Tag Archives: Teaching

Cooperation, not Competition

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
1 Corinthians 3:5 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus followers has two venues for worship, and each Sunday there are worship services that run in both rooms at the same time. For the past few years I have had the honor of working with a team of individuals who are developing their gifts and skills in teaching. Every season there is a rotating team of people who take turns teaching on Sundays and then meeting mid-week to discuss their experience and improve their skills. It’s a diverse group of both men and women of different ages, educational backgrounds, and vocational experiences. It’s been a fascinating experience for me to lead and participate. I’ve learned a lot.

One of the things I’ve tried to impress on our team of teachers is the reality that each week I get up to teach there will be those who are excited to see me up there, and those who who are not. As we represent a diverse cross-section of humanity, we each will appeal to different individuals within our gathering. Those who are gifted teachers and develop those gifts will naturally develop broader appeal, but no teacher enjoys universal appeal (not even Jesus). It just is what it is. I think that’s why Jesus’ followers are called a “body” and the spiritual gift of teaching is given to a diverse number of individuals across all parts of the body.

As I’ve been studying the early history of the Jesus Movement, I am repeatedly struck at how quickly the story shifts from the original twelve apostles to a host of other characters. In many cases, these almost anonymous individuals, such as Ananias (Acts 9:10-19), pop onto the scene like a bit player with a walk-on role, then make their exit never to be heard from again. Others characters are only referenced or mentioned, but nonetheless they played a large off-stage role. Apollos was one of these.

Apollos was from the city of Alexandria in Egypt, a city of great influence in the ancient world. Apollos was from the upper crust of society in those days. He was highly educated and trained in oratory, the art of speech and debate, which was arguably the most esteemed skill at that time of history. We don’t know how Apollos became a believer, but he arrives on the scene using his speaking and debate skills arguing that Jesus was the Messiah. He was such a powerful teacher and speaker, in fact, that he naturally developed broad appeal within the Jesus Movement, especially with many of the believers of Corinth. Division sprouted among the Corinthians believers as some in the local gathering there began to treat it as if it was a “The Voice” type of competition. Some were on “Team Paul” and other were on “Team Apollos.”

Paul immediately shuts down these notions of competition between the two. It’s not a competition, Paul argues, but a cooperation. Both Paul and Apollos had a role to play in the Corinthian believers faith and spiritual growth. Each brought his own unique personality, style, background, experience, and appeal. Every believer in Corinth had something to learn from both Paul and Apollos. This wasn’t “either, or” it was “both, and.”

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of the diverse team of individuals with whom I partner to teach among my local gathering of believers. It’s been a blast for me to watch each of them develop their own voice, speak from their own unique experiences, and watch our gathering grow and learn from such a broad range of voices. It’s a weekly and constant reminder that “the church” was never to be a monument to a particular, persuasive teacher or leader. Every local gathering has both a Paul and an Apollos (and an Ananias, and a Priscilla, and an Aquila, and a Chloe and….).

It’s not competition. It’s cooperation. Or else, we’re doing it wrong.

What’s More Important than Love?

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:12 (NIV)

Every author and storyteller knows that you leave the best for last. The “climax” of a story is where you carefully lead your readers. Paul’s letter to the believers of Corinth was not a story or a novel, but there was definitely structure to the message he crafted. After highlighting all of the fighting, disagreements, and behavioral issues within the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers Paul leads his reader to a climactic chapter about love; Arguably the most beautiful treatise on the word that has ever been penned.

But, I still count a few chapters left in the letter. What is so important that it comes after Paul’s climactic and beautiful admonishment to love?

If love is Paul’s behavioral climactic admonishment, then the resurrection is his  climactic admonishment of belief. His point is clear: if I don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then all of my faith, religion, and altruistic behavior (including love) is in vain.

