Why We No Longer Say “Members”

Several weeks ago we instituted a change at Abundant Life where we are no longer using the word member, or membership, and in its place we have decided to use the term covenant partner.  This change is not to be cool, hip or up to date (as if the phrase represents any of that), instead it reflects the heart of our church to be the kind of people God envisions.  As we think about this change in language, I want to give you three reasons as to why:

1.       A culture at war with consumerism.  We want to be a church that goes to war with consumerism.  Membership instigates a what’s-in-it-for-me mindset.  For example, I’m a member of the Delta Skymiles program, where I am afforded a lot of perks.  Every year I’m given a free pass to their Sky Club, offered complimentary upgrades to first class, and because of my membership in their program and the status I’ve accrued, my bags typically come out in the first wave.  Talk about membership having its privileges!  I didn’t become a member of their program to give to Delta, I joined to get.  If you’re a member of a country club, travel program or any other entity, you probably asked the question, “What’s in it for me?”.  Language is huge in creating culture, so we feel this tweak in language will instigate a spirit of contribution and service, not a one way street of receiving.

2.       Rootedness.  The word covenant conveys a sense of rootedness.  We often refer to marriages as covenants, not contracts.  Contracts are performance oriented and transactional.  Covenants are more permanent in nature.  When we are in covenant with someone, what we are saying is “I am in this for the long haul”.  We don’t want to attract a body of “sermon-tasters,” who come for a season, and then move on to the next hottest thing.  We want people who feel a sense of call and rootedness to our body.

3.       Ownership.  A covenant-partner is one who feels a sense of ownership in the church, and when you are that invested you care about what happens and are more prone to participate in the life of our body.  Of course we want to be a church that blesses and equips you.  My hope is whenever God calls you on you will leave our church thinking you became a much better follower of Jesus because of the things you received from us.  But this is a two way street, isn’t it?  Our hope is we can say we’re a better church because you used your gifts and passions in a way that blessed and edified our body and the Bay.  This is what covenant-partners do.

A Provocative Freedom

We are a nation divided, and those divisions are not new, they’ve just been put on full display through some very recent acts, namely with a group of athletes choosing to take a different posture when it comes to the flag and the playing of our national anthem. A recent ESPN poll revealed what we already know - one’s position on the flag and whether or not to kneel runs along racial lines. The bulk of minorities surveyed are for the protests, while our white brothers and sisters hold a different view.
As Christians we should have a vested interest in this. I believe we have a unique opportunity to display the fragrant aroma of Christ not in our uniformity around this issue, but in how we navigate those differences with one another in all too public forums like Twitter, Facebook and the comments section on someone’s blog post (to name a few). I am going to guess if you’re a Christ-follower that you are a person of the Book, so how should the Scriptures inform our posture with one another. I’ve found the following to be helpful:

1. America is not God’s country. Nowhere in the Bible will you find that America is God’s country. I do believe that God has blessed America with unusual favor in large part because of how we treated the Jews during WWII. God promised in the Abrahamic covenant that he would bless those that blessed the Jews (Genesis 12:1-3), and we are still feeling the aftershocks of that promise. However, there’s no way one can read the Bible and come away with we are God’s country.

2. God doesn’t pledge allegiance to the American flag. Joshua 5 is one of the strangest encounters in the Bible. Here Joshua sees a mysterious man holding a sword and he asks this man whose side is he on- Israel’s or Canaan’s? The man- who is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ- says neither, but that he is the captain of the LORD’s army. In other words, Jesus isn’t waving an Israeli flag or a Canaanite one. As Jesus would say centuries later, “My kingdom is not of this world”. Let’s not forget that when the national anthem is played God does not remove his hat, stand up and place his hand over his heart. Sure we should be patriotic, but when our patriotism rises to the level of our allegiance to God we are now guilty of the sin of nationalism.

