Category Archives: disciple

Drought Resistance

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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

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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

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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?

Listening in Community

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Western culture places great emphasis on the individual. In sports we call out and praise individual performance, giving little more than lip service to how well a team plays. (Just look at baseball: nine players on the field, but only the pitcher is said to have won or lost the game.)

In school, each student is given a grade the she alone has worked for. Team projects are the exception, and a dreaded one at that.

Even in the Christian faith we stress the individual’s responsibility to accept or reject Jesus Christ. (I’ve written about this twice before, based on my first experience in Ethiopia. You can read those posts from 2015 and from 2008 if you want.)

But there is power in community, especially when it comes to making decisions. I recall a scene in a documentary from many years ago: the elders of an African tribe sitting in a circle discussing the appropriate marriage dowry for one of the girls in the tribe. Even as I write that i struggle with how wrong everything about it sounds – but only because it is foreign to me; I also see great wisdom.

Imagine if we were to harness the power and wisdom of collected minds for such things as job changes and career moves; for engagements (or divorces!); for discerning God’s call on our lives.

My parents recently gave me a number of books they’ve read over the years; the one at the top of this post among the titles. I just started reading it but wish I’d read it six months ago. Or three years ago. or twenty years ago. Listening Hearts: Discerning God’s Call in Community provides sound biblical and practical wisdom for a community of Christ-followers to listen for and to God’s call. The authors and a team of researchers combed through centuries of Christian literature to learn how previous generations and various traditions defined and discerned God’s call – for the community and for individuals within the community. Here are just a few tidbits that have stuck out to me:

Call may be emphatic and unmistakable, or it may be obscure and subtle. (p. 7)

We often find our calls in the facts, circumstances, and concrete experiences of life. … A call may not be so much a call to “do” as to “be.” (p. 9)

Discernment requires our willingness to act in faith on our sense of what God wants us to do. (p. 27)

If you are wondering what you should be doing; if you are facing a decision about a career change or a cross-country move or whether God is calling you to be in full-time ministry, then I want you to do this: read this book, get a small community of people around you (who should also read it), then listen together for to discern God’s call.

Gays, Guns, and the Gospel

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gays and gods planLast week, amidst all the outcry against zoos and irresponsible parents after an endangered gorilla was killed, I posted about the similarities between that situation and the gospel: “the innocent dying that the guilty might be made innocent.

Yesterday, the world awoke to news of a different kind…and a different response: 49 people (not a gorilla) gunned down by Omar S Mateen (not a zookeeper) in a gay nightclub (not a zoo) in Orlando, Florida. Here was no sacrifice of one innocent to save many guilty; Mateen’s death—the 50th of the tragic day—was as inevitable as it was willing.

I confess that my own response troubles me more than any other. I read no news stories, watched no coverage of the event. Perhaps I’ve seen too many such headlines and have become callous to terror. Perhaps I’m weary of the arguments for and against guns that I know will result. I’m certainly leery of the political posturing that will take place—and already has—about Muslims in America. And I’m especially wary of the responses we’ll hear from those who claim to follow Jesus but will speak only of judgment on the victims.

But my ostrich-like silence could last only until this morning, when an email appeared with this challenging headline: “Orlando Shooting: Why Christians Must Not Stay Quiet.” Indeed, it was that headline and the article that followed that motivated this post. But what words could I possibly add that would be more than mere noise?

Perhaps the place to begin is to offer a confession on behalf of the Christian body of which I have been a part for nearly half a century. As would-be followers of Christ, we—and I—have shown far more condemnation than grace toward homosexuals. We have complained about “agendas” and “lifestyles” but have not invited conversation. We have judged and called for judgment but have not shown grace. We have argued for doctrine and against science (which need not be mutually exclusive, by the way). And I am sorry. We—I—have been wrong, have lived and loved so unChristlike. All of this is changing, at least in some circles, but not enough, and not quickly enough. (Note: I am not calling for a change of theology, but action.)

A shift in our thinking on guns is also needed. This is hard for me, perhaps the hardest point of conflict between my Christian faith and my American citizenship. I don’t own a gun, though I want to—ostensibly for protection, though I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve needed that level of protection, nor can I truly imagine a situation where I would need to protect myself or my family with a firearm. But I don’t want to give up my rights as a citizen even though I pray to a Savior who gave up not just his rights, but his life, for me. Friends have posted things like “it’s not about guns, it’s about our godless society.” That may be true at one level, but can I really share the gospel with a gun on my hip? Jim Elliot—whose life and death brought the Aucas to faith in Christ—already answered that question:

Jim Elliot reached for the gun in his pocket. He had to decide instantly if he should use it. But he knew he couldn’t. Each of the missionaries had promised they would not kill an Auca who did not know Jesus to save himself from being killed. (See a short biography here.)

Something needs to change, and I need to begin with me. Most of all, I need to live, speak, and share the gospel I say I believe. I am most comfortable around people like me—Christians. But comfort never sold anyone on Jesus. I need to get uncomfortable, to get around gays and Muslims and anyone who doesn’t know Jesus, then live in such a way that when the see me, they will see Him and want to know Him.

Man, that’s not going to be easy. Maybe you can help.