Old Camel Knees: a brief reflection on the remarkable prayer life of James the Just

James_the_Just_(Novgorod,_16_c.)The fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, relates a story gathered from the lost works of Hegesippus during the second century about James “the Just,” who likely wrote the epistle of James and was the earthly brother of Jesus. In the midst of outlining the persecution of the church in his Ecclesiastical History , Eusebius details the death of James in Book II, Ch. XXIII:

3. The manner of James’ death has been already indicated by the above-quoted words of Clement, who records that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows:

4. “James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James.

5. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath.

6. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.

7. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him.

There is so much we could discuss here, but today I merely want to draw attention to point (6) above, which highlights James’ ongoing life of prayer, specifically his worship of God and petitions for forgiveness on behalf of others. His dedication to prayer is such that his physical body reflected it: “his knees became hard like those of a camel.” It is because of this phrase that James is often referred to as “camel knees.”

The idea of praying on our knees is mentioned frequently in Scripture (Psalm 95:6; Daniel 6:10; Luke 5:8; Ephesians 3:14). Praying on our knees conveys humility – an appropriate sense of who we are – and awe – an appropriate sense of who God is. Getting down on our knees tells us in a very tangible way – through the posture of our bodies – that something different is occurring in our experience that requires something different from our bodies. As one commentator writes, kneeling in prayer communicates something vitally important: “We recognize that God is everything for us and that without his merciful love, we are, literally, nothing.”

These days many of us, especially those within evangelical traditions, rarely get on our knees in prayer. In fact, it is so out of the ordinary that when I recently invited our church community to kneel, I had to take extra time to set it up ahead of time. Those in what would described as traditional churches likely find it more common to descend to a kneeler each week for the confessional prayer. Regardless of our worship tradition, I would like to suggest that all of us could learn quite a lot from the Apostle James in his example of dedicated, humble prayer through appropriate kneeling.

However, let me take it a step further, and say that pastors and ministers of all sorts should take a cue on prayer from “Old Camel Knees.” It would be an invaluable breakthrough in ministry practice if all of us serving in ministry left a legacy like James of dedication in prayerful worship of God and intercession before God on behalf of our people. May God give us grace that our bodies would be marked by our dedication in prayer.

Notes on Church Growth

These notes came from my preparation for my message on Ephesians 4, “A Crash Course in Church Growth,” from a few weeks ago.

Church growth is founded upon the unity we receive from God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Church growth is something that happens to us over time and by God’s good grace, but not without intention and yielding to God.

Church growth involved God and other people, for it is the church who grow toward Christlikeness together, and not ideally alone.

Church growth is not all that much about building, budgets, and bodies in seats, but more about growth toward maturity in Jesus Christ.

Church growth involves those who Christ has appointed – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – who actively equip, serve, and build up the church in solid faith and overarching love.

Church growth has a goal, and it is not some utopian human ideal but Christ, the Head, who descended and ascended, and who is the Highest Name.

Church growth lives in the “already, but not yet” of lived human existence. We live in Christ as His people and yet are growing through Christ to be more truly His people.

Peter: God’s restoration in failure

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This past weekend in my message, “The Good News of New Beginnings,” I didn’t make my way into all the detail I had planned in the new beginning of Peter from his failure. Here are my sermon notes from that section, exploring Jesus’ restoration of Peter from the failure of his denials. I hope this encourages you in the midst of your own failures.


 

Now turn with me to one final story of new beginning, found in the next chapter of John’s Gospel. Here, we find the disciples have returned to their home area in Galilee to fish, but haven’t caught anything. Are they trying to de-stress after all that happened to them in Jerusalem? Are they forsaking all they learned from Jesus and just returning to their old lives?

We don’t know for sure, but something dramatic happens when Jesus Himself appears on the lakeshore to give them fishing advice. Jesus’ advice to throw their nets over the other side leads to a miraculously huge haul of fish, which makes them realize they are dealing with Jesus.

Peter, in His excitement, jumps into the water and swims all the way to shore ahead of the others. Jesus makes them breakfast, and they all know it is Him. In the midst of that breakfast, Jesus has a direct conversation with Peter in four parts.

Part 1 – Peter’s failed boldness (John 21:15)
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (21:15)

This first question brings us back to Peter’s failure, when He denied Jesus three times.
Earlier in John’s Gospel before Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus had warned His disciples about the challenges about to come.

Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

Which is exactly what Peter did. Jesus is resurrecting Peter’s failure so that He can directly deal with it. Suppressing our failures does not bring life; instead it eats away at us from the inside out.

Part 2 – Peter’s failed love (John 21:16)
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter’s painful response: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

But earlier in the upper room, Jesus had addressed all the disciples, showing them what real love looks like, when he said: “If you love me, keep my commands” (14:15).

Peter had a failure of nerve, but also a failure of love. Jesus draws this out into the light so that Peter might not be trapped within his failure but move into a new beginning.

Part 3 – Peter’s pain revealed (John 21:17)
But Jesus is not done yet.

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (21:17)

Just notice this phrase: “the third time.” Jesus is intentionally paralleling Peter’s three denials with three questions.

Peter’s pained response is “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Again, Jesus is calling all of the failure out into the light so that it might not be hidden or suppressed, but release, healed, and turned into a new beginning. What is that new beginning?

Part 4 – Peter’s calling (John 21:18-22)
After the three-fold “Feed my sheep” (21:17) Jesus speaks the ultimate: “Follow me!” (21:19). This echoes Jesus’ first invitation for Peter to follow Him. He is returned to a new beginning of discipleship that will lead him into a new beginning of ministry.

Jesus does not leave Peter to linger in failure, whether hiding it or brooding over it. Instead, Jesus addresses Peter’s failure by bringing it into the light, then healing it, and finally restoring him to a meaningful calling.

For us, too, failure can box us in. We hold it in the back room of our lives, afraid for anyone to know about it. We brood over it when no one is around, like it is something we cannot stand but something we cannot live without. This is not life, but less than living. Jesus comes to us, in the power of the resurrection, to say that what seems like the end in our failure does not have to be the end.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, our failures can be the doorways to a new beginning of restoration in Him.

Exemplary Lives of Renewed Pastors

Richard Baxter.jpgIn reading J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness some time ago, I came across this moving quotation from Richard Baxter about the need for pastors to attend to their own lives in ministry. Baxter was an interesting figure, best known for his writing of that classic of pastoral practice, The Reformed Pastor.

Just a quick note that the term ‘reformed’ for Baxter does not merely refer to the reformed theological tradition, but also to the pursuit of a thoroughly reformed life before God. A more easily understood title for that book today might be “The Renewed Pastor.” I am confident that more than a few readers might agree with me that what we need today, no less than in Baxter’s day, is renewed pastors whose lives are exemplary and saturated with the character of Christ.

Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others….be also careful that your graces are kept in vigorous and lively exercise, and that you preach to yourselves the sermons which you study, before you preach them to others….watch therefore over your own hearts: keep out lusts and passions, and worldly inclinations; keep up the life of faith, and love, and zeal; be much at home, and much with God…take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine…lest you unsay with your lives, what you say with your tongues….we must study as hard how to live well, as how to preach well.

This is a challenging and good word to those of us who serve the Lord and His church in pastoral ministry. Baxter draws attention to the key topics: the steadiness in our exercise of faith, the personal response to the message we preach to others, dealing with the desires and longings within our own hearts, our zeal in ministry, and our everyday living for God. There is hardly any part of our lives to which Baxter fails to call attention. God forbid that we should take lightly our call and the example which we must set as servants of Christ in His body!

With confidence, Paul could say these words to one of his congregations: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Pastor, I ask myself and invite you to join me in considering whether we can we offer the same confident statement to our people from our own lives. With a tip of my hat to E. M. Bounds, I must say that what we need today as pastors is not primarily more activity in the church, or more impact in the social arena, or better programs, or more-updated models of ministry. No. For all the good that those things can offer, they are not the primary necessity in pastoral ministry today or in any other era. Our primary need for pastoral ministry in today’s church is that humble servants of Christ will lay down their lives daily in order to be made completely new and alive to God in Christ. May God transform us as pastors into examples others can follow for His glory.

The Apostle James’ words come to mind:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).

Pastor, Know Your Context

When I was a graduate student, I took a missions class called “Contextualization” as an elective. The class was essentially intended to equip missionaries for understanding the cross-cultural context, or setting, in which they were going to do mission work so that they could share the message of Christ in culturally astute ways. We discussed ethical issues like bribery, relational issues like polygamy, and theological issues like worship styles that fit the heart language of a people group.