Resurrection was a hot topic in the days of Jesus and Paul. Even Jesus encountered it. Within the Jewish community there were different schools of thought on the subject of resurrection and life after death. One of the more powerful scholarly groups, the Sadducees, did not believe that there was a resurrection and even confronted Jesus on the subject (Mark 12:18). The Greeks and their philosophy had no concept of life after death. They were focused on meaning in this life.

It’s also important to remember that at the time of Paul’s letter it is likely that none of the four Gospels (the biographical accounts of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) had even been written. It’s likely that many of Jesus’ followers in Corinth had been attracted by the radically different world-view out of which the early believers acted as they broke down walls of social separation between gender, race, and socio-economic status. Believing that someone could die and come back to life, well that was a different story. Like many throughout the centuries, some Corinthian believers were taking the “I like the teachings of Jesus and I’ll try to follow them, but I’m not sure I can swallow the whole ‘risen from the dead’ bit.”

Paul leaves the final climactic ending of his letter to address that which he believed was most important: Jesus died and then came back to life. Paul claims that the resurrection is real and it is the critical cornerstone belief of our faith. He started his discourse on love by saying “If you do all these religious things but don’t have love then your religious deeds are hollow and bankrupt.” Now he’s using the same approach, saying “If you do all these things to follow Jesus but deny the resurrection, then all you’ve done is in vain.”

To that end, Paul offers into evidence the eyewitness testimony of Cephas (whom the Corinthians knew), the twelve, up to five hundred  others who saw the resurrected Jesus. Finally, Paul offers his own eyewitness testimony, having encountered the resurrected Jesus on a trip to Damascus. Paul also applies logic (death and resurrection are the natural order of creation) and reasoning (why would I torture myself and perpetually submit myself to death and persecution if I wasn’t convinced there was more than this earthly journey?).

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about our current season of Lent. The annual celebration of Easter is coming up in a few weeks. The resurrection of Jesus is the climax of the traditional church calendar year just as it is the climax of Paul’s letter. The resurrection of Jesus remains an audacious claim that requires faith. It remains the transformative cornerstone belief of those who would claim to be followers of Jesus.

I’m also reminded this morning of John’s eyewitness account of the resurrected Jesus’ words to his follower named Thomas. Doubtful of the truth of the resurrection, the resurrected Jesus invited Tom to examine the nail holes in His wrists and place his fingers in the spear wound in Jesus’ side. Tom was convinced and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

You believe because of what you’ve seen,” Jesus said, then added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.”

To the latter group you can add this doubting Thomas.

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

Kingdom Economics 101: Paying it Forward

All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (MSG)

I’ve always loved the movie Pay it Forward. It’s a bittersweet story, but the reality of life is bittersweet. Along our life journeys we all slog through deep valleys and we all have our mountain top moments. The story of Pay it Forward is predicated on the notion of people simply going out of their way to perform a random act of kindness for others, asking only that the recipient of their kindness “Pay it forward.” The whole idea is beautifully void of organization, legalism, regulation, or institutional systemization. It is organic and relational and personal and spiritual.

One of the deepest valleys of my own life journey was the period of time that I was going through the end of my first marriage and subsequent divorce. I’ll never forget meeting with a wise counselor, who also has a prophetic gift. I remember meeting with him expecting condemnation and judgment, as I’d experienced a generous dose of both during that time. This wise counselor, however, extended grace and kindness I didn’t expect.

He acknowledged the difficulty of the situation and then said, “Some day, you are going to walk along the side of another who will find themselves walking this same path. You will help them, and give them comfort.” In other words, “You will take what wisdom and comfort you experienced while traversing this valley, and you will pay it forward.”

I have been able to pay it forward more than once. In the Kingdom of God, paying it forward is Kingdom Economics 101. It’s how God operates and it underlies all of Jesus’ teaching. He gave to me so that I might give to others. He laid down for me so that I might lay down my life for others. He comforts us so that we might pay it forward.

That’s exactly what Paul is getting at with the followers of Jesus in the ancient city of Corinth in this morning’s chapter:

He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.