3. We should show honor and respect to our country and its leaders. Jesus encouraged paying taxes, in fact we find him paying taxes himself. This was an act of honor. The Scriptures instruct us to honor our leaders, even the ungodly ones. Keep in mind when Peter told his audience to
“Honor the emperor,” many scholars believe one of Rome’s most vicious rulers was in power - Nero. It’s a good thing to remove one’ hat, place one’s hand over their heart and show respect to the flag. It is also a good thing to kneel while protesting. Let’s not forget that is why the protests went from sitting to kneeling- to show respect even while protesting.

4. The very historical tradition of Christianity is filled with protests. One need not look any further than the martyrs to see this. The very definition of a martyr is protest. I’m especially interested in Wilberforce, though, who was so incensed over the injustice and inhumanity of the slave trade that he carried on his own protests, one of which was the refusal to eat sugar for what amounted to years. He sparked ire among most in parliament, and many more in England. It is not a stretch to say had he lived today you would find him kneeling when our anthem is played. This, by the way, is not a suggestion to say we should or should not kneel, but to point out the inconsistency of adoring Wilberforce without fully contemplating the present implications of that adoration.

5. Both the Bible and the constitution give us the freedom to kneel or not to kneel when it
comes to the flag.
Because the Bible does not speak clearly into this issue, and because our constitution gives us leeway, we have freedom in how we express our convictions.

6. God is okay with offending. Many would appeal to Paul’s discourse on the believer’s stewardship of freedom found in Romans 14 as the guide for our actions regarding the flag. While his principles are mostly helpful to our discussion in whether or not to kneel, we must remember that contextually Romans 14 is worlds a part from the present topic. What Paul is after has to do with how Christians within the local church exercise their freedoms over disputable matters like food. What we are discussing has to do with using freedom as a provocative instrument to address systemic injustice. Wielded irresponsibly, Romans 14 would have found Rosa Parks guilty of sin when she refused to give up her seat thus causing the whites “to stumble”. Obviously this is a misappropriation of the text. What’s more is we see God, at times, instructing people to do provocative and offensive things to bring out a broader point. Was not Ezekiel offensive to the culture when he stripped down to his loin cloth and laid practically naked on his side for three hundred and ninety days? Did not the sight of the preacher (Hosea) with the prostitute (Gomer) offend so many of God’s people? Was not Jesus’ intentional healings on the Sabbath a protest against legalism, and offensive to the religious rulers of his time? The very emblem of the cross is offensive, Paul writes, to Jews and to Greeks. God is fine with offending, as long as it is committed to a greater good.

7. Whatever you do, love. No matter where one’s convictions on this matter leads them, we are bound by love. We have the right to protest. We have the right to protest the protest. We don’t have the right to be mean. An unloving Christian is an oxymoron.

Thanks Dad, For Not (Always) Showing Up

I’m so thankful my dad didn’t come to all of my football, basketball and baseball games.  He was thankful too.  He never even pretended that perfect attendance at our ball games was a goal, or that his identity was tied into whether or not he showed up.  Of course I was excited to see him on occasion standing down the first base line just outside the fence, with his tie loosened cheering me on while I tried to crush the ball.  But those days he wasn’t there I knew why- he was working.  His absences were a real gift to me, a gift I didn’t fully appreciate until decades later.  Dad refused to make me the center of his world.

I recently stumbled upon a pretty gross disorder called Pradar-Willi Syndrome (PWS).  The few who are diagnosed with this annually, never get full when they eat.  Left without the sensation of satisfaction the individual keeps eating and eating and eating, right into obesity and possibly an early grave.  When an individual is inflicted with PWS, good things (like food) can become deadly things.

Many children today are being over-served in the attention department.  When children take the place of Jesus as the center of the home, they’re set up for failure outside the home.  A sociologist has quipped that ours is the boomerang age, where children leave the home only to return and settle in for extended adolescence.  How did this happen?  When you were the one everyone orbited around in your home, and then when you left and discovered you’re not the center of the world, of course you’d want to come back to the one place you were.  

In hindsight, my father’s refusal to allow me to overdose on attention gave me three gifts:

1.    The gift of not being number one.  My parents are deep lovers of Jesus, and they always reminded us that we’ve been called into something so much bigger than us, the kingdom.  Our extra-curricular activities were scheduled around church attendance, missions trips and service projects (not the other way around).  

