The God of Compassion

shepherd-carrying-sheepDoes God see where I am? Does He know what I am struggling with? These questions plague me at times, but I believe I am not the only one that asks these question, so I thought I would share a picture that came to me while reading Zechariah recently. This comes from the passage in chapter 10 that talks about the sheep that are without a shepherd. I see a picture of us, of me, as sheep. We are lost, wandering on our own. We are stuck in the crags, the crevices, the obscure side of the hill. No one knows where we are, and most of all we are helpless and without hope. We are bleating, crying out for help. We ask does anyone hear our cry. And this is where Jesus intersects us. He comes down to us with compassion. He sees us on the backside of nowhere. As he desperately searches for us, he finds us following the sound of our cries off in the distance. The sun is setting, and we are growing in despair. Just in the nick of time, he spots us. The God of the universe comes to us. He knows where we are. He rescues us. At the same time a second picture came to me showing another aspect of God’s compassion for his people. This time we have been lagging behind the herd when a wolf cuts us off from our friends. Sometimes life or the enemy of our soul comes at us with a vicious attack. Where we are being attacked by the wild animals, Jesus defends us. In this picture, I see myself on my back nearly eaten alive by a wolf when Jesus comes down and snatches me free from the mouth of the wolf. He takes the wolf by the back of the neck and throws it aside. I believe we miss seeing Jesus in this perception–the strong, protector. Jesus shows strength and even anger. He wants to set us free, so he must first throw off our attacker. The wolf yelps but crawls off with its tail between its legs. I am free. I am safe. When I look into the eyes of my rescuer, I see unabated love. I see the desire to find me no matter what obstacle lay between us. Now, I can rest in the arms of a mighty God.

The Baby Jesus

I was talking to my daughter, as we like to do at the dinner table. Mind you she is only 9-months, so the conversations are pretty one-sided at this time. But sometimes she looks at me and makes sounds her baby language. Today’s conversation centered around the Christmas story. As a new dad celebrating Christmas with his daughter for the first time, I wondered what she thought about the Baby Jesus.

She is so close to walking on her own now, and determined to figure out how to get moving and on her own. She has places to go and especially people to see. I asked her when she thought Jesus took his first steps. We wondered together if Mary had a book like Ellie’s mommy has to keep track of all of Jesus’ firsts.

When did Jesus get his first tooth?

When did Jesus begin to sit up?

When did Jesus start crawling?

What was Jesus first word?

We took the conversation a bit further too as Ellie does a compromised version of Elimination Communication (or click here). We look for her cues and then take her to go poopy. I asked my daughter if she thought Jesus gave the perfect cues to Mary to let her know when he needed to go.

We were blown away just thinking about how the Son of God, the almighty who was here at the beginning of the universe playing a role in creation also sat on the floor and played like our daughter does. The king of the universe allowed himself to go through all the same processes as any other baby. Talking with my daughter about Christmas helped me get a new perspective of Jesus’ humanity.

How does thinking of Jesus as a baby change how you picture him?

The Sheep Know His Voice

I was having a conversation recently that sparked a thought in my mind as I am transitioning into a new pastoral role. I love the picture of the pastor as a shepherd and have always chafed against the idea of the pastor as CEO. The shepherd gives an understanding of caring for the people in the church. When Jesus restored Peter, he asked him to take care of his sheep and Paul left behind shepherds in Acts 20.

As a shepherd, I find my calling to nurture the people and help them grow in the way of God. I come alongside of them and guide them in the way of Jesus to see them reach their full potential. As I transition now, I am pouring my energy into relationships. How will they know we care for them, if they do not know us? Vision casting is happening, but primarily in this season, I am being led to invest into the lives of the people God has entrusted to me.

As we transition and seek God for direction, we are listening to the heart of the people. My friend and mentor told me the shepherd needs to listen to his sheep to get direction. That may seem counterintuitive at first glance, but there is a genius here. Jesus said his sheep know his voice in John 10, and so often we leave it there. But how often did Jesus stop to listen to his people? The amazing thing about Jesus is how often he asked the people what they wanted. I am thinking, the blind guy is yelling out for you to show mercy to him, and the king of the universe is asking what the blind man wants. Ummm, as one blind person reading the story, I think he wants to see. But Jesus used opportunities like this to allow us to speak.

