Archive for July, 2011

“Here I am, Lord”: IMHO – Responsibility, Substance, and the Mission

“Here I am, Lord” – Responsibility, Substance, and the Mission of the Kingdom of God

A very wise business mentor of mine told me that it was easy to make money in business.  I know he was oversimplifying things, but what he said was both earthy and brilliant.  He said to do three things:

  1. Be exactly who you appear to be,
  2. Be where you say you’re going to be when you say you’re going to be there, and
  3. Do what you say you’re going to do.

He told me that if you just do these three things, you set yourself and your company far above almost all of the competition.  His point was simple: be the kind of person that people can count on.  The buck always stops with you.  This is at the heart of what it means to have integrity – substance.  Almost everyone in the business world will say anything to appear to be of substance, but very few people actually are people of substance.  And of those who are, very few know how to hire and retain people of genuine integrity and employ them throughout their corporations.  This concept should be a part of the core values of faith communities, but sadly, of late, that is not the case.

Over many years, the individual people of faith who have attached their practice to the institutional church have come to rely too heavily on professional, paid clergy to be the people of substance in their communities.  We have forgotten that the mission of the Kingdom of God hangs not on professionals, but on each of us.  So much is wrapped in the simple words of a boy named Samuel who when called by God, responded, “Here I am, Lord.”   There are three subtle little lies that have slipped into our communities of faith that threaten not their existence (sick churches can limp along on their endowments for years), but rather threatens something far more important.  These lies threaten the Church’s relevance.

  1. “It’s up to God to make things happen.”
  2. “Somebody needs to do this.”
  3. “That’s not my job.”

Let’s look briefly at these one at a time.  They bear a deeper examination, but for now, let’s just visit them in brief.

1)      “It’s up to God to make things happen.”  In the end, this is a true statement.  However, I adhere to the idea from John Wesley that we should pray as if it’s all up to God, because it is. But we should work as though it’s all up to us.  The entire Scriptural history involves God choosing to work through humanity to liberate humanity.  There is something important for us in being people of substance that God can count on.  There is something important for each of us in being used by God to carry out the mission of the Kingdom of God.  Who can God count on?  Throughout Abrams’ life and early faith, he could be counted on to screw things up, but that’s not the same thing as being a person who can be counted on.  He grew into a person that God could count on.  Samuel was a person God could count on: “Here I am, Lord.” These are words of substance.  These are words that can be counted on. Can we be counted on?

I don’t think being a person of substance means that we can only be counted on in the few instances where someone can corner us into specifically giving our word, though keeping our word is absolutely crucial.  Being a person of substance means knowing what is at stake, and understanding that it is our responsibility to look out for the good of others and the mission even when no one is looking and there is no way we can get credit for doing it.  Likewise, being a person of substance doesn’t just mean being counted on to make sure our own agenda succeeds, or looking out for the good of only those we benefit from supporting.  Even the Roman politicians did that.  Selfishness and integrity are incompatible.  Partiality and integrity are incompatible.  We have to be able to be counted on to recognize a threat or problem, and take initiative to resolve it…even if it costs us hugely…even if no one on earth knows what it has cost us…and even if we will never get credit for it as long as we walk this earth.

Commitment breeds commitment.  You are not what you think in your head, no matter how noble the thought.  You ARE what you are committed to.  If you step up and say you’re going to do something, what you may not realize is that people spiritually and emotionally get behind you.  And if you then back out, the spirit goes right out of the thing and you end up doing more damage to the community and its mission than if you’d never stepped up to begin with.  And if you step up and offer to take the lead, then when you bail out or don’t follow through, you ARE leading, but you are leading people to do exactly the same thing that you just did.  Being a person of substance means that there is a line in the sand somewhere that you will not back over no matter what it costs you.  Where you place that line in the sand is your place of substance.  Commitment matters.  Backing out (though sometimes unavoidable) matters, too.  It can suck the life out of everyone involved in what you committed to and failed to follow through on.

Yes, it’s up to God to make things happen.  Whether God is sovereign or not is not really the question.  The question is whether or not we are people that God can use to make things happen.  If we are not, then we are irrelevant.