This morning I’m thinking simply about how I might pay it forward today. I realized long ago, but need continuous reminders, that being focused on myself and my momentary difficulties blinds me to the many opportunities I have to show random acts of kindness, generosity, and forgiveness each day. I have to stop looking inward (at my I-phone, I-pad, I-mac, and I-everything) and looking around at others if I truly and consistently want to pay it forward.

Developing Parts for the Good of the Whole

But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
1 Corinthians 12:18 (NIV)

One of the things I love about creation is the way that God layers what He makes with all sorts of parallels to who He is and how He has ordered other things. In today’s chapter, Paul uses the physical body as a metaphor for how a local gathering of Jesus’ followers spiritually functions.

A body is made up of many parts, Paul explains, but it’s one body functioning together for the common good. He goes on to explain that God’s Spirit instills in each follower a spiritual “gift” (e.g. teaching, service, hospitality, intercession, and etc.) which makes that person a unique “part” of the body. Each person, Paul continues, should perform their unique “part” to provide their essential function in the health of the entire “body.”

Over the past couple of years, our local “body” has been doing something that is functionally unique in my experience. For a long time now, most churches have established a fairly rigid paradigm for vetting those authorized to teach in a weekly gathering for worship:

  1. Go to college and get an undergraduate degree
  2. Go to seminary and get a graduate degree
  3. Become ordained by your particular denomination

Of course, just going through this process does not necessarily mean that you are actually gifted by God’s spirit as a teacher. It is equally true that many who are spiritually gifted teachers never jump through the established institutional hoops to in order to become institutionally approved, and therefore they may never use fully perform their part for the good of the whole.

Over the last couple of years, the spiritual leaders of our local gathering identified a number of members of our “body” who they believe may be gifted teachers. These individuals were offered an opportunity to receive some training and to actually teach our local gathering on a rotating basis on Sunday mornings. A process of oversight, encouragement, and feedback is growing. Some individuals have tried it and determined that teaching is not their gift. Others are continuing to grow and develop. Perhaps some will decide to go on for more formal, institutional training. Nevertheless, it’s been amazing to see individuals growing and developing in their gift. Despite those who expected the experiment to result in people choosing not to come to worship, our local gathering hasn’t diminished through the experiment. Rather, we are discovering that each teacher appeals to different parts of the body and that each teacher complements the whole of the team. It’s been fascinating to observe and participate.

Today, I am thinking about the diverse jumble of “parts” in my local gathering of Jesus’ followers, and the myriad of ways that these people are gifted in the healthy functioning of the whole body. Some are teachers. Others provide very different, but necessary functions. The proper functioning of every part doing its job ensures the health of the whole. I am continuing to grow in my understanding and appreciation for the fact that each part, no matter the gift and ability, is essential in its role for the common good.

 

The Double Edged Sword of Marriage and Singleness

“I wish that all of you were [unmarried] as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”
1 Corinthians 7:7 (NIV)

Paul was unmarried, and in his letters to the followers of Jesus in Corinth he expresses his appreciation for being “undivided” in his loyalties. He means, that as an unmarried person he could devote himself fully to the work of God without having to invest time, energy, and resources into a marriage relationship. I understand the common sense in his reasoning. Marriage certainly takes work and a large investment of time and energy.

Over my earthly journey I have observed that we as humans tend to err on the extremes of many earthly issues. I have come to believe that my culture often does a disservice in fostering a pervasive expectation of marriage for all young people. Marriage is a great thing when it is right, but many young people walk into marriage thinking it will solve problems when it can actually creates more problems (with greater complexity) than it solves.

The traditional marriage vows of the church state that “marriage should not be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but soberly, deliberately….” but I’ve observed that this is what happens more often than not. If the church wants people to heed that advice, then I think we need to do a much better job of communicating that singleness is a healthy, acceptable, and advisable life choice.