As a pastor, when we listen to our sheep, we can get direction for the church. I am not talking about listening to their complaints or asking them as a directionless leader where should we go. I am suggesting that if we listen to their hearts, we will gain a perspective as to where they need to be led. When we hear their hurts, pains and concerns, we can find a way to bring Jesus into those spaces.

In Thai culture, this doesn’t come easy. The power distance in a culture like this is extremely high. This means that that people are shy to speak their true feelings to the leaders. They avoid contradiction or asking questions. The leadership sets the direction and the followers get the worked done. In the West, it is completely the opposite. We are allowed to question our leadership and even ask why? This goes against the way of the Thai people. This means I need to foster the space to speak and for me to listen in a way that is appropriate in Thailand.

Now, Jesus walked and ministered in a culture that had a high power distance as well, and he found a way to foster open relationships. How many times was Peter getting in trouble for asking odd questions, like how many times is sufficient for forgiving your friend? The disciples also asked who is the greatest. Even James and John asked for the right to sit at Jesus right hand when he entered his kingdom. Jesus found a way with sensitivity to the culture to create an atmosphere where everyone had a voice. I want to do the same.

How often do you stop to listen to those you lead?

When you listen, how do you create space for them to have a voice?

In the image of Jesus…or is that my image?

If you think about the painting you see, you often quickly flip through the photos in your brain’s multi-layered organizer and see dozens of images of a Jesus that looks more like us than how he accurately could have looked.

In America, we have surfer Jesus with his loose fitting robe for comfort and an over coat. He has the trendy sandals on. (This reminds me of when I ran, and lost for class office in Bible College, I had a top ten list that included the fact that I wore sandals like Jesus did.) The same idea of picturing Jesus through our cultural lens goes for all cultures.

Philipino churches have an Asian Jesus; African churches have a dark skinned Jesus in their art. In my class on communicating in cultures, our prof showed us images of Jesus at the beginning of class that depicted him in the eyes of different cultures.

Ultimately, we can criticize this reality that we make
Jesus into a character we can relate to as a narrow view of our Lord rather than a more precise picture of the creator of the universe. We have had lots of good work done in video over the past years remaking some of the films with meek Jesus that looked more like effeminate Jesus and redubbing the words for humors sake to make the point that Jesus likely had more of a backbone and strength of persona than that. However, we will always imagine Jesus as one of us. We cannot escape the present reality that we are drawn to people like us, and when we see Jesus as different as us…well…that creates barriers that makes us uncomfortable.

Yet this same Jesus even as he does relate with us better than anyone, also must stand in contrast to us as only he fulfilled the destiny God designed for us. Only he lived out life as perfect and devoted to God above all other things. At some level Jesus should disturb our status quo and pull us from where we are into where he wants us. He is not just buddy Jesus to pull from a crass film knocking the Catholic Church and looking for a better way to Market Jesus. He doesn’t just hang around us dining and drinking with us until we finally get it and turn around to follow him.

We see him walking a balance of living in the world and standing out as different and attractive as alternative to living life the way we think we should. We see Jesus in the homes of people with less than ideal backgrounds, or even in the home of a well respected man when a prostitute comes in Jesus had a way of accepting people where they were, so much so that this prostitute did not care that everyone would see her and be repulsed. She walked in with her hair down advertising that she was not a respected woman of society. She even used her long hair to wipe Jesus’ feet with the perfume she poured over it (Luke 7).

On the other hand, people came out of the woodwork wanting to follow Jesus while keeping some prerequisites. One guy wanted to bury his father (meaning he wanted to receive his inheritance first), and others wanted to hold onto their property (Mark 10). Jesus looked them dead in the eye and said follow me with everything or don’t bother. John 6 shares a story when many walked away from Jesus, and he didn’t go running after them trying to explain his story of the kingdom better. In fact, he turned to his closest allies and asked if they too would abandon him. Jesus stood firm, without wavering, as he lived out God’s mission to redeem humanity, example God’s incredible love and give us a glimpse of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).

