One thing is certain: The climate WILL change!

The recent Paris Summit on Climate Change attracted hundreds of leaders, all concerned about the effects of human activity on global weather patterns and the environment. Phrases such as “immanent crisis” and “the survival of humanity” were frequently used.

Humankind does “leave a footprint” on the earth. The image of God in us unleashes creativity and innovation as we fashion new products and services from our imaginations and natural resources. Alas, our sinful nature is also manifest in our abuse of the environment and poor stewardship of our Father’s beautiful world.

It is possible to integrate concern for our planet with care for people and making profits in our enterprises. Several recent global studies demonstrate the harmony of care for the environment with creativity and innovation and participation in the global and local economy. Regardless of our particular opinions on climate change, Christians are called to Creation care.

This is why the Discipleship Dynamics Assessment includes Outcomes that focus not only on economics and work, but also on caring for the environment. Without any ideological or political partisanship, we believe that disciples of Jesus Christ should be the best stewards of God’s gifts and diligently labor for the common good.

While the world debates, we can be “doers of the Word” – caring for the marginalized and working for the common good as we thoughtfully carry out our callings.

Learning from Kids and their Marshmallows

Self-discipline is a skill that must be learned early. It is listed by Paul as one of the fruit that the Holy Spirit is trying to develop in our lives (Galatians 5:25-6).   When self-discipline is underdeveloped it results in an entire host of social and psychological problems. Not only is a lack of self-discipline related to overt behavioral problems like sexual acting out and interpersonal violence, it also affects our cognitive and emotional worlds. When you are unable to control your impulses you find it difficult to delay gratification. At school children who cannot focus on the difficult tasks of reading, mathematic problem solving and studying for an examination will fail to make the grades that they are intellectually capable of attaining. Teenagers who pass through puberty and into adolescence will find it difficult to harness their sexual urges. Persons without self-discipline will find it impossible to control urges to buy things they do not need, or to resist the temptation to engage in behaviors that bring immediate pleasure but have significant social, moral or medical consequences later. Adults without self-control are prone to sexual misconduct, interpersonal conflict, financial stress, health issues and anxiety.

In the late 1960s and early 70s Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel did some experiments on the capacity of children to delay gratification. His experiments have become classics in the study of human behavior. In his research a child was offered a choice of having a marshmallow immediately or, if they could wait, when the researcher returned they would receive TWO marshmallows. Watching the videos of how these children reacted while the researcher was out of the room is hilarious! You can see it on YouTube: I’m sure you would be able to identify with many of these children as they squirmed under the pressure of trying to delay their gratification! Some of them licking the marshmallow, sniffing it, touching it, ignoring it…but oh the joy of the little boy who waited till the end and when he got his reward stuffed BOTH marshmallows gleefully into his mouth!

But what is even more interesting, Michshel and his colleagues have found that those children who were able to delay their gratification, waiting for the better reward also tended to have better educational achievement, better body mass indices and generally better life outcomes. When the Holy Spirit urges us to postpone gratification He is not trying to punish us, He has a much better future in store for us. Psychologists are only discovering this now!

Practicing the spiritual disciplines, learning to wait, postponing gratification and teaching our children to do the same is not only financially, psychologically and educationally wise, it holds great reward in the Kingdom of God!

So, don’t eat those marshmallows!

…and don’t forget to take your own Discipleship Assessment!

“Lord bless ISIS!” Huh?

Boko Haram, al Shabaab and ISIS are frightening new words that are being added to our political vocabulary. The vitriolic hatred of these radicals and the violence that they’ve perpetrated against Christians are revolting! A friend of mine has just returned from Egypt where the Coptic Christians are mourning the martyrdom of the 21 Libyan Christians after ISIS publicly beheaded them in February. This week, as our Holy Week draws to a climax, al Shabaab terrorists from Somalia crossed the border and killed 147 Christian students in northeast Kenya on Thursday.

