What Does a Mature Disciple of Jesus Look Like?

Photo by Mike DuBose UMNS

I am in a clergy study group. This month, a colleague was leading devotions and he asked, “What does a mature disciple of Jesus look like?”

This is a great question. If you are a leader in the church it is essential. If the church is about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we need to know what that looks like. As Stephen Covey said, begin with the end in mind. Here is what I came up with.

A mature disciple loves God and neighbor.

That’s a broad statement, so let me unpack it. I’ve had the privilege of meeting people that Bill Easum calls Spiritual Redwoods. They are so spiritually mature that you know they have a deep relationship with God. Here are some of their characteristics.

They worship God, to worship God. Not to be “fed” spiritually or to be inspired, but to give their hearts to God. They may have a worship preference, but they don’t hold that out as the only way, because it’s ultimately not about style. It’s about giving themselves over to God.

They are non-judgmental. This is the loving neighbor part. Mature disciples know that they have been made whole by the grace of God. They know they don’t deserve it, but God’s unconditional love is just that, unconditional. They know they are not judged, so they don’t judge others.

They are constantly seeking God’s will. The lay leader in the last church I served was the late Bud McKee. I used to call Bud the Anti-BS. When people used to start to act up and get out of sorts, Bud used to say, “What do you think God would want us to do?” Bud was a spiritual redwood. When he would say this, people would settle down and focus on God.

It’s not about them. It’s about God and neighbor. This is something that is pretty easy to see in people. You can tell who is about themselves and who is about God and others. For the latter, mature disciples, this translates into a spiritual presence that is attractive and powerful.

They are intentional about connecting with the least among us. People are called to different ministries, but mature disciples are doing something that brings them face to face with Jesus in the least of these (MT 25:31-46). It might be the homeless, poor, sick, imprisoned, hurting or disenfranchised, but they get in the trenches in some way to connect with someone who is in great need.

They are generous with their time, talent and treasure. Mature disciples always seem to have time for others. They use what they do well for the sake of others. And they give of their resources to help others.

They push the church to be outward looking. In all of these characteristics, mature disciples remind the church that it is organized for the benefit of its non-members. They are concerned about the visitor and the newer attenders, wanting to ensure that they not only feel welcome, but that the programs of the church are meaningful and accessible. They favor making the building available for use by the community. They are willing to challenge church members who are only thinking of themselves or about what’s good for the congregation.

What would your church look like if it were full of people like this?

What am I missing?

The next post will answer my colleague’s follow-up question: “How do we nurture mature disciples?”

Why The United Methodist Church Should NOT Split

Photo by Mike DuBose-United Methodist News Service

“43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

My friend in seminary, The Rev. John Plummer, used to call me a “fence sitter.” John was more conservative theologically and I was more liberal. But, I rarely expressed my views strongly. And often, I would try to find what I could live with in opposing views. John used to say to me, “Sometime, Shitama, you’re going to have to take a stand.”

I know The Rev. Plummer is correct.

But, I’ve also learned that there is something about being in the middle that is valuable.

Don’t get me wrong. I have VERY strong opinions. And they are seldom middle of the road. Ask my family or the people that work with me.

I have strong opinions on the big issues of the day, especially the ones that divide us. I don’t usually express myself on those. It’s partly to avoid conflict, but it’s mostly to try to find the spark.

What do I mean by that?

In Paul Scott Wilson’s book, Imagination of the Heart, he shows that the power of the sermon is in finding the spark between opposites. He likens it to electricity where you have two opposite poles, positive and negative. If you hold two oppositely charged wires close enough to each other, but not touching, there is a spark created in the gap. He says that’s the power in preaching.

Wilson says that there are two pairs of opposites that are the foundation of scripture: Law & Gospel and Judgment & Grace. Law and judgment are similar, as are gospel and grace.

If you have one side of the pair there is no spark.

If all you ever talk about is law and judgment, you are beating people over the head with the Bible and just making them feel bad.

If all you ever talk about is gospel and grace, you are making people feel good, but not calling them to accountability to any standard.

Wilson’s genius is in understanding that you need both poles to create the spark. It’s in the tension that energy is created.

