Home By A Different Way     (by Jon Shuler​​)

It is an almost casual line in the last verse of the Epiphany gospel reading (Mt 2:1-12), but it has new meaning for me this year. The three Wise Men had every human reason to honor their word to Herod, but God intervened to show them they were lied to. They needed to go home without going back to Jerusalem. Herod wanted to destroy any opponent to his reign, he did not want to worship the new born King, he wanted to kill him.

There has been much in my 2020 that wants to put to death the revealed truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much that would prefer me to not live by his law, to not honor his teaching, and to not honor him above all others. There have been political, economic, educational, journalistic, and societal voices – which though sounding benign, are actually working on the side of the Enemy of my soul. They would be pleased to see me gone rather than oppose them. And then there is my own fallen self, warring against the Spirit. So what am I to do?

It seems to me that the Lord is challenging me to “go home by another way.” I have seen no angel in a dream, but I have the deep and persisting sense that my 2021 is not to be like my 2020. What could that mean? I am not sure, but I am praying over this inner conviction. What do I see? There is a sense in which each of us, especially me, is going “home” to the place prepared for us by the Lord Jesus. This year is another part of my journey home. God wants me to be more effective and more productive for his kingdom. (II Peter 1:8)

Many external events have buffeted the church in 2020, and I pray with all of you that this year will see some of them ease. But it does not take external change for many things done in 2020 to be amended, improved, added or dropped. What are doing as the church that is not helping the kingdom, or not making the impact that it should Can we face that? Can we push back the advances of the enemy? Can we improve our readiness to obey?

I sure, that for me, what I am “hearing” relates to things I can change. It is not, for me, about things that are out of my control. I cannot change the course of the pandemic, I cannot alter the political landscape, or change the decline of higher education. But I can choose to be more faithful to the Lord Jesus. I can “work, pray, and give” more effectively “for the spread of the kingdom of God,” as I was taught by the catechism of my youth. These things I can do.

What about you who are reading this? Do you have any personal guidance from the Lord for 2021? Are you hearing his “voice?” Do you have responsibility for others, and the authority to make changes for the kingdom? What would you do if this was the year you would have to give and account for? Would 2021 be just like 2020, or would you “go home by another way?”

Next Week: If I Could Do Only One Thing

The Joy and the Challenge of Epiphany    (by Jon Shuler​​)

The celebration of the feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is one of the high points of the Christian Year. The Light of Christ has come into the world, and we are followers of the Lord because of it. He came not only to Israel, he came to us. This knowledge brings to the faithful almost unspeakable joy. Alleluia! But Christ Jesus came for all people, all nations, and this challenges us. it calls us to face the pitiable state of the contemporary Western church and her confusion about mission. We have a mission to the nations, and we have largely forsaken it.

What do I mean? First and foremost I mean the continuing decline in the number of believing Christians in the USA, Canada, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Especially (I write as an Anglican) the decline in the community of the Anglican Churches of those lands. Most staggering of all is the terrible state of the church in England. Pretending that all is well among us is not only foolish, it is sinful. There has been a massive departure from the central faith and work of the church of Jesus Christ for generations. We have been called to live the truth of Christ, and share the Light of Christ, but we have forsaken that truth and hidden that light under a bushel.

But I do not despair. One of my mentors, Peter Drucker, taught me that “to despair is a sin for a Christian.” I  have often commented that there is great sanctity still to be found within the family to which I belong. Over a lifetime as a priest I have known deeply devoted servants of God in every parish, and in every nation, where I have served. The goodness of many, the generosity of some, the holiness of a few has always sustained me. There is undoubtedly a faithful remnant. But my soul is troubled.

It is the scriptures that undo me. Take the events of the day after Pentecost, as Luke records them, as an example. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) How was this so? Does it not bring an honest priest to his knees when in the typical American parish there has almost certainly not been a half dozen converts in the last year? A year of worship, of effort, of programs, of extraordinary expense, and less than six new men following Jesus? Three? None?

When so much effort, so much money, so much time, is given to an enterprise in continuing decline, what is to be understood from those facts? Clearly there is something amiss in the whole way the work of the church is being understood and carried out. Does the community of Christ Jesus exist just so a small and declining number, and especially an ordained minority, can enjoy the inheritance of the centuries of faith? Have the doctrines, sacraments, and discipline of Christ been received for only a few? Are only a handful of faithful laity to rejoice in the liturgical and theological heritage of our patrimony, while the vast majority of our own children drift away from the church entirely, and the world grows darker day by day?