2.    The gift of seeing a man work.  Dad’s absence communicated loudly he works.  When kids (on occasion) would ask where my dad was, I could tell them he was at work.  Work is a good thing.  His work paid for my athletic fees, cleats, equipment and uniforms.  

3.    Resilience.  Children are a lot more resilient than we give them credit.  My father was easily gone over 100 days a year, and that’s a conservative estimate.  While he came to everything he could, he missed a lot.  What were the results?  Me and my three siblings are all educated, contributing, healthy members of society.  We’ve ventured into almost every region of the country hundreds and thousands of miles away from our parents and each other, where we’ve had to start lives and build churches, businesses and community.  We’ve got a grit to us because our parents refused to coddle.  Thanks dad (and mom).

So relax.  Missing a game or a piano recital isn’t a bad thing, it can actually do your children some good.

Mid-Year Top 10

As we head into summer, I thought I’d share with you the top ten books I’ve read so far in 2017:


10.  42 Faith, by Ed Henry- A unique biography that looks at the peculiar role Jackie Robinson’s faith (along with Branch Rickey, the man who signed him to the Brooklyn Dodgers) played in sustaining the first African American Major League baseball player. 

9. Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggaemann- I’ve long loved his writings, but this short book on the importance of the Sabbath shows us how we can go to war with the consumer and capitalistic spirit of our western culture. 

8. Dream With Me, John Perkins- I had the privilege of endorsing this book, and when I got my advance copy I immediately went to the chapter chronicling the death of his son Spencer.  I’ve never heard “pops” (as I call Dr. Perkins) talk about this, and finally and painfully he does.  This is just a glimpse into the vulnerability of this work.

7. The Blood of Emmett Till- Timothy B. Tyson- It was the decision to have the open casket of this tortured teenager that sparked the Civil Rights Movement.  But it was the lie of the white woman that began the whole journey.  She now comes forward and confesses her deceit.  What a read.

6. Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis- I’m indebted to the preaching faculty at Gordon Conwell for turning me onto this book.  It’s hard to believe this novel was released in the 1920s, because it’s tragically still relevant today.  Every preacher must read this as it outlines the spirit of professionalism that tempts us all.

5. The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward- Released on the fiftieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s work, The Fire Next Time, this collection of essays offers the best book on race I’ve read in the last five years.

4. The Crucifixion, Fleming Rutledge- Most comprehensive book on the cross I’ve ever read.  I will be returning to this book for the balance of my ministry.

3. Becoming Ms. Burton, Susan Burton- A painful true tale of an inner city woman who is sexually abused, beaten, becomes a prostitute and does several stints in jail, only to “break free” and become a vessel of hope in the age of mass incarceration.  This redemptive tale follows the likes of A Piece of Cake, and other such works. 

2. Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon- Why am I just now reading this?  Phenomenal.

1. Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell- I read this when it first came out and then promptly got rid of it, along with 5,000 or so of my other books when we moved to NYC.  I missed this work so much I bought and read it again. 

When I Don’t Hear From God...

Every last one of us has asked the question, What’s next?  High school students trying to figure out where to go for college have asked this question.  So have college students trying to lock in on a major (80% will change majors at least once), along with singles who are in a dating relationship and married people needing to discern when to have kids and how many.  While these questions defy any unique faith category, Christians have historically filed these under the heading of the will of God.  “God, what are you saying?”, we groan when faced with life’s proverbial forks in the road.  

But this very question now sparks an age-old theological debate.  While Christ followers contend that Christ does speak, we can be at odds over the method.  Sure God’s primary voice is the Word of God, but does he also speak audibly?  Garry Friesen’s, Decision Making and the Will of God, is weighted towards the no, while the title to Dallas Willard’s, Hearing God, let’s you know where he stands on the question.  