Now, let’s hold in tension the idea of Jesus, the one we imagine, and Jesus, the one who walked the dusty roads of Galilee as we wrestle with how we know God. This understanding hit me fresh recently in talking with our Thai teacher. She told a story of how as a new Christian she remembered being so angry with Jesus. I said, why? Why, could you be so angry at Jesus? I was thinking of the typical person that blames Jesus for something going wrong in their life.

I couldn’t have been more surprised when she meant a she became angry at Jesus after reading the gospel account of his life. I thought in stunned amazement, what he did in the pages of those narratives that could get a kind, gentle hearted Thai girl so worked up. Don’t get me wrong, all cultures have their fits of anger, so even if the Thai people are generally sweet natured, they can still have their moments. Nonetheless, I couldn’t imagine how Jesus could make her so angry.

She went on to tell the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. When she read over that story, she thought Jesus was so mean. From her perspective as a gentle person who lets frustrating circumstances roll off her back, she saw a powerful man misusing his power. He cursed that fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and didn’t even give a second thought to it. Again, being visibly angry in a culture like Thailand is a terrible offense.

When she saw Jesus curse the tree for not bearing fruit, she saw an angry and unjust man. That is until she talked to her pastor and learned the culture and geography. She thought why was he so unkind to the tree and angry. Why not just go find another tree for some figs. When she understood more and saw that Jesus was giving a living parable to his disciples about the importance of bearing fruit, she saw Jesus in a new light.

Sometimes our impressions can cause us to have a misguided image of Jesus. We might not realize it at first, but if we never do, the Jesus we picture ends up being the Jesus we follow. I admire my teacher for being brave and asking her pastor to explain the story of Jesus better. She wanted to understand Jesus, the real Jesus and not just have her misconceptions guide how she thinks about Jesus.

Let’s be careful that we don’t make Jesus like us, rather, let’s strive to be made like Jesus as God works on our lives. What is one misconception of Jesus that jumps to your mind as you read this?

Missional Vs. Attractional 6

Balance and tension are two keys in the discussion of attractional and missional ministry. Too often we get stuck defending a point of view and fight for one way at the expense of seeing the other side may have a valid point as well. Invariably we paint an extreme portrait of the other side to make our side look better. Yet, Jesus had a way about him that caused his critics, and hopefully us, to pause and moment and hold our positions loosely.

If we paint with a broad brush the missional view or the attractional view, neither looks so great, but if we hold them in tension and walk a balance of both as we in the church touch this world at all corners, we can begin to see dynamic things happen around us. Jesus, the ultimate in paradox, used missional and attractional approaches from the beginning as he called his disciples.

Let’s dive into how Jesus held in tension missional and attractional in how he called the apostles. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), but he couldn’t leave until the future of God’s people was in good hands. And if the real crux of the argument has little to do with missional or attractional but with discipleship, let’s take a gander at how Jesus connected with these disciples in which hands he left the future of God’s mission.

We don’t know all of their stories, and some have more drama than others. Some Jesus found and called, like Phillip (John 1:43), while others came from a third way after John the Baptist pointed him out. One of those, Andrew, grabbed his brother Peter and connected him with Jesus (John 1:37-42). Still there are two narratives from the disciples first connecting with Jesus that can help us balance our view of missional or attractional, and these are stories of Nathanael and Matthew.

Nathanael embodies the classic seeker or attractional philosophy of ministry. This type of church builds a ministry around Phillips answer to Nate’s skepticism when he first hears that his buddy Phillip has found the one they have all been waiting for. The messiah is here, and sheepishly Phillip adds that the son of David hails from Nazareth. Raising an eyebrow, Nate asks, can anything good come from that place? The classic cynic has put his friend off and now feels that he can go about his day with no more of this messiah nonsense being talked about. That is until Phil lays on him the epic line, “come and see”. John lays out a great description

Nathanael encountered Jesus and forever was changed. In Thailand, the Thai people refer to coming to faith as literally knowing God. Before they did not know him, but now they do. At some point along their journey to faith, they encounter God either through answered prayers, miracles, or a feeling of his presence with them.

