Normalizing Jesus

9 12 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”  Luke 10:33-37

Christmas churchIn the Coffee household, we have been on our usual Christmas steady fare of Christmas movies.  Christmas, it seems, is such an enormous cultural event, Hollywood just cannot make enough “Christmas miracle” movies.  It’s a standard template: there is a hero (or a heroine) who is flawed and relatable in some fashion and who does not believe in the magic of Christmas.  Enter conflict (or an antagonist or dire circumstances or a hilarious parade of unforeseeable events) and there is an ensuing struggle.  Finally, there is a Christmas miracle and our hero is saved and now believes in the magic of Christmas.

This year, my attention has been grabbed by how the church is portrayed in these Hollywood versions of Christmas (if it is portrayed at all).  It seems to me that, more often than not, the church is portrayed as a bit silly and irrelevant and disconnected from anything, well… normal.  I don’t know, but I strongly suspect these portrayals betray the writers’ own stories about their church experiences growing up.  I watch these almost farcical portrayals of church and find myself asking, “Is that really what you think of church?”

I know you know this feeling.  Being made fun of and ostracized as “weird” or “abnormal” is painful.  Wouldn’t Christianity be much easier if everyone in our country, our state, our community a Christian?  If only Christianity were the norm…if a Christ-centered Christmas were the norm…then we would be so much happier.

There is one very large problem with that attitude.  Jesus, the founder of this revolution we call Christianity, was not normal.

It was Jesus who taught us to love our enemies.  It was Jesus who hung out with sinners and tax collectors and referred to the esteemed religious leaders of the time as a “den of vipers” and “children of the devil”.  And it was Jesus who told ground-breaking stories like the parable of the good Samaritan.  There is nothing normal about making a much-despised Samaritan the hero of your story and making a priest and a Levite the goats of the story, and then getting a Pharisee to admit to those very things.  And it was this same Jesus who said on numerous occasions that we who follow him would be hated by this world, just as he was hated.

Jesus, it seems, wanted to be seen as abnormal. He thrived on being strange and culturally odd.  Maybe we need to adjust our perspective on it as well.  Jesus, I suspect, would note Hollywood’s portrayal of the church and of Christmas today and say, “Yep. That’s about what we expected.”

There was nothing normal about Jesus.  There is nothing normal about his followers.  And there is nothing normal about Christmas.  It is all freakishly abnormal.  And I’m OK with that.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Letting Your People Mess Up

24 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.  Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” 1 Samuel 8:7-9

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  C.S. Lewis

Here is a fundamental truth for church leaders (including pastors): the church is not for you (not really), nor is it about you.  If you think about it, that is actually a rather freeing reality.  That means it is not your responsibility to manipulate every outcome.  Rather, it is your responsibility to speak God’s truth to the best of your ability and to love your people well…and love often means letting them mess up royally.

Asleep in ClassMost of my own best illustrations of this leadership principle come from parenting.  If you are a parent, you already know the phenomenon well.  There are times when a parent can see a wrong direction a child is headed and the very best way to teach this lesson is to simply warn them and then let them make their own decision (and live with the consequences).  Take bedtimes, for example.  Toddlers are simply told when they will go to bed.  But, as they grow older, we eventually get to a point where they must learn to use their own judgment about sleep time.  The first time we lift the bedtime requirement, we simply explain to them, “Go to bed whenever you like…but if you stay awake too late, you’ll be awfully tired tomorrow at school.”  Then, that first night we find them playing on X-box at Midnight, we warn them again: “You’re gonna be awfully tired tomorrow if you don’t go to bed soon.”  Well, you know how this one plays out.

That illustration is harmless enough.  The worst outcome for that student is a little humiliation in class and perhaps a bad grade or two.  But the more mature our student becomes, the bigger the consequences.  We begin allowing them to make really big decisions with really big consequences.  It is all a part of growing up.

Shepherding God’s people is no different.  As leaders, there really is no other effective way to lead than to allow God’s people to make decisions as a people, even when those decisions are sometimes horribly wrong.  You can give them the benefit of your own spiritual discernment, you can warn them about the consequences of their wrong direction, you can even ask them to please reconsider.  But in the end, more times than not, it is their decision to make and not yours.  You cannot make it for them.  You cannot even make it for yourself.  Most importantly, you cannot take it personally when they decide not to take your counsel.  They will make their decision, and you and they together will live with the consequences of it, and you will just keep loving them as well as you know how.

