Family Plus

Mira was reinforcing a point from The Jesus Storybook Bible to her boyfriend, Milo, at my dinner table. Mira and Milo were nominal Muslims, raised in the capital of the Central Asian country where we served on a disciple-making team. Mira came to dinner often, sometimes bringing Milo; and each time, they overheard me discipling my four children at our table after dinner.

As the head of my house and a good host, after reading the stories to my children, I’d carefully explain them to our guests in the local language, since it’s rude to talk past someone and not include them. Since Milo spoke better Russian than local, Mira would explain them a second time to him, sharing with him the beauty and goodness of Jesus (whom she hadn’t even met), without ever having to navigate the awkward social obligations that would have come with me preaching directly to them over the meal. It was kind of awesome.

This sort of nearly effortless discipleship of a young Muslim couple was only possible because Julie, a single American woman in her thirties, lived with us in our home, as part of our household. Mira was Julie’s friend long before she was ours, and it was the freedom that came with Julie’s singleness, combined with the testimony of a redeemed family and a Godward head of the house, that provided a context for Mira and Milo to have repeated, rich, textured exposures to the gospel and its effects on multiple generations of people, all at my table.

This goes way back. Jesus did this from Simon Peter’s house. Paul did it from Aquila and Priscilla’s house. In fact, Paul’s entire practical ecclesiology assumes that the church is built with oikoi (households). In Paul’s time, households included a head, his family, their extended family, employees, the family business, and the physical plant. Think FamilyPlus.

For Paul, house churches aren’t miniature versions of bigchurch, just in a house. They’re a full house being transformed, activated, and networked to fill communities with Christ. In Colossians Paul unpacks a rich Christology, then teaches us to live Christ out, not in the artificial relationships of programmed Christianity, or even in the too-tight space provided by a nuclear family, but in the more complex relationships of a household. And, in 1 Corinthians, he says to order our lives, not like Stephanas, but like his household (16:15).

“Okay, fine,” you might say. “Singles and families living together might make sense back then in Paul’s time, or ‘over there’ in a foreign culture. But it’s not practical here in the West.” I vigorously disagree. If it worked back then and it works “over there,” it probably works here and now. In fact, it may just offer an alternative story of singleness and of family life that could challenge false assumptions that have crippled the mission and the spiritual formation of the church in the West for generations.

There are obvious benefits. Singles get lonely, maybe more often than married people. Humans are social creatures, designed to live in multi-generational social groups. Because of the profoundly individualistic cultural narrative in the West, we assume lonely people need to get married. But sometimes, people aren’t lonely because they need a spouse. They’re lonely because they need a family. Some of us are called to be single, but we’re not called to be alone, or to exist in some weird limbo between the kids’ table and the grownups’. One can be single, be a contributing adult, and not be alone.

Living together in a household requires vulnerability, laying down significant freedom, and purposefully making room. These three practices, it turns out, are deeply resonant with the texture of the gospel. When we open ourselves, embrace limits, and make room every day for each other’s gifts and weakness, we model the gospel in ways that let the world experience Christ at depths we can’t explain it to them. Further, those postures can uncouple us from pursuits that run deep in our blood and counter to Jesus’ dreams for our own hearts—pursuits like clinging to life, misunderstanding liberty, and worshiping happiness.

Practically, living this way can unlock significant resources (time and money) for ministry. Having Julie in our home means that I don’t have to decide, after a long day teaching at the university, whether I’m going to go create relationships with seekers or spend time with my children. Julie can cast the line, and the family can land the fish. Sometimes, the single member(s) of a household can forego building their careers for a while to focus all their time and attention on making disciples, while the family with whom they live can play a strong supporting role, providing the context to teach people how to live in God’s family. Alternatively, everyone can work and minister, expanding the network of people the house can touch, diverting funds that would have gone to two or three house payments into worthy causes.

