Wednesday, August 25, 2010

by Mike Perkinson

The power of story is in the seed. More simply said, the power of story is in the telling or sowing of that life-giving seed. After all, Jesus said that a seed must fall to the ground and die before it can bear fruit.

In an agrarian society like Israel the language of sowing seed and reaping a harvest was common. Being a farmer was more than a profession but a way of life that took care of the basic needs of a family.

That is why the prophetic instruction in Hosea 10:12 is so stunning as it seems to violate the natural sequence of this agrarian way of life. The prophet declares, “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.” I find it fascinating that the prophet oddly violates this natural sequence that would require one to first break up the fallow ground before sowing the seed as Jeremiah correctly instructs, “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.” (Jeremiah 4:3) Why does Hosea place breaking up the fallow ground after sowing and reaping? What in the world is he trying to say? And how does that relate to story?

It is stunning that the logical progression of cultivating and preparing the soil to receive the seed is oddly missed in the Hosea passage. I find it striking that the prophet immediately moves us to the language of sowing. What is intriguing is what we are called to sow.

The seed that we are to cast is that of righteousness. Not so much doing right things, but being in right relationship with the God that has so marvelously kept His covenant and provided for Israel. As a matter of fact everything Israel had received was a gift from the hand of God. Included in this gift was the land that God so graciously provided. Israel’s undertakings were then to be done in accordance with her relationship to this faithful, covenant-keeping God.

The prophet is instructing the people, as well as the Church in the 21st century, to sow first the seed of covenantal relationship with the gracious God that has so wonderfully provided all we have – having made possible full reconciliation in and through Christ.

It is when we sow to this life-giving sphere of relationship with the Father that we find our hearts enriched with His steadfast love (hesed). What we reap (not merit) when we are living in this life-giving sphere is riches of His love that empowers our lives and enlarges our capacity to live as His sons and daughters who steward well our Kingdom responsibilities. It is then that we are able to adequately break up the fallow ground (“of knowledge” which can mean our knowledge of God) and seek His face not only for ourselves but for our neighborhoods, cities and nation. When this happens the prophet boldly asserts that the Lord will then come and rain righteousness upon them. May God rain down His righteousness on the barren soil of our country and may we sow to righteousness, reaping His steadfast love – living the empowered life and doing only what the Father is doing!

What's the correlation to story, Mike? That’s right. I mentioned that the power of story is in the seed. Story is the place where the seed finds it greatest power. As Revelation 12:11 reminds us, those that overcame the evil one were those that were washed in the blood, shared the word of their testimony (story) and had bold faith, they did not fear death.

There is something about story that jettisons one’s faith and that also of the hearer. It is the conduit by which the seed is most proficiently cast as it facilitates the life-giving environment of heart engagement and decision. After all, story requires conversation which fuels relationship; relationship is the basis of community. Story is then a key to life, community and multiplication as it allows for the transforming power of the Cross (life-giving sphere) to be sown (righteousness) in relationship with God and His people, resulting in an amazing harvest of salvation, healing and restoration of individuals, families and communities.

It is through the medium of story that we find ourselves most able to sow righteousness, coming to right relationship – reaping His love and power so that we love others as we love ourselves and then engage in breaking up the fallow ground that resists the seed of hope that is in Christ. As we press on and pursue our great God and seek His face we are confident that this covenant keeping God will rain downs righteousness on our land. May it be!!!

On Being a Grain of Wheat

by Tom Johnston

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” John 12:24-26

Seeds get planted. They exist for one purpose – to give life in order to produce fruit, a crop, a harvest. So it was with Jesus, the Ultimate Seed, who in giving His life for humanity released the potential for harvest of souls throughout the ages. And in each generation He calls His followers to do likewise – lay down their lives in order to bear much fruit. The call to follow Christ is the call to perpetual death of the self, choosing instead a life of loving devotion to God, His people and His harvest.

Such dying to self for most of us will not take on a singular grand heroic act such as martyrdom, but rather we will die 10,000 little deaths to our flesh, our fallen human nature, so that Christ might live through us. We have an opportunity to mortify the flesh each time we are presented with a decision in our day-to-day lives in the context of our marriage, family, vocation and ministry. In each and every relationship we have, with God and others, we can choose either to live for ourselves or to live for Christ. It encompasses our inner life as well – the desires of our heart and the thoughts of our mind, as we make choices being led of the Spirit as opposed to the flesh. Again, it is in such choices that we allow Christ to release His life in us and through us, bearing spiritual fruit in our own being and in those around us as well. All such choices – both internally and in our relationships – are based on what we value.