Of course there are various ways to respond to such atrocities. The military option would be to send in drones armed with missiles and destroy their bases, if we could find them. The development option would be to preventatively work with the poorest of the poor in those regions and destroy poverty, hunger, disease and joblessness that render these people vulnerable to the lies of terrorist organizations. The economic option would be to cut off their economic ties with the rest of the world and to starve them of capital to fund their war of hatred. The legal option would be to indict them before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But what is our Christian option?

This sounds completely out of touch with reality! Jesus said, “Love your enemies”! Eugene Peterson has a gift for putting the Bible into very understandable, modern-day language. Here’s his translation of Matthew 5:43-48:

You’re familiar with the old written law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.” I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves….If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, GROW UP. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

Responding to these terrorists in a Christian manner is where the discipleship rubber meets the road! I’m not suggesting that the other peaceful options to respond to these tragedies are not valid, but I have to admit it’s taking me a lot of effort to formulate an appropriate reaction to this commandment to love these enemies! So here are my attempts during this Easter Weekend to respond in the way that a kingdom subject is supposed to respond…and, I’ll readily admit, it’s HARD and I’m struggling with it!

“Lord, forgive these men for their atrocities, they really don’t know what they’re doing”
“Lord, don’t hold their ignorance and violence against them…”
“Lord, may the truth of your ways penetrate into their hearts so that they would turn from their violence and discover the Way of peace”
“Lord, (this one was the most difficult for me!) bless them. Don’t let the folly of their ways backfire onto them or onto their loved ones. Protect their wives, their children and their families from harm. May they find peace. May they flourish. May they discover the joys of your presence. May they prosper!
When two of my best friends had to flee from the violence in central Nigeria after their pastor friend was hacked to death in front of his family by Muslim extremists, this was (and still remains) the most difficult demand of discipleship for them! How do you pray God’s blessing on the people who publically mutilated your friend because he was a follower of Christ? How do you forgive those who despise and hate you? How do you LOVE these people???

This is what Easter is all about! Don’t hate. Don’t retaliate. Don’t hold it against them.

Discipleship is clearly not for sissies!

Of Plutocrats and Christmas Trees

There is no such thing as a “self-made” millionaire. Of course there are many creative people who have used their talents and skills to be innovative and to grow very rich in the process. Many like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have created amazing products and services that have made our lives much easier and in turn, these have made them exceedingly rich. But a few years ago Forbes Magazine published an article on “Rags to Riches Billionaires” in which the claim is that billionaires “made their fortunes from scratch, relying on grit and determination, and not good genes” (Forbes Magazine 2007). The assumption was that you don’t need anyone, or anything else when you have the brilliant talent of a self-made millionaire!

But this argument overlooks some fundamental issues that these billionaires need to acknowledge before they proudly promote themselves beholden to no one but their own ingenuity. Although many are college dropouts, all of them enjoyed the privilege of school systems that taught them to read and write. All of them lived in nations where there was respect for law and order. Their nations enjoyed the protection of an independent judiciary where their business contracts and patents would be protected and enforced. They had access to a health system and to nutrition that ensured their personal well-being. They were indeed, blessed of the Lord long before they became rich. Without all these invisible assets they would never have been able to succeed.

In a recent book, political commentator Chrystia Freeland tells of her interviews with some of the wealthiest 0.1 percent in the world. In “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else” she provides interesting insights into the arrogance of some of the super-rich who see themselves as deserving victors in a cut-throat world. Many of her subjects look down on the poor who should have “picked themselves up by their bootstraps” and made something of their lives (as they had done). The plutocrats portray a sense of persecution for their wealth, comparing the Occupy Wall street movement attack on them to the Kristallnacht attacks where Hitler persecuted the Jews (Politico, 2014). In the meantime their enormous wealth obtains political influence for them, and this in turn begets even more wealth and while the super-rich get very much richer the poor get very much poorer.

According to a recent Oxfam report the wealth of the richest 1% in the world will overtake the combined wealth of the other 99% of the global population by 2016 (Oxfam, 2016). This explosion in inequality comes at a time when 1 in 9 people don’t not have enough to eat and more than a billion people live on less than $1.25-a-day.