Sure, not every family is cut out for this, and probably no family is at every stage of life. The same is true for singles. There are ways of being unhealthy in our souls that can be healed living this way, and other kinds of unhealth for which this lifestyle is the wrong prescription. But for most of us, practicing hospitality, vulnerability, and submission to another’s needs in this way could re-activate our homes, increasing their reach in the world and diversifying the paths by which the transforming love of Jesus can penetrate the deep places of our hearts.

We can draw new maps for family and singleness if we’re willing to experiment a little. I’m convinced it will only take a few households with enough heart and moxie to strike out into waters too long forgotten, and to see how Jesus meets us there.

Discovering Jesus

I recently had an article published in Reach Beyond’s magazine. Here it is for your perusal.

Two ships sit in the harbor. Both tall-masted, with sails unfurled. So alike, so different. 

The one to the north is the HMS Merchantman, a merchant ship laden with valuable cargo. Anchored to the south, an exploratory vessel, the HMS Discovery. Can you see them? One carrying goods, the other carrying curiosity. Hold them a moment in your mind’s eye, then consider…

How might these two ships be equipped – one for commerce, and the other for discovery?

How might their itineraries differ?

Who would you expect to find on each? What skills would be needed in each endeavor?

How might dinner at the captain’s table go on each ship? Who would attend? What might the dialogue be?

If you were to spend a year on each, how different would those years be?

Narratives as vessels for thinking

We like to believe that we deal in facts, but in point of fact, we deal in stories. We are physiologically hard-wired to process facts by building stories to make sense of them. Narratives are the ships our thoughts sail in, the operating systems of our minds, and we can’t think without them. They make astounding cognition possible. But they also limit the places our thoughts can go, and if left unexamined, they can force us to see the world through crippling lenses.

Societies do this, too. Our most important processes are carried out in stories, so that our values can be transmitted undamaged. These processes (e.g. marriage, passage into adulthood, leading and following) are similar across the species, but the way we do it differs from culture to culture. Hollywood and Bollywood tell very different stories about exactly the same things, and this is why.

Cultures often have a central narrative, and members of that culture are rarely aware of it. These stories are usually morally neutral, but when a cultural narrative impedes our ability to obey Jesus, it requires critique, and an alternative narrative must be found.

We do mission inside stories, and sometimes those stories limit and warp our mission. It’s no accident that the Crusades happened during an era driven by feudalism. Conquest was the story, and so the sword drove the narrative of mission. Likewise, during an era of unprecedented Imperial British reach, we should not be surprised to find Colonialism driving the mission narrative of the day. People didn’t always shed blood and subjugate continents motivated by evil. Sometimes they were blinded by their narrative. An unexamined narrative will always misguide us.

Occasionally, an individual or a small group caught on and went off script, opting for a different story to live in. Francis of Assisi is an excellent example. Rattled by the dissonance between the gospels and the narrative on offer, Francis took off his clothes and the story they were made for, stood apart and began building a better story. 

Marketing Jesus

Perhaps the loudest voice in the missiological dialogue right now is the American voice, and the dominant American cultural narrative is Capitalism. It’s in everything we do, much of what we say, and in the majority of our assumptions about one another’s motives. It should not surprise us to find, then, that the narrative we do mission in is a story about marketing Jesus. Let me show you what I mean.

In the bible, pastors are skilled, gifted heads of believing households. In North America, pastors are CEOs of charitable institutions. The books on church leadership are business leadership books, baptized with Bible words. Churches compete for customers, and when income no longer meets overhead, churches close. In the New Testament, all the believers in a city were the church in that city. In the US, a church is where you shop for a spiritual product.

When I was in seminary, Coca Cola was a favorite tool of mission mobilizers. They would show a picture of a shaman somewhere in Papua drinking a Coke, and cry, “We have had the Great Commission for 2,000 years! How did Coke get there before us?” The analogy is totally irrelevant, but we all responded. Why? Because we thought of the gospel as a product we needed to deliver to a market. That’s the only way that analogy holds.