In speaking of losing our life, Jesus seeks to focus His disciples on something transcendent, something beyond this life – eternity. We often say “everything pales into insignificance in the light of eternity.” This is Jesus’ point exactly: don’t live your life in the flesh, in the moment, but rather live your life in the Spirit, in the “now and not yet” of the Eternal Kingdom of God. Such a life is costly, Jesus teaches us, requiring we pay the ultimate price of self-sacrifice. But in doing so He promises us fruitfulness – a harvest of righteousness and of souls which will outlast this life, extending into eternity.

In dying these little deaths daily, we are not paying some “price of admission,” not earning our way into heaven, but rather we are allowing Christ to live through us in ways which He cannot do when we live life focused on us. It is when Christ shines through a life which is yielded and surrendered that people take notice and ask us about the hope that is within us. Through a life overflowing with the abundance of His life we truly can be witnesses to the Risen Lord and the power of His resurrection. Today it seems much of the Church in the West is grappling with cultural relevance. Forget it – grapple with the Cross. Let us grapple with what it means to die daily that Christ might live through us. Let us wrestle with God through spiritual disciplines that Christ might be formed in us. Let us lay hold of that for which Christ laid hold of us. Let us strip away everything from our lives that will hinder us from running the race that is set before us. All this we can do, when we choose Christ and His life, allowing Him to increase in us, and our flesh to decrease. We must see our lives as that grain of wheat which Jesus has sown into the world, so that He might reap a great harvest.

We have this promise from Him – that where we are He will be, and where He is we will be for eternity. Choose to let Him sow your life, so that He might live in you and through you, now and for evermore.

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shaping & Tending Creation

by Mike Chong Perkinson

The Pattern of Creation: Bringing Life / Bringing Order to Chaos

The beauty of creation is wonderfully described in Genesis 1:2 as God bringing order to that which is “formless and empty” - ṯōhû wāḇōhû. He does this by speaking the Creative Word, setting the life pattern for all of creation that is based on creating life-giving environments / spheres, then filling them with living things. The Creative Word of God then brings form and substance to life, brings order out of chaos, and provides the life-giving environment that allows for the development and maturation of living things.

When we look at Genesis 1:3-31, we see a pattern to creation that is played out in human history and wonderfully recorded in the Word of God. This creative pattern reflected in Genesis reveals that God creates the environment or spheres for life (e.g. the heavens, earth, seas) and then fills each sphere with life. More simply, the environment is the key to fostering and developing life. As we say, it is a good thing that God created the oceans before he made fish. Without the proper environment, all living things will either struggle to survive, finding ways to cope within a jury rigged life, or die.

The Process for Shaping & Tending Creation

Before we talk about the process, we need to take a quick look at God’s factory setting for humanity - what our original design involved as a job description for the first parents. Genesis 1:28 (the Cultural Mandate) tells us to be fruitful and multiply. Adam and Eve are assigned a joint task of fruitfulness, increase, subduing and ruling over the earth. To help us here, Genesis 1:28 is a chiasm, a poetic stanza that links words in form. The B elements are synonyms, and the A and C elements add a new dimension to the meaning of the stanza.

Like Adam and Eve, we are to be fruitful and increase. As we increase and fill, we are also to subdue creation – that is, continue to add life and develop it to its full potential. More simply, we are to shape and own the world around us. We can, in effect, change the environment. What this process then looks like involves the following:

1. Create / Co-create with the Father in bringing life

  • Creates the sphere or environment for life development and maturation
  • Creates the framework for life development
  • Nurture the soil of the heart to receive life by discerning the beauty and God-given potential of the person

2. Co-create - Shape / Co-rule - Tend

  • Words spoken to call life out – potential / glory recognized & celebrated
  • Soil of the heart nurtured through life-giving words, the seeds of life
  • Fill the life based on who they are in Christ and their God-given potential and destiny