If Nathanael came to Jesus, because his friend somehow attracted him enough to check him out, another guy connected with Jesus in quite the opposite way.

Matthew, reviled in his community for his chosen profession of greed, becomes a great antihero as Jesus sees beyond his flaws and calls the tax-collector to follow him. The Jewish people despised these Cretans as the lowest of the low for selling out their countrymen as they chase the almighty dollar…oh I mean denarius. They worked for the evil empire of Rome and were characterized by their pure greed and manipulation. Now enter Jesus. Rather than avoiding the tax-collectors booth, Jesus walks boldly up to the swarthy extortioner and calls him out of his current lifestyle into a new way of life (Luke 5:27-29).

Jesus captures something that we all could practice a little better, and let me add a big thank you to our Lord for this one. Jesus has an ability to see us for whom we can become and not limited to who we have been. A reputation matters, but with Jesus, we can have a golden opportunity to start again.

As we serve in ministry, some of our best disciples will seek us out as they learn about who we are, while others must be found. We often like to look at the cream of the crop from each year’s Bible College grads to find the next person to mentor, but maybe our future reside in our community. All we need to do is start seeing them how Jesus does.

Missional Vs. Attractional 4

In this series, I have dived into the milieu of a recent discussion among church leaders and strategists on the church being missional or attractional. In previous posts, I unpacked this is a false dichotomy. Often, the missional guys point to Jesus as our example to be on mission as he was constantly moving and going to people. So I want to look at Jesus’ ministry to further point out that it is both/and.

Jesus did come and live on mission (missional), yet he did not do that at the expense of drawing people to him (attractional). When we jump into this discussion, we often feel like both sides want to pull on the Bible to say their way is more accurate. As we look at Jesus let’s notice that Jesus uses multiple methodologies throughout his ministry.

Jesus attracted crowds…simple as that…but that’s not all he did…

People flocked to him from the cities, the rural countryside, the hills, and regions beyond Palestine. People from all backgrounds, the sick, the poor, children, women and the working class, the broken, the despised, the sinners and hurting came to be near Jesus…Something about Jesus stepping into our world with the kingdom of God sparked a move of people crossing whatever barriers they could to see Jesus. Some even broke through a stranger’s roof to get their friend a front row seat with Jesus (Mark 2). And the people who came to see Jesus were not always the people most like him. People came from all over to see Jesus: Gentiles from Syria, the Decapolis, Phoenicia, and non-Jewish soldiers, and more.

Yet, Jesus never remained satisfied that people were dogpiling over each other to get near him, as the word picture in the Greek implies in the narrative of Jesus by the shore (Luke 5:1). Jesus never contented himself or allowed for what we might see in today’s culture to set in—a sense of celebrity. That is because he always knew when to move on (Mark 1:38). The crowds began filing in from everywhere, but Jesus was up early praying. When the disciples found him, he said, I have to go; more towns need to hear the gospel. Jesus constantly was on the move going from town to town and people to people to bring the good news of the kingdom of God.

In this, Jesus was the best example of mission…and attraction. He crossed cultures and drew men, women and children unto him. In his ministry, Jesus allowed for both forms of connecting with people, because discipleship was his primary focus. Jesus was always moving out and stopping to allow people to come but moving out again at the right time. He kept a keen ear to the voice of the Spirit as he lived out mission and practiced the appropriate methods for the current task. Here is a map (Jesus’ travels and followers-maps) that gives a picture of where Jesus went (the first map) and where people came from to see Jesus (the second map).