If you’re looking for an answer to whether you should attend Stanford or Morehouse, marry Shiela or break up with her or take the out of state job, you just won’t find a chapter or verse in the Bible that will give you that answer.  So what are we to do when faced with these decisions?  I’ve found the following steps to be helpful:

Step One: Ask Him

In John 10 Jesus describes himself as the door and the Good Shepherd.  The metaphor of the door points to salvation- how one gets into the sheepfold of the flock of God.  The metaphor of the Good Shepherd depicts Jesus’ relationship with his sheep once they’re in.  Then Jesus says, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4).  The Greek word for know is an intuitive knowledge, like the kind of knowing I had when after a few months of dating Korie I just knew she was going to be my wife.  Or the kind of knowing one has when they meet someone for the first time and just know something’s not right.  It’s that knowledge the sheep have when their shepherd speaks.  Do you see what’s being implied here?  The Shepherd is speaking long after the sheep have come through the door (of salvation).  Jesus speaks.

A few chapters later Jesus pictures the Holy Spirit as our guide.  Now what does a guide do?  He speaks.  When I was a little boy my father taught me the timeless principles of fishing; things like how to bait a hook, cast and reel.  A few years ago I went on a fishing trip where I hired a guide.  All he did was take the basic truths I’d learned of fishing and he showed me how to apply them in specific places at specific times so that I had great success.  This is how the Holy Spirit works with the Word.  The Word gives us the timeless principles, and the Holy Spirit- our guide- shows us how to apply them in specific ways.  We just need to ask him.

Step Two: Use Wisdom

In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard tells the story of a preacher who was out in the middle of a field late one night, and he couldn’t see.  The field was full of rocks which made his journey treacherous.  Several times he heard someone calling his name.  Finally he stopped and felt around.  It was a good thing he did this.  A few more feet and he would have died.  Oh, by the way, he never saw the person who was speaking to him, and concluded it had to have been God.  

Can I confess to you that this rarely happens to me.  Maybe a handful of times in my whole life have I heard the voice of God in this way.  The normal pattern for me is that I pray and ask God to speak into something, and I don’t hear anything.  Now what?

There’s a whole section of the Bible called Wisdom Literature.  Books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and several others make up this genre of Scripture.  Wisdom is skillful living.  It’s practically applying the timeless principles of Scripture to the specific scenarios of every day life.  Now this is interesting, because embedded in the very idea of wisdom is choice.  

By the end of this year my boys will be teenagers, and what I’m trying to do, the older they get, is to not tell them exactly what they need to do.  Hard, I know.  I think good parenting empowers children to make age appropriate decisions.  I also think this is how God parents us.  A sign of immaturity is the need to be told exactly what to do in every situation.  It’s the mature person who can make decisions within certain parameters.  

So, when I don’t hear from God, I take that as God saying, make a decision.  Now I know this will rub some of you the wrong way, because you think God needs to speak into every decision you make.  But can I ask you a question?  Did you pray about what pants to wear today?  Or if you should wear pants at all?  Did you pray about brushing your teeth, or where to get gas?  Of course you didn’t, and you shouldn’t.  We make decisions every day, wise one’s.  It’s the child who needs to be told to brush his teeth.  The mature person doesn’t.  Again, when you don’t hear anything from God, make the decision, a wise one.  But how do we do that?

Step Three: Figure Out the Fences

Imagine your child asks you if she can play in the backyard.  You say yes, but a few minutes later she comes in and says can I play on the slide?  You agree.  A few minutes later she asks if it’s okay to play on the swing set?  Of course, you say.  Then she asks comes back in moments later and asks if she can play in the sandbox.  You look your sweet daughter in the face and tell her your will is she plays within the fences of the backyard, and she can make whatever decision she wants as long as its within those fences.

The same holds true for us.  I think it’s good to ask God about our “sandboxes,” but when we don’t hear an answer we have to figure out the fences- those biblical parameters- that will help us make a decision.  So, for example, when thinking through a job situation, it’s always helpful to process these fences: 1. Will the job contribute to the common good of society; 2. Will it allow me to provide for my family (As a man this is my call); 3. Has God given me the gifts and capacity to meet the demands of the job?  While there’s more questions we could ask, these are the fences.  Now we are free to choose.

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