I was asked to give the sermon today at City Church Eastside, In Atlanta, where I serve on staff. The sermon passage was from Mark 10:32-45. Hear the sermon podcast here. 

The Request of James and John (NIV)

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “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.

Happy Fathers’ Day

Before starting on my message, I want to acknowledge that some of you wish to be mothers and fathers, but aren’t yet. Some are struggling with infertility. Some have experienced miscarriages. Mother’s and Father’s Day are tough for you. Both our children shared these struggles. We walked with them, prayed for them, cried with them over the disappointments. But, it has turned to joy, we now have four wonderful grandchildren.

When they reached a dead end, my son and daughter-in-law decided to adopt. After quite a journey, they were matched with a newborn in Guatemala. Just before they left to get Miya, Alissa found out she was pregnant with Jasmine. One Christmas, we had no grandkids. The next year, we had two. Miya was adopted out of the pain you are experiencing. She's been a wonderful blessing, the first of many. Adoption is a roller coaster in itself, as some of you know. I pray this time of trial helps you trust God more deeply, and be patient in His timing.

My mother died in October, 2012. In ways, I had been grieving for a year, as she slipped further into dementia. I was surprised how much it hurt. My mother was loved by all who knew her. My grief was deep.

It was quite different when my father died 25 years ago. I didn’t really grieve. He was a hard man, and our relationship was a struggle. At 75, he was still running the business where my brother and I worked for 15 years. Every idea was an uphill battle, as he held tight to control. His death allowed us to cast a vision and move the business off a decade-long plateau. It was almost a relief when he was gone, and that left guilty feelings instead of grief.

After Mom died, I found a video interview my sister made with her after our father’s death. She was speaking of his struggle as a father, “Bill didn’t know how to be a father, and I didn’t know how to help him.” He was raised by his grandmother, and her father died when she was 3.

Ambivalence towards my father’s death was rooted in pain. The two messages I got from my father were, “You’re not good enough,” and the most he could say, with a tinge of disappointment, was, “I love you anyway.” I carried this wound into my adult life. Counseling helped me see that inside is a small boy who just wanted his father to love him.

I spent years trying to prove myself to my father. My desire to prove him wrong stoked ambivalence about his death. I was obligated to prove myself capable of running the business, capable of success, finally being ‘good enough.’ As long as he was around, my brother and I couldn’t put our stamp on the business, couldn’t  escape his shadow and prove we were ‘good enough.’.

But why, why was that important?      

Because we didn’t believe it ourselves. When I began my MBA, we learned of the Imposter Phenomenon. It is the belief that I’m not competent to hold this job, and if I don’t work incredibly hard others will find out I’m an imposter. When I shared this with my brother, we laughed and agreed we had been there for 20 years. Are you living there?

In our Gospel text this morning, we see James and John seeking places of honor in Jesus’ coming kingdom. What is behind the brother’s request, “Let us sit at your right and at your left”?

Ambition, says the commentary. But, why? Did they feel entitled? What had they done to deserve a yes?

Are you ambitious? What is motive for your ambition?

I was looking at the GSU Magazine cover today. Under the header, ‘A New Normal’, they ask: Are we on the cusp of a future where we can just take a pill to work longer, learn faster, and achieve more? Is that a world where we want to live?

Today we are going to look at three questions that get at this, not from the perspective of a theologian, but from the perspective of one who sits in the pews with you each week, trying to figure out how to apply the Gospel to life:

  1. How does hidden pride impact our walk with Christ and others?

  2. How do we learn to father well without a good role model?

  3. How do we love without condition when we haven’t experienced it?

James and John had no pedigree. They were fishermen. In Jewish culture of the time, the smartest young men were invited to learn the Torah, and the best of them, to become disciples of a rabbi. The rest were sent away to learn their father’s vocation.

Peter, Andrew, James and John, the first four disciples of Jesus, were fishermen. They had not made the cut. They had been told they would never be rabbis. Jesus picked his team from the Not Good Enough bench, and, through them, changed the world. But first, they had to change.

