Our Foolish Fragile Fences

18 09 2014

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. Ephesians 2:13-14

dividing fence

We all build fences. It is an essential part of the human condition. We categorize and re-categorize ourselves and others over and over again in order to protect our fragile egos and in order to minimize any complex thinking required to really see others. We are quick to identify differences which separate us and we “otherize” anyone we do not agree with or do not fully understand. We build fences. And we do this within the church.

Apparently, the single most effective tool for breaking down fences between people or groups of people is to identify a bigger, more important dividing line. Having found that more significant division, most of the smaller ones suddenly seem less important and may dissolve altogether. You have experienced this.

Take, for example, the deep, deep political divide the United States was experiencing after the 2000 Presidential election…the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Does the term “hanging chad” ring a bell? Remember how very deeply this country was split right down the middle? We had almost a full year of political fights over those election results. But then, on September 11 of the following year, the greatest catastrophe this country has ever known was inflicted upon us. Suddenly, those deep, deep dividing lines seemed unimportant, because now there was a much bigger, more important dividing line…one that ran between this country and its terrorist foes. This country has never been more “unified” than in the days and weeks immediately following that event. Democrats and Republicans became bedfellows, united for a cause.

You see, there are certain “perspective builders” and “game changers” that make us forget about fences that previously seemed important to us. You will notice that all the demographic differences between patients in a chemotherapy ward dissolve very quickly in light of the “perspective building” fight they are all fighting. You will notice that all the political differences between members of an addiction support group represent insignificant divisions in light of the one huge dividing line separating all of them from sobriety and recovery. In short, all those fences we create are subject to being moved or being dissolved altogether under the right circumstances.

As it turns out, the gospel is the right circumstance…it is the quintessential ultimate dividing line which causes all others to dissolve in its shadow. Whatever fences we may have erected in order to differentiate ourselves from others (“those people” who voted differently from me in the last election, “they” who live a different lifestyle from me, “them” who rebuke my faith, etc.), those fences all go away at the foot of the cross. As it turns out, there is only one dividing line that matters…only one that is eternal…it is the line that divides a holy, sovereign God from all the rest of us. ALL the rest of us. You and I and everyone else in this world all find ourselves on the same side of the only fence which matters. We were all dead in our trespasses. None of us…NONE OF US…are in any way entitled to a place on the other side of that fence.

And that is the miracle of the church. None of our fences matter, all of them are foolish and fragile and meaningless in the light of the gospel. Jews and Gentiles…Republicans and Democrats…prostitutes and debutantes…slaves and kings…we all need a savior. Desperately. That is the undeniable unity of the gospel.

So, I find myself wondering what fences I have erected that need to come down today, in light of the gospel I say I believe?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Comfort of the Familar

16 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  Hebrews 10:24-25

dog in a kennelMy dog, Maile, sleeps in a kennel.  She actually prefers it.  I’ve had dogs my entire life, and she is the first one I’ve crate-trained.  I will admit I was skeptical at first.  It just looks so cruel!  How can anyone be happy, being in a cage?  But every night, when her eyes are heavy and it is time for bed, she voluntarily abandons the freedom of our bed and goes back to the limits and the restrictions of her tiny little bed in her little wire cage.  Do you know why? Because it is familiar to her…and, for dogs, there is great comfort in familiarity.

People are a bit like that too.  Church people are especially like that.  No matter how antiquated, no matter how ineffective, we all have a tendency to return to the familiar, to the “way it has always been”, because it is comfortable.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was fighting a battle which you as a present day church leader might recognize: the battle against the comfort of the familiar.  It was a daunting task, getting the Hebrew Christians to persevere in the face of the persecution they faced and to stick with the very different forms of worship from those  with which they had been reared.  Gathering together as a church body every week with no sacrifices, no holy places, no sacred implements, no fancy robes, and with “traditions” which were all of one generation in age…all of these new ways had to hold the commitment of a people who had otherwise been steeped in their former traditions for hundreds of years.  It is no surprise, then, when we discover there was a problem with Hebrew Christians  “falling away”…abandoning the new covenant for the old, ineffective one.

