Amazing Love 2: Tough Love

Eternal God of Light: We praise you for our salvation. We cry out to you in times of need. We sing of your mercy in times of deliverance. Yet, too often, we do not praise you when you must correct us. God our Father, we confess, we don’t like it when you correct us in fatherly love. Forgive us.Amazing Love Main Graphic

All week long, I have have been pondering two events. The first occurred many, many years ago. My Dad was an F.B.I. agent. He was an unusual F.B.I. agent because he really did not like violence, guns, and many other aspects of police work. Dad entered the Navy in World War II and worked for the U.S. government the rest of his career. I think he might have preferred to be a rose grower, which he was. Nevertheless, as an old wrestler and football player, he could be tough as nails when circumstances required it.

I distinctly remember a day just about the time I was a senior in High School. The drug scene had just become popular in Springfield, Missouri, and I was a high school student getting ready to go off for college. I was invited to come to his study for a chat. Our chat turned out to be about drugs. He was opposed. As our conversation ended, he looked at me with this cold blue eyes, and said, “Just in case you don’t agree, I want you to know that if you ever get arrested for being drunk or on drugs, I am leaving you in jail until the trial is over.” I was aware that he meant every word he said.

Not long ago, I became aware of another story about another father. This father’s son had done something very wrong. That father complained about misconduct by the authorities, covered up for the son, allowed him to lie, and arranged for him to avoid the consequences of his actions. Which father do you suppose really loved his son? [1]

Last week, the blog was about God’s Amazing Love as shown in Jesus’ Servant Leadership. This week, the blog is about Tough Love. imgresLove does not mean being weak, or immoral, or covering up. Love always means doing the right thing. There are times when love cannot remain silent or accept what is happening. Every parent, every teacher, every leader knows this simple fact: there are times when love must be tough. To love is not to accept everything the beloved does. It is to do what is best for the beloved, even if what must be done is difficult or unpopular. God’s Amazing Love is not a weak love, but the strongest love there is. God’s love is never weak, never untruthful, never unwise, never unjust, never immoral. God’s love is shown to be God’s love precisely because all of the failures of human love are never found in the love of God. This can be tough for humans who want God to be a kind of co-dependent parent.

A Story of Tough Love.

One of the most mysterious incidents from Jesus’ life is the story of cleansing of the temple. On the surface, it may not seem that this incident is about love, but this story is about love when things are going deeply wrong. Here is the story:

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching (Mark 11:15-19).

 imgres-1Last week, we looked at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On that first day of Holy Week, Jesus went into the Temple to look around (Mark 11:11). In this passage, we learn that Jesus did not like all that he saw. The next day, Jesus reentered the temple courts and drove out the moneychangers. Why did he do that? In our text, he announces that God intended his temple to be a place of prayer and the religious leaders have made it into a place of commerce (Mark 11:17). Behind this simple statement, there is a bit of history to know that explains why Jesus did not like what he saw.

The cleansing of the Temple occurred in the Court of the Gentiles, a place where people like you and me might be found. [2] Much of the Temple was off limits to non-Jews, but Gentiles could go as far as the Court of the Gentiles. Originally, it was intended that people from any nation could come there to pray. Over time, however, this particular place was made the center of the economic life of the temple. Money was exchanged and sacrificial animals were sold.

In Jesus’ day, the currency of Rome was the currency of commerce. In the temple, however, the temple tax and purchases were made in shekels. Therefore, money was changed from the currency of Rome or some other land to the currency of the Jews in the Court of the Gentiles. It will not surprise anyone who has changed money overseas to know that the exchange rate in the temple was not the best possible rate. In fact, it was a relatively high rate.