This brings me to my Christmas tree analogy. There’s a significant difference between a Christmas tree and a grape vine. It would be absurd of a Christmas tree to boast about the gifts that hang from its branches, or about the splendor of its decorations. These shiny trappings do not reflect on the quality of the tree, but on the wealth and creativity of the householder who decorated the tree. Grapevines are different. The quality of their fruit is directly related to the quality of the vine. Unfortunately the so-called “self-made millionaire” is more like a Christmas tree and not a grapevine. The wealth is not “self-made”; it is bestowed.

“Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:16-18 English Standard Version). We are what we are by GRACE. Whatever assets we may possess, be it wealth, influence, intelligence, good looks or the talent to make beautiful music, we need to remember that we are custodians of the assets the Lord has entrusted to us.

Let us use our assets wisely and allow the grace of God to produce the fruit of gentleness, love and kindness in our character.

Liberated from Our History

Millions of hours and billions of dollars are spent on (often much needed) personal therapy as women and men grapple with their past. Our assessments of our past and our aspirations for the future stimulate our presence actions. If we have serious hurts and regrets in our history and little hope for the future, our current decisions may be defective or destructive.

Jesus Christ came into history to change our personal histories and give us radically new hopes. Jesus carried our sins, sicknesses, sorrows and unanswered questions on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21). Though our memories remain, we can now “tag” our past sins as forgiven. Our wounds are being healed. The rejections that traumatized our identity are being replaced by divine acceptance declaring we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus (Rom. 8; Hebrews 2-5)!

Jesus’ resurrection is a preview of our future (Rom. 8) and the indwelling Holy Spirit is God’s “down payment” guaranteeing an embodied eternity of amazing fulfillment in God’s presence (Eph. 1). The Cross and Resurrection change everything and we are now a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

Personal wholeness and healthy relationships begin with peace in our hearts. As we embrace Christ’s love and forgiveness, release our past [mis] perceptions and mistakes, we are liberated toward a new future now and forever. These dimensions of discipleship that include healthy self-worth and positive contributions to others now become a delight instead of drudgery.

We are liberated from the limitations of our past into the limitless possibilities of God’s reign (Eph. 3:20-21). Let’s allow God to redeem our history and restore our hope. There are brothers and sisters in our local church ready to help us build a fine future together.

Positive Theology: A Disciple by Choice

About 25 years ago professional psychology turned “positive” and I think we can learn something from them in our theology. For decades the field of psychology almost exclusively focused on mental illness but in 1998 the newly elected president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman decided to make Positive Psychology the theme for his term of office. Instead of focusing only on how to help people move out of mental illness, he wanted the profession to also promote well-being and happiness and to focus on what the things are that help people to grow and thrive. The resulting Positive Psychology movement has flourished as they promote strengths and virtues, and produce research on what psychological flourishing and the meaning of life would look like; how one could increase happiness.

The movement has much to contribute to our understanding of life and happiness and I am constantly impressed by the research that this field produces. But we can also learn from them in the Church. I think that a theology than only deals with resolving sin, failures, disappointments and hurts from the past can become a one-sided theology. Dallas Willard in his award-winning book, The Divine Conspiracy called this the gospel of sin management. He suggests that we have replaced the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed with a gospel that only deals with sin. We make an appeal to people to make a decision for salvation so that their sins would be forgiven. This decision has been the focus of our global evangelistic efforts to make sure that people go to heaven when they die.

But Jesus’ gospel was more than a fire-escape from hell. He was appealing to people to become His apprentices, to learn from Him, and to become LIKE Him. While we are so often obsessed with getting people to make a decision, the apostles were obsessed with making disciples. After all, was that not what Jesus’ Great Commandment was all about? “Go into all the world and MAKE DISCIPLES” (Matthew 28:19-20). This is the essence of what we could call a positive theology, a theology that does not ignore sin, or the salvation message that Jesus’ death provided for us. But it is a theology of how to live a life of obedience to the Spirit. It is about developing the character of Christ so that the world can tangibly experience the love of God when they come into contact with us. It is about being a disciple.