God’s words to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 echo in so many of your church’s important decisions today.  You can see the majority forming and you can see the damaging consequences of that direction.  They are about to make a decision exactly contrary to how you have counseled them.  This is when God’s whisper comes: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king…Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what [their decision will mean].” That is what leadership looks like.  That is what love looks like.  Swallow your pride, listen to your people, counsel them as best you know how, and then walk with them…even through the muck and mire of wrong decisions.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Hearing God Speak Through the Noise of My Brother

24 07 2012

Tuesday Re-mix –

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”… Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  John 20:24-25, 29

The ears and the mind are necessarily connected.  That is because hearing requires much more than just ears.  When we were children, we could hear the wind blowing through a sea shell but we thought we were “hearing the ocean”.  We could hear just fine, but we could not discern very well.  Now, as I get older (alas), I am finding that my ears don’t always hear very well.  I can be sitting with you in a crowded restaurant, trying to hear what you are saying and my “discernment” has to kick in so that I can make up for what my ears cannot hear.  I suppose that balance shifts more and more with time.

Interestingly, our Spiritual hearing works in a similar way.  When we are young (spiritually), we don’t discern all that well.  We may hear God’s voice, but we hear it along with all the noise and may not have the spiritual maturity to discern that which is God and that which is other.  I believe we develop that discernment over time, with the help of the Spirit.  I also believe this spiritual skill is critical to our life together in the church.  Wasn’t that the point of Jesus’ lesson to Thomas in John 20?

Thomas’ brothers came to him, filled anew with the Spirit and sharing testimony of Christ’s appearance, i.e., the transformation which had happened in their lives as a result of the resurrection.  Thomas heard their testimony, but he missed the Spirit in it.  He could not (or would not) hear it.  He wanted to hear it directly from Jesus.

Not surprisingly, Jesus showed him grace despite his disappointment in Thomas.  Here is an important implication of his words to Thomas in v.29: Thomas, you’re going to need to develop spiritual eyes to see the Spirit at work in your brother and spiritual ears to hear God’s voice in him in order to be effective in helping to start this revolution…that is how it will work in my church!

In the church, discerning the voice of God is a sign of spiritual maturity.  When we are spiritual babies, we may hear the wind in the sea shell and believe it is the ocean.  But as we grow older, we really must develop the “spiritual mind” to know the difference.  In order to be effective as leaders among God’s people, we must be getting better and better at discerning the voice of God in His people.  Despite their many flaws and despite the “noise” of their flesh, we must learn to listen and to discern and to recognize the Shepherd’s voice when we hear it…even through the thorniest of relationships with our most difficult brothers/sisters.  Our effectiveness as a leader depends upon this skill.

Will you listen closely today?  What unexpected message will God bring you through a brother today?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Childlike Connectedness

22 11 2011

Tuesday Re-mix –

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:1-3

Have you ever noticed that, when it comes to choosing playmates, children don’t seem to be bothered by any of the same concerns which we hold? When we find out that our child has taken more than a passing interest in another child, we have a thousand questions about that child…and we are frustrated when our child doesn’t know the answers to ANY of them. Where does she go to church? What does he believe? Who are his parents? What does her daddy do for a living? Where does he live? WHAT IS HIS/HER LAST NAME? And when we ask, we get nothing from our own child about any of these concerns. Because children just don’t care about these things when choosing a playmate.

Of course, the longer they live in the world, the more and more the world teaches them about what “really matters” when it comes to judging people. Unless they are intentional about staying childlike, they begin to lose this ability to connect with anyone and everyone irrespective of outward appearance or social status or even belief systems. This makes me sad. And I believe it makes Jesus sad too.

This post comes on the heels of last week’s post about generational differences in the church today, specifically, how Gen X’ers and Millennials tend to BELONG first, and BELIEVE second and what that teaches us about how we connect with people in the church. Today, I am pinning that concept to a teaching from Jesus, because I firmly believe that the generational changes washing across the church’s landscape today DID NOT catch Jesus by surprise.