Second, sacrificial doves were sold in the temple. If you brought your own dove, it was inspected to be sure that it was without blemish. If you purchased one in the Temple Courts, it was by definition without blemish. Naturally, it was in the best interests of the managers of the Temple to examine doves brought into the temple very closely and reject them if they were not perfect. If the animal was not perfect, it was necessary to purchase a “perfect” temple bird. You can imagine many people had to buy a dove to replace one that did not past muster. The price for these doves was higher than outside the temple grounds. [3]

Jesus was the visible representative of God, and God does not only love, God is just. God would not allow the temple to be run like this without doing something about it, and so Jesus did something. [4] He cleansed the temple, overturning tables, and driving out those who were misusing the Temple for an unfair economic gain. If we skip to the end of today’s text, we learn that this was the very event from the last week of Jesus’ life that caused the religious establishment to look for a way to kill Jesus (Mark 4:18).

Love When Things Aren’t Right.

The problem with the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time can be the problem of our faith today. God intended his people to be a light to all nations, and his temple to be a place of worship for all nations. The Jewish leaders had made it their private place of profit. We can forget that we are intended to be a light to the nations in our cities and neighborhoods, and our churches are intended by God to be places where all are welcome. God intended the Jewish people to be a priestly people, and his priests to be their representative as they demonstrated the character of God to the world. God intends that his church be the same. As Peter put it, we are to be, “… a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). In every era, God’s people are to bear God’s wisdom and love to the world.

imgres-2When God’s people and God’s Church fail to be bearers of God’s wisdom and love to the world, we fail to be the people God calls us to be. When we fail to be the people God intends us to be and refuse to change, sooner or later, usually after a long time when we think we are getting away with it, God’s tough love is shown.

The Love of God the Father.

In Hebrews 12, the author reminds his readers that God’s love is a parental love—only better. As the author describes the discipline of God, writing:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:7-11).

images-1The love of God is the love of a loving parent. All parents discipline their children. Every human parent has disciplined a child in a way that, in retrospect, was shortsighted, harsh, or unfair. God, on the other hand, never disciplines in this way. God disciplines us so that we can be better, more holy, more like Jesus.

This discipline, like any discipline, is not pleasant, but it is good for us. In the passage we are studying, the Jews had allowed the temple worship to become something it was never intended to be. In so doing, they had drifted from God’s intention for the Temple and for God’s people. Jesus’ overturning of the tables, and injunction that the temple was to be a place of prayer not a “den of thieves” was not an act of human anger or piqué. It was an act of love.

Unfortunately, the Jews responded as we too often respond—with anger and rage. Instead of changing, they decided to kill Jesus. Sometimes, God disciplines us in ways we do not like. He overturns the carefully constructed tables in the temple of our life. When God does this, we have a choice: We can rage against God, harden our hearts, refuse to change, and suffer; or, we can humble ourselves, listen to God, change, and grow in godliness.

This has a meaning for our churches. We are called to make of God’s church, and especially of our particular church, what God wants it to be—a place of prayer for all the people of our area. If we do not do that, God is not going to bless us, because we will not be doing the right thing. If we refuse to change, we are refusing to grow in Christlikeness.

A lot of people my age have a hard time understanding and accepting the changes in our society that impact the church. I am old enough to wish we were back in then days of my youth before postmodernism, before screens in worship, before Biblical interpretation became so much more difficult for preachers, before the morals of our society began to change to that proclaiming the gospel became so much more risky than ever before. But our nation has changed, and perhaps it is a good thing. Perhaps God is calling us to return to being a place of refuge, a place of prayer, a place of quiet and mercy for people. If we run from God by running from our church or run from God because of the scariness of our society, we won’t be doing the right thing. The right thing is to make our congregations a “Place of Prayer for All Peoples.” [5]

Outside of our religious and church lives, this text has direct meaning for our personal lives. Parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, political leaders, and others are given to us to help us become the people we were intended to be. The Bible, our church, and the leadership of our church were given to us to help us become the people we were intended to be. To become wise and loving, as God is wise and loving, whatever our age, we must listen to the voice of God and to those who can help us become the people God intended us to be. Sometimes we will immediately agree with that voice. Sometimes it may be many years before we understand what God was doing when he overturned our carefully laid plan for our lives, our established way of doing things, our easy, worldly habits and customs.

Real Tough Love is…..

