All posts by Derek Vreeland

  • By the Way Small Groups

    Photo by Tara Beth Leach

    When I wrote my discipleship book By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus, I envisioned people reading and discussing it in small groups. I do hope people read the book, but more so, I hope people read this book together, hammering out the details in community. Jesus and the early church leaders designed disciple-making and disciple-practicing to be done in community.

    We were created in the image of God who is a holy community of persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We bear God’s image when we intentionally follow Jesus in community with other Jesus-followers. Through our mutual sharing and learning, we can encourage one another and learn from one another.

    While it would be best to read the book as a part of this small group discussion, it isn’t necessary. You can download a free study guide that has all the discussion questions for each chapter. These questions are also at the end of each chapter in the book. You don’t need to have read the book to participate in the discussion.

    Download the free By the Way Study Guide with discussion questions for each chapter

    Small Group Details

    By the Way Small Groups work best in a 10 to 12-week format. There are 10 chapters in the book, so at a minimum it would be good for the group to meet at least 10 weeks. If your group meets for 12 weeks you could begin with an introductory session where there group gets to know one another and gets oriented with the book. Then take a week per chapter, concluding with a group meal on the last week.

    Small group discussions can be powerfully transformative if the group can agree upon some basic ground rules.

    To get the most out of this study guide and small group experience, adhere to the following five ground rules:

    1. Speak only from your own experiences and feelings.
    2. Create space for everyone to share by keeping your comments brief.
    3. Preserve confidentiality: what is said in the group stays in the group.
    4. Find ways to encourage one another and avoid trying to fix one another.
    5. Press into moments of silence with personal reflection.

    At the beginning of each session, groups or leaders can:

    1. Select a leader to facilitate the discussion for the next session.
    2. If the people in the group do not know each other well, invite everyone to share their name and something interesting about themselves.
    3. Ask one person to offer an opening prayer.
    4. Ask one person to read the five ground rules.
    5. Ask one person to summarize the chapter.

    The questions associated with each chapter appear both in the book itself and in this free study guide. They serve as a guide to get your group talking and reflecting on the material in each chapter.

    Feel free to follow the conversation wherever it may lead. Some people may want to discuss parts of the book that are not represented in the questions. That’s okay.

    Follow the relational flow of the conversation. The best small groups prioritize “people study” over Bible study.

    Each chapter’s set of questions begin with icebreaker questions that get everyone talking. Then the bulk of the questions invite participants to reflect on key concepts in the book. The last question for each chapter invites people to consider how to put into practice what they are learning.

    My Prayers

    When I pray in the morning, I pray that God would take my book and multiple it that churches may be equipped to make disciples of the Jesus way.

    I pray your By the Way Small Group experiences the grace of God and that together we all grow in the ways of Jesus. I pray that you meet some new people and that existing friendship grow, because we all need friends in our journey of following Jesus.

    Download a free copy of the By the Way Study Guide with discussion questions for each chapter.

  • Come Learn with Me

    Hey friends! I have two unique opportunities coming up this year for those who want to continue to grow as followers of Jesus. Both of these opportunities are connected to my discipleship book, By the Way.

    Come learn with me!

    Creating Pathways for Discipleship
    (Webinar: August 15)

    Missio Alliance is hosting a webinar that Sean Palmer and I are leading. This is free one-time event. Sean and I will be discussing the shape of discipleship in the church today.

    In particular, I want to describe the three shifts that need to be made in the church in North America to increase our capacity to make disciples of the Jesus way.

    1. Shifting from thinking of discipleship as a ministry of the church to thinking of discipleship as the task of the church

    2. Shifting from treating evangelism and discipleship as separate activities to integrating evangelism and discipleship into a single action

    3. Shifting from viewing salvation and discipleship as separate categories to combining our experience of God’s salvation and our intentionality to follow Jesus

    The webinar is free. Register here: https://www.missioalliance.org/resource/free-webinar-creating-pathways-for-discipleship-w-derek-vreeland-and-sean-palmer/


    M3 Ministries School of Formation: The Jesus Cohort (Beginning September 2019)

    I’m excited to partner with veteran pastor and Bible college professor Doug Main in launching a new school of formation. Doug and I will be leading a cohort of 12-15 people through four courses during the first year focused on a Jesus-centered life and understanding of the story of God. I’m looking forward to teaching the course, “Jesus and the Christian Life.”

    Each of our courses will be shaped by:
    + Conversational Theology
    + Contemplative Spirituality
    + Communal Learning
    + Cultural Engagement

    This cohort is for leaders and learners who want to grow and expand their vision of the kingdom of God on earth through the church.

    For more information go to https://m3-ministries.org/our-approach/.

  • Forward by Derwin Gray

    My discipleship book, By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus releases in two weeks! I was honored to have my friend Derwin Gray write the forward.

    Derwin is the pastor of Transformation Church in the Charlotte, NC area. He was raised by a grandmother in San Antonio, Texas and was a compulsive stutterer. He played football at BYU and 6 years in the NFL. He travels and speaks all over the US, teaching often about multi-cultural church life. He has written a couple of books including The High Definition Leader: Building Multiethnic Churches in a Multiethnic World.