These questions must be faced. The Lord calls us to repent.

Next Week: Home By A Different Way

The Hardest Three   (by Jon Shuler​​)

In only another few hours the church will begin to celebrate again the birth of the Savior of the World. It will be a time of beloved memories, family gatherings, and joyful adoration before the one born to be king. The church has tried valiantly to take captive the mid Winter Solstice of ancient Europe, and for many of us this will be a time of true worship and joy. But there is also this painful reality to face: most of the Christmas Celebrations of our land will not be about Christ Jesus. The cost of following him is too great.

That brings us to the last three verses where Jesus tells us what he means when he calls someone his disciple. They are all found in the fourteenth chapter of Luke. The first is stark. We are to “hate” our very own family and our very life. (14:26) The perceived harshness of this word has caused many to block this passage from memory, but our Lord says if we will not do this we cannot be his disciples. How can this be? He is using the word hate in a very Hebraic way, to mean a thing in absolute contrast to what is right. He is making clear that if we put any loyalty higher than him we are not understanding rightly what it means to follow. He must be the center. And if he is, he will teach us to love our family as he loves us. He will not make us hateful to them, or them to us, he will make us Christ to them. And if we lose our life we will gain it.

Second we must take up our “own cross” or we “cannot be [his] disciple.” (14:27) Cannot. How are we to understand that word? It must certainly mean we are to gladly take up in every day and in every way the work that God has for us to do. To die to self to live to God.

Third, and last, we are told that we must “renounce all” we have or we cannot be his disciple. (14:33) It is as if he is hammering home the same message for the third time. To follow Jesus, to become his disciple, we must want only what God wants for us. Nothing else can come between us and him. If it does we must move it to a secondary place. Three times he has emphatically told us “cannot be my disciple.” These words were not spoken in vain. They are from the heart of the Father’s love for us  through his most beloved Son. They are to lead us to joy, but they are costly.

As we sing “Joy to the World” in only a few more hours, let us all remember the amazing reality that is the call to be a disciple of the one born in Bethlehem. Let us not take it lightly, but reverently. And let us affirm to him once more that we desire his life to be lived in us. We want to truly abide in him. We want our love to show forth his glory. We want our lives to “prove” we are his disciples.

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The Next Blog will be posted on January 6th, 2021. May God bless your Christmastide!

Only Nine Verses     (by Jon Shuler​​)

Perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to learn that only nine times in the Gospels is Jesus recorded as saying either “my disciple” or “my disciples.” The word disciple is used descriptively hundreds of times, but on the lips of Jesus it is only used with the modifier “my” nine times.

Three of these references are clearly parallels, as they record our Lord’s concern to gather his disciples on the final night of his earthly life. He wanted all those who were genuinely his disciples to be present with him. John records for us, in five dense chapters, the substance of that evening. It is arguably the most critical section of the entire New Testament if we are to build our theology on the teaching of our Lord.

Three other references give great specificity to what Jesus means when he says someone is “my disciple.” All of these verses come to us from the beloved John. The first is found in the eighth chapter. “If you abide in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (8:31,32) Note well the word “truly.” To abide in the word of Jesus means to know it, to have received it, to have internalized it, and to be living it. To abide in that word is to be connected to life, and to be cut off from it is to die. This abiding is the evidence that we are truly his disciples.

The second clear reference comes during the passover meal with his disciples. “A new commandment I give unto you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all men will know that you are my disciples.” (13:34,35) Here we come face to face with the call to the church to model a way of life that is their witness. It is not words alone that will speak to the world, it is the love lived among the brethren. Even those who are not followers will know that the way of life of the church is directly because of Jesus. The world will recognize true disciples.

And third, the Lord makes profoundly clear that there is an outcome that shows a life to have been lived in the shadow of the Master. “ …bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples.” (15:8) There will be other followers because of all true followers, There will be other disciples because of one true disciple. This is not the fruit of the spirit, changing the inner character of the believer. This is the fruit that is another life laid down at the feet of Jesus. There will be more men following because one man followed. There will be more women following because one woman followed.

Pause with me and take in what these three passages in John tell us. They do not mention anything that requires money, nor buildings, nor programs.They do not speak of degrees, or offices, or positions of responsibility. There is no mention of hierarchical authority, no necessary governing systems, no certificates for our walls. Simply to be found in Jesus. To live in him as he in us. To love the believers. To make disciples. Next week we will look at the last three of the nine verses.