The current state of character development showed itself through the request the brothers made of Jesus. He had turned his face towards Jerusalem, walking into the storm. They followed HIm for three years and now He is going to Jerusalem to die. And yet, their question zips past the crucifixion and resurrection to the return of the triumphant king.

Were they even listening? If they had seen Jesus clearly, they would know he had come to die, and instead they wanted to ask about ruling with him.

So, what is behind the question? What blinded them to what’s really going on? They wanted to be first among the disciples, even edging Peter out of the inner circle. They wanted the spotlight, to share in the glory of Christ.

Jesus turns their idea on its head. He challenged them, saying,

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

Servant and slave, is that what you signed on for? In my heart of hearts, I know I didn’t. As they gathered later for the last Supper, Jesus drove the point home in a visceral way, by washing the disciples’ feet.

Have you ever participated in a foot-washing? It is a very hard thing to do. If you ever get invited, take my advice, get in the front of the line. It is no fun being the 20th person to wash someone’s feet in the same bowl of water. Trust me on this.

So, clearly, James and John were not thinking this way when they made their request. Could they clearly see who Jesus was, and what he was about to do?

Tim Keller points out in a sermon on this verse that Jesus’ greatest glory was when he hung on the cross. It was what he came to do. And who was at his right and his left in his glory? Those who were being crucified with him. I don’t think that is really what James and John had in mind.

What then? Were they still trying to prove something? Would places of honor signal that they were ‘good enough’ after all? Can’t you just see Jesus scratching his head, and wondering if these guys will ever get it? And yet, He did not hammer them for asking the question.

Instead, he used the teaching moment to show his true nature. And he turned their whole picture of leadership upside down. It is easy to scoff at the disciples, yet, in my heart, I’m much more interested in the spotlight than the cross, in receiving affirmation and approval for my service, not suffering.

Do you have something to prove? Are you hounded by insecurities you hope success will cover? Driven in work and home life? Welcome to the club.

Striving was a sign that the Gospel of Grace may have captured my mind, but there was still a battle going on in my heart. I wasn’t seeing Jesus clearly when I looked through the lens of my striving. And, in my busyness, there was no time to truly savor Jesus.....what He had done for me.

I studied the practice Structural Thinking for three years with Robert Fritz. When I went through a structural session with Fritz, I came to a point where I said, “I thought for years I was trying to prove myself to my long-dead father, but I think I am really trying to prove myself to God.”

Fritz challenged me, saying, “Is that how your religion works?”

No, it’s not. By that point, I had listened to sermons on the Theology of Grace through Faith for twenty years, but in my structure I was not living it out.

I am the second son, the younger brother. My older brother was smarter, always in the honors classes. He was the obedient son. I found my place as the younger son, the rebel. I remember my fifth grade teacher taking me into the hallway one day and saying, “You have a history of not doing your homework, why can’t you be like your brother?” It was the first I realized they were passing notes about me.

Father showed me strength, but not compassion. He taught me power and control, but not humility. The appearance of weakness was totally unacceptable. He showed me it is a cold, cruel world out there, and I better get used to it. He created the business that made our current life possible, but never had faith.

I learned the lessons well. But, what I did not learn was how to love, how to be a father, how to follow Christ. He could not model that for me. He didn’t know how. How could I be a better dad?

Striving is rooted in a subconscious distortion of the Gospel, the idea that I could be ‘good enough’, that the perfectionist could be ‘perfect’. That those who fear failure could be anything else in God’s eyes.

Hear this, in the Gospel of Grace, there is no ‘good enough’, no ‘perfect’, it’s chasing the wind. If we could be good enough, why would Jesus have had to die for us on the cross? The whole premise rests on a distortion. Yet, I strived for this impossible goal for 25 years.

I’ve learned shame was at the root of my desire to appear better. I was ashamed of not being ‘good enough.’ I put on a mask, and lived there for decades. Huge amounts of behavior came from this place, and had dominion over much of my life. I have come to realize that shame is a tool of the evil one to drive a wedge between me and God, and to make me feel unworthy of God’s love.