    He recently completed his Doctor of Ministry degree from Northern Seminary where he studied under Scot McKnight. He has a real kingdom vision and we have both been deeply influenced by some of the same theologians like N.T. Wright. I have been listening to his sermon podcast for about two years. He is a good dude and a great preacher!

    Here is what he wrote in his forward:

    “Jesus saves us so that through us he can save the world.” My friend Derek wrote these beautiful words in Chapter one. These words are beautiful because they are true. My heart was gripped when I first laid eyes on them, just as I know that this book will grip your heart too. You are going to fall deeper in love with Jesus, his Church, his mission for his church, and for people who have yet to taste and see that the Lord is so good.

    How amazing is it that Jesus shares his eternal-kind-of-life, ministry, and mission with his disciples? It’s mind blowing to contemplate that Jesus right now is seated at the right hand of his Father, in a realm that the New Testament calls heaven, yet Jesus expresses himself on earth through his disciples, called the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). Jesus loves, forgives, and transforms, and brings glimpses of heaven to earth through his people. Through the pages of this book, Derek is going to help you reimagine what it means to follow Jesus.  

    Like a  skilled guide, he will reveal to you how consumerism and western individualism has negatively shaped your faith. Consumerism tells a story that Jesus and his church is a product that exist to meet your needs.  It’s like Jesus is a wonderfully trained Chick-fil-A employee whose pleasure it is to make sure your order is to your liking.  

    Western individualism, instead of placing Jesus and his church as the focus of your faith, you the individual becomes the focus.  Often, the Church in North America has transformed the gospel from a corporate, communal understanding to an individualistic, private faith. The gospel becomes a story of how Jesus came to save me from the wrath of God and to help me reach heaven when I die, instead of a story of God in Christ rescuing, reconciling, and redeeming a people who exist for the glory and mission of God, displaying a foretaste of God’s kingdom on earth as conduits of love (1 Peter 2:9).

    Marinate on this for a moment: The New Testament authors use the word disciple 269 times and the word Christian only 3 times to describe Jesus’ followers. Unfortunately, the term Christian has lost its meaning. The term Christian describes how Jews and Gentiles became a new, multi-ethnic family. In the early church, Jews began to worshiped Jesus of Nazareth as YHWH (or Yahweh) and Gentiles stopped worship idols and starting worshiping Jesus. It’s as though they became a new ethnicity on earth comprised of all ethnicities united in and by the blood of Jesus in fulfillment with God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; Eph 2:8-16). The scripture says, “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch (Ac 11:26 CSB). Unfortunately, the term Christian has lost its meaning.

    A disciple is an apprentice of Jesus, in the community (church) of Jesus, who relies on the life of Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s presence and power, to reproduce Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission.  God is calling you to so much more. He’s calling you to a new way to be human, to be enlightened by his gospel-truth, and to live by the power of Jesus’ very life. 

    —Dr. Derwin L. Gray
    Lead Pastor Transformation Church

  • Some Thoughts on Writing

    As most of you know by now, I announced Tuesday (October 2) that I have signed my first publishing contract. I have been working on a discipleship book since summer 2018 and after a number of rejections from other publishers, I received an enthusiastic yes from Herald Press! My book entitled By The Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus will be released summer 2019.

    Writing this book and securing this publishing contract has been a long time coming. I have dreamed of the day when a publisher would say  “yes” and extend a contract offer. But it takes more than just daydreams to get to this point. In one sense this has been a 22-year work in progress for me.

    Let me back up the story…

    My College & Seminary Years

    I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Writing from Missouri Western State University in 1996. I began college as a philosophy and religion major, but I changed schools and Missouri Western didn’t offer a philosophy degree back in the 90s. (They do now!) I choose English/Writing because I thought it would be easy and it was. Writing came naturally to me, but I learned a lot about writing while in college. I learned to write for an audience. I learned to “show” and not “tell.” I learned to avoid the passive voice (most of the time). I learned to write simply, to use a smaller word in place of a big word when I could. I appreciate the foundation I received at Missouri Western.

    From 1996-1999 I was a seminary student at Oral Roberts University. Reading and writing seemed like a full time job. I learned to think and write theologically at ORU. My seminary professors commented on my writing ability and encouraged me to continue to write after graduation. I recall a note one of my professors wrote on one of my book reviews that I submitted as a part of his class. He wrote, “Give me the opportunity to write an endorsement for your first book!” I appreciate the encouragement I received at ORU.

    Writing as a Pastor

    In the mid-2000 I began to figure out that writing was a part of my call as a pastor. Much like my hero Eugene Peterson, I saw myself as a teacher, not just in the pulpit on Sundays or behind a lectern on Wednesday nights, but in the delicate art of writing. In 2006 while working on my doctorate degree at Asbury Theology Seminary, I received real clarity on my call as a pastor. I wasn’t called to start a new church as I previously assumed. I was called to “teach, write, and be a voice.”