I entitled today’s message “Tough Love” because most all of us have heard the term and can remember this message just from its title. However, real tough love is not what we may immediately think it is. It is not necessarily about being “tough” at all. It is about being courageous. Real love is not about feelings, emotions, human desire, or even what we call “parental love.” Real love is doing all that can be done for the beloved whatever the personal cost. It is doing the right thing, not just the popular, or easy, or instinctual thing. Real love is not cut off from what is true, right, good, just, or equitable. Real love is doing what truth, or righteousness, or goodness, or justice, or equity demand at personal cost.

The parent that never disciplines a child does not love the child. He or she is weak. Going back to my initial illustration, my Dad was more loving for treating me harshly about a potential problem than the man who facilitated his son’s dishonesty. I am confident at the moment his son felt better about his dad then I felt about mine. But almost half a century later, having avoided a number of possible mistakes because of my parents discipline, I am glad they were mine—and I am sorry for those whose parents covered up for their failures to do homework, their speeding, their driving after drinking, their drug use, etc.

One more illustration may help. When I was young, I had a math teacher who really did not like me and did not treat me fairly. She actually ruined my love for math. When we get together, my friends always remark on how unfair this teacher was to me in seventh grade. She gave me terrible grades—and they were unjust. My parents did not have any better a feeling about this person than I did. But their advice has never left me since that day. “Chris, you are going to deal with a lot of people in life, some of them are going to be unfair. You just have to make this teacher happy.” I got one year of bad grades and a lifetime of good advice.

Kathy has taught in private schools a lot during our marriage. I cannot tell how many times notes have been written to parents explaining that homework was not being done, tests were not being completed, and grades were not good. In one school, there were all sorts of procedures that had to done before someone could receive a really low grade. I cannot tell you how many parents come at the last moment blaming a teacher for their child’s not doing their homework and getting a bad grade. Every time this happens, I think back on my parents, and I am glad that they never defended me for failing to do homework, for skipping class, for not doing assignments, or for any of the many other mistakes that I made that by the time I entered college had narrowed my academic potential dramatically. Wisely, and lovingly, they made me pay the consequences, and ever so slowly, I became a good and even diligent student.

Real Love Costs the Lover

At the end of our text, the Chief Priests and teachers of the law determined to have Jesus killed. I think it likely that Jesus understood that his actions were going to have repercussions. In fact, I think he knew very well they might lead to an early death. However, love demanded that Jesus point out the problem of temple worship, and he did. One way to know if our actions are in accordance with God’s love is to ask a simple question: “What is this costing me?” Jesus was willing to pay the cost of his love—his life. images-2This is why John can say in one of his letters, This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). Real love is never a costless love for the lover. Love costs, and the most Amazing Love of all, cost the savior of the world his life. It cost God the incarnation of the Word, the rejection of his Son, and a commitment to bear all the sins of the world. God’s love was real love. This is why John can say in one of his letters, This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). Real love is never a costless love for the lover. Love costs, and the most Amazing Love of all, cost God his Only Begotten Son.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This story is a combination of several stories, only one of which did I learn of recently. It is true in the sense that it happens all the time. At the end of the blog, I talk about teachers and parents excusing their children’s academic failure by blaming it on someone else. It is an example of the same phenomenon.

[2] James A. Brooks, “Mark” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1991), 185.

[3] See, William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 272-275.

[4] Jesus foretold that the temple would be destroyed—and it was. This is but one instance of the reality that God is not hasty, and God allows our sin to continue for a time, sometimes a long time. But there is justice for people, for nations, and for other groups.

[5] In the Greek, the word translated “Nations” comes from the root word, “Ethnos,” which more properly means, all “ethnic people groups.” This word does not refer to geographical areas but to people groups.