For example, when the standard is to love your enemies (law), it feels nearly impossible to achieve. In fact, Matthew 5:48 tells us to be perfect as God is perfect. Who can do that? If that’s all there is, I feel like I’m just letting God down. But when I couple that with the grace of God, which can enable me to love my enemy, there is a spark of inspiration. When, by the grace of God, it actually happens in my life, the spark ignites a fire in my soul.

So, I’m going to jump down off the fence for a minute.

I believe my denomination, The United Methodist Church, should change its stance to allow the ordination of LGBTQ persons and to allow all marriages to be celebrated in our churches.

That being said, since I am ordained, I have covenanted to uphold current church law, which I will do. If I decide to disobey church law I will do so on principle and will be prepared to turn in my ordination orders, if required. I’m not saying this is what I will do. I’m just saying that from an integrity standpoint, I either agree to uphold the covenant of my ordination or I must be willing to give that ordination up.

Now, I’ll start climbing back up the fence.

I believe The United Methodist Church must find a way for us to live together, allowing each annual conference to determine how it will handle ordination and each church to determine how it will handle weddings.

This would make a lot of people unhappy. But I believe this issue is bigger than human sexuality, justice, holiness and our own denomination.

I believe it is an opportunity to make a statement about the power of God to unite us as Christians, despite our differences.

Some of my closest friends are at the opposite end of the political and theological spectrum than I am. I have many clergy colleagues who also fit this category. Yet, we show respect and yes, Christian love, for each other. We put our differences aside because our common bond as Jesus followers is stronger than any of our differences. That bond enables us to do ministry together. To reach out to the least, the last and the lost. We pray together and serve together.

The United Methodist Church does that right now.

The impact of ministries such as Volunteers in Mission, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Imagine No Malaria are significant because we work together. What we call in UM speak, our connectional nature, enables us to do more together than we could apart.

These are just a few examples. Another is the ministry I serve. We have nearly 200 UM camps and retreats across the US because of our work together. Another example is Africa University. Founded by The UMC, it has produced over 4000 graduates who are addressing needs such as sustainable agriculture, disease prevention and ethical governance. The examples of our connectional work are too numerous to list all of them here. I think you get the point.

If The UMC splits, as many predict, our common work will suffer. Many would say that the two or more resulting denominations can still support these same ministries. But, do you believe they can do so as effectively when each has its own administrative structure? I don’t.

More importantly, if our denomination splits, it will be a spiritual failure.

We will have let our human condition get in the way of the power of God to unite. We will be just one more casualty in the culture wars and one more schism in the history of the church. And each side can stand tall, knowing that they stuck to their principles.

To me, this does not feel like God’s way.

You see, I believe that somewhere between the principled stands of each side is a place to live together that is grounded in the love and grace of Jesus.

It enables us to see that living and serving together, despite our differences, is the biggest witness to the power of God in this world. To me, that is the spark that can ignite the flame of God’s spirit in our lives and in our United Methodist Church. I am praying we can find a “way forward.”

Why I Am Giving Up My Season Tickets to the Team I Love

Photo by flickr user dbking [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A letter to Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington NFL Franchise:

Dear Mr. Snyder,

The year I was born, my father paid two 16 year-olds to camp out overnight to buy two season tickets to the team you and I both love. Those tickets have been in my family ever since. I am writing to you now to let you know why I feel compelled to give them up. But first, some history.

My first game was a pre-season game against the Chicago Bears when I was five. I have loved the team ever since. I attended nearly every game in my early childhood because the ticket takers allowed me to duck under the turnstile and the ushers let me sit the small gap between my father’s two seats in Section 320 without having a ticket. I rooted for Sonny Jurgensen, Charlie Taylor, Bobby Mitchell, Jerry Smith and the like with everything I had, even though we lost more than we won.

I was hopeful when Vince Lombardi came to coach and was saddened when he died on the verge of what seemed like inevitable success. When George Allen came and revived the franchise, I was able to attend my first playoff game, a 16-3 victory over Green Bay in 1971. Even though we lost Super Bowl VII that season, I knew that this would be my team forever.