3. The Process & Tools of Creation - The Word(s)

  • God said . . . Creative Word – environment; creating spheres that foster life. Unlike God, we are not able to create from nothing. We create from the raw materials God has left us with. In the pastoral task, this raw material is the human heart. All human hearts need a basic environment for life development and maturation that involves the life-giving Spirit of God, acceptance, being understood and seen for who they are, and loved.
  • The Word became flesh . . . Incarnate Word – gift of presence; calls out and shapes life. Shaping life and dealing with the raw material of the human heart makes it all the more imperative that we ask God to reveal to us who the person before us is in Christ, how He has made them and what their God-destiny and potential is. Answering these questions allows us to create the proper environment for them to develop and mature in Christ. Before we can develop someone, we must be able to see their God-given potential – who they really are in Christ. We see this played out wonderfully in the movie, Avatar. The gracious and heartfelt greeting of the Na’vi reflects this most beautifully, “I see you.” May we see the beauty of humanity in the way God sees it!
  • Written Word of God – teaching; provides the framework for life and teaches me how to live out my God-given potential. Shows us how God relates to Himself, to His creation – the pattern by which we are to follow in doing the same. Although we are dealing with the written Word of God, the key to understanding the life-giving potential of the Written Word is the Spirit of God that reveals to us the very heart and love of God as it is most poignantly reflected in the Person of Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). As a result, the Word of God is based in the Person of Christ, making it a relational book – discovering the truths in order to better relate to the Person (John 5:39; 14:6 – the Way, the Truth and the Life is a Person = Christ).
  • Spoken (Life-Giving) Words – the primary tool by which I co-create and co-rule with God. Shaping and tending creation is through the use of spoken words that give birth to life (born again, re-birth or re-creation), awakens the heart with hope and a future, igniting desire and passion to pursue their God-given potential. When such hope is ignited, as leaders what we discover is the individual now has internal motivation that is predicated on their relationship with God as a son/daughter, allowing us to more thoroughly engage in the pastoral task of equipping and resourcing the saints to their God-given destinies as sons/daughters, servants and stewards of life with the Father.

The Pastoral Heart and Objective

All of this is wonderfully summarized in the life and teaching of the apostle Paul as he makes it clear in several places what the primary objective of the pastoral task is. He speaks as a father to the church in Galatia as he passionately states, “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19) Paul goes on to expound further to the church in Colossae,

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1:24-29)

All that we do in the pastoral task can be summed in the words, “until Christ is formed in you” and presenting “everyone mature in Christ.” No matter how large or how great one’s church becomes, the ultimate drive of our pastoral task is to form Christ in our disciples. May our anguish be based in this heart that longs for God’s people to reflect the beauty of Christ in their lives, as they grow in the love of God, responding to His amazing love with a life of loving devotion, loving others as they love themselves and bearing fruit as they shape and tend creation – making disciples where they live life.

The following is a list of some practical things you and I can do to set the environment as we shape and tend the creation.

  • Live from the inside out
  • Relate to the person – affirm their humanity – be a witness to their life
  • Listen to the heart of others (Proverbs 20:5)
  • Affirm the Jesus in others or affirm their God-given potential if not a believer
  • Assimilate/Incarnate into people’s lives rather than assimilating them into your or the church’s purpose
  • Release people to their identity, purpose and gifting

As you can see, the ideal environment for spiritual development and maturation to transpire is relational. This relational environment is based in the amazing love of God, devoted to the Person of Christ, devoted to His people and devoted to His passion. This community lives in unity, based in life together around the “IC” as it finds itself re-created (born again), restored in Christ (healed and being healed) and joining God in the family business of reconciliation as restorers of the breach (2 Corinthians 5:18-20; Isaiah 58:12). May we all bring order to ṯōhû wāḇōhû!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Pastoring People

by Tom Johnston

The pastor of a modern Western church has to be "all things to all men" but not in the sense of Paul's words (1 Corinthians 9:22). The number of roles pastors are expected to play, via historical-cultural or organizational expectations, is really quite absurd, and most often do not arise from a biblical definition of the pastoral task. Pastors are expected to be skilled orators, expert expositors, competent managers, CEO/COO/CFO of the church, personnel coordinator, program director, general contractor, landscaper, mental health worker, carpenter, janitor, prayer warrior, legal advocate, accountant, head of IT, PowerPoint master, spiritual advisor, worship leader, bulletin layout person, vision-caster, omnipresent visitor of the sick, shut-ins, and at every major church event - as well as being chief cook and bottle washer. OK, this may be a bit of hyperbole, but most of you pastors out there have done some, if not all of these things. So, is this what Jesus has called us to do?

