Category Archives: disciple

The Long and Winding Road*

Share

With both apologies and gratitude to Sir Paul McCartney and his mates in the Beatles, the long and winding road is an apt description of the journey my family has been on for the past four years. What began as a somewhat uncertain yet anticipatory search for a Lead Pastor role melted into a desert meander through loss, death, grief, depression, questioning, doubting, and more. Yet milestone after faded milestone seemed to confirm two things: first, we were on the right path; and second, that path was leading to a pastoral role. Specifically where the path would lead was an unanswered question.

When God leads people on a journey, there’s always a purpose. Sometimes the purpose, or the path, or both, seems harsh, as with Jonah’s three days living as seafood or the ancient Israelites’ forty-year wilderness sojourn. Sometimes the purpose is simply to train, sometimes to discipline, sometimes to strengthen or transform. Sometimes God uses the journey to refresh and restore, as with Elijah after his battle-to-the-death with the prophets of Baal.

During our journey these past several years, God has been doing some hard work in my life, chiseling off rough edges, testing my commitment to his purpose, leading me from pride toward greater humility (a journey nowhere near complete). One of the most profound shifts I’ve seen in myself is a desire to love—really and simply love—whatever community he might call me to lead. That desire hasn’t always been there for me; so often, I’ve looked more at what I can change in a church than what I can love.

This weekend I stood before the congregation of a small, 150-year-old church in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. After my message (from Colossians 3:12-17), they were going to vote, as all good Baptists do, on whether it was God’s will for me to be their next pastor. With the ten new members being received that morning, the congregation stood at about 50 people – three-fourths of whom are over 65. I could count the children’s ministry on one hand…maybe with a finger to spare. The youth group was doubled in size by my daughter’s presence.

As we were getting ready for church that morning, my wife asked me what percentage I was looking for if we were to say yes to the church’s call. The number in my mind from the start had been 89%; I don’t know why, that’s just what came to my head and planted itself there. Eiley wondered if that was too high; What if it’s only 85%? Or 80?

The vote was overwhelming and humbling: unanimous! That is so unlike my past experience with churches, especially Baptist churches (my tribe). I have heard people say they always vote No just on principle! (I’m not sure what principle that is.) But this small body of hope-filled followers of Jesus is united in their desire to have me as their pastor and to lead them into the next phase of their life—of our life together.

And so, our journey takes a new turn. With a church called, ironically (and appropriately), The Journey. I wonder where this long and winding road will lead.

 

*Photo of Paul McCartney’s High Park Farm in Scotland copyright and owned by Stuart Brabbs. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:High_Park_Farm._-_geograph.org.uk_-_434107.jpg

The Foundry

Share

“[Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature….” (Hebrews 1:3)

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….” (Romans 8:29)

I never got to use the sand-cast foundry in my high school’s Industrial Arts shop. Something was wrong with it, as I recall, so we could only talk about how it works, but that foundry came to mind when I read the opening words of Hebrews.

In sand casting, a pattern is pressed into a frame of compacted sand to create a mold. After removing the pattern, molten metal is poured into the mold. When the metal has cooled, the mold is removed from the completed casting, rough edges are smoothed off, and any other finishing work is done. All told, the process is extremely detailed, requires intense heat and pressure, and can develop imperfections at any point.

Kind of like being a disciple of Jesus.

I used to think Jesus was the pattern a disciple was supposed to follow. I don’t think that’s wrong, necessarily—Paul suggests it in Romans 8—but when I read these words in Hebrews recently, I had to do some new thinking. Hebrews says Jesus is “the exact image of [God’s] nature.” In a sand-casting analogy, that suggests that God himself is the pattern and Jesus is the mold – the sand that’s pressed around the pattern.

However you look at, there are some important lessons for us as disciples:

  • We are metal that gets melted down, both to be refined (see Zechariah 13:9 and Malachi 3:2), and so that we can be poured into the mold. Melting is hot and hurts, but it’s the only way to get rid of the impurities in the metal.
  • Even after we’ve cooled down and been removed from the mold, there’s still work to do. Scrap metal must be cut, chiseled, hammered, or torched off. Rough edges need to be filed down.