Next Week: The Hardest Three

Who Defines?     (by Jon Shuler​​)

Alice in Wonderland faced the statement of the Red Queen: “Whenever I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean.” Previous generations have always understood that statement to be a recipe for error, if not for tyranny. No community can flourish if words are constantly changing their meaning. But who defines? Modern publishers are changing the words printed in their dictionaries on an almost weekly basis, and it is contributing to the collapse of Western (Christian) Civilization. Is the church different?

From the first moment men and women followed Jesus they were taught, by those appointed by him to lead in the church, that his word must be obeyed. Centuries later C.S. Lewis taught that “obedience is the golden key to discipleship,” and he was surely right. If that is so, and for any true Christian it must be so, then how do we know what we are to obey?

Every member of the Lord’s church knows that he said to his first followers: “Follow me.” There is a sense in which this is the universal word that he speaks to each of us when we are conscious that he is calling us. We begin to follow Jesus. But then what? Who helps us know what following him means? Who clarifies for us his distinctive voice? His unique word?

There are basically only two answers: the church teaches us in her own language and traditions, or the church leads us to the Holy Scripture, to the Word of God, to teach us. The former answer is that of the Roman Catholic Church, and the latter is that of the Protestant Church at her best. Now it is indisputable that both great divisions think of themselves as on the right path. Each of them, when faithful, want to bring their people into the presence of the Lord Jesus for eternity. But though their methods may differ, both generally produce the same results. The vast majority of their people know “what the church teaches” with very little reference to what Jesus teaches. What if instead we let the Lord Jesus define what it means to be his disciple?

The question is so simple, but applying the answer is so difficult. That is unless we say:  “Of course we must let the Lord Jesus define it for us.” Why is that so rarely the case? It is most assuredly because we have erected church systems and preserved church traditions that are far removed from what the Lord himself taught. We long ago, perhaps unconsciously (?), accepted that much of what he taught is unrealistic or culturally dated or just wrong. We would never say that out loud, of course, but it is how we sometimes live. In practice we have often become servants of other masters, while we say we have only one. Our lives frequently show that we sometimes serve our systems and traditions more faithfully than we serve the Lord. Are we willing to repent of that?

A starting point on the journey of repentance and return, if we say “Yes”,  would be to reexamine the precise words of Jesus. What did he actually say that could give us clarity about what he means if we are his disciples?

Next Week: Only Nine Verses

Discipling ABC’s    (by Jon Shuler​​)

Why is it so complicated? Why do so many confessing Christians look blank when the question is asked: “Who are you discipling?” Or again: “Who is discipling you?” Why are men and women who could, in a heartbeat, teach you how to play tennis, or golf, or show you how to bake a pie, or fix a flat tire, or manage your web site, or show you how to plant a vegetable garden, stumped by the challenge to make disciples?

As a young engineering student I was taught the most basic understanding of general systems theory. There are inputs and outputs, there are basic internal processes, there is a feedback loop, and there is an external environment. Evaluating any system requires that the output be compared to the designed intention. We must ask:” Is what we are producing that which we set up the system to produce?” When I apply this simple analysis to the life of a local congregation, what doe it show me?

Immediately I must ask several questions: “What is the purpose of the parish? What is the desired outcome of all the effort and resources that we put into it? What is the end vision? Can it be stated in a clear and straight forward way? Can every member articulate it for themselves? Is everyone and everything that is being done contributing to that outcome?” In a well functioning parish system the answers to all of these questions will be clear. And the answers will all be congruent. They will contribute to the common purpose. There will not be multiple missions, there will only be one.

I have often discussed the challenge of making the mission clear when the church is confused. And I have said, again and again, that I believe the Final Command of the Lord Jesus to be that mission. “Go and make disciples of of all people.” (Mt 28:19) I have lived to see that scripture imbedded in the new Anglican Standard Text (2019) as a part of every week’s corporate prayer, and it makes me glad. But what I fear is that it may be understood as only a part of the work of the church, not the work itself. It is as though we could do a dozen other things for the Lord, and then we remember “making disciples” as something we add on to the rest of the ministry of the church.

There will be those who read this and accuse me of reductionism, but I beg to disagree. Nothing that Jesus commanded his followers to obey is excluded from the Final Command. Nothing. When rightly understood it actually focuses all faithful Christians on the central work that they must come to walk in, once they have been born again of the Spirit of God. They have been called by the Lord and he asks them to help him call others. They learn to naturally and regularly be disciple-making people.

How can that be? When we learned to read, we first had to learn our ABC’s, and then we had to learn to sound out the letters when they were combined into words, and then we had to learn our vocabulary. Soon we were reading! It is meant to be the same with disciple-making. It is not something we arrive at after a lifetime in the church, it is something that helps us begin to be the church.