    I self-published my first book in 2008, ten years ago, a book on spiritual transformation. I received my first rejection from a major publisher too. I didn’t want to self publish, but I had no other options. I ended up using a “author-subsidized” publisher. I paid too much and received too little. I went on to self publish three other books and I received more rejection emails from publishers who decided to pass on me. I also wrote countless online articles mostly as a part of the Missio Alliance writing team.

    In 2014 when I turned 40 while hiking on the Appalachian Trail I determined to remain focused on writing and publishing. I received an offer to write for Missio Alliance soon after that trip. I appreciate writing on this team of talented and thoughtful writers. Writing approximately once a month for over four years helped me form the discipline necessary to grow as a writer.

    Educators have something to teach regarding the art of writing, but good writing comes from writing and writing and writing. To set a good writing pace requires the discipline to keep writing. I started writing my discipleship book last year, but found myself floundering. I found much encouragement from Scot McKnight’s piece: Writing In Your Life where he described the discipline to write every day. Discussing this article with my friend Doug Main spurred me on to stop making excuses and develop a plan to write every day…or at least try to!

    I also found inspiration from Anne Lamott’s instructions on how to write.

    #ButtInChair has become a mantra for me. And it is so true! All writers face the temptation of distraction…sports, Twitter, news, texts, snacks, and on and on it goes. When I sit to write I think of 10,000 other things I could be doing, but alas, I firmly fix my butt in the chair and write.

    Now I have a contract and, more urgently, a deadline. My manuscript is due December 1. I have less than two months to finish writing the book (I have three more chapters to go!) and edit and edit and edit until I am sick of looking at it.

    I’m so grateful to so many of you who have encouraged me over the years. I appreciate it so much. Thank you. I’m also grateful to Valerie Weaver-Zercher at Herald Press for her enthusiasm for this writing project. I am humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to write this book. I can’t want to share it with you.

    I have much more to say, but I have a book to finish! I better get writing.

    #ButtInChair
    #KeepWriting
    #ByTheWayBook

  • This is America: My Thoughts

    If you haven’t taken the time to watch the music video to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” you need to.

    It isn’t just another music video dreamed up by a marketing team to sell records. This video is an art piece. As with any good piece of art it will mess with you. It works on you. It doesn’t leave your memory. It will stick with you.

    Over the last week I have watched it more than a dozen times and I cannot stop thinking about the images, the lyrics, and I how I feel every time I watch it. I can’t get the lyrics out of my head.

    This is America
    Don’t catch you slippin’ up

    Every time I watch it, I want to write something…my thoughts…my feelings…my reactions…my anger…my hope. It seems like I have a different reaction every time I watch it, but one thought continues to remain consistent: this song is important.

    In some ways this is the “The Times They Are A-Changin'” for a new generation. Bob Dylan wrote that song in 1963 and was later called the voice of a generation. I don’t know if generations have a single voice anymore. We are so polarized and tribal and live in such a pluralistic world that maybe there isn’t one song that will speak to and for an entire generation.

    But then again, maybe this is the song and voice and message for this generation.

    So watch and listen with an open mind and heart. Be prepared to be moved. If you have already watched it once or twice, watch it again…and again. Listen and watch. The video is just as important as the song.

    Be warned. Some lyrics are explicit and some images are graphic, but still…you need to watch this.

    Whoa. This is America.

    America are you listening?

    There is more in this song and video than I will take time to comment on. Others have written about all the symbolism here, but let me start with the obvious: This is America and America we have a problem.

    We have a revolving door of violence and it seems like after we all offer “thoughts and prayers,” we go back to life as normal. Particularly people like me. I am a middle class white dude. When I watch “This Is America,” I do so with white eyes. I make no apology for my ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I just acknowledge that it exists and I am aware of it. I’m aware that because of my place in life, I see things with certain biases and assumptions. I do not know what it is like to live in fear. I do not know what it is like to be a black man in America. I see Glover running at the end of this video with fear in his eyes and I cannot imagine a situation where I will ever know a moment of terror like that. One thing I do know: #BlackLivesMatter.

    America we have a problem and guns are a part of that problem.

    In the opening scene when the guitar player (minus his guitar) is executed, the man’s body is dragged off only after the gun used in his murder is carefully handed off in a red cloth. In America guns have become sacred and any talk of ending the proliferation of guns is met by outrage and resistance. (I have written about that here.) I know we have second amendment rights. I know we need armed law enforcement. Nobody is saying we have to eliminate all guns but what can we do to end the spread of guns and gun violence?

    How long will we rant on social media over escalating violence in America and then go back to:

    Look how I’m geekin’ out
    I’m so fitted
    I’m on Gucci
    I’m so pretty

    How long? How long until we say enough is enough?

    How long until we as a people can say innocent black men gunned down in the streets of America is not OK?

    How long until we say people being killed in our schools, churches, and movie theaters is not OK?

    How long until we say violence on the “other” side of town is my problem too?

    How long until we learn to put down our guns and love one another?