All these processes, in metalwork, transform a chunk of raw metal into a strong, useful, even attractive tool. In the Christian life, the process is called sanctification, transforming a stubborn, sin-riddled chunk of humanity into a new creation, a disciple shaped into the image of Jesus Christ – who is “the exact imprint of God’s nature.”

It’s a lifelong task. Where are you in the process? 

Drought Resistance

Share

But blessed are those who trust in the LORD
and have made the LORD their hope and confidence.
They are like trees planted along a riverbank,
with roots that reach deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered by the heat
or worried by long months of drought.
Their leaves stay green,
and they never stop producing fruit.
(Jeremiah 17:7-8, New Living Translation)

What does it look like to “trust in the Lord”? What does it mean to make him your “hope and confidence”? I’ve been wrestling with those questions over the past couple days – ever since my Dad reminded me of Jeremiah’s words.

Part of the answer lies in the alternative: trusting in “mere humans” and relying on human strength. Do that, Jer’ says, and you’re cursed. Not necessarily damned, but certainly doomed. Like a “stunted shrub in the desert… in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.” With “no hope for the future.” Dismal words. Dismal picture. Dismal life.

“But,” he says, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be like a riverside tree, “with roots that reach deep into the water.”

Look at the picture above. The landscape looks pretty brown and barren. Lots of weeds, but no crops. But the tree is flourishing. Green, leafy, healthy. Why? Because down to the right of the trunk, below the canopy’s shade, is a river. Not much of a river here, but water, nonetheless. And the tree’s roots reach through the brown soil deep into the ground where the water sits.

This particular tree, a few miles west of Ethiopia’s capital city, is a prayer tree. Christians from nearby villages meet here to pray in its cooling shade. In the midst of a dry and weary land, they come together to put their trust in the Lord; to make him their hope and confidence. And they—like the tree—aren’t afraid of the drought, but stay green and fruitful.

I’ve been through some wilderness times. I feel like I’m in the wilderness now. But there’s something different this time. More than ever before, I know I can trust in God. I know he is worthy of my trust, hope, confidence. It’s not easy; I’d really like to be able to just move forward, to pop out one more resume and get the job I’ve been waiting for, to be done with the waiting and wondering and wandering.

But he’s faithful. And even when I can’t see it, he’s growing fruit in me…and maybe even through me. And I don’t have to fear the drought.

Smart Minds & Big Words

Share

2016_annual_logoI spent a recent weekend with a 350 really smart people who use really big words. Most, it seems, are PhDs or in the process of earning a PhD. They come from and have ministered on every continent of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica. They are pastors and missionaries and university professors; anthropologists, sociologists, linguists.

I felt … not out of place, but out of my league—like a weekend soccer player taking the field with  the likes of Lionel Messi, Rolandinho, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Evangelical Missiological Society gathers these academicians and missiologists each year to share research and practice around a central theme. This year’s theme was Missions and the Local Church — a matter close to my heart as a pastor, a missionary kid, and a missions practitioner and advocate.

Truth be told, I went for my own fifteen minutes of fame: I was invited to present a paper I had written about how a church I pastored sought to shift how and what we did in missions. But I have to confess: I also went with low expectations of the weekend; academic researchers are not always known to be dynamic presenters, and their papers are not always compelling subjects for guys like me who just want to lead a church to make disciples at home and somewhere around the world.

My low expectations were vastly exceeded. So much so, in fact, that I needed to take a break from the presentations that have greatly encouraged and challenged me in order to put some thoughts down on paper. (Or a computer.) A sampling:

In The Burden of Healing: How Pentecostal Believers Experience and Make Sense of Chronic Illness, Shelly Isaacs shared the stories of men and women suffering from chronic illnesses, whose burdens were made heavier by the unfulfilled promise and expectation of divine healing. The stories hit close to home, as I could relate each one to my own friends who also hoped, prayed, and had faith to be healed … yet never received the expected and desired answer.