Next Week: Who Defines?

Two Altars    (by Jon Shuler​​)

Many years ago a visiting minister had led a weekend of renewal in my friend’s congregation, and was meeting with him on the morning after. There had been much excitement and evidence of some lasting fruit, and they began to discuss the ministry of making disciples. “Do you want your ministry to be ‘making disciples,’” the visitor asked? “Yes,” said my friend (the Sunday School answer). “Then you are going to have to make a decision,” the visitor replied. “Are you going to worship at the altar of God or at the altar of the denomination?”

My friend began, in that long ago year, to seek to learn to be a disciple-making pastor. He continues on that course to this day, and he has been a dear brother to me. I have learned much from him, and I dare to believe that we have been “iron sharpening iron” in one another’s lives, though we are ordained in different families of the church. His story, shared with me over twenty-five years ago, has remained in my mind and on my heart. I think what that visiting minister told him was true.

There is no doubt in my mind that most of my brother Anglican clergy understand themselves to be serving at the altar of God, as I certainly did for many years. But I gradually realized that, in my own life, the best energy and effort I was making was to reinforce a particular way of serving God, not serving God. I was committed to seeing a particular pattern of religious life lived, and had become dull to focusing on the inner reality of the lives of many of my people. I presumed that the central reality for them was a desire to love and serve the Lord, if they conformed to Anglican norms. I had very little understanding of what it meant to be a faithful disciple of Jesus in any and every circumstance. And even further, I did not know how to make a disciple who would make a disciple.

When I asked God for forgiveness and began to reorient the pattern of my ministry I found that over and over my ecclesiastical superiors, and my brother clergy, stood apart from my understanding. When I left the parish I then served, after six subsequent years of ministry designed to make disciple-making central, the bishop of the diocese told the senior layman of the parish: ”We need to find a new rector who will bring this parish back into the Episcopal Church.”

That was twenty-seven years ago, and much has transpired to challenge business as usual in the various Anglican communities of the world, but the question about altars is still pressing. Are we worshipping at the one altar that matters, or at an altar of our own making?

Many of us are concluding Fall stewardship campaigns at this time, and developing budgets for the coming year. What do those budgets show that we really value? What do they show us we worship?

 Next Week: Discipling ABC’s

Facing the Truth   (by Jon Shuler​​)

Why is it so hard? Why do we resist so strenuously when we are faced with unpleasant truths? Why do men find it so hard to admit error? To acknowledge fault. To repent of sin?

Of course we know the answer. We are sinners. We are fallen creatures. We prefer to pretend that all is well, rather than admit we are lost. We lead without knowing where we are going, or how to get there, and we dare not admit it. We have salaries, and offices, and pensions that would be thrown into jeopardy. So we paint buildings, and redesign liturgical spaces, we add new wings onto old buildings, we revise our liturgies.

In 1977 I first asked the question of my seniors; “Why has the church declined so much since 1965?” The question was universally met with some version of this response: “We are interested in quality, not quantity.” I heard this from the Presiding Bishop and the Diocesan Bishop. I heard it from the senior clergy of my diocese. I heard it from Standing Committee members and Vestry members. It was puzzling to me since the clear teaching of Jesus seemed to presume numerical growth among his followers. A tree was to be judged by its fruit. Was I wrong?

I was a young Curate when I first asked those questions. When I was finally trusted to lead a parish I learned a lot. Growing an Anglican Parish was not easy. Many traditions and patterns of organization militated against any significant growth. But with effort and focus it was possible I found. With significant teaching, preaching, and much hard work we could gain a few percentage points each year. A few more in average attendance, a slightly higher budget figure. An increase in the number of adults confirmed.

And then a day came when the wider church called for us all to rethink our ministry. In that year (1988) the entire Anglican Communion was called to a Decade of Evangelism. I thought it was a call from God. I gave myself to it. I thought our parish had some good lessons to share with others. I wanted to see the whole Anglican Family grow. And then God confronted me with the truth.

It came in the form of two questions and a statement while I was at prayer. First I believe the Lord asked me: “How many adults have been added to the parish?”  We had spent several million dollars and had seventeen adults net. Then he asked me: “Would any of them die for me?” I began to weep in a deep repentance. Next came this statement: “I called you to make disciples, and you are making Episcopalians.”

I have never recovered. I have been trying to realign my life and ministry in the light of that day ever since. I have become passionately convinced that to make disciples is the most central of all ministries. When this is prioritized everything else begins to change. When this is neglected, everything else begins to decline. Facing this truth is essential.