So, my hidden pride left me in a self-salvation structure, and humility was not a priority in my world. My relationship with God suffered. And, God let me hit the wall time and time again, because He has no desire to prop up the idea that I could do this in my own strength.

Not only did my structure of ‘not good enough’ damage my relationship with God, it damaged my children…….

I was not onto my striving while my two children were at home. It’s not easy growing up with high-achieving parents. The expectations bleed into the next generation. I found my structure was contagious.

Many of you know Florrie, She is our first born. She's more like me, while Andy is more like his Mom. Florrie took on the expectations and performed well. I remember asking her on a school night her sophomore year of high school, “Florrie, have you got your homework done yet?” For, it was ten o’clock and she was plopped down in front of the TV. She looked at me and said, “Dad, when you see my grades slip, then you ask about my homework.”  

The only other time I spoke to her about school came in her freshman year at Vanderbilt. She was struggling to get up for an 8 AM class, so I told her, “Just imagine that every time you sleep through a class, it’s like flushing a hundred dollar bill down the toilet.”

I began to see hints of structure when she finished school. She was terrified to interview for a job. She had graduated Cum Laude, but was worried she wouldn’t get hired. The lack of self confidence did not add up.

Just a year ago, I took her to lunch and told her, “I need to confess something. My structure of ‘not good enough’ has caused damage in your life. I wasn’t aware of this while you were living at home, and I think it might have been contagious.”

She admitted feelings of inadequacy. I suggested she do structure work with a colleague of mine who also trained with Fritz. “I can’t do this work with you, because I am the author of your structure.” I am so thankful that she did this hard work. It been a huge blessing in her life, living into the freedom of not having to be ‘good enough’.

I saw my unhealthy relationship with my son much sooner. As a younger brother, he is a rebel too. He was not a motivated student. Genie sat at the dining room table with him through high school while he did homework. The word I gave him when he went off to CU-Boulder was simple, “Just remember one equation: 2.0 = Cash Flow. No one else will pay you for using your mind. Three hours of day of class and study, and you get all your bills paid, and you're an hour from a ski run. It’s a pretty sweet deal.”

He finished on the six year plan. I realized the deal was, ‘Leaving Boulder in 4 years is like leaving the party at 10:30. Why would you do that?’

When he graduated, I was anxious for him to get traction on a career. He picked up on these expectations, and they were toxic to our relationship. Being the rebel, he just withdrew and would not engage. As I saw the strains in our relationships, I realized I was trying to obligate him to prove himself. I was ill at the thought, and he wouldn't put up with it.

This was just as I was learning from Fritz how much I had been driven by obligation. I made a commitment then, and have kept to it pretty well. I shed expectations for my son, and began to love him for who he was and let him be him. Since then, our relationship has flourished, and he seeks my advice on career regularly. We love each other’s company and go fishing and camping together each summer.

Are you struggling with your striving? Do you have trouble finding rest from your worries and your work? Are you seeing hints of these struggles show up in your children. For their sake, do the hard work to get to the bottom of your struggle. Commit to emotional health and a deeper walk with Jesus. Move towards vulnerability and share this struggle with your community. Seek out a pastor, a counselor, or come to me for a structure session.

Beyond damage to our spiritual walk, and our relationships with family, Mark shows us that pride will also damage community:  

“When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James & John.”

When you bring pride into church community, it introduces self-serving actions that damage the fabric of the body of Christ.

If I disciple others while unaware of my own striving and structure, I will disciple them into obligation and striving, not into the Gospel of grace. People can learn to be workaholics in our business culture, they don’t need to come to church for that, and most won’t.

In the late 1990’s, I saw that the church that baptized me and and nurtured our kids was on an unsustainable path. Growth had stopped, expenses kept rising, the congregation was aging and dying. I was unaware of my structure. I could not let the church die. I was in leadership, and stepped up to lead a transformation effort. I began to push myself and everyone around me. I was a student of power, and I grabbed hold of the rudder of the ship.