Unfortunately, the mission principle of contextualization – doing ministry in culturally astute ways – is often relegated to clearly “missionary” or cross-cultural settings. But when we do ministry as pastors within United State, we often ignore the fact that we need to contextualize our ministry just as much in a setting that seems familiar.

We take for granted, for instance, that we actually know our setting. “After all,” we think to ourselves, “I’m an American doing ministry in America! What is there to understand?”I would like to contend, however, that we do not always understand our context as much as we think we do.

Here are six questions worth pondering for those of us who do ministry in the United States. While national history and trends must be considered, we must be aware of the specific state and local history and trends for our context. If you know the answers to these questions for your setting, kudos to you! If not, it is time for you to dig deeper in order to know your setting.

  1. What is the rough chronology or time-line of your city, town, or county? When and how was it founded and when and how did it expand?
  2. What ethnic groups make up your context and how did they come to be there over time? What are the cultural distinctives of those ethnic groups, and how are those distinctives continuing to impact your setting?
  3. What are the driving economic forces of your setting and how have those changed over time? How did national issues, such as the Great Depression or World War II, affect your setting economically?
  4. What have been the defining conflicts over time in your setting? Put another way, what governmental, ethnic, or economic issues have raised tension levels at different times?
  5. What has the religious climate been within your setting over the course of its history? What have been the ebbs and flows of church life, and how has the flow of cultural issues over time affected that positively or negatively?
  6. What would you see as the key 3-5 issues in your setting that the church must address in some way, whether directly or indirectly, in order to minister in culturally astute ways in the next 25 years?

A superficial familiarity with our setting may hinder us from truly knowing it and, thus, keep us from an effective ministry for the kingdom where God has placed us. We must dig deep to know our setting.

Jesus is Local and Personal

Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-CatacombI’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ way of doing ministry recently. A number of years ago, I read Eugene Peterson’s outstanding book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Ever since reading it, I have grappled with what it means to truly minister to people in Jesus’ way.

In the midst of my reflections, I have been surprised once again by how Jesus always spoke and acted with specific people in specific places. In many ways this is so straightforward that I initially failed to give it much thought.

However, Peterson helped me to see how this is often not the way that we tend to think about Jesus or ourselves as North American Christians today.

We tend to be captivated with formulas and generalities that we can mold and apply to our Christian life, whether habits or purposes or principles. Jesus, however, did not offer generalities or formulas that could be broadcast on billboards or used as marketing slogans.

Instead, Jesus dealt with specific people in their specific places.

He asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water and then conversed about life, human soul-thirst, and the nature of the Messiah (John 4). Walking along with His disciples, Jesus addressed prevailing notions of sin and its physical repercussions by interacting with a man born blind. He spit in the dust, caked it over the man’s blind eyes, and told him to go wash in a nearby pool (John 9).

Jesus is undeniably local, personal, and relational. He does not seem too concerned with developing broad-based programs or ideas into which people are plugged like so many disposable appliances in an over-crowded kitchen. Quite the opposite!

What Jesus does is this. He calls this one – Zacchaeus – into relationship in a personal manner as they talk about life over a meal (Luke 19). He calls these four – Peter and Andrew, James and John – to follow Him from their lake-fishing into people-fishing for the lost while walking along the shore (Matthew 4).

Jesus lives locally with specific people in specific places. What about us? Do we live in that way? Do we minister in that way?

The Disturbing Temptations of Pastoring in Obscurity

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I had the privilege of writing an article for Christianity Today‘s CT Pastors imprint that was released today. There’s an excerpt below, but you can read the full article here.

Gregory the Great, so tradition tells us, was a reluctant pope. Well-educated and from a wealthy family, Gregory experienced inner tension between his longing for the contemplative life and his sense of calling toward secular responsibilities. After converting to the monastic life and transforming his house into a monastery—the happiest years of his life—Gregory often was called into service of the church in public ways, including serving as Pope Pelagius II’s legate to Constantinople. When troubles gathered around Rome, Gregory was called from his monastic life to the city to help. Soon afterward, Pope Pelagius died of the plague sweeping through Rome at that time, and Gregory was elected to succeed him. Gregory tried to refuse the office, preferring his monastic life, but once elected, he accepted his duties faithfully and worked hard to serve God in his new position. The best leaders, according to the old proverb, are reluctant leaders.

Of course, as my own story shows, reluctance is not an inherently laudable trait…[read the rest of the article here]