    As a pastor I have the opportunity to serve communion week after week. Very often as I serve the wine with the words “the blood of Christ shed for you,” I think this is the way: we don’t need to shed blood anymore, Jesus shed his blood for us. The only way to peace is to confess our sin, abandon our ways, and follow the Jesus way empowered by the Spirit. This is the hope I have for America. My hope is for baptized followers of Jesus Christ to shed their political affiliations and ideological covers and wrap themselves with the other-worldly, enemy-loving, counterintuitive ways of Jesus.

    This is the way. Jesus is the way. Peace is the way. There is no way to peace…peace is the way. If we will embrace Jesus, he can save us, not to take us to a distant world, but so he can save this world.

    Childish Gambino has awaken something. Let’s not grow comfortable with violence. Let’s stay awake and aware. Let’s stay woke.

    America are you listening?

  • Why is There a Black Smudge on My Forehead?

    It isn’t a smudge. It is ashes in the shape of a cross. Today is Ash Wednesday.

    Like many of us who were nurtured in a Southern Baptist and/or charismatic nondenominational context, I didn’t grow up with Ash Wednesday or Lent as a part of my practice of the Christian faith. I am deeply appreciative for my Southern Baptist upbringing. They taught me the centrality of following Jesus and they gave me a love for the Scripture. I equally appreciate the years I spent in the charismatic renewal. The Pentecostal/charismatic tradition taught me to love Jesus with all my heart and remain open to the surprising work of the Holy Spirit.

    As much as I love these expressions of the Christian family, neither of these traditions gave me the Christian calendar.

    The Liturgical Calendar

    For so long I thought the church’s liturgical calendar was dead tradition, man-made religion practiced by Roman Catholics and liberal Protestant Christians. I was wrong. I was arrogant and ignorant. I was blinded by my own sense of spiritual superiority. I know better now.

    Today I observe the church calendar with a growing number of post-Evangelicals and post-charismatics who desire a rich, substantive faith rooted in the ancient traditions of the Christian faith. (Quick commercial: We are hosting a gathering at Word of Life Church June 28-30, 2018 for people who are on this journey of discovering the great tradition and looking to do church in a way that is both contextual to our present time and reaching back into the great tradition. Lean more here: www.watertowinegathering.com.)

    Nearly all Christians recognize Christmas and Easter, but what I, and so many others have discovered, is that there is an entire calendar with seasons and celebrations throughout the year. To be honest, most Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter not because they are ancient traditions, but because they are some of the final remaining relics of a Christianized-culture. In other words, non-liturgical churches typically recognize Christmas and Easter, because they are listed on the same calendar that marks Mother’s Day and Independence Day.

    To observe the liturgical calendar with its seasons like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost is to resist the growing secularism that is the air we breathe in North America. The cultural tide has turned. The Christian faith no longer has a dominate voice in our culture and we aren’t getting that voice back. We certainly will never expand our gospel witness by engaging in never-ending culture wars. We don’t fight and clamor for the kingdom of God in order to attack secularism. Instead we resist it. Observing the Christian calendar is one of the ways we resist the ways of the world and the rising flood waters of secularism.

    Today, for the first time since World War II, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have collided. Today is a test to see which calendar has primary influence over us. I am not saying we forsake Valentine’s Day. I bought flowers for my wife. But I bought them yesterday, hid them in my truck, and left them for her before I headed out for our 7AM Ash Wednesday Service.

    So Why Ash Wednesday?

    Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and Lent is all about Jesus.

    In fact the entire Christian calendar tells the story of Jesus. Today marks the beginning of a 40-day journey with Jesus to the cross and ultimately to the resurrection. Every Sunday on this journey is a mini-celebration of the resurrection, so everything is not doom and gloom, but today, on Ash Wednesday, we are intentional about identifying with the sorrows of the cross so we can prepare ourselves for the joy of the resurrection. If we do nothing to prepare for the Easter celebration, then Easter becomes about Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, and Easter candy. And I am all for it! In fact, I am giving up candy and sweets for Lent so bring on on Cadbury eggs on Easter Sunday!

    Giving up something for Lent or fasting a meal or day during Lent is a way to remind us of the sufferings of Jesus, so we create a little contrast in our lives, so that when Easter comes, watch out, the joy and excitement will be palpable!

    Ash Wednesday along with the entire Lenten season is a well-worn spiritual pathway walked by millions of Christians before us. Today it is practiced not only by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians but by ordinary Protestants like me and you who want to reach back into the great tradition of the Church that we might walk more faithfully with Jesus today.

    Here on Ash Wednesday we are reminded of two things:
    1. Jesus died for our sins according to the Scripture, according to the long and winding story the Scripture tells.
    2. We will at some time also cross the threshold of death.

    We welcome the first reminder, but we recoil when anyone talks about death. To admit that yes we will all die is not to morbidly fixate on death or long for death, because as Christians we believe death is an enemy, an unwelcomed invader into God’s good creation.