I look back and see tremendous pain in my wake. Conflict erupted and it stains everyone. People took sides. I won the battle and lost the war. The church split, I lost friends. The next pastor came in and pushed even harder. Long time members left, families split apart. Today the church struggles to keep the doors open. My efforts to prove I could please God by turning the ship around backfired, and the church never recovered. My spiritual pride fragmented the fellowship. Some have never forgiven me.

How do we learn to father well without a good role model?

Often, learning comes in the negative space. We learn by example what not to do as a father. I swore as a young adult that if I brought children into this world, I would do things differently. He was an unrepentant workaholic, I worked hard to keep some boundaries in place. He never tossed a football or baseball with me. I coached soccer. We went camping, fishing, canoeing, hiking and traveling together as a family. I learned a lot in the negative space of my father’s shadow.

He never went to church. Yet, I found a deep spiritual yearning in my young adult years. I chased a skirt into the Lutheran church, and was baptized as an adult so we could bring our children up with a moral compass and a decent set of values.

My church provided a path to a better way of fathering. I encountered men who mentored me as I wrestled with being a good father. Helped me see how to balance conflicting roles of Christian, husband, dad, son and brother. I found fathers who had a wonderful relationship with their adult children. I found men who nurtured my heart and soul in community.

So, when we enter into community with a body of Christ, we come alongside men and women shaped by Jesus, and we can see Jesus in their lives. I got the knowledge of the Gospel through the preaching and teaching in my church. But, I was apprenticed as a father by the Spirit through the hearts, minds, and love of men in the church whose lives had been shaped by HIm.

Genie and I made friends with two older couples who lived nearby in Roswell and were pillars of our church community. We were in small groups, adult classes, and shepherding groups with these folks. We did life together for two decades, and remain friends today. They were instrumental in helping us learn to be father and mother.

At church, I met Richard Kessler. He’s is only five years older than me, but was already CEO of Days Inns at age 28. Richard invited me to help with a building project at church. He saw potential in me. Instead of ‘not good enough’ he saw big things in my future. When we finished the project, he said, "I knew you could do it, and I thought it was important that you know it." It's incredibly powerful when someone who you admire tells you that he sees more potential in you than you can see in yourself. He broadened my horizons.

He invited me to his Christian Businessmen’s Retreat, held every fall. I went first in 1982, and have only missed three since. It was the most high-achieving group of people I’d ever met. Walking all these years with these men stretched me, encouraged me, shaped me, led me to much more than I could have imagined.

Have you noticed, in the Gospels when Jesus meets people, he doesn't just see them as they are. but sees what they can be. Richard showed this posture to me: not seeing me as I was, but seeing what I could become. It was an incredible gift, and it helped me see Jesus more clearly. These men were the other powerful influence in helping me be a better dad than my father could be.

Have you made the effort to reach out to those who might be mentors in your life? Not everyone is actively looking for people to mentor, but it is flattering when someone respects you enough to ask you to invest in them. Who might be that person for you? Who can help you understand how to be a good father, a good husband, a good mother, a good wife? Remember, the answer is always no if you don’t ask.

Are you being proactive and intentionally working to discern what you want, and seeking out those who could help you navigate?

Finally, how do we learn to love unconditionally when we haven’t experienced it?

There is a step beyond teaching, preaching, and mentoring that’s critical in forming us as fathers who truly love our children. It is the Spirit of the Living God. God does not invite us to a religion through Jesus, but to a relationship. The Spirit is God at work in the world today. Through the Spirit, we experience God. God gives us gifts of discernment, wisdom, knowledge, and the strength to become obedient, and to love as He loved us. So, we can learn to love without condition only when we can accept that we are loved in that way.

God first revealed Himself to me in the Rocky Mountains out west in 1973. My first experience of God in a church setting was a retreat weekend in 1982 called Cursillo. During the weekend, you hear talks from pastors and peers. It was an incredible witness of men who were really serious about their walk with Christ.