Amazing Love: The Love of a Servant Leader

I do not usually use this blog to work on a book or research project I am working, but this week is an exception. I am currently trying to turn a dissertation into a book for Christian and other leaders—a project I hope to complete in the next couple of years. In writing this dissertation some years ago, I decided to focus on the spirituality of leadership. The techniques and personality traits that make a good leader vary from organization to organization and congregation to congregation depending on a number of factors, not the least of which include size and complexity. However, it is my belief that the spiritual characteristics of good leaders remain the same. We must all learn to love and lead like Jesus.  In this work, just as in the two others I’ve written, I am exploring the unity of wisdom and love that we find in God and which is revealed in Jesus.Amazing Love Main Graphic

Each of the Gospels spends about a third of their total words describing the last week of Jesus’ life. It is as if the way that they organized their gospels was intended to reflect the surpassing importance of his last week, arrest, death, and resurrection. If we are to fully understand who Jesus was and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, then we must think carefully about the last week of his life as he experienced first approval, then opposition, rejection, betrayal, arrest, unfair prosecution, and death. This week, I am focused on the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and what it shows us about the love of God and about the character of Christian leadership

Some time ago, I was reading an article about the contemporary church. In America, we spend a lot of sermon and teaching time showing how the Christian life is the “Abundant Life.” We spend a lot of time showing how Christian faith makes life in this world better and more complete. We have Christian exercise and diet classes designed to see that we live longer and healthier. We have books on Christian sexuality proclaiming that our faith will make our love life better. We want a happy church and a happy faith. As a result, pastors seldom preach on the verse “If anyone would be my disciple, let them take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). The writer went on to say, “It should not surprise us that people desert the church the moment there is any suffering involved in the Christian life. We have misled them about its fundamental nature. We have preached a Christianity without the Cross.”

If we examine the last week of Jesus’ life carefully, we see the true character of God’s self-giving, Christ-like love as Jesus showed that love to us in the most dramatic possible way. We see that suffering for others, far from being something we can and should avoid, is something we must accept as an inevitable part of the Christian life. If we believe that Jesus incarnated the character of God fully in human form, then we are left with an understanding that no part of Christian life, including Christian leadership, can be conducted without its share of cross bearing. In fact, the love of God shown on the cross is at the center of Christian leadership. And, if God is the God of all creation, then this same love is at the center of great secular leadership as well.

Jesus Revealed as David’s Heir

imgresIn Mark chapter 11, the beginning of Jesus’ last week is described this way:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. (Mark 11:1-11).

 In our church, almost every Palm Sunday, we read or hear these verses at some point in the service. We even act them out with the children. I always think that it is sad that we don’t read them earlier in Lent because the story of Jesus joy-filled entry into Jerusalem and the Easter story of his resurrection always dominate Easter week in a Protestant congregation with lots of children. Our Easter begins with the joy of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and ends with the Empty Tomb. We don’t spend much time thinking about what lies in between. Frequently, the cross is an after-thought, except for the few diligent and often older members that attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. Unfortunately an Easter without the cross represents only half the Gospel. It is not even half the Gospel, for it forgets that Christ came to bear the sins of the world—a world which did then, and does now, reject his gracious offer of forgiveness of sin and new life.

Leaders in the Ancient World and in Our World

There are certain articles you can be sure you will see in magazines and newspapers every so often. Not long ago, I looked at a magazine with an article purporting to give important new information on Jesus. It was a rehash of information that has been talked about for over a hundred years.  imagesAnother inevitable kind of article in election years, and at other times, includes those decrying the lack of leadership in America. It is true. There has been a decline in leadership in America and in the West for a long, long time. However, this complaint can mask the continuity between our leaders and leaders throughout history. The world has always produced more bad and mediocre leaders than wise, loving, great, and good ones.

Many years ago, I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. [1] What struck me was the fact that, from the beginning of the empire until its fall,  a period of hundreds of years, there were relatively few good emperors. By the time most of the New Testament was written, the empire was often in the hands of poor, corrupt, and often-insane leaders. Gibbon described the decline in leadership as follows:

The manly pride of the Romans … left to the vanity of the East the forms and ceremonies of ostentatious greatness. However, when they lost even the semblance of those virtues which were derived from their ancient freedom, the simplicity of Roman manners was … corrupted by the stately affectation of the courts of Asia. The distinctions of personal merit and influence, so conspicuous in a republic, so feeble and obscure under a monarchy, were abolished by the despotism of the emperors….” [2]