    Death is indeed unwelcomed, but death is a present reminder that humanity is fragile, life is like a mist that appears for a little bit and then vanishes. Yes we are going to die, but we do not fear death, because we believe Jesus has defeated death by his death through the resurrection.

    Our response on Ash Wednesday is the same response we offer to the gospel and that is confession and repentance. For ancient Israel ashes were a sign of mourning and repentance. The ashen cross we received on our foreheads today is a similar sign. We receive the sign of repentance as a reflection of our desire to turn from sin and turn to Jesus. Sure it is weird to have someone smudge ashes on your forehead and walk around all day with what looks like dirt on our foreheads, but this mark is a part of being God’s peculiar people.

    So today I wear ashes on my forehead. Yes it is strange, but in some strange way it helps me grow closer to Jesus.

    To help you on this Lenten journey, we have created a Lent Devotion Guide with Scriptures, a question, and a prayer for every day during this season of Lent. You can download it at wolc.com/lentguide.

    Join us on this journey.

    Join us in this resistance movement.

    Join us in what Jesus is doing in and through his church today.

  • The Last Jedi: Luke Speaks to the Church

    I’m a Star Wars fan.

    I’m a fan because Star Wars has been with me my entire life. I remember watching The Empire Strikes Back in a drive-in with my parents when I was six years-old. I remember standing in line to get tickets for Return of the Jedi. I collected Star Wars action figures and turned my pre-adolescent  bedroom into a galaxy of it own. I read the books based on the screenplays of Episodes 1-3 before the movies came out in the early 2000s. As I became a father of three boys, I was happy to see them gravitate towards this story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

    When I played with my Star Wars toys as a child, it was not to replay fight scenes or lightsaber duels from the movies; I told stories, new stories that went deeper into the narrative world created by the Star Wars universe. Storytelling is the magic of Star Wars. It really isn’t the special effects, CGI, or epic battles. It is the story. The enduring appeal of Star Wars is a testimony to the power of myth.

    [Warning: There are spoilers below! If you have not seen the movie stop reading now.]

    Star Wars: The Last Jedi

    Star Wars fans were nervous about The Force Awakens when it came out in 2015, but nothing could have prepared us for the polarization that came with The Last Jedi. While the critics love it, fans are divided. To date is has a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but an audience score of 53%. I saw The Last Jedi a week after the release which gave me time to read some online reviews and comments from friends on social media. I could tell people either loved it or hated it. It seemed to me that among the Star Wars faithful, most were disappointed with the movie.

    When I walked out of the theater, I was completely elated. But I was shaking my head. I couldn’t understand why so many fans didn’t like The Last Jedi. I absolutely loved it. It brought back all the nostalgia from my childhood. I laughed. I didn’t cry, but I did feel a lump in my throat. What I loved so much was the story. The Last Jedi is a great story. It seems to me that those who didn’t like it had expectations that the movie did not fulfill, questions that that movie did not answer.

    Great stories don’t bow down to the demands of the crowd. Great stories aren’t mastered or controlled by the audience. Great stories invite us in to explore another world and, if we are open, a well-told story can shape and reshape our imaginations.

    The Last Jedi is the conclusion to Luke’s story. He is the main character. At the end of The Force Awakens we were all left wondering how Luke would respond to Rei’s offer of a lightsaber. His response was to flippantly toss that lightsaber over his shoulder and walk away. Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To, 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, isn’t the same Luke Skywalker we saw celebrating with his friends in the Ewok village on Endor. This Luke was broken and despondent. He was living in near seclusion with his guilt and shame, waiting to die.

    Maybe fans didn’t like this version of Luke. Mark Hamill himself didn’t like how Luke Skywalker was portrayed in this film, calling him “Jake Skywalker” and saying “this is not my Luke Skywalker.” Setting aside our expectations for this movie, I thought this was a masterful move in the telling of the story of Luke Skywalker. He was the hero of the galaxy, indeed a legend, but now he was a flawed, jaded, bitter man. He is a fallen hero, still on a quest. A hero who, by the end of the movie, finds redemption and peace. 

    Three Things Master Luke Has to Say to the Church

    The power of myth and well-told stories are their ability to be translated into various cultural forms. As a Christian peeking into the Star Wars universe I can seem archetypes and themes that speak well to the church on mission today in our current cultural context. So let’s allow Luke Skywalker speak to us today. He is still a Jedi Master. He had three lessons for Rey. Here are the three things he has to say to us.

    #1 Grace is Given to the Humble

    As Luke explains to Rey the events surrounding Ben Solo’s metamorphosis into Kylo Ren, he is quick to take the blame. It was his arrogance. He was a hero, but he allowed the acclaim to inflate his ego. He had become “Luke Skywalker the Legend” and he had subtly begun to trust in himself, slowly closing himself to the Force. He saw the darkness growing in Ben and at the height of his own arrogance, Luke contemplated killing his own nephew.