At Discipleship Dynamics our passion is getting people to make a more significant decision that is more than just managing the sins of their past. We want people to be disciples of Jesus.

I am a disciple by choice.

Sacred-Secular Divide: A toxic concept!

For many of us, when someone goes into “full-time ministry” we have referred to them as entering a “higher calling”. In fact we commonly speak of someone going into “THE ministry” as if there is only one ministry that is of note in the Kingdom of God. All activities that are related to the church (preaching, worship, music, Sunday school, Bible-study, etc.) are elevated into a special class of high value activities: they are “spiritual”. Everything else that we do (pursuing a career, studying, taking the kids to soccer, eating, paying our bills, even sleeping) are strangely demoted to a class of activities that don’t seem to interest God. It is only when we finally leave our homes on Sunday mornings, and go to the “house of God” that we can “enter into His presence”. This is spiritual. This is important. It’s almost as if God is at rest in “His house” from Monday to Saturday and when we enter the doors of the “house of God”, we gently rouse Him from His slumber so that we can perform our spiritual service of worship to Him.

But even a cursory reading of the Bible should reveal to us that this is a dichotomy (the Sacred-Secular Divide or SSD) that is hard to support. I think it is more a reflection of our Western cultural heritage than our biblical understanding. Paul tried to explain the concept of ministry when he wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus (see Ephesians 4:11 and 12). In his explanation he turns our conventional thinking on its head! He affirms that God did indeed give the Church some important gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. But he clearly describes their function. He says they are there to equip all of us for ministry! Their primary function is to use their training and calling and leadership gifts to prepare an army of ministers to infiltrate the world; equipping them to encounter their communities with a mission. They are to become ambassadors of a Kingdom that is governed by the superior laws of a God who passionately loves the world that He is sending them into. He is sending all of them so that they can demonstrate how His ways work, and that these laws are higher than any other ways of doing things. And as they are going on their way, making disciples of all the nations they encounter, He promised that He would go with them even if they went into the ends of the earth (Mathew 28:19 and 20). This is not a picture of a god who slumbers or sleeps, He’s hard at WORK (John 5:17) as His Spirit is actively involved in the task of daily empowering believers to accomplish this mammoth task!

There is nothing in the biblical narrative to support our habit of separating spiritual things from the rest of life. Quite the contrary. God wants to penetrate every aspect of our lives with His holiness: our occupations, our activities, our families, and our communities. He wants to elevate all of us into “full-time ministry” so that we can bring a sense of His wisdom, His “way of doing things” into every aspect of our lives.

And those of us who are functioning in the role of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers? We have only one task: make and equip disciples. Our number one priority is to develop systems, teachings and resources that will form their character and build their skills so that they could more adequately represent the holiness of God in their respective worlds. We are not “higher”. We are not more “spiritual”. We are their servants (Matthew 20:25-26)! We are not going to be evaluated one day in terms of how many people come to listen to us preaching, or to how much money we have raised, or how large our staff is. The only metric that counts is how we succeeded in using our assets and skill sets to make and equip disciples!

For a brilliant exposition of the SSD watch this video of Mark Greene at the Lausanne Conference in Cape Town

Entrepreneur Shaun Lee: “But he’s a skiver!”

I was delighted to meet Shaun during my recent visit to Singapore. He has a problem: his future mother-in-law thinks that entrepreneurs are “skivers”. “Before you get married, you need to get a proper job. Working for yourself is not acceptable!” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a skiver is evidently someone who is absent from work without permission and in Singaporean culture has come to refer to people who are slack, or idle or who dodge the responsibilities of a real job. Even if Shaun could produce impressive balance sheets and show that he is earning a living wage, the skiver label would stick!