The call to follow Christ is a call forward.  It requires steady, constant, forward momentum in order to keep from falling.  It leaves no room for moving backwards and it leaves precious little room for standing still either.  Our role as leaders in the church is to be encouraging our brethren to keep moving forward and to persevere through difficult seasons.  Like the writer of Hebrews, we must find compelling truths to lovingly propel the church forward.  We must be ever reminding our friends of the failed systems they left behind, how far they have already come, and of the promises which lay ahead.  And this leadership task is always, always before us…because always, always against us is the comfort of the familiar.

Like dogs in our kennel, we do not want to lose the comfort of our familiar ways.  We are not interested in sacrificing in order to start new churches.  Please don’t ask us to try new forms of worship, nor press forward with new friendships.  We just want to stay here in the comfort of our tiny little cage.  It is familiar.

Isn’t it interesting that, after 2,000 years of doing church, we still fight this same battle?

But fight it we must.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




God is Not Fair

11 09 2014

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… Ephesians 2:4-6

gavelGod is not dead. It’s a message that is kind of going around recently. It’s a terrific message, too…one the world needs to hear…one the church needs to send. For a lost and broken world, for a world in need of a savior, it is very, very good news…UNLESS, he is also fair. You see, if God is very much alive and is also very much about fairness, then you and I (and everyone else) are very much doomed.

When scripture says, “…even when we were dead in our trespasses…” that is what it means: doomed. It means that you and I (and everyone else) have made choice after choice after choice to please ourselves with little or no regard to God. It means we have opted for short-term prizes with enormous long-term (eternal) consequences. It means we have chosen to live without God and that is exactly what we deserve…an eternity without God. “Fairness”, then, would only mean one thing: getting what we deserve. It would mean our utter and complete destruction. That would be “fair”. That’s what we each have earned, according to our creator’s standards.

We don’t like to think of ourselves that way, of course. We look at our poor choices and bad behavior and then we immediately look for justification for it. We look to blame others for it. We look to compare ourselves to others and, finding someone who is “worse” than we are, we can take some solace in it and convince ourselves that maybe we aren’t deserving of quite as much certain destruction as “they” are. But we are fooling ourselves. At the end of the day, fair is fair. And we deserve only death. That, my friends, is what it means to be “dead in our trespasses”.

So, the next critical message for the church (after “God is not dead”) is that God is not fair. God loves us and is willing to bring us back to life after being “dead in our trespasses”. God loves us and chooses to NOT give us what we deserve. We have not earned this favorable treatment. But he gives it to us anyway, as a free gift. There is nothing fair about it. Nothing at all. In fact, it is totally and outrageously unfair. We are dead, and God throws fairness to the wind and brings us back to life in Christ. We are saved through grace. That, it seems to me, is the rest of the message His church must be sending. God is not dead, and God is not fair.

So, the next time you catch yourself complaining about your circumstances and feeling like you have somehow been cheated or otherwise dealt a bad hand, remind yourself of this: God is not fair…and aren’t we glad for that?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Losing Your Church’s Training Wheels

9 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand.  In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.  Hebrews 5:11-14

training wheelsIt is kind of a big moment in a child’s life, going from three (or four) wheels to just two…going from the tricycle (or bicycle with training wheels) to a bicycle.  “Look Dad, I’m a big girl now!”  It is a big deal because it is a big adjustment.  It is not just about balance.  It is about forward motion.  It is an entirely different mindset.

After all, that is the biggest difference between a bike with training wheels and one without…you can sit on a bike with training wheels and not move at all.  You can just sit there and be pretty and comfortable and cool, never moving forward, never taking a risk, never changing a thing.  But as soon as those training wheels come off, that option (sitting still) is off the table.  You see, with the growth from child into maturity, there comes a requirement of constant forward progress, continuous pressing ahead without long stops, without sitting still and being comfortable, and without growing content where you are.

It really is a very different way of being, a totally different philosophy.  It is a new mindset, a new frame of reference.  Constant forward movement means leaning against the very human tendency of stopping to just wallow in the way things are.  An orientation toward forward progress requires leadership on your part, much like the leadership provided to us by the writer of Hebrews: though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  I read this exhortation less as a comment about what we do not know, and more as a comment about the direction we are headed…more specifically, the direction we are NOT headed…FORWARD!

