This past weekend, I preached a message on Jesus as the Son of Man at Eastbrook Church. This was part of our series, “Name Above All Names,” on the titles of Christ. Once again, I want to recommend that you view this roughly video from The Bible Project which condenses a tremendous amount of theology into a five minute video summarizing the significance of the “Son of Man” title.
While preparing for a retreat with Eastbrook Church’s student ministry, I came across this excerpt from Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard that hit home to me. Given some of my recent reflections on the nature of pastoral leadership in North America (see “Five Themes of Resilient Ministry” and “Five Steps for Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership“), this section on the gaps and possibilities of Christian formation in our lives, particularly the Christian formation of pastors and leaders, was resoundingly important to me. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
First of all we must be clear that such a transition as is envisioned in Christian spiritual formation can actually happen, and can actually happen to us. This, today, is not obvious.
What we see around us today of the “usual” Christian life could easily make us think that spiritual transformation is simply impossible. It is now common for Christian leaders themselves to complain about how little real-life difference there is between professing, or even actual Christians, on the one hand, and non-Christians on the other. Although there is much talk about “changing lives” in Christian circles, the reality is very rare, and certainly much less common than the talk.
The “failures” of prominent Christian leaders themselves, already referred to, might cause us to think genuine spiritual formation in Christlikeness to be impossible for “real human beings.” How is it, exactly, that a man or woman can respectably serve Christ for many years and then morally disintegrate? And the failures that become known are few compared to the ones that remain relatively unknown and are even accepted among Christians.
Recently, I learned that one of the most prominent leaders in an important segment of Christian life “blew up,” became uncontrollably angry, when someone questioned him about the quality of his work. This was embarrassing, but it is accepted (if not acceptable) behavior; and in this case, it was the one who was questioning him who was chastised. That is in fact a familiar pattern in both Christian and non-Christian “power structures.” But what are we to say about the spiritual formation of that leader? Has something been omitted? Or is he really the best we can do?
The same questions arise with reference to lay figures in areas of life such politics, business, entertainment, or education, who show the same failures of character while openly identifying themselves as Christians. It is unpleasant to dwell on such cases, but they must be squarely faced.
Of course the effects of such failures depend on the circumstances, on how widely the failure becomes known, and on various other factors. In another case a pastor became enraged at something a subordinate did during a Sunday morning service. Immediately after the service he found that subordinate and gave him a merciless tongue-lashing. With his lapel mike still on! His diatribe was broadcast over the entire church plant and campus-in all the Sunday school rooms and the parking lot. Soon thereafter he “received the Lord’s call” to another church. But what about the spiritual formation of this leader? Is that the best we can do? And is he not still really like that in his new position?
Malfeasance with money is less acceptable than anger, and sexual misconduct is less tolerated still. But is the inner condition (the heart) all that different in these cases-before God?
The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) “fails” is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life and whole person who is revealed by the act. What is sad is who these leaders have been all along, what their inner life has been like, and no doubt also how they have suffered during all the years before they “did it” or were found out. What kind of persons have they been, and what, really, has been their relation to God?
Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help. Indeed, in the early stages of spiritual development we could not endure seeing our inner life as it really is. The possibility of denial and self-deception is something God has made accessible to us, in part to protect us until we begin to seek him. Life the face of the mythical Medusa, our true condition away from God would turn us to stone if we ever fully confronted it. It would drive us mad. He has to help us come to terms with it in ways that will not destroy us outright.
Without gently though rigorous process of inner transformation, initiated and sustained by the graceful presence of God in our world and in our soul, the change of personality and life clearly announced and spelled out in the Bible, and explained and illustrated throughout Christian history, is impossible. We not only admit it, but also insist upon it. But on the other hand, the result of the effort to change our behavior without inner transformation is precisely what we see in the current shallowness of Western Christianity that is so widely lamented and in the notorious failures of Christian leaders.
At our Christmas Eve services at Eastbrook Church, we focused on Jesus as the light of the world. You can watch my message from the Christmas Eve service here. This begins a new series, “The Name Above All Names,” for us at Eastbrook on the titles of Jesus. I’m also including the text of that message below the video.
Christmas Eve 2018 – “Light of the World”
As we grow up, most of us learn the basics of life. One of those basics is that we have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
While there are other things we sense – pain, temperature, hunger – most of those are related to the classic five senses that we usually learn.
But there is a unique effect that sometimes occurs where the triggering of one sense leads to the involuntary triggering of another sense. One of the most well-known incidents of this was recorded in 1690 by the English philosopher John Locke who made a report about a blind man who said he experienced the color scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet.
That effect in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sense is called synesthesia.
The story of Jesus’ birth is an experience of multi-sensory stimulation causing an experience like synesthesia. As the story goes, Mary and Joseph both have angelic appearances, during a vision at daytime for Mary and during a dream at night for Joseph.
Those angelic appearances overwhelm them and are enough to help them believe that God is doing something new: God is rescuing the world from the powers of evil and sin by coming in the midst of ordinary people like them in the flesh. And all through those angelic appearances burst sights, sounds, and feelings that overload the senses with God’s purposes:Read More »
This from C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves:
God is love….[and] This…love is Gift-love. In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give….God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing…the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and ‘take advantage of’ Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.
Picking up from the previous weekend on “God the Father,” I continued our vision series with an exploration of the second person of the Trinity, God the Son.
How do you pack into one message the entirety of Scriptural teaching on God the Son, plus give attention to some of the most important debates and discussions of Christology since the time of Christ? It’s impossible. However, I did my best to bring together a lot of material from Scripture and historical theology in this message.
Here is the video and sermon outline of the second message from our series on The Trinity, “God the Son.”
Jesus died but that was not the end. The apparent end was the beginning of new life. This day we celebrate the wonder of the resurrection.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
This weekend at Eastbrook Church I gave a message entitled “Beginning to Live” about how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus opens a new way to live our lives. It is a way of purpose, freedom, and joy.
When a person dies, there is a sudden and unsettling stillness that settles into their body. It feels and looks unnatural because there is an utter stillness. Unlike sleep, where the rhythm of breathing usually conveys a peaceful and restorative rest, the stillness of death seems harsh.
Jesus died on the cross. His brutalized body hung limp and bent at awkward angles; suspended by nails that tore the skin. His side was pierced and watery blood flowed out.
Two secret followers worked hard to remove His body from that instrument of cruel torture. They expended the effort to bury Him with dignity. It was likely a messy experience.Read More »