2)      “Somebody needs to do this.”   The subtlety of this lie is enormous.  We all fall prey to it sometimes.  It’s called “passing the buck”, and it assumes that someone else is accountable for the need that we have identified.  The lie is that “somebody” exists.  “Somebody” is not a substantial word.  Saying “somebody” needs to do this is akin to saying that whatever “this” is doesn’t really need to get done. The lie allows us to walk away with the problem unfixed and still feel self-justified and self-righteous for having identified the problem.

 The perniciousness of this, is that almost anyone can identify a problem.  Usually, several people have already identified the problem and said the same thing while walking right past the problem.  Saying, “Wow, somebody really needs to pick this trash up around the front of the building”, doesn’t get the trash picked up in front of the building.  If there are thirty people walking out of the door in front of you, every one of them has said the same thing.  However, what MUST make us different is that we don’t just identify the problem, we act to fix it.  We don’t wait to be told to do it.  We don’t wait to be asked to volunteer to do it.  We just see the problem and act to fix it.

This isn’t just about trash and buildings.  It is about lives and souls.  We pass by a homeless person and think that someone needs to help them get back on their feet.  We see a family in need and wring our hands and say that it’s awful that so many people are in need in this economy.  We know that a senior citizen never gets a visit and we think that somebody should go and visit them.  I have a feeling that kind of thinking forms the confines of hell.  We are the Body of Christ, and if we don’t act to resolve the problems that God gives us eyes to see, then there is something huge at stake.  What is at stake is our relevance.  Relevance requires substance.  And substance begins with individuals saying, “Here I am, Lord.”

3)      “That’s not my job.”  While it’s true that whatever is at stake in uttering this statement is probably not the professional responsibility of the person uttering it, that doesn’t make this a true statement.  What makes this a lie is its insincerity.  Almost always what the person saying these words actually means is , “That’s not my responsibility”.  And that statement is fraught with problems.

 The institution of Christendom no longer exists.  The institution of religion is no longer relevant.  It already sold out and nobody counts on it in any real sense anymore.  But the Church…the real one…the spiritual one…the living Body of Christ is very much alive and very much relevant.  Being a part of it begins with realizing that it is not staffed by professionals who are paid to be Christ-like for us as if they were some hood ornament or something.  We are a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, for heavens’ sake…maybe literally for Heaven’s sake.  We will probably always need to have some paid positions within the faith community and movement in order to free people up to do time-consuming things.  For those people, they will be assigned specific responsibilities for which they are paid and they will be granted authority in the community to get those things done.  They will also be held accountable for doing them.  Not doing them will have professional ramifications for them – pay cuts or termination.  But thinking that this professionalization of certain duties is the substance of this faith is a fatal error for a community of faith.

In Scripture, Jesus did not say, “Those who believe in me will hire someone to do the works that I do for them.”  Jesus did not say to Peter, “Hire someone who is seminary-trained and denominationally certified to feed my sheep.” He told Peter to feed his sheep.  And it is you and me that Jesus is calling and will hold accountable for the way you carried out the responsibilities he has assigned to the Church…and your church.  Matthew’s Gospel does not relate, “When I was hungry, the person you hired and slapped a black shirt and white collar on fed me.”  It says, “When I was hungry, YOU fed me.”  The Gospel isn’t about “jobs”.  It’s about sacred and personal responsibilities for which each of us will one day be held accountable.  The mission hangs on the words, “Here I am, Lord.”  We won’t be held accountable for whether or not we succeed.  We will be held accountable for whether or not we were obedient and gave these responsibilities our best shot.

The other subtlety of this pernicious lie, is that there seems to be no sense of joy in having this responsibility to begin with.  Participating in the Kingdom of God is a complete joy.  It’s not drudgery…a dreary job that we have to be paid for in order for it to be worth doing.  Having this kind of responsibility is a giant blessing.  It means that in the end, our lives will matter.  What we do here will matter.  What we do will impact outcomes for many, many people.  What we do is important, and what makes it important is that God is counting on us individually to be people that God can count on.  To participate in the Kingdom of God is to love selflessly and powerfully.  Selfless love is the ground of any notion of morality.  Morality and responsibility are the same word.  So when faced with a broken world and seeing it for what it is, will we respond, “Here I am, Lord”? Or will we fade away like fog in a rising wind?  I pray the former.