    Luke opted for isolation on Ahch-To to hide in shame and eventually die. He was humiliated but for Luke this experience was necessary. Rey’s arrival didn’t instantly relieve him of his shame, but it opened the door for hope. Like so many flawed heroes in the Bible, Luke Skywalker’s life testifies to this simple truth: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Luke’s grace appeared in the form of Rey who will carry on the Jedi’s legacy. Luke’s pride gave way to humility and in the end of the movie he shows up to be a hero once again. 

    #2 Failure Can Be the Greatest Teacher

    My inner nine-year old started jumping up and down when Yoda, as a force ghost, appeared on the screen. Luke was about ready to burn down the ancient tree and Jedi books (which Rey somehow snuck aboard the Millennium Falcon) when Yoda appears. And wisdom he came to bring.

    Yoda offers this sage advice: “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

    Many of the characters in The Last Jedi are wrestling with their past: Rey with her parents, Kylo Ren with his turn to the dark side, and Finn with his previous life as a stormtrooper. But no character is haunted by the past more than Luke. He ran from his failure. He needed something like Pete & Geri Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He needed a way to process his painful past. Luckily Yoda shows up with a literal lightning bolt to help Luke reckon with his past.

    Failure is a great teacher, but only if we take the time to reflect upon it, wrestle with it, and allow God to heal us of past mistakes, so we can go forward with God’s mission. Failure left unattended is no teacher at all.       

    #3 There is Power in Contemplation

    I suppose many Star Wars fans were disappointed with how the movie ended. One YouTuber with a large Star Wars fan channel said he wanted to see Luke as a powerful Jedi take on Kylo Ren in an epic lightsaber battle. However what we saw from Luke was a few swings of his lightsaber and a Matrix-style back bend to dodge a striking Kylo Ren. I understand people’s disappointment. They wanted a Jedi warrior who would do some epic damage with that lightsaber! Instead we were given a quiet Luke who through meditation projected himself onto the salt-covered planet of Crait. In doing so he gave time for the remaining resistance fighters to escape. In the end he finds the peace he needs to pass on and become one with the Force.            

    So many Christians want a kick-butt Messiah. They struggle to come to grips with a God who saves not by killing his enemies, but by being killed. Star Wars fans wanted a kick-butt Luke. Instead they are given a Luke who ultimately engages his enemy through solitude and meditation.

    Christians for centuries have practiced contemplation, sitting quietly with Jesus in prayer. Contemplation has the power to transform our heart and mind and our  outlook on the world. In a world of hostility and antagonism, we need less warriors and more contemplatives. After all, Yoda told Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, that wars do not make one great.

    The greatest legacy of Luke Skywalker is throwing down his lightsaber and not killing Darth Vader, an act of nonviolence, and then saving the rebels through an act of contemplation. Perhaps we who follow the Prince of Peace could follow his lead.  

  • The Logic of Jewish Election

    At the heart of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism over the doctrine of election is the understanding of God’s act of predestination.

    Within Calvinism, God predestines the elect for salvation and and the “reprobate” are elected for damnation. In other words, God chooses some for salvation and the rest he turns over to the rebellion of their sinful ways. For John Calvin, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.” [1] Election from this perspective is unconditional.

    Within Arminianism, God predestines those whom he foreknew. In other words, God knows in advance who will accept Christ and who will reject him. According to John Wesley, “Who are predestinated? None but those whom God foreknew as believers.” [2] Election from this perspective is conditional upon the individuals’ faith.

    Taking a Step Back

    This debate has been recycled over and over again for centuries with people taking sides. What we need to do in our generation is to take a step back from the theological debate and take a fresh look at Scripture, starting with Paul, to see how Paul uses the word election. For example in Romans 9 Paul writes:

    And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

    Paul uses the terms “election” and “elect,” but what are we to make of it? Does God love some people and thus elects them for salvation and hate others whom he chooses for damnation? Or does God know in advance who will love him and who will hate him? And more importantly, what is “God’s purpose of election” anyway?

    Paul was a Jewish thinker who wrote using Jewish language and metaphor. In order to understand how he uses the term election we have to peak into the Jewish context of what it meant for Israel to be the elect, the chosen people of God.

    N.T. Wright on Election

    One of the top takeaways for me from Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God was on this very issue of election and what it means for followers of Jesus to be justified and thus members of the elect people of God. The key in understanding election is in understanding the logic of Jewish election.

    For Wright, Jewish election is not about salvation but about a vocation.

    In other words, Israel was not chosen for election so they could have BFF status with the God of creation. They were chosen by God so they could fulfill humanity’s primary vocation of being God’s image-bearers in God’s world, shining the goodness, truth, and beauty of the Creator into all creation. God did not choose Israel so that they could merely occupy a strip of land in the Middle East with a capital in Jerusalem.

    The logic of Israel’s election was not God choosing one ethnic group in order to condemn the rest of the world or allow them to remain in pagan darkness. The logic of the election of Israel was God choosing a certain people through whom he would rescue the world with the light of his love. For Wright, the logic of Jewish election is tied to how Paul understood justification.

