Category Archives: disciple

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.

Spiritual Rhythms: Prayer

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"Grace" by Eric Enstrom

“Grace” by Eric Enstrom

Two images from my childhood are seared into my mind. One is this painting-like photograph that hung over our dining room table for as long as I can remember. Little did I know then that the picture is ubiquitous, hanging in homes, churches, and even offices throughout the world. (Read its story here.)

The other image is similar, but even more life-like: it is my father, seen through the cracked-open door in his study at home, sitting at his large oak desk, bowed in prayer; or in the easy chair in the same room, Bible open on his lap; or kneeling in prayer at that chair, hands clasped under his head like the old man in the photograph.

Anyone who has grown up around church has some concept of prayer. Most Americans, in fact, undoubtedly have some concept, even if it comes more from stereotypes and Hollywood caricatures than from the devout practices of faith. Actually praying, however, is a different matter.

“Praying is simply talking with God.” Or is it? There is truth in the statement, but it is woefully inadequate and short-sighted: it reduces prayer to task and information; it shifts the focus and the power of prayer away from the relationship that God wants to have with us and puts the focus on us, on me, on the one “doing the praying.”

The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available [dynamic in its working]. (James 5:16b, Amplified Bible, 1987)

But how do we pray? We begin with a heart that desires a relationship with God. Adam and Eve used to walk with God in the evening, but when they sinned, they hid…until God said, “where are you?” Those first words of grace in the Bible invited them back into the relationship that had been broken by their disobedience. And they are the words God speaks to invite us into a prayer relationship with him.

There is a place for words in prayer. There is even a place for asking—for healing (Mark 10:51), for life (2 Kings 20:1-11), even for success and prosperity (1 Chronicles 4:10). But the asking flows out of relationship. When King Hezekiah prayed for his life to be spared, he prayed, “I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart” (2 Kings 20:3, emphasis mine).

The hard work of prayer begins with relationship, focuses on relationship, and builds relationship.

Prayer, as Jesus taught his disciples, begins with recognizing the One in whose presence we stand (“Our Father in heaven”) and his character (“may your name always be kept holy”). In prayer we submit ourselves to his will (“your kingdom come, your will be done”); that’s the really hard part, because those words rarely line up with our heart.

And only when our eyes and mind and heart are truly aligned with God’s are we set free to say, “give us this day….”

There is no magic formula for prayer, but Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, this was his response:

Our Father—Daddy, Papa—in heaven, you are holy; let us keep your name holy. You reign in heaven; reign here on earth, too, even now. Do what you want to do, what is best; I willingly submit to your will. Give us today [no sooner, no later] what we need for today [no more, no less]. Forgive us our debts, our sins, our disobedience; even as we forgive those who owe us, have wronged us, have hurt us. Don’t lead us into temptation [Jesus already went there for us], but deliver us from evil and the evil one. Amen. [Which simply means, “I agree”—it isn’t just a period at the end of a sentence, it is a word of submission to God’s will. Use it well!]

Spiritual Rhythms: The Word, part I

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Before my wife and I were married, I spent a summer in Europe while she remained in California. In those long-past days before email and cell phones, at a time when international calling was expensive and minimum wage was a fraction of what it is now, the primary way we communicated was through letters; our words would be read days, if not weeks, after they’d been written.

Growing in relationship with God demands that we read his words—his Word. 

If you want to know God, you need to read his word to his people—that is, the Bible. Seems easy enough, but considering that the Bible contains sixty-six individual books written by dozens of human authors over a period of some 1,500 years—the most recent being roughly 2,000 years old—the natural question is, where to begin?

Many people say you should start with the book of John, or perhaps one of the other four narratives of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But if you’re new to the Bible, then I suggest following Fräulein Maria’s advice from The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning”—Genesis and Exodus. You see, Jesus was a Jew, and Genesis tells the story of the beginning of the Jewish people. And since Jesus came as a sacrifice to save people from sin, Exodus—the story of God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt—lays the foundation for Jesus’ sacrificial life and death. Then read John. Or Matthew, which was written to a primarily Jewish audience.

But another question to ask is, how do I read the Bible? The Bible is unlike any other book you have ever read. It is an anthology of sorts, with each individual book telling a complete story; yet the collection as a whole also tells a complete story, and each book contains a part of that broader story. Perhaps the best way to answer the question, how do I read the Bible?, is this: Read it the same way you would see the country. The whole country. What country? Yours or mine, whether the United States or Nigeria or India.

If you want to see the whole country, you will need to do it in different ways at different times. At times you will fly over from one corner to another; you’ll only get 35,000-foot glimpses of most of the land, but you’ll see it from a unique perspective. Other times you’ll take a car; you’ll see more than flying—mountains and rivers, deserts and oceans, cities and vast spaces of empty land—but most will still be zooming past at sixty miles per hour.

Then there are times you will just walk. You’ll never get out of the city or the forest or the desert, or wherever you started walking, but you’ll see the details; you can sit for hours on a beach and watch the tide slowly roll in, covering the rocks and tide pools you explored earlier in the day; you’ll gaze in awestruck wonder at the intricacies of a rose just before it bursts into bloom.

Reading the Bible is like that. You’ll be reading of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, then fly back to the first Passover meal in Exodus. Or you’ll read the entire book of Romans in one sitting and you’ll see the changing topography of Paul’s treatise. And sometimes you’ll sit and soak in the creative beauty of a single verse or a paragraph, turning each word over in your mind like a rosebud between your fingers.

We’ll explore this more in future posts. For now, though, decide where and how you want to begin, then begin. If you’re just getting started, set yourself a reachable goal: read 5-10 minutes a day, three days a week.

Spiritual Rhythms

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Growth happens naturally, but healthy growth takes planning.

Once we learn to walk and feed ourselves, we can pretty much go anywhere and eat anything we want. Fortunately, God gave us parents to keep us from running away and living on Twinkies!

Like physical growth, healthy spiritual growth takes planning. Unfortunately, we don’t always have spiritual parents to help us grow into healthy, fruitful spiritual adults.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be a spiritual dad and write about the spiritual rhythms that make growth possible. Historically, these have been called spiritual disciplines. It’s a good but sometimes scary term, which is why I use the word rhythms instead. You can also think of them as predictable patterns or simple, repeatable patterns.

Spiritual rhythms fall into two broad categories: things to do and things to stop doing; add and subtract; commit and omit.

Each week, I’ll post about two rhythms. On Mondays, I’ll write about an add rhythm and on Thursdays, about a subtract rhythm. If these are new to you, then a week won’t be enough time to cement a new habit. Don’t worry about that; when you find something that works, stick with it long enough that you’ll miss it if you stop. That probably means three weeks or more.

Here’s a look at where we’re going:

Spiritual Rhythms

Be sure to sign up to get these posts emailed to you each week. If other practices come to mind, I’ll add those; if there are any that have been particularly helpful to you, let me know. Wherever possible, I’ll also offer links and recommendations to helpful resources.