I am 7-0, all-time, attending home playoff games. I went to our playoff games in the 1971, 1981, 1987 and 1991 seasons. Three of my children were born in the latter three seasons, in which we won the Super Bowl. If I could have had more children, just to win more Super Bowls, I might have done so. My brother attended Super Bowl XVIII against the Raiders and my sister attended the 2013 playoff game against the Seahawks and we both know how they ended. So, you see, this franchise and I have history.

When I was young I told my parents that there were only two things I wanted when they died. One was the franchise season tickets and the other was a 1493 Samurai sword that my father was given as a U.S. GI of Japanese heritage while serving in Japan after World War II. Before my father died, our family agreed to transfer the season ticket rights to me.

But, I feel like this franchise has been dysfunctional since the day Jack Kent Cooke died and didn’t leave the team to his son. Looking back, that was the beginning of the end. You have the right to run this team as you see fit. It’s your team. But it’s been my team, too. And the only right I have is to vote with my wallet. That is what I’m doing now.

I hailed (yes that’s the term) the arrival of Bruce Allen in December 2009. He had football credentials and was the son of a franchise icon to boot. I even dismissed the criticisms that he was in charge of publicity events and uniforms. I was even happier when Scot McCloughan was hired because I knew that he knew how to build a winning franchise. I could only hope that you would let him do that. Now, Mr. McCloughan is gone and it’s pushed me over the edge.

You see, I’ve known since my time in seminary in the early 90’s that our team’s name needed to change. As the son of a man who was interned during WWII and who was called “Jap” for much of his life, the name didn’t feel right to me. Yet, life is filled with ambiguity and I let my love of the franchise and its winning tradition outweigh what I knew in my heart was the right thing to do. A friend from seminary used to call me a fence-sitter. He would say, “One day, Shitama, you’re going to have to take a stand.” In my own small way, that’s what I’m doing now. I publicly apologize to my Native American friends for not doing the right thing sooner. Maybe if you had changed the name, I wouldn’t be taking this action now.

My biggest regret is that I waited this long. I thought Norv Turner was on the right track and he was fired. Same for Marty Schottenheimer. I believed Joe Gibbs II would turn things around, but I realize now that he tired of fighting the dysfunction. I can’t even count the number of stars who came here and failed and the number of players that left and became stars. My hope was revived when the Shanahans came and when RGIII was drafted. The 2012 season made me a believer. But that vanished into thin air as we screwed it up in more ways than I can count.

The combination of Jay Gruden, Scot McCloughan and Kirk Cousins finally felt like the ticket. The real deal. Maybe the reports of Mr. McCloughan’s alcohol problems are true. If so, I could only hope that you would have found a different way to handle this. You hired him, knowing his background, yet didn’t give him the tools or the power to succeed, let alone the support that someone like him would need. I’m not excusing him, but the buck stops with you and the results speak for themselves. Let’s face it, since you took over, this franchise has ruined more careers than it has made. More than anything, this feels like a power struggle between Mr. Allen and Mr. McCloughan and now we know who won. I may be wrong, but my sense of foreboding is now so overwhelming that I am cancelling the season tickets that have been in my family since 1961.

The sword that I mentioned was given to my father when the order was given to destroy all weapons in post WWII Japan. The mayor of the town in which my dad was serving asked him to take it because it was too much of a treasure to be destroyed. Two decades ago, my father and mother travelled to Japan to return the sword to its original family. My dad knew he could never possess something that never really belonged to him. His action epitomized the word “Honor.”

You own this team, Mr. Snyder. You can refuse to change the name. You can choose Bruce Allen over Scot McCloughan, rather than finding a way to help a talented professional do his best work for you. You can, once again, turn your back on building a winning franchise. If you change the name AND build a winner in the way that the Patriots, Steeler and Packers have proven, then I will definitely be back. I might even come back if you did just the former. I am not holding my breath. You can run your team, our team, the way you want. My right is to refuse to support it financially in any way. So that is what I will do. The irony is that I will have neither the Samurai sword nor the season tickets. But I will have my honor. Better late than never.