On the other end of the spectrum, it’s clear that some find celibacy and singleness to be a better spiritual choice. While I appreciate much about the Roman Catholic traditions, I have always thought the blanket prescription of celibate priests a silly idea. Just as it is wrong to think that everyone would be better off getting married, it is equally wrong to think that everyone is better off spiritually by staying single. I understand that the Roman church wants their priests to follow Paul’s example and be fully dedicated to their work, but I’m not convinced that celibacy is universally better for serving God.

This past Sunday I delivered the morning message in two services among my local gathering of Jesus followers. While I could have done it without Wendy, I am much better off with her by my side. She takes care of my needs in the morning (all the time, really) so that I can be prepared. She is a sounding board for my thoughts and ideas and helps me refine my message. She is quick and adept at helping me get wired for sound. She is constantly by my side providing relational and emotional support. She runs and gets me water or coffee if I need it. She gives me flawless and on-target critiques between services to help me improve. She is my greatest cheerleader and my strongest prayer supporter. After the service she helps me debrief. Paul may have been better off serving God without a wife, but I am certain I would not serve God as well were it not for Wendy.

This morning I am thinking of my unmarried friends and family, some of whom struggle constantly with the cultural (or personal) perception that there is something wrong because they are not married. I’m thankful for them, and happy for the good things in this life that they enjoy with their freedom. I am also thinking about Wendy this morning. Like all marriages, ours has its constant challenges. Nevertheless, I am constantly aware of the many ways she makes me a better human being, and a better servant of God.

Wise and Persuasive Words

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (NIV)

Over the past couple of years our local gathering of Jesus followers has been engaged in an experiment of sorts that, in my experience, is rather unique. The weekly worship and message is not centered around a specific teacher or leader. Rather, a team of 10-15 individuals who are developing their gifts as communicators of God’s Message take turns. I have been asked to take on an informal role as mentor and acts as an anchor for the team.

There are some who felt this experiment would be an utter failure. The norm in our culture is to find people congregating around an individual leader with exceptional communication skills. Will people consistently gather to hear a broad spectrum of teachers who are diverse in their style, experience, and knowledge? The answer appears to be “yes.”

One of the things that I have been observing as I listen and interact with each of the teaching team members is that they each bring their own unique personality and style to their delivery. I want each of them to discover and develop the voice that God gave them. At the same time, there are simple rules and principles of communication from which we can all learn and develop our skills as communicators. I’m learning that there is wisdom required in knowing the difference.

One of the underlying themes that Paul is communicating in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth is predicated on a similar situation that was creating conflict. Apollos was a dynamic speaker in that day who travelled and taught about Jesus. The believers in Corinth had begun to split into factions behind their favorite teachers. Paul addressed this in yesterday’s chapter:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”;another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Now, Paul continues to address the situation. Compared to Apollos (and perhaps Peter [Cephas] too), Paul knew that he was not a dynamic teacher. There is a story in the book of Acts in which a young man fell asleep during Paul’s teaching and fell out of a second floor window to his death. I have to believe that an experience like that would stick with you as a teacher.

To the people of Corinth, therefore, he is makes it clear that the power of the teaching is not in the skills of the orator, but in Holy Spirit’s presence. A skilled communicator can affect the thoughts and emotions of the masses, but spiritual impact of an eternal nature happens only through the work of Holy Spirit.

The truth of the matter is that different individuals have different styles, personalities, and communication skills. Moses was not a great communicator on a human level, but God used him to great effect. Paul seems to be placing himself in a similar camp. Those who teach should always seek to improve the quality of their communication skills, while acknowledging that the greatest of communicators is dependent on the power and work of Holy Spirit for our words to have spiritual potency or eternal value.

Today, I’m thinking about a message I have to deliver among our gathering of believers this coming Sunday about the unmanageable power of Jesus. As always, I’m diligently trying to prepare to communicate the Message well. I am reminded this morning that my preparations are not complete without acknowledging my utter need of, and dependence on, Holy Spirit.

 

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