In Jesus’ day, as in our day, leaders often excelled at the art of the politics of power and flattery. Pontius Pilate was just such a man—a friend of the Emperor, a capable administrator, but lacking in true virtue. [3] imgres-1 He was known to be corrupt and weak. Pilate, like most of the Roman governors was addicted to power and the perquisites and symbols that come with power. Like most of the Roman bureaucracy, he was out of touch with the reality of the lives of the common people. We, therefore, should not be surprised that our leaders are often mere politicians, addicted to power, surrounded by increasingly meaningless symbols of power, and unaware and unconcerned with the problems of the common, average person.

A Biblical Symbol of Humility

David began his kingship as a soldier who had once been a shepherd. Although in his later years, he was corrupted by his power, he still had the love and respect of the common people. Near the end of his life, one of his sons, Adonijah, attempted to prematurely become king. Adonijah had a better claim to the throne than Solomon, but David had promised his favorite wife, Bathseba that her son would sit on his throne. So David had Solomon placed on a mule, and enter the city of Jerusalem where he was made king. This action, filled with symbolism of service and humility, was part of the expected entry of a new king into the city. [4]

The prophet Zechariah prophesied that the Messiah would enter the city in just such a way: as follows:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your king coming unto you; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon a donkey, even upon a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842The Messiah would not ride into the city on a white charger, like a conquering hero, but on a donkey as a servant king. Jesus’ entry was a part of the revelation that he was the expected Messiah.

Jesus: The First Servant Leader

Jesus may have been the expected Messiah, but his nature was completely unexpected. The people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday so many years ago still expected Jesus to turn out to be a military leader, a king like other kings, and a deliver from the centuries of oppression they had endured under the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Medes, Greeks, and Romans. They expected Jesus to found a kingdom that looked pretty much like the other kingdoms around them, only better. But that is not what God intended and not what Jesus did. This is a lesson we need to learn today. The Kingdom of God is not the United States of America, only better. It is something completely different that dwells in the hearts and minds of those who follow the God of Wisdom and Love. Our human kingdoms can be made better, more reflective of God’s love and wisdom, but they cannot be made into the Kingdom of God. Only God can create the Kingdom of God, and he has chosen to do so using only the power of wisdom and self-giving love.

When James and John came to him asking that they be designated as leaders due special honor because of their association with him, Jesus replied that they had no idea what they were asking (Mark 10:38). When the other of his disciples were furious at James and John, Jesus gave them a teaching about what it means to be a leader in Jesus’ kingdom:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus came to be a leader. In fact, he came to be long awaited Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace for whom the Jews waited (Isaiah 9:6). He came to establish a kingdom that would never end (v. 7). He also came to reveal God’s love and serve in love—not just any kind of love but the self-giving, merciful, sacrificial love of God to save a lost world he would show the world the very next Friday as he died on the Cross. As a leader, Jesus was still the God of Wisdom and Love he incarnated, and his kingdom and kingship could, therefore, not look anything like our kingdoms or our kings and rulers.

Everything Jesus did he did embodying the All Wise, All Powerful, All Merciful love of God. He came in love as one of us. He called his disciples (and us) in love to follow him. He communicated his message in love, revealing that all the laws and all the messages of goodness of all the ages could be reduced to loving God and loving others with the agape love of God. Even when Jesus rebuked the disciples, as he did from time to time, he rebuked them in love. Finally, in love he empowered them by his Holy Spirit, just as he gifts and empowers us by his Holy Spirit.