Once we get “over there”, we set out to find the felt needs in our communities. Usually, we walk right past our neighbors to do that. We don’t live deeply in communities; we study them, to find out how best to pitch our product, and we pitch. We talk a lot, and we don’t ask many questions. Jesus asked a lot of questions. So if we don’t do it like him, who’s doing it wrong?

If stuff starts to happen, we measure it. I was a scientist, once. I measured things, to learn about them. But we usually measure results to validate our efforts, our callings, ourselves. We rarely measure how our disciples effect change in their communities. We measure numbers and speed of spread. Market penetration. 

We write mission statements and vision statements and value statements, just like Jesus taught us to. Except he didn’t. We learned that from the business world, so whose disciples are we?

Listen, I think business is good. I love Business As Mission. I hate Mission As Business.

Discovering Jesus

So, here’s an alternative narrative to try out: Mission, not as spiritual entrepreneurism, but as spiritual exploration.

Let’s imagine again. This time, imagine a parallel universe, just like ours, with one exception. In this world, the Western mission narrative for the last three hundred years hasn’t been delivering Jesus to needy markets, but rather discovering Jesus in the world and helping others see him, too. How might mission happen differently in this story?

Mobilizers wouldn’t ask people to “take Jesus to places he isn’t, yet.” Rather, they might invite people to go discover Jesus in the many places he hasn’t yet been sighted. He’s always been there. It’s just that the not-yet-engaged can’t see him.

Proclamation and disciple making would be less about delivering a message and downloading content into people. Rather, the preacher’s task would be to look for burning bushes, evidences of Christ at play, within and without. If I discover Jesus at work in my heart, I proclaim that, and when people have questions, I answer them from my own first hand experience of Jesus and the gospels. Like Peter moving from his contemplative vision on a rooftop to opening the Kingdom to the Gentiles under Cornelius’s roof.

When I discover Jesus at work in a lost community, I proclaim that, and I invite them to see that, too, using the Scriptures in tandem with the Spirit, to discover Christ’s invitation and an appropriate response. Like Paul in Athens at the statue of the unknown god.

Leadership would require a different skill set. We would need to release control of outcomes and learn to sail with the Wind. We would need perceptive skills like listening prayer, collective discernment, and reflective obedience. Leaders would have to become good at hearing the voice of the Spirit in their community, and then working with it until there’s enough clarity to act. Like the prophets and teachers in Antioch, the Jerusalem Council, and Paul’s team hearing the Macedonian Call.

I think I’d walk around differently in that universe. Instead of trudging through a world of darkness and hostility, trying to force a product on people who don’t want it, I could walk free through a world of beauty (with its dangers, toils and snares), seeking out the burning bushes, the whispers of God’s good intentions, declaring them as I boldly go. Playing hide and seek with God like it’s my job, except He’s not hiding from those who look.

We need a new boat

The Merchantman has taken us as far as it can. We need the Discovery. The unengaged need explorers, not marketers. Jesus is nearer to them than their skin, but the god of this world has blinded their eyes to his glory. We, however, can see him.

And I want to see all the ways Jesus makes beauty and justice grow from chaos and corruption. I want to hear His myriad names in as many tongues, watching Him reveal Himself to peoples who have never beheld glory, in households and neighborhoods who have had Him burning their bushes for years, but have never seen. I want to navigate the world, not as a traveling salesman, but as a peregrine, an explorer, witnessing restoration as I help to bring it forth along the way. 

And I know I’m not alone.

Let’s go see what we see.

Monday Musing: Postured to Understand

Happy Monday, to you!