People crossed cultural barriers to meet with the one believed to be the Messiah, a great man among the Jews who also could affect their lives. Let me illustrate this point with a look at Mark 3:7-8. Imagine people descended from Esau, and the Edomites, now living in Idumea, nearly 500 km south of Galilee down by the Dead Sea. These people were overlooked in the time of Jesus due to their background and status. Yet some from there came to find Jesus. Why?? How? Perhaps a neighbor or relative saw him while north on business. When they returned home, they likely grabbed their friend or cousin and got them on the next bus north. Well, not a bus, but a long walk to see this teacher who taught with authority unlike any they ever heard. The crowds we picture on the mount where Jesus preached his famous story likely comprised a multi-ethnic crowd, some drawn in to Jesus and others that Jesus found.

As we seek to do mission in Bangkok, we want to first listen to God’s voice, and in everything pour our life into the people we work with to make disciples as we walk together with Jesus. We won’t be here forever, but we want to leave people behind that are lifelong disciples of God. I am less concerned with how we connect with them than I am with having meaningful connections with the people we serve.

Missional Vs. Attractional 3

My thoughts continue rolling out like a slinking rolling down the stairs about the great debate of missional vs. attractional. If you didn’t read the previous posts, can do here and here. Now I want to look at what Jesus did, the most superb model.

Jesus was the greatest example of the both/and principle, confounding the intellectuals and practitioners of his day as well as embracing everyone with the slightest amount of interest in his message, repent, the kingdom of God is at hand. (Side note: Maybe we have moved to far away from his core message in trying to be more like U2, the most beloved figure in the world rather than like Jesus who stirred things up.) It wasn’t just the Pharisees who didn’t like him…unrepentant sinners didn’t give him much time, nor did a handful of other segments of society. Maybe, Jesus was the best contrarian as well.

Jesus knew the culture and at times moved seamlessly within the culture, but where the cultural norms and customs either played such a small part in people’s thinking or contradicted the way of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus flaunted the cultural rules such as no one could. In this greatest story of mission, Jesus crossed barriers and stepped right into a situation in Samaria that allowed him to be missional and attractional.

Rather than walking around the region of Samaria, pungent to any upstanding Jew, Jesus ventured right through the area with his disciples. I can only picture them murmuring among themselves, doesn’t Jesus know where he is going. We can’t stay here. Let’s just keep our head down and we’ll get through this land of half-breeds quick enough.

Now, to make matters worse, Jesus stopped right there at a well to rest in the middle of the day. At this point, the hungry disciples took their order to go to town and pick up food. Oh, that had to be a cross-cultural episode of epic proportion that I wish the writer and participant of the story would have shared. Meanwhile, as the twelve ran to In&Out, Jesus waited patiently at the well for a woman who also hoped no one would be around. She hoped to sneak out while no one was looking and avoid the gossip.

With her head down and keeping to her business she kept clear of the Jewish man who surprisingly entered her neck of the woods. Yet, Jesus did not ignore her. He initiated conversation with her that led to him sharing about the living water of the Holy Spirit and salvation. He led her through a conversation that piqued her interest, and then looked directly into her soul…the heart of who she was and called her out. He said, I know who you are and what you have done, and yet I am willing to still be with you and call you into relationship. This blew her away.

This woman who had five husbands and now lives with another man not her life completely transformed in that moment from shy to inquisitive, from bashful to bold. She found Jesus and wanted to be with him…and share this story with others. This is where the great story of mission turns into mission and attraction.

She goes into town, so fired up that she met Jesus that she leaves the jug of water by the well, and tells the town folks that loved gossiping about her to come see a man that told me everything I ever did. I am not sure how attractive that is…come see this guy who knows the deep, dark secrets of your life. He is amazing…but it worked and the whole town came out and saw Jesus.

Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” John 4:39-42

Yet, her mission to the people in town was not enough. She could not just tell them she found the messiah. That initiated the interest in the townspeople, but they still wanted to meet Jesus for themselves.

As we are on mission, let’s not discount the ways that we can attract others to meet Jesus. Let us also turn loose these people with their lives changed to be on mission to the places we don’t go, but not discount the ways that we can create space for them to attract people to meet Jesus with us.