People were on their knees praying for us day and night. We were showered with baked goods and gifts from strangers. We got dozens of letters from friends and family telling us how much they loved us. It was an experience of Grace, and experience of Spirit, an experience of God. I knew I was beloved. I realized then what church people meant by the Holy Spirit. And, I knew it was the same Spirit that touched me in the wilderness years before I came to Christ.

Seeing Jesus clearly is key to loving others well. If your life of prayer and Bible study are more of a drudge than a joy, then you may have too many ‘shoulds’ and ‘need to’s' associated with your time with God. Anything motivated by obligation will taste bitter in the end. Only when we respond out of gratitude for the love he has shown us are we in healthy obedience.

Let’s look the the next step, Savoring Jesus. To Savor is to taste and enjoy something completely. To savor Jesus, like any relationship takes time. Taste and see that the Lord is good. We learn to savor Jesus when we abide in him, rest our identity in him, not in career, not in intelligence, not in service to others, not in rule following, not in spiritual disciplines.

When we are abiding in Christ, we learn to find gratitude and not obligation as our motivation. We grow in humility. The understanding of what Jesus did for us grows bigger and bigger, and calls forth a larger and larger response from our lives.

Jesus is the only founder of a world religion who came not to live as an example to us, but to die. We cannot truly savor what Jesus did until we embrace that he paid the price for each of us individually.

We show Jesus when we share his love in service to others empowered by the Spirit and inspired by gratitude, not obligation.

Unless we are truly seeing Jesus clearly, and savoring Jesus, we cannot really show Jesus to anyone else. We can only show an imagined Jesus, not the Jesus of the Gospel.

The Jesus we see in this passage shows us a better way, His way. What is the healthy posture of a Christian?

“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.”

So, if you wish to lead in Christian community, the proper posture is the servant leader (read servant first and leader second).

Our Old Testament reading of Jeremiah 29 gives us God’s view of the posture of a slave in exile:

”Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

He’s telling us to put down roots in our communities. We don’t know how long God will have us here, but while we are here, for as long as we are here, he calls us to put roots down and serve in such a way as to be indispensable to those you are serving.

In that way, you gain Godly influence. Others will see something in you and seek you out. They will see that you’re not doing this to gain advantage, but to live as a channel of His grace and love. You will be bearing His image to your neighbors. In this way, you will learn what God is doing in and through you in this time of waiting.

My friend Andrew Purser is on the waitlist to get in a Physical Therapy program. I have seen him move through this time of waiting with grace, not with frustration, with open hands trusting that God will lead him on the right path. This is the posture of the Servant Leader.

When we fully take into account that Jesus died for us, the natural response is to live out of gratitude the life he  wants for us. And, what does he want for us? Again, Jeremiah 29 is God’s plan for us as His servants:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. “

He wants the best for us, an abundant life impossible on our own.

Mike Breen says, “The Gospel was intended to be simple, but hard. We’ve made it complicated, but easy.” Intellectually agreeing with a Gospel of Grace is simple. To in our heart of hearts really place our identity and trust in Christ, and not in our works, our possessions, or our financial security, is incredibly difficult. I stumble daily trying to do it. When we See Jesus clearly, and Savor his sacrifice on our behalf, we can begin to Show Jesus  in powerful ways that will change hearts and lives (first of all, our own). God used my father to teach me that I’m not good enough, but he loves me anyway. Hard lesson to learn. Took me 50 years to see the truth in it.

Let us finish in prayer:

Lord, give us the strength to live with joy and gratitude into the life you have for us. Give us strength to bend our hearts towards obedience, for in our strength, we always turn to our own desires. Let us be sons and daughters of the King, resting our identity in Christ. Shape us, Lord, in the way you would make us. Lead us to the abundant life Jesus promises. Lord, we yearn for your Spirit in our lives, draw us into a story much larger than we are. Let us live the life you intend, not the small life we could craft in our own strength. Bless us and keep us. Let your face shine on us. Amen