Effectively leading God’s people toward a “forward orientation” requires steady, constant, loving pressure.  It requires a regular dose of discontent…not a depressing discontent, bringing everybody down all the time…rather, a healthy realization that we can get better, that we can get forward.  It requires a little cheerleading to celebrate the successes of the past, an appropriate pause to feel encouraged, and then an immediate shift toward what is next.  It requires a system for setting goals and objectives, for discerning what God is doing right now, for making quick adjustments to join that work, and then doing it all over again.  It requires evaluation and asking honest, hard questions about whether we are really “winning” in terms of the vision.  This is what “maturity” feels like for a church.  It is not a destination…it is a direction of movement.

If your leadership is not resulting in healthy change and moving forward, if the only prevailing mindset in your people is contentment with the way things are, then it may be time to take the training wheels off the bike.  It’s scary at first. For everyone.  But once you’re going forward, it’s a rush your people will never want to lose!

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




That the World Might See

4 09 2014

 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe…” Ephesians 1:16-19

chessIn Kiev, Ukraine, I visited the gallery of Mykola Syadristy’s microminiature art. That gallery (see the website) is perhaps the most fascinating art gallery I have ever experienced. Have you ever seen an entire chessboard (with movable chess pieces) on the head of a pin? Or a rose vine sculpted inside a hollowed-out hair? This Ukrainian artist was truly a master at creating beautiful things which could not even be seen by the naked eye. The gallery itself is simply a collection of microscopes, each one set up to help you see a tiny piece of this otherwise unseen microscopic world.

I see church leaders playing a similar role for those whom they lead. I believe it is up to us as leaders to provide a lens through which people can gain a glimpse of the unseen spiritual world all around us. Paul sometimes refers (in some English translations) to this unseen world as the “heavenly realms”. Scripture is replete with references to this unseen world which is more infinite and eternal and profound than any parts of the more fleeting and temporary physical world in which we otherwise live. Paul prays that God would give the church His spirit of wisdom and of revelation and that the “eyes of our hearts” would be opened to see the magnificence of this unseen world.

Do you see, then, that it is our privilege to have access to this spiritual knowledge, to see what is otherwise unseen, and to provide glimpses of these realities to the world around us? Does it register with you that our Biblical worldview is the world’s only opportunity to see many of these spiritual truths which help explain what is going on in the more temporary physical world? The church, in this sense, becomes the lens through which the world can catch a glimpse of eternity. The world may not like the glimpse. They may even resent it. But it is the only glimpse they will get for now.

Maybe it is worth remembering that it is neither our privilege nor responsibility to make the world happy with this unseen world. Rather, ours is merely to bear witness to this very real, very old, very eternal unseen world, and to keep it at the center of our existence. The church, it seems, is very much a part of this eternal reality. It will be here long after this physical world is gone. Eugene Petersen, in The Message, interprets this truth out of Ephesians 1:20-23 this way: “The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church.”

As you lead the church, then, I pray that God will grant you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation and that the eyes of your heart may be opened to see–and to help others to see–what is the immeasurable power of God at work all around us. Help them to see what is unseen. It is what we do.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Leader’s Problem with Pretense

2 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Hebrews 4:15

transparencyMy friend Scott is a gifted teacher.  I remember one of his illustrations using a bunch of unmarked tea bags.  He had everyone pass them around and smell them to see if we could tell what kind of tea each one held.  Then he said something really profound: “Tea bags are a lot like people…you don’t know for sure what’s inside them until you put them in hot water.”  It was a beautiful illustration about integrity and transparency.  Together, those are the currency of leadership in the church.

What was truly transformative about Jesus (and what has been transformative about Christianity for over 2,000 years now) is not the power nor the persuasion nor the perfection of Jesus.  Rather, it was the almost spellbinding “connection” he had with everyone he met.  He connected with the Samaritan woman at the well.  He connected with the Pharisee, Nicodemus.  He connected with fishermen and tax collectors and soldiers and prostitutes.  What changed people was his ability to see right into their souls, and at the same time allow them to see right into Him.