When Shaun finished his compulsory military service, his A levels (British system) and a tertiary diploma he started a business after he saw the exorbitant prices people were paying for bicycle spare parts. He searched the Internet and found that he can import spare parts from overseas, sell them for less than local merchants and still make a handsome profit in the process. Using his own savings, he invested in stock and quickly learned what products move quickly to provide him a quick turnover. He has been able to build up stocks worth many thousands of dollars and his business is successful enough for him to pursue a long-held dream; to study pastoral ministry while supporting himself financially. When I highlighted Shaun’s creativity, his entrepreneurial talents and his investment of capital to produce income as an excellent example of good stewardship, students were not sure how to process my enthusiasm for Shaun’s talents. Eternal bachelorhood was a distinct possibility for their friend!

But Shaun’s skills remind me of the Proverbs 31 woman. She did not have a “proper job” but she was surely not a “skiver”. When you read this passage you get to know her as a very shrewd businesswoman. She was an importer, an estate agent, a capital investor, a market researcher, and a product developer. She had a supply chain that included contingency planning for unforeseen circumstances (cold winters) and while she was making handsome profits she did not forget her social responsibility to the poor. She had an excellent work ethic and on top of all of that, she must have been an outstanding “two career woman” as well because her children and her husband were extremely proud of her. One actually wonders what the old man did while his wife was so successful! The passage doesn’t say!

I sure hope that Shaun will be able to convince his future mother-in-law of his God-given entrepreneurial talents. We need people like Shaun who think outside the box and create opportunities where none existed before. His talents reflect several of the Discipleship Outcomes that are part of our Discipleship Assessment: creativity, the dignity of labor, working for the common good, and the fact that my work adds value to the economy!

It Takes a Team: Completing a Marathon

In 2008 my wife Kathleen Self completed the San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon with Team in Training, raising funds for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society. Our lives had been touched by dear friends succumbing and surviving this disease, so Kathy embarked on a brand new journey. Though she lives an active life, Kathy had never run long distances or attempted anything like this.

Kathy joined a group called Team In Training and for six months prepared for the big day. She was immediately enveloped by caring, committed people all sharing her passion. Experts counseled on nutrition, stetching, pacing and proper hydration and rest. Coaches led the new participants on a graduated journey, increasing the challenges without our undue stress or risk of injury. Kathy still comments on the lifelong friends she made and the esprit de corps shared by the group.

When the day came, Kathy was ready. She prepared for a walk/run style of race, not an Olympic event. Seven hours later, she crossed the finish line, with family and friends cheering and over $3,000 raised for research. No blisters, no cramps, no pain other that the expected exhaustion fueled by the exhilaration of finishing well.

Christian discipleship is a marathon. Hebrews 12 reminds us to run our race faithfully, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the One who completed the race and now by His Spirit empowers our journey as well. UNLIKE worldly races, our efforts are not pursued in isolation. God has placed us in the Body of Christ (Romans 12l I Corinthians 12) and has an entire team prepared so we can run and finish well. Biblical stories, the fidelity of believers in history and our current pastors, leaders and friends are all cheering us on.

The Discipleship Dynamics Assessment is a great tool for knowing what areas of training need help and the ones that are strong. Defining where we are leads us to Discovering the resources we need, thus allowing accuracy as we are discipled and Disciple others. There is no “failure” or “perfection” in the scores and descriptions we offer. We are all in the race. As long as we keep moving, all the resources of heaven are available to help us go forward.

I (Charlie Self) recently joined my 31-year-old son and some of his peers for a lively evening of basketball. While I did not embarrass myself, the next morning I “discovered” some new aches and evidence of muscles unused! If I was going to play again, I needed to alter my workouts (I am in the gym often) and prepare wisely.

Whether you are brand new in your Christian journey, renewing your faith, or a seasoned veteran, the Assessment can help focus your whole-life “workouts” and propel you ahead. I am so proud of Kathy – but it took a team. God’s team is ready for you…and you are part of his team for others. Let’s get moving forward together!