At the root of Jesus’ leadership, and at the root of any Christian idea of leadership is God’s character, and the Bible teaches us that God is love (I John 4:8). Furthermore, God is not just any old kind of love, but a love that loves us while we are still far from God. “This is love,” John says, “not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v. 10). A Christian who is a leader is to be a disciple of the one who said, “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

What this Means for Us

For the last several months, a group of our elders and a few others have been meeting and thinking about what it means to be a leader in our church. They have been thinking about this question in light of our commitment to become a more intentional discipling church. It has taken them about a year and a half or two years to think through this important question and what it means for the selection and training of new leaders for our congregation. Interestingly enough, they were able to reduce this very complex subject to a single graphic in addition to producing a curriculum and other materials.Leadership Medallion Final

To be a Christian leader is first of all to be a Christian. We have to hear the voice of Jesus calling and saying to us, “Come and follow me” (Mark 1:17). To be a Christian is more than believing that Jesus is the Son of God; it is following Jesus and trying to be like Jesus day after day. It is praying, reading our Bibles, exercising our wills, and in every way trying to become like the one we, like Peter, proclaim to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mark 8:29).

Then, as we grow in Christ, we begin to model Christ for others. This means that as we grow in Christ we reach the point where other people can see the character and person of Jesus in us as we react to our day-to-day problems. We begin to be a person that others look to as they seek to walk the Christian walk and live as Christians. This can last a long, long time as slowly but surely God transforms our character in prayer, Bible Study, service, and other elements of the Christian life.

Finally, we begin to mentor others in the Christian life. A mentor is someone who helps another person achieve a goal, gain a skill, or deserve a position. A mentor is a Christian leader who is also involved in helping another person become a Christian leader. Too many leaders, Christian and otherwise, cling to a position of leadership until they are too old to do anything else but give up and never mentor another to replace them. I think that generations of Presbyterians have been guilty of this, and it is part of the reason that the Presbyterian Church is in such disarray.

We cannot mentor another person unless we ourselves have taken the time to learn what we intend to mentor them to be. We cannot mentor another person unless we understand our Christian duty to the future to prepare another generation of leaders. Finally, we will never mentor anyone until we have learned to love that person unconditionally. In the beginning, it is always easier to do something yourself than to train another person. But, like raising children, unless we think we can live forever, we must do so in love—love for the person and love for the church or family of which we are a part.


Anyone who has read any of my books or any long selection of sermons knows that I am committed to seeing the Word of God as revealed in Christ as the ultimate revelation of the wisdom and love of God—what I sometimes call a Deep Light and Deep Love. By this term I mean a wisdom and love that is deeper than anything found in this created universe, because it finds its source in the being and character of God. [5]Centered Living image

Christians as leaders, not just in our churches but also in our day-to-day lives must embody a kind of leadership that is founded on the leadership of Christ. He is the source of the only really enduring leadership there is or can be. To do this, we must first look at the leadership Jesus embodied—and that leads us straight to a love revealed on the cross.

[1] Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York, NY: Random House: Modern Library Paperback Ed., 2003).

[2] Id, at Chapter 17.

[3] Pilate was a friend of the emperor, or at least his wife was a friend of the emperor, from whom he received his appointment as prefect. He served a relatively long time, indicating that he was a capable person. The Jews felt that he was unfeeling and insensitive to the Jewish people. Eventually, he was removed from office. The gospel accounts portray him as aware of the injustice that is being done to Jesus, but unwilling to face Jewish disapproval and possible appeal to Caesar if he releases someone who claims to be a king. See, Ronald F. Youngblood, ed. “Pilate” in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Rev. Ed. (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1995,1986).

[4] The entire incident is portrayed in First Kings 1:1-53.

[5] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Memphis, TN Permisio Por Favor/Book Surge, 2014).

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Discipleship In Stormy Times

imgresThat day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:35-41).

Years ago, a group of young men set sail one morning from Galveston Bay near Houston. They intended to enjoy a day of sailing. The day began with a clear bright blue sky. They made good time to the mouth of the Galveston Bay and out into the Gulf of Mexico. You can imagine that they were swapping stories about their businesses and families. Suddenly, the situation changed. A storm came up quickly and unexpectedly. The light of day became dark as night. The gentle swells turned into waves. They could not see other boats around them. What began as a simple day sailing trip turned into a frightening experience. Many years later when the story was recounted to me, I could still detect the fear in the voice of my friend. My friend said that he had never been this scared in all his life.