The forms of ministry we have inherited, along with the associated activity of it all, has caused the pastoral role to become culturally encumbered with these organizational roles and expectations. We have to keep the ministry plates spinning, and to do that, we have to become involved in things far beyond our calling or expertise. All this is done in the name of Jesus, with the motive being caring for His flock, and extending His kingdom. And from what we can see, it doesn't really work to accomplish either. Instead, busyness has taken the place of fruitfulness, as we have left the ministry of the Word and prayer to wait on tables (Acts 6:2). And quit honestly, we have left something else - the people we have been charged to care for, to minister to, to disciple and to equip. Many no longer pastor people, they pastor programs, becoming in effect, mid-level program managers in a non-profit organization. Our direct investment in the lives of others has be replaced with a lot of moving and shaking via administration. We attempt to manage the life of Christ into people, with minimal personal involvement or contact. We take the "Henry Ford" approach to ministry - mass production through efficient processes.

Yet, Jesus calls us to pastor His people. He told Peter to feed His lambs and tend His sheep (John 21:15-17). Paul speaks to the Ephesians elders of overseeing the flock of which the Holy Spirit made them overseers. The New Testament tells us to teach, pray for, exhort, encourage, rebuke people, not organizations, processes or programs. Our work is to see Christ formed in people through our own travail, giving birth as it were to spiritual children (Galatians 4:19). Robert Coleman, in his classic book, Master Plan of Evangelism (1963) said this:

"Better to give a year or so to one or two people who learn what it means to conquer for Christ that to spend a lifetime with a congregation just keeping the program going."

I wish we would have listened to Coleman in 1963 - when I was two years old. If we had, I wonder what I'd be writing you right now. Probably not this article. Henri Nouwen points out in his book In the Name of Jesus that ministers have traded their spiritual role for an administrative role so as to have distance from the people they lead. This keeps them safely away from the need to be transparent, vulnerable and accountable, and to live in community with those whom they lead. He wrote this in the late `80's from a talk he was asked to give on spiritual leadership in the next century. Now in that century, twenty years from Nouwen's lecture, and we have not heard Jesus through him either.

So, when will the madness stop? When will we have the courage to cast off the shackles of culture and human expectations, and radically return to the call to pastor people? How many more prophetic voices will Jesus need to send before we listen? Where are the spiritual radicals, the New Reformers, the revolutionaries of the Kingdom who are not satisfied with the status quo? Where are the men and women who will risk their paychecks for the future of the Church in the West by casting off the cultural expectations in favor of pouring their life into people who will embrace the Kingdom of God? Please understand, not all modern ministry forms or functions are wrong, nor are all the roles we must play at different times and seasons reprehensible to God. What offends God's heart and dis-empowers our ministry is when we allow those things to come between us and the people we serve, when we replace the direct spiritual formation of people with some 101, 201, 301 process that just happens on Tuesday night for an hour. See, its not about the form, but about our hearts. It is our heart that has to change.

The madness of modern pastoral ministry will end when enough of us currently in the ministerium cast of the fears of our own hearts and embrace the heart of the Father for His people. It will happen when the desire to please the Father replaces our desire to please people. It will happen when we stop seeing ministry as a profession or as a career and re-engage it as a holy calling. It will happen when the fear of man is overcome by the confidence of the Holy Spirit in who we are in Christ. It will happen when we embrace a new "core metric" of disciple-making instead of attendance. It will happen when we allow pastoral ministry to be defined by the New Testament rather than just our culture, history or organization. It will happen when obeying Jesus is more important that a paycheck, and when a church built on the person of Jesus Christ is more important to us than one built on us as the pastor.

The truth is, if you are going to pastor people, then you won't be able to really pastor very many. Probably about ten or so you can really pour your life into, maybe seventy or so you can have any real depth of pastoral relationship with. No, I am not advocating small church or house church - although there is nothing really wrong with that either, if they are making disciples who make more disciples. Even my friends who pastor mega-churches know this to be true: they must invest in the few who can in turn invest in the many. All ministry is incarnational and relational, so you only truly pastor those whom you can consistently engage and embrace personally.

Don't give up hope! All is not lost! The Church in the West is in dire straights, but the Church of the Scripture is not! Embrace God's call to pastor people. Make time and space in your life for people rather than the tangential roles we have inherited. Move away from those marginal roles and responsibilities - and make disciples! Don't wait - do it now, and watch what Jesus does, in you and through you, as you pastor His people.

If you'd like to read more about this transformation of the pastoral role, get our latest book The Organic Reformation: A New Hope for the Church in the West.