    To be justified is to be put right as the people of God for the purposes of God. In order to see the logic of election within the overarching purposes of God, Wright sketches seven movements which capture the logical context behind his interpretation of Paul’s theology of justification in Paul and the Faithfulness of God pages 942-961:

    1. “God the creator intends at the last to remake the creation, righting all wrongs and filling the world with his own presence.” We begin where the Christian narrative begins; we start with the actions of the one true God making the world as a place to be shared with human beings.

    2. “For this to happen, humans themselves have to be ‘put right’.” Humanity is intricately connected to God’s world, so they must be put right. God’s way of putting people right is God’s act of justification.

    3. “God’s way of accomplishing this is through the covenant.” Even though it may seem like a strange way of setting things right, covenant was, and is, God’s way of redeeming his good creation. God intended all along to remain faithful to Israel.

    4. “(The covenant) is how the creator God will put humans to rights.” God is responsible for setting right a world gone wrong and he has the power and authority to do so. He will not only set the world right through covenant, but his covenant with Israel was his particular way of setting all of humanity right.

    5. “All these themes point forward to the decisive divine judgment on the last day, in other words, to ‘final eschatology.’” All language regarding justification points to God’s future and final act of judgment, where he will sort out the things gone wrong in his good world. Present justification experienced by those in Jesus the Messiah is a foretaste of the justification to come at the final judgment.

    6. “The events concerning Jesus the Messiah are the revelation, in unique and decisive action, of the divine righteousness.” In the death of Jesus, sin—the source of humanity’s wrongdoing—is condemned, and in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s new creation, the very place where the world is being put right, has begun. Through the Messiah we see God’s righteousness displayed both in terms of his covenant faithfulness and his restorative justice.

    7. “When Paul speaks about people being ‘justified’ in the present, he is (arguing)…that in the present time the covenant God declares ‘in the right,’ ‘within the covenant,’ all those who hear, believe and obey ‘the gospel’ of Jesus the Messiah.” This declaration creates a new situation, a new status for those who are justified and thus welcomed in as the people of God. Justification is not a description of a person’s moral character but a declaration of a person’s social identity. Wright adds: “Those who are declared or accounted ‘righteous’ on the basis of Messiah-faith constitute the single covenant family which the one God has faithfully given to Abraham.” [3]

    As the justified, we are God’s elect, members of God’s chosen people so that through us God can rescue the world. We are the justified justice-bringers, the chosen healers for the broken and wounded, the elect people for the sake of the world.

    _________________________________

    [1] Institutes 3.21.7 http://www.reformed.org/books/institutes/books/book3/bk3ch21.html

    [2] Sermon 58: On Predestination http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-58-On-Predestination

    [3] The summary of this list is taken from Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright my reader’s guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

  • My New Book is Here

    Releasing a new a book is what I imagine giving birth is like minus the excruciating pain. 

    The idea was conceived pretty quickly and now for “nine months” I have been laboring and struggling to write and edit and rewrite and edit and rewrite and rewrite and edit and..well, you understand. Writing is a slow and often uncomfortable process. But then the moment happens when the book enters into the world with applause and smiles, and even a tear or two.

    I am so happy to announce my new baby, er…book, is here! N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross is a reader’s guide to N.T. “Tom” Wright’s 2016 book on the cross, The Day the Revolution Began. This is the second reader’s guide I have written for a N.T. Wright book. The first one, Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright, was released in 2015. I’m surprised at how well-received that book has become. I continue to hear from people (two years after its release) who have found it helpful. This new book will give you access to exploring the meaning of the cross.

    Click here to download Chapter 1 of N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross for free.

    A Peek Inside the Book

    This reader’s guide to Tom’s book on the cross is like my previous reader’s guide with a few upgrades. In the introduction, I write:

    While in my previous reader’s guide I did less interpretive work, I do more in this one. As I have become more familiar with Tom’s work and as it has affected my own, I have grown more comfortable with blending my own interpretation of Tom with his key concepts. Another difference between this reader’s guide and the last is I have included reflection questions at the end of each chapter to be used for personal or small group study.

    The reflection questions at the end of each of the six chapters will be a great way for individuals or groups to use this book to dig deeper into Tom’s world. I believe his book is a real game changer. He wrote The Day the Revolution Began on a “popular level,” leaving out long footnotes and references to other works, but his book still ended up over 400 pages in length. My reader’s guide will help you understand most of Tom’s primary points which I hope opens up new vistas of the love of God revealed in the cross.

    What Does Tom Think About This Book?

    One question I’m often asked is, “What does N.T. Wright think of your summary work?”

    The answer is as complex as Tom himself.

    Professor Wright has been my primary theological mentor for years now and there is no denying my man crush (#bromance). I am a Tom Wright super fan! I talked to him briefly at Missio Alliance’s Awakenings gathering earlier this year and I asked him if it was ok if I continued my summary work. He said he understood why I am doing what I’m doing and expressed his appreciation. In previous emails to me, he was clear that he really didn’t like being summarized because of what is left out in a summary of his books. When I finished the manuscript for N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross and began the editing process, I sent it to him.

    Two weeks later I got a response.