Hard times require a deep faith. This reminder is important to us today. Hardly a week goes by when someone does not send me an article about the difficulty of Christian life in America. Recently, I’ve been reading a book written just after President Reagan’s Presidency. The book discusses the remarkable religious revival that preceded his election, and the emergence of Christian faith as a force in politics after a long absence. I’ve been smiling as I read the book because the author seems to assume that this religious resurgence was going to be a permanent part of American politics. Today, as in the 1960’s, religion seems to be losing influence. This has many Christians depressed. Nearly every meeting I attend has some seminar on the gradual shrinking of the church in America. This phenomenon, which used to be limited to what we sometimes call “Old Line” denominations, has more recently impacted churches across the board in America. The question for us is, “Can we remain faithful and strong in our discipleship during stressful times?” I think we can.

Jesus Calms the Storm

 The Story of the Calming of the Sea completes a section of Mark in which Jesus intensively teaches and heals. As mentioned over the past several weeks, Jesus took time to explain to the disciples in detail the Parable of the Four Soils. He even warned them that, when difficult times come, it is hard for those without a deep faith to endure. Then, unexpectedly the disciples are faced with a test of their faith. They go sailing on the Sea of Galilee and are caught in a great storm. They lack faith in Jesus and are rebuked by him as he calms the storm.


This story comes at an important time in the life of the disciples. Jesus had been revealed to them as a person of great charisma, as a doer of mighty deeds of healing and exorcism, as a teacher of unusual wisdom, and as the one who will usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus has spent special time with them and given them special teaching. You can imagine that the disciples were filled with energy, but also tired from the ceaseless activity of their ministry. Today we would say, “They were living on adrenalin.” When the disciples set sail with Jesus, you can imagine that they were looking forward to the short day sail to the region on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, as well as to some well-deserved rest.

The Sea of Galilee is an interesting inland sea. As the Jordan River flows southward from its headwaters in the north of Israel near the Lebanon border, it falls some 700 feet below sea level into a basin that forms the sea itself. Due to the hills surrounding the lake, the sea can experience rapid temperature changes, as well as wind changes. This can result in extremely violent and unexpected storms. [1] Jesus and his disciples were caught in just such a storm.

I think most of us have observed that storms of life can come at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. They often come during periods just after we have endured a time of peak performance or stress. I have observed that, at times when I am already tired from Christmas or Easter, there can be particularly difficult issues at Advent. In business, many businessmen and women have seen how often when they are tired and ready for a rest, there are problems at work. Often, just when we think we have a problem solved within our families, with our spouse, or in some other relationship, and are looking forward to smooth sailing, we enter a time of anxiety and stress.

Sometimes the Storms of Life are Perfect Storms

In the year 2000, one of the most successful movies was called, “The Perfect Storm”. [2] The Perfect Storm is based upon an actual incident in which a New England fishing vessel was sunk when it was trapped between two weather fronts and a hurricane, forming a so-called “Perfect Storm.” perfect-stormThe story begins with a sea captain played by George Clooney returning from a fishing voyage with less than success. He is in a difficult period of failure. Although it is late in the season, the captain persuades the crew to return to sea for one last fishing trip before winter comes. Due to difficulties on the trip, they decide that they must return although they know that to do so they will pass through a storm. It is a fateful decision. Caught between a hurricane and two fronts, the ship is tossed in 40-foot waves and finally turns over and sinks with all lives lost.

This is the kind of experience the disciples were having—and it is the kind of experience we all have from time to time. When we have economic hard times, there are stresses on marriages, budgets, families, children, churches, and society itself. Sometimes in the life of you and me, the various negative factors in the environment around us combine into what seems to us to be an emotional, physical, and spiritual perfect storm. It is scary, and the longer it lasts, and the tireder we get, the harder it is to retain our faith in the midst of the troubles. Sometimes we misjudge the size of the storm we are just about to enter. Therefore, we must understand how to survive a “Perfect Storm.”