Jesus insisted that having a certain “childlikeness” is more than just helpful to a Christian…it is critical. And the more I meditate on His words in Matthew 18:2-3, the bigger and broader that concept becomes to me. I have long understood “childlikeness” to include childlike faith and childlike love and childlike vulnerability (see this post for that lesson). Now I am also understanding that the childlikeness to which we are called is also about how we connect to each other, i.e., how “community” happens among us.

I have become certain that being the New Testament church requires that we learn to connect with people without regard to all of the exterior characteristics the world teaches us to consider. Moreover, I believe there is even some level of connection which we must learn without regard to what a person believes. In short, I believe that part of the childlikeness to which we are called is a childlike willingness to play alongside others who look different, who think differently, and who believe things very different from what we believe. I believe Jesus was signaling this with His words in Matthew 18.

There are two adult generations today who are already shaped by a desire for this kind of connection. It just so happens that my own children are a part of those generations. They taught me when they were children, and they are teaching me as adults as well…about what childlikeness means.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee. Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Raising Legalists

30 03 2010

Tuesday Re-mix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them… When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” John 21:20-22

When I work in a church where there has been a moral failure on the part of a leader, especially a pastor, I am always intrigued by the wide variety of responses from the church members.  They range from complete denial (pretending it never happened) to cries for the death penalty, and every imaginable consequence in between.  But the responses that break my heart the most usually come from some of the teenagers.

legalismOddly enough, it is often teenagers who are the most troubled by the moral failure and who are the most demanding that there be severe consequences.  I believe this is true because of the way they have been taught to think.  In many cases, they have been conditioned to believe that, for every good act there must be a visible reward and for every bad act there must be bad consequences.  And when either of those things does not happen, their world is turned inside out, creating chaos and confusion.  So, in an attempt to maintain some degree of “rightness” in their world, they are often the most vocal proponents of severe consequences in the life of the fallen leader.  I can’t blame them for that.  It is what their parents taught them.

You see, when we use behavior modification techniques to get our children to make right choices, this is what we get.  When our motives have more to do with obtaining right outward behavior than with teaching right lessons, when we are more concerned with outward results than with inward thought life, we end up with little legalists in the church.  That, after all, is what legalism is: an unhealthy obsession with physical punishment and consequences for outward behavior.

When I teach my children “don’t do this or these bad things will happen”, when fear of physical consequences becomes the primary (perhaps the only) motivation for good behavior, the I have pushed them down a philosophical pathway that is doomed from the beginning…because often, the “if, then” formula approach to life simply fails us.  Often, the pleasing physical rewards do not come and the severe physical consequences do not follow.  Then what?  We say, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage because you will get a disease or an unwanted pregnancy.”  Then, when they break that rule and those consequences do not happen, with what motivation have we left them?  What have they learned?

What if we taught our children to love God, and to feel His presence in their lives?  What if their primary motivation for right choices is their love for the Lord?  That, I believe, is the kind of Kingdom children we want to be raising.

Legalism isn’t being obsessed with the rules.  God made the rules, He clearly has His desires and preferences for us.  There is nothing unhealthy about knowing and following rules, nor asking others to do the same.  But it is the motivation that makes it either healthy or not.  It becomes unhealthy  when we presume to become the administrator of consequences, when we become more concerned about punishment or consequences that fit our own notion of justice than we are with the person being judged.  Legalism is when we insist on certain consequences in another person’s life so that we can feel better about our own life.  Legalism causes us to involve ourselves in Spiritual consequences which are not ours with which to worry.

When a leader fails (or anyone else, for that matter), the legalist says, “There’s hell to pay for this.”  The Christian brother says, “I still love you and will help you however you will let me…” and leaves the punishment to God.

I know I’ve painted an intricate subject with a broad brush here.  The line between Christian accountability and legalism is more often blurry than clear, and our fears of either extreme (legalism versus indifference) often cause us to react against any statements leaning one way or the other.  But, all things considered, it seem to me we could do a better job of teaching and understanding that line, even with our children.  I think our families would benefit.  I know our churches would.

© Blake Coffee

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com