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Going Back to Egypt: The Impulse Every Community Has

Going Back to Egypt

Did you ever notice in the book of Exodus, that every time the people that Moses was trying to lead into the future that God has prepared for them got scared or didn’t know what to do, their response was always the same…first blame Moses, then start to head back to Egypt.  Egypt was the place of slavery and misery.  Go back to the slavery?  Go back to the idolatry?  That’s crazy thinking.  But maybe for them, the misery they knew seemed better than the unknown that lay ahead of them.  It happens so often that all I can think is that it is a very human response to fear of the unknown. I think a similar thing happens to communities in the midst of spiritual transformation…oh, and by the way, we are ALWAYS in the midst of spiritual transformation.

We become accustomed to being told what to do, to being told every detail of the way forward.  We get comfortable in our institutions with letting the “professionals” handle everything.  We get comfortable in those institutions even when those institutions become highly dysfunctional. We are afraid to just let go and give the reins over to God who we thought we knew, but now realize we can never fully know.  We go forward seeking the promises of God, and then we meet resistance and hardship, and we think that God has forgotten us.  I think part of the reason we get “comfortable” is that we rationalize, like the Israelites did, that we aren’t capable of moving into a future we don’t know or control, and that it’s better to stay stuck than face the uncertainty of the unknown.  And we hear the ancient urge, “Go back to Egypt.”

To make things even tougher, in any transformational environment, communities almost always retain people who have never truly left Egypt to begin with.  They cling to the old way because they benefitted from the old way, and they initiate the whispers of “Go back to Egypt” every time it looks like something is headed for failure.  Their whispers might even be subtly nuanced with, “See, I told you so.  This path will only lead to destruction.  Let’s go back to Egypt.”  And if we aren’t careful to examine their motives, their whispers can marry up with our fears, and before we know it, we forget who initiated the whispers and we start to think that their thoughts are our thoughts.  The truth is that we can never go back.  We are not the same people we were when we left.  They might be because they’ve never given in to growth.  But those of us who have toiled and truly suffered in the wilderness have been changed by it, and we cannot go back.  The only way out of the wilderness is through it.

And for many communities they get concrete feet because they refuse to move forward until they have the perfect plan…every detail figured out.  When Moses led the people into the wilderness, it’s important to notice that there really wasn’t any plan.  There was only a promise, a call, and an opportunity precipitated by a crisis.  There was leader with a vision and heart-burst among the people. We have become so accustomed to needing a plan because we are taught that by our culture that we have forgotten the Biblical story.  In the Bible, as in real life, plans go right out the window at the very first crisis.  And from that point forward what we are doing is developing the situation that is unfolding before us.  We are improvising. We are adapting.  We are overcoming.  We are learning and becoming confident in our ability to do those very things.  In slavery, improvising is a threat to authority.  In the wilderness, it is survival itself.  God has given us a spiritual imagination.  It is God working through that that allows us to not only survive, but to thrive.  We don’t know what to do because in the wilderness, everything is something we’ve never done before…or seen before…or learned to control.  That’s what makes it wilderness to begin with.  It is scary and uncomfortable.  For some people, it is VERY scary.  But that is what the wilderness is.  If it were anything else, it would be something other than the wilderness.

So we all have to learn the skills of “figuring it out”.  Some folks have never had to learn how to do that.  But those skills are learned only by doing it. We have to embrace the reality that there is no other way forward than that.  We are all entrepreneurs now. There is no plan. If you don’t know what to do, take the principles you know, and figure it out.  Improvise.  Adapt.  No one’s going to hand it to you. There is no one out there that knows the answer, because in the wilderness, almost everything you are facing is new.  You can learn from the collective wisdom that has been garnered by your community or other communities on the journey…in fact, the community’s survival is dependent on everyone’s ability to do that.  But there just isn’t a book yet that exactly lays out how to move your faith community into the future that God has prepared for us and is calling us into.  It’s okay to be afraid.  That fear can drive us closer to God…to a greater recognition of our total dependence upon God.  And that fear coupled with God’s deliverance can lead us into a deeper trust in God and God’s promises.  That kind of trust is what God reckoned as righteousness to begin with. Or…that fear can lead us to give in to the whispers of those who never really left Egypt to begin with when they tell us, “Go back to Egypt.”  Don’t give in.  Improvise. Adapt. Figure it out.  And grow into a deep trust in the promises of God.  Jesus Christ, himself, is with you.