    He again thanked me for my work, but felt that there seemed to be a better way of doing this. Time limitations and work demands prevent us from working together on some other way of disseminating his ideas, so for now a reader’s guide is all I have to offer. He did read the manuscript and offer over 30 comments. This was such a gift! There were no major corrections. Rather he offered subtle critiques here and there. He did in the end say that he felt like I got some things right and in other places I said some things in my own words, things he was not saying in the book.

    As a reader’s guide this is both summary and interpretation. If you want to know whether what I have written in N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross is my words or Tom’s, you will have to read my book along side his. Reading them together is the best way to get the most out of my book.

    The Revolutionary Cross

    What N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross will do, in less than 100 pages, is present to you, in stunning clarity, the power and beauty of the cross. Those of us who have grown up in an evangelical context have one or more ways of seeing the cross that have obstructed our view of the revolutionary nature of the cross. We have debated and argued about “atonement,” the precise meaning of how the cross saves us, but I fear we get lost in the trees, not seeing the expanse of the forest.

    I don’t want to dismiss the theological work going on around the topic of the atonement. It is important for us to work with Scripture and the Christian tradition to understand what it means when we say: Christ died for our sins. (With some trepidation I have entered into the atonement debate here and here.)

    My reader’s guide to Tom’s book on the cross will give you a new lens in which you can see that God’s saving work on the cross is nothing short of a revolution. This world-changing revolution is found in the story Scripture is telling. While evangelicals have emphasized the cross as the means by which believers can go to heaven when they die, the Scripture tells the story of new creation breaking into our broken down world with the cross as the pivotal moment of that story. The cross is the climax of the story the Bible tells, the clearest moment of the revelation of who God is. According to Tom,

    The Messiah’s crucifixion unveiled the very nature of God himself at work in generous self-giving love to overthrow all power structures by dealing with the sin that had given them their power, that same divine nature would now be at work through the ministry of the gospel not only through what was said, but through the character and the circumstances of the people who were saying it.

    I would love for you to get a copy of my book. It is available NOW in paperback and as a Kindle download from Amazon.com. It will be available at Word of Life Church/Solomon’s Porch in St. Joe beginning Sunday, September 9.

    If you do get the book could you do a couple other things to help get the word out?

    1. Mention the book on social media using this link: www.amazon.com/dp/1973839415/
    2. Write an Amazon review
    3. Tell your friends
    4. Form a small group to read and discuss the book
    5. Write your congressman and senator (ok, well maybe not)

    Tom Wright says a revolution has begun, a revolution initiated by the death of Jesus on the cross.

    This revolution beckons us to join. I am in. How about you?

  • A Tribute to Barry Reynolds (March 9 1948 – June 20, 2017)

    Coach Reynolds reading to me as I visited him in his basement in December 2012.

    My friend Barry Reynolds died this week.

    He was my high school English teacher, mentor, and track coach. One of the joys I have experienced in moving back to St. Joe as an adult is reconnecting with people from the past.

    We met a number of times over the last six years to discuss literature, faith, life, politics, Wendell Berry, philosophy, the church, and a myriad of other topics.

    Coach Reynolds was given to me by God at a time in my life as a high school student when I need someone like him. He encouraged me and challenged me in the classroom, on the track, and in the life of faith.

    He was able to draw things out of me that I did not know were there.

    He was the first person to tell me I had a “voice,” that is, I had something  to say. He encouraged me to write from the perspective of the Christian faith. I later went on to be an English major at Missouri Western.

    I was never a great student, but he encouraged me to take the test to see if I qualified for the TAG program. (TAG was an advanced literature and humanities class that he co-taught.) I never thought I’d have the test score to enter into the program. But I did.

    I was never a great athlete, but he challenged me and pushed me to become a better hurdler. I never made it to State, but I qualified for sectionals once and attracted some college recruitment offers.

    I cannot express how deeply he impacted me and how much he will be missed.

    Over the past six years we had countless conversations. A couple of years ago we read Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter together and then met to discuss it. We both love Wendell Berry. He called Berry the sanest man in America. He is right. I will always remember those conversations about Wendell Berry and that novel in particular.

    Coach Reynolds was kind, thoughtful, intelligent, and a man who embodies everything I want to be. He once told me that God put him on earth to coach hurdlers. He did that over a 35 year career, even coaching some state champions, but he did so much more than that.

    He taught us to think, to dream, to read, to ask big questions, to be present to the other, to be humble, and to be focused. He taught us to love, to run, to reject the status quo, to look for beauty and allow beauty to work its magic. He was a wise one, a sage, a contemplative. He was a rare combination of intelligence and charisma.

    Tonight I hugged his wife Barb and told her how much I loved him.

    Tomorrow I am humbled and honored to be a pallbearer as we lay him to rest.

    He will be missed by many. I for one will never forget him.

    1992 Central High School Hurdlers: Back row: Seth Wheat, me, Andre Crittendon, Kelly Brandt, Coach Reynolds. Front row: Jenni Lowrance (Vreeland), Patty Schuele, Melanie Mares