Next Week: Two Altars

Who Will Repent?   (by Jon Shuler​​)

Anyone who has honestly begun to follow the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord has a testimony of repentance. No one seriously begins the journey of Christian Faith without facing their own sins, both of commission and omission. True repentance before the Lord is always life changing. It is never forgettable. His grace and love are showered upon the repentant sinner. Always. But what of the life we then begin to lead?

The custom of the church to have a publicly recited confession every week is ancient, and I believe to to be good. But I know that the reality for myself and many others is that we do not usually repent at all well on a normal Sunday morning. At best most of us utter a prayerful “Please forgive me Lord” without any focus whatsoever. At least this has been my experience. Because of that I began years ago to make a regular time in my life to be alone with the Lord and to review my life before him while on retreat. I have found that often those days have led to a profound awareness of error and sin, and have brought me back to my “first love” over and over again.

Individual repentance is a continuing part of following Christ Jesus, and surely the corollary for the ordered life of the church is continuing reformation. But true reformation never comes without an admission of error. Is the organizational church in error? What if the path she is treading is the wrong one? What if she has gotten as entangled in the world as any other company of men, and is actually leading people in a direction that is contrary to God’s will? Is that possible? The entire witness of the Holy Scriptures makes it perfectly clear that it is possible. But how would we know, and what would we do if we did?

Suppose that the measure of any community’s faithfulness is measurable, and that it is possible to gauge that measure annually. Suppose also that the numerical growth of the community of faith is the single most important external evidence of faithfulness. Then suppose that you belonged to a community that got smaller every year for nearly fifty years. Would anybody notice? Would anybody care? Would that require repentance in the body of Christ? Would any of her leaders heed that call? Would anyone repent?

The English Reformers asserted that there were major errors that had been committed by ancient communities of Christian People. The XIXth Article of Religion was extremely blunt: “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” What should be said today, I believe, is that “the Church of England” needs to be added to the Article.  So do her American children. Western Anglicanism has been in numerical, doctrinal, and moral decline for over fifty years.

How can leaders not notice? How can pious language about mission and the extension of the kingdom of God keep being uttered when decline is everywhere visible?

Next Week: Facing the Truth

Clarifying the Mission.   (by Jon Shuler​​)

One of the greatest managerial consultants of all time, the late Peter Drucker, taught me that the most important question to ever ask when evaluating an organization is this; “What is reality?” Organizations that are in trouble, or disarray, or decline, are almost always not facing reality. Until their leaders are willing to face reality, they will continue to unravel. Some will hang on in a marginal fashion, others will simply die.

The second question that Peter told me must be asked, when reality is finally being faced is this: “What is the mission?” He actually told me that this is often the harder question to answer because troubled organizations are not clear about what they are doing. They are usually doing many things that are actually working against one another. They have competing understandings of their mission alive and well inside their walls, and that impedes – if not stops – most progress toward accomplishing the mission. Clarifying the mission inside a troubled organization is never simple, but it is essential.

What then is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ? No matter how it gets phrased, I would argue that it is most centrally seen in the opening call of the Lord Jesus to his first disciples; “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” That is the mission. That is the only mission. And when the season of preparation had ended the mission was restated in our Lord’s Final Command: “Go and make disciples of all peoples….”

What would be different in any local church that took that mission seriously? Almost everything. A series of questions would have to come to the fore. Where is time being spent? Where are resources being directed? How are people mobilized to accomplish that mission? What are the results we expect to see if we are effective?

To honestly ask those kinds of questions, if there is true conviction about the mission the Lord Jesus gave to the church, is to be faced with the clearest possible evidence that there most be a change in the priorities of her corporate life. Her best energies, her best resources, and her best people are not being used to accomplish the mission. They are all almost all propping up the organizational life of the church.

It brings this question to our honest scrutiny: “Do we want to realign the work we are doing so as to more effectively serve the mission? Do we have the will and the heart to face this challenge? Do we feel the weight of the impending judgment upon those who are wasting the talents that God has given us, for the sake of the salvation of the world?

Or do we turn aside and continue as we are?

In 1991, I heard Peter declare that all the major complex organizations of the world were based on presuppositions that were no longer true. The 21st Century had already begun he said (it was 1991), and it was going to be necessary for all such organizations to be restructured or they were going to rapidly become obsolete. I actually thought he was speaking prophetically, but I did not realize it was going to effect me. I did not see.

Next Week: Who Will Repent?