Don’t Get Ahead of Christ!

Image result for walking with JesusBy Joe LaGuardia

We are but a few weeks away from Holy Week.  It is around this time that I am reminded of “watersheds” in the gospels, those little verses in which Jesus turns from local ministry in the northern country and begins his journey to the cross.

Sometimes a watershed verse is simple, such as the one in Luke 9:51, “And he set his face towards Jerusalem.”  Other times, it is a little more nuanced, such as Mark 10:32, “Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus walked ahead of them; they were amazed and they were afraid.”

I appreciate Mark’s watershed for several reasons.  For one, Jesus walks ahead of his disciples.  He always goes before us, marking our way.  He leads us and guides us, and we are to follow him.  No one is ahead of him, and those who try to get ahead of him do so at their peril.

Jesus is adamant about going to the cross too; he knows that whatever needs to live must die first.  Even in the midst of death and darkness, Jesus goes before us– “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me!” (Ps. 23:4).

If you are anxious or uncertain, if you feel lost or can’t find your way, you may want to stop and pray.  Ask God, “Where am I getting ahead of you?  Where have I failed to follow you?  Where have I gotten off-course?”

Backtrack your steps, and remember that the deeper you go into sin, the more laborious getting out of it when you reverse your course.

Second, those who follow Jesus have mixed emotions.  Some disciples were amazed; others were fearful.  When we walk with Jesus we will be amazed; but fear is not absent–especially if we are unsure of Christ’s way.

It is scary to walk with Christ–it requires vulnerability and risk.  Sometimes he goes places where we do not want to go; of course, when we follow him, we are never alone!

The writing of F. W. Faber, cited by Arthur J. Gossip in the Interpreter’s Bible on the Gospel of John, hits the nail on the head and beautifully summarizes this lesson,

We must wait for God, long, meekly, in the wind and wet, in the thunder and lightning, in the cold and the dark.  Wait, and He will come.  he never comes to those that do not wait.  he does not go their road.  When He comes, go with Him, but go slowly, fall a little behind; when He quickens His pace, be sure of it, before you quicken yours.  But when He slackens, slacken at once: and do not be slow only, but silent, very silent, for He is God.

Be sure to follow Jesus today.  Don’t get ahead of him…or yourself!  It may just be a watershed in your own life.

Failure: A Successful step in Following Christ

By Joe LaGuardia

In the new Supergirl television show starring Melissa Benoist as the other Caped Crusader, Supergirl must prove to friends and family that she and she alone is responsible for her power and place in the universe.  Her youthful demeanor and gender work against her; everyone feels a need to protect her from danger, failure, or death.

She pushes back with ferocity and fierce independence, defying gender and generational stereotypes along the way, even when it means failing to get the job done.

The subplot expresses an important lesson to viewers: Failure is a part of the learning experience, and taking risks must include the cost of danger now and then.

This theme reminded me of a time not long ago when our young son took a test in karate.  My wife was nervous about him getting his “forms” (as they are called) right and passing to the next belt level.

Her anxiety was well-placed: We pay good money for karate; he needs to study and do well!

However, we needed to realize that even if he did not get everything right, he still benefitted from the program.  Failure is just as important a lesson as is success.

Failure is just as important a lesson as is success.

In fact, without failure, it is difficult for us to grow and learn from our mistakes.

I learned this lesson when I did my research and field tests for my doctorate, of which failure is an inherent part.  Whenever I outlined my failures in my dissertation, I was proud to contribute to my field and expose other researchers to my mistakes, lest others be doomed to repeat them.

Nevertheless, failure is something people frown upon these days.  Failed politicians refuse to apologize; failed CEOs wiggle their way out of responsibility for bad choices or moral scruples; our young people who fail time and again find adversity an impossible hindrance and give up all too easily.

It was President John F. Kennedy who once said that, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

What would it be like if Jesus’ disciples saw failure as a roadblock to learning and following Jesus?  Peter, the greatest of all failures among Jesus’ followers, became the bedrock of the church precisely because of the lessons he learned.

He tried to walk on water to greet Jesus only to doubt and sink (Matthew 14:22-33).  Yet, it was Peter who took the step out of the boat in the first place, a courageous act that set him apart from the other disciples.