Steven Weathers, a PhD student, shared research about ideologies that inform evangelical perceptions around Black Lives Matter. His words were often hard, and challenged me (as a white evangelical man) to again confront my own implicit biases—that is, those that I am not even aware of lurking sometimes deep in my heart and sometimes just under the surface. A couple statements worthy of noting:

Evangelicals are not countercultural, but call for personal change that leaves systemic cultural norms in place. [from Emerson & Smith; source unknown]

Black Lives Matter won’t matter to white evangelicals if we think individually; we need to think systemically. [Weathers]

These are particularly damning statements. They suggest we are willing to change ourselves just enough to be comfortable, but we won’t fight against the cultural realities that lie at the root of Black Lives Matter (or the civil rights fight of fifty years ago).

Some final thoughts from Ed Stetzer’s keynote address on Priorities for Churches in Missions: the decline of denominationalism and the rise of non-denominational churches has not been a neutral influence on cross-cultural missions. Historically, missions had a voice at the table with denominational leadership, and there was a clear and intentional pathway to missions through denominations. With the growth of non-denominational churches (400% since the 1980s—and now the largest evangelical bloc), “innovation is now a higher priority than missions awareness and engagement.”

Within evangelicalism, “missional” has grown while “missions” has declined; gospel demonstration has increased (a good thing), but gospel proclamation has taken a back seat (not so good).

We must no longer merely give lip service to balancing demonstration and proclamation; we must actively practice both.

In my own paper about engaging the local church in global missions, I included this statement from a book by three missiologists: “the center of gravity in missions has moved from the agency to the local church.” I think that’s a good thing; but Stetzer brought a tempering perspective: Churches are vexed about the nations, but don’t have the connections, training, or constructs to engage well and effectively.

The great charge to the Church is to make disciples of all peoples, everywhere. One of my great burdens is to help local churches do that well and effectively … whether it means engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering hope and healing to the chronically ill, serving refugees, rescuing victims of human trafficking, or preaching Jesus where His name has not yet been heard.

Another Prince, Another Pauper

Share

prince and pauperTwo men came to Jesus, each with a request. One man was blind and poor, and wanted to see; the other was rich and sighted, and wanted eternal life.

Both requests were good and right, and Jesus offered answers to both. So why did one man walk away praising God and the other walked away sad?

The difference between the two men was not in their wealth, but their heart. Yes, the blind man was poor; unable to see, his only income was the coins he begged from passersby at the city gates. Yet his poverty went deeper than his wallet. Downtrodden and outcast, all that his blind eyes could see was the rejection of those walking past him each day. And it was in this poverty of spirit that he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” His request was both simple and impossible: I want to see.

The rich man may well have been one of those who tossed a few coins at the nameless, faceless beggars he daily rode by. Doubtless honored both for business savvy and his commandment-keeping righteousness, his request was no less honorable than the blind man’s: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Though both petitions were good, the difference between them was stark. Where the blind man knew he was could do nothing to bring about his own healing, the rich man believed his prayer could be answered by some good deed, some noble gesture, some further mark of his own power and wealth and righteousness. His perfect eyes and fat money-purse blinded him to the poverty of his own soul.

Jesus answered both men’s requests just as they wanted him to: He did for the blind man what he knew he could not do for himself; and he gave the wealthy man a very simple task – a good deed that was very do-able yet proved impossible for the seeker of life.

There is a deep irony in these two encounters (read them in Luke 18:18-43): a penniless blind man sees his poverty, and purchases by his faith the new eyes that no king could ever afford. Across town a wealthy man, blind to his own destitution, refuses to trade his affluence for the only thing that could make him truly rich.


It is easy to read these stories in the Bible, to celebrate the healing of the one and groan at the obstinacy of the other. But God does not want us to merely read, cheer, and groan. He wants us to see ourselves in His Word, to decide how we will respond. Who are you?

Are you the man without eyes, convinced of your unworthiness and the impossibility of your situation? Or are you the one with both eyes and money, wondering what else you can do to earn God’s favor and presence?

Will you come to God in helpless faith, pleading for mercy first and sight second? Or do you come with wallet open, looking for yet another spiritual tax deduction?

Will you walk away with Jesus, glorifying God? Or will you just walk away, sadly looking for an easier way?