Keys to staying Afloat in a Perfect Storm

Around the year 1633, the painter Rembrandt painted a picture of the story of Jesus Calming the Sea. The picture is one of the most famous in art history.images Rembrandt pictures Jesus and the twelve disciples in the boat. He even puts himself in the picture as the 13th disciple, representing all of us. In the picture, Rembrandt depicts how people react in a storm. There is a man with the rudder  desperately trying to keep the boat pointed into the waves so it does not capsize. There are four experienced sailors, perhaps Peter, Andrew, James and John, trying to take down the sails and fix the ropes that have come apart in the storm to keep the wind from capsizing the boat and breaking the mast. Another disciple has his head over the rail about to lose his lunch. Other disciples are holding on for dear life. Two disciples are waking Jesus and complaining about his sleeping through the storm. As Rembrandt pictures the scene, no one is looking at Jesus.

The picture intends to give us some clues taken from the story to show us how the disciples might have reacted and how we might react as a kind of warning. While it is a good thing that the disciples who know how to sail are trying to save the ship, it is probably not a good thing that they are not even looking at Jesus. The disciples who are berating Jesus are not doing anything constructive. The best thing we can do in a Perfect Storm is keep our eyes on Scripture and upon Jesus and try as best we can to navigate the storm with the wisdom and strength of God. Even more importantly, when we take our eyes off Christ, we may be implicitly admitting that we are not fully sure of the love and mercy of God in this situation.

A second lesson that we need to remember is this: Continuing to do the things that got us into the storm in the first place are not likely to get us out. One of the underlying themes of the movie The Perfect Storm is that for all of the positive character traits of George Clooney, he is leading his men to a watery grave because of his human pride and ego. So often, as parents, spouses, workers, business owners, and citizens, we continue to try to do the very same things that got us into the storm in the first place. Unconsciously, we may be attempting to prove we were right all along or that our approach to the problem is right. Frequently, this is a big mistake. The first thing we need to do in a storm is look God right in the face and be willing to change. We need to have faith that the God who led us into the storm will get us out. The fact that Jesus was asleep is a sign that Jesus trusts God his Father to either rescue him from the storm or to bring good from the storm that sunk the ship of his life. Jesus can sleep because he has faith.

Over Aggressiveness is Never the Best Strategy in a Perfect Storm

One of the most famous incidents of the Second World War is an event sometimes called “Halsey’s Typhoon,” although it was actually two hurricanes. In December of 1944, through a confluence of errors, not all of which were the fault of Admiral Halsey, Admiral “Bull” Halsey sailed the entire Third Fleet right into the Center of a huge typhoon.USS_Cowpens_(CVL-25)_during_Typhoon_Cobra In the end, 790 men were killed, 100 aircraft were lost, three ships were sunk, and many ships were damaged, some very seriously. The losses were more extensive than the losses of the American Fleet at the Battle of Midway. The losses were so serious that America’s most famous sailor had to endure a Court of Inquiry. About six months later, Admiral Halsey sent his fleet into another hurricane with additional serious damage to the fleet. This time after a court of inquiry Halsey was reassigned. His defect as a leader was described in both instances as over-aggressiveness. Let’s be clear, Admiral Halsey was the most famous fighting admiral of World War II. He was one of only four five star admirals (Fleet Admirals) in American history. He was a great leader. Unfortunately, tired after four years of war and near the end of his career, he allowed the military virtue of aggressiveness to become his downfall.

Psychologists talk a lot about the Fight or Flight Syndrome. All of us, male and female, old and young, when threatened tend to aggressively do what we think will work to bring the success, joy and happiness we desire. Often it is a response we have made to stress over and over again during our lives, and which we should know will not work. The Story of the Jesus Calming the Storm reminds us that for disciples, this is not the right move. A calm, sure, faith in God, and a wise, loving response to the problem is always the better choice.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Harpers Bible Dictionary (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), 330.

[2] William D. Wittliff, wr. The Perfect Storm dir. Wolfgang Peterson. Produced by Paul Weinstein, Wolfgang Peterson, Gail Katz staring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, based upon The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (June 30, 2000). My description is based upon the wikipedia article about the movie. Not upon the actual events upon which the movie is based.