That was the founder of this revolution for which you and I are contending.  And we should reflect that same level of transparency and connectability.  It is important to our mission.  In fact, the revolution depends on it.

But in our efforts to work harder to do all the things good Christians should do, and in our efforts to manage our people’s perception of us, we often tend to lose the transparency.  In our churches’ efforts to elevate our leaders to praiseworthy heights, we create an environment where it is no longer safe for them to be truly transparent, lest they lose the very popularity which placed them there.  We want heroes for our leaders, so we “create” them, leaving little or no room for their humanity.  And as leaders, we fall in line with this very system, as it often seems like the only opportunity to lead.  The very pretense which lifts us up eventually becomes our downfall.

But here is the magnified effect of that pretense: Leaders who pretend to be something they are not end up building organizations which pretend to be something they are not.  An entire culture of pretense and shallow relationships results.  And, more times than any of us want to admit it, we call it “church”.

As I reflect on Hebrews 4-5 and its description of our “great High Priest”, I am reminded that it is transparency and “connection” which are the real stuff of which Christ-like leaders are made.  Our ability to relate to our people and their ability to relate to us…to connect with us…is what really matters.  That’s what our founder taught us.  I just need a reminder a few times each day.  Because, in the end, when you put me in hot water, all I really want you to see coming out of me is Jesus.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Church Leaders and Our Hard Hearts

26 08 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”  Hebrews 3:7-11; Psalm 95:7-11

heart of stoneAs it turns out, hard hearts come in a pretty large variety of shapes and forms…even among church leaders.  It is rarely as overt as Israel’s rebellion at Meribah.  More often, it is a mild arrogance or self-reliance or pride at the heart of our hard-heartedness.  So, as I study the above passage, I am reflecting on some of the less obvious (but more common) ways I have seen leaders “harden their hearts”…including me and my own heart.

Hardening our hearts to the power of God’s Word.  Every time we catch ourselves thinking, “what this text needs is a little more of me…a little of my flash and polish will go a long way in helping it hit home in this sermon…” our faith in the power of God’s Word diminishes just a little more.  Every time we receive a compliment for a lesson well-taught and we fail to acknowledge that it was God’s Word and not our communication skills that caused the real transformation, we steal God’s glory, and our heart hardens just a little more to the miracle of His living word.

Hardening our hearts to the power of prayer.  When the priority we give gathered prayer meetings falls somewhere between  repairing the hems of the choir robes and making sure there is toilet paper in the women’s restroom, we miss the mark as spiritual leaders.  When our public prayers reveal just how little time we have spent in private prayer, we set an example of a heart hardened to prayer.  Jesus said his church would be a house of prayer…what type of house are you and your leadership building?

Hardening our hearts to Christ in our brother.  Finding Christ in our people…ALL our people…may be the most critical difference between good leaders and great leaders.  When we respond to criticism by saying to ourselves, “God is not gong to speak to me through THAT ignorant person…” our heart grows a little colder. When we refuse to hear a brother because of some sin in his life or because his choices are not like ours or because he votes differently than we vote or watches a different news outlet than we do…we harden our hearts not only to that brother, but to Christ in that brother…and in doing so, we forsake the single most significant “help” God has for us as leaders: His Spirit living in His people.

Do you see, then, that (especially for leaders who live in the accountability of the lime light) a hardening heart does not necessarily begin with a sense of rebellion nor outright rejection of God. Rather, it more often begins with these much less obvious moments of shrunken faith or heightened sense of self.  Unfortunately, there are many roads that lead to the hardening of the heart…many dangerous paths from which to choose.  They just don’t seem all that dangerous in the beginning.

God has a “groove” of His perfect will for His church and for its shepherds…a “rest” for the weary leader.  But it is not there for the hard-hearted.  It is for the humble leader whose heart remains pliable and moldable and whose faith is strong.  It is for the leader who trusts entirely in the Lord and in His Word and in prayer and in God’s people.  As leaders, we can choose whether or not that rest is ours.  Do not harden your heart.  Enter into the rest that is yours.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com







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