matthew contains the largest amount of teaching material and uses the word disciple more than any other Gospel.  This is even emphasized in the conclusion “make disciples… teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”  Perhaps Matthew wants us to know that the true treasure is the wisdom found in the teaching of Jesus.  Perhaps he wants us to think of making disciples as sharing treasure.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to store up “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Although many may try to convince us that they have valuable treasure, it appears that all treasure is not equal.   Jesus thinks temporary things do not make good treasure.

Later, He says that “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  Then, after finding a pearl of great value, he tells us that “every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old.”  Later yet, he records Jesus saying, “go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven.”  It is safe to say that Jesus likes to talk about treasure.

Ben Witherington suggests that Matthew is like a scribe who has become a disciple and “brings out of his treasure things new and old.”  This may be evidenced by his desire to affirm traditional Jewish teaching, while at the same time; he also includes new eschatological teaching of Jesus.  Witherington says that Matthew “manages to balance an old and new portrait of the Messiah, with Jesus sitting for the portrait.”

Matthew mixes the teaching of Jesus with narratives that describe activities of Jesus.  These work together and remind us that the teaching must be lived out in the narrative stories of our lives.  Matthew insists that the everyday world that we live in cannot be separated from the teaching of Jesus.  Like explorers on an adventure, we enter the Gospel where the stories of life and the teaching of Jesus intersect with one another.  There we find treasure to live by.

Work and Discipleship

It is a good thing to work a job.  It is a good thing to put out a quality product.  It is a good thing to provide a service that is helpful to others.  It is a good thing to contribute to community and society.  “Go… get a job” is a message that is heard clearly in our culture.  This is not a bad message, in fact it is quite a practical one.  However, as Eugene Peterson has pointed out, it becomes important to connect this message with another, “Go… make disciples.”  It is essential that our work become part of our Christian experience.  In order for work to have lasting meaning, the conversation about jobs must include discipleship.

Work is a context to obey the great commission.  Without this context, we risk the danger that we will add to statistics of job dissatisfaction and loss of meaning.  We tend to place value on certain jobs, the bible does not.  We tend to hand out respect (and money, we tend to confuse respect with money) to certain jobs over others.  The bible knows that these things are fleeting.  In fact, the bible suggests that those who take on a job in order to gain respect ought to be pitied.

It becomes important to be able to talk about work in relationship to meaning and purpose.  If we are unable to see how everyday work is related to “Go… make disciples” we are either going to become discontent with our job or become careless about our faith.  We will likely be unhappy “making a living” and trying to make up for a lack of meaning with additional recreational or spiritual activities in hopes to find meaning.  That doesn’t have to be the way it works.  Nearly any job can be a context for discipleship to occur.  If we take this message seriously the present becomes filled with energy.  And the future opens up with possibility.

I think of the tax collectors and the soldiers who approach John the Baptist.  Two vocations that probably seemed outside the will of God to those in John’s congregation.   But John simply tells them to start doing their work differently.  I think of two tax collectors that encounter Jesus.  Matthew leaves his job to serve.  But Zacchaeus starts collecting taxes differently.  Prior to meeting Jesus, they both served the dominant regime.  After meeting Jesus, they both worked for another kingdom.

You can work a job that no one else would want and be smack in the middle of the will of God.  You can work the most desirable of jobs and be struggling to find a niche in the kingdom.  The kingdom appears far less interested in what you do for compensation than we do.  It is far more concerned with the way faith is demonstrated.  So, go ahead and follow through on culture’s expectation that you get a job.  But whatever you do, be sure to make disciples.