When Jesus foretold his trial and death, Peter rebuked him and told him that surely God’s plan was not for Jesus to end up on a cross (what Peter perceived as failure!).  Ironically, Peter failed to understand Christ’s mission, and Jesus called Peter satan, or “adversary,” who acted against the greater purposes of God (Matthew 16:21-23).

Who can forget about Peter’s failure to claim Jesus as his master when Jesus did eventually go to the cross?  On the night Jesus was tried for treason against the state, Peter denied him not once but thrice (John 18:15-27).

When the cock crowed, Peter awakened to his mistake and deeply regretted his decision.  He went on to lead the disciples and the early church, and it was Peter’s sermon at Pentecost that inspired thousands of people to convert to follow Christ (Acts 2-3).

For the Christian committed to growing in Christ, failure is a part of the equation in one’s spiritual journey, not something to avoid.  And not every failure is tantamount to sin.

Failure is just another resource in our spiritual walk that moves us forward, upward, and onward towards the heart of God.

As we journey with Christ, let us–like Peter–recognize that when we doubt, deny Christ, or mistake God’s mission in life, we are to repent and mature, not double-down in our ignorance and deny that we made a mistake, for that is the greatest failure of them all.

The Religious and the Spiritual

sacrementcommunionBy Matt Sapp

Fred Craddock quoted former Yale professor, Bill Muehl, when he taught his preaching students to “Remember, about half of your congregation almost didn’t come this morning.”

It is a great reminder for those of us who stand in pulpits, but I wonder if he’s underestimated.  I wonder if it’s only half.

Over the last decade or so, those engaged in conversations surrounding the church have focused much of their attention on the growing percentage of the population that describes themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” or those who value a spiritual, even faith-filled, dimension to their lives, but who have no interest in connecting with the church or institutional religion.

We have been taught to see this growing trend as emblematic of the decline of the church, and it has been a useful lens through which to view the struggle of the institutional church.

But we have reached a new stage in our challenge as the church in America.  Many churches have been forced to retreat from the challenge of trying to attract the “spiritual, but not religious.”  Now we’re just trying to retain the “religious, but not spiritual,” or the half or more or our attenders who, as Fred Craddock reminds us, almost didn’t come last Sunday.

The “religious, but not spiritual” are those who were raised in church, who are familiar with our rituals, who know our hymns and have sat through our sermons, but have never found a faith of their own.   Up until now they have come out of habit, but have had very little, if any, interior spiritual activity to support the outer religious habit.   Traditionally, they have been the silent majority in many of our congregations.

Here’s my contention about this growing group of people.  It’s not that they don’t WANT to be spiritual—even if they don’t know that’s what they want.  It’s that the church has been stifling their spirituality without knowing it for quite some time.

We don’t mean to stifle spirituality, but we do. In an effort to attract the “spiritual, but not religious” we have stifled the spirituality of all but the most committed Christians sitting in our pews!  We stifle spirituality by avoiding the big questions of our spiritual lives and we do it for one reason—to avoid controversy.  We avoid the big interior questions of spiritual faith out of fear that we’ll turn off the “seekers” in the world that we’ve desperately been trying to reach for several generations.

Instead, we’re answering questions that people aren’t asking and refuse to address the questions that they are asking—questions about faith and culture, sexuality and marriage, conflicts between national and religious allegiances, war and peace and the sanctity of life, economic justice and care for the poor, and questions about ultimate meaning and purpose in a culture increasingly divorced from faith traditions.

In ignoring the real spiritual questions of the people in our pews, we’ve inadvertently created a whole segment of “religious, but not spiritual” church-goers who find answers to those questions from secular sources in the media and popular culture.

But still they come to church.  At least they used to come to church, but that’s changing.  As a result of decades of less than optimal discipleship and spiritual engagement, they’re drifting away.

So what do we do now?   How do we change the reality of the “religious, but not spiritual” in our pews?  Can we somehow MAKE them more spiritual?

No, but there are a few things we can do to help.

It requires a commitment to honesty.  The only pathway to holy, healthy and whole individuals and families is honest engagement with culture and with one another. We have to be willing to address tough questions, even if they may be controversial, if we hope to have an impact on our community.

Christ and Christian tradition have MUCH to say about the leading spiritual concerns of our culture.  Honest engagement in honest community grounded in the love of God through Jesus Christ can help us address them one topic, one small group, one Bible study at a time.