The feedback we get on our newsletters is funny. Lots of folks seem to like the pics and the personal stories. Some seem to appreciate having concrete things to be praying about. And some are helped by the more ethereal, what-we’re-learning bits – “the teachy stuff”, as my lovely wife says. It’s hard to fit all that in an update short enough that people will read it 🙂

So, I had an idea. Occasionally, on a Monday, I’ll write something I’m thinking about, drawn from experiences – with people, with God, with the Text – in this context. We’ll call those Monday’s Musings. Occasionally, on Wednesdays, I’ll hit you up with a story or a situation here, and some concrete things to pray for. What’s Up Wednesday. How does that sound?

We’ve been consulting with another team in the country, here. They’re all new (inside their first two years). So, of course, they’re showing the wear and tear of team life, trying to learn a new language in a new place with a new culture and finding out they’re not who they thought they were, exactly – so, even a new them.

They invited us to a team meeting and we shared some things we wish we had known, or ways we wish we had thought about things, in our first few years here. Essentially, 4 New Orientations for Life Abroad.

Orienting to a Language.

Orienting to a Culture.

Orienting to a whole new angle on You and Jesus.

Orienting to your Team.

The cool thing was that, as I put this little talk together, I found there were themes that emerged – lessons that applied to more than one orientation. Postures for Becoming.

So, for a few of these Monday Musings, I thought I’d share some of those Postures for Becoming. Read on, but only if you care to!

Posture One – Desiring To Understand over Being Understood

There’s a prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi in which he asks God, “Grant that I might seek not to be understood, so much as to understand.” That should be the prayer of every language student on the planet. And everyone in a human relationship.

Westerners get here, and we want to learn language. What that means is we want to control our environment using language. So, what do we do? We try to find a language school so we can start speaking. We start learning grammar very quickly, and we are asked to produce – to speak or to write – quite soon. Usually, we use a book or written text to do this.

Just like the way kids learn their native language.

Wait, no.

Kids acquire language long before they can learn about it. Who learns grammar in preschool? Kids learn language by hearing it, and then by listening (which is different by way of intent). Slowly, the body of language that they understand grows, until eventually, given the right situation, speech just erupts. Language is acquired by long, quiet practice of listening, then, after that, producing. Linguists refer to this as “the silent period” – the time in which language is being acquired but no speaking is happening.

Adults can acquire second, third, eighth languages this way. If they will be quiet long enough. For this reason I always strongly encourage language learners to stay away from programs that have them speaking at all in the first month of full time study (beyond some simple survival phrases). If you want to acquire a language, you’ve got to put a premium and priority on listening. Listening is the master skill of communication. Seeking to understand.

But we get here and spaz out. Everything is out of our control, and we really want to feel like we are mastering something. So we choose programs that have us reading sounds we don’t know how to hear, yet. So, our accent is awful and we never sound quite right. We start talking before we know how people go about saying things, so we wind up cobbling together sentences that make sense to us, using their words, but the meaning is totally lost on them. We often speak without communicating because we let our anxiety push us to value being understood over understanding.

But if we want to share the gospel, we’ve got to be able to communicate. To communicate, we have to value the other end of communication more than we do. Listening is the master skill in disciple making.

This posture is critical if work groups are ever to become real teams, and if teams are ever to last as formative communities. We must seek to understand more than we seek to be understood. When there’s a conflict, we must seek to understand the other person’s point of view, and that has to be more important to us than vindicating ourselves, proving our point, getting our way – whatever, making ourselves understood. It is possible to win a conversation, and lose a community. Listening is the master skill in team life.

I’m noticing this in Jesus’s life, too. Every time there’s a major decision, he disappears into the mountains or across the sea to pray. When he comes back, he has some direction from the Father. Do you think he went off into solitude and started talking and just talked the whole time? How did the Father tell him anything if he was talking the whole time? I’m beginning to wonder how much of Jesus’s prayer life was quietly listening. I heard an older woman answer this way when asked on the fly what prayer is; she said, “Prayer is listening to heart and love of God.” Listening, huh? An author I’m reading these days, while reflecting on the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel, says of Jesus, “This particular house guest is not so concerned with being served as with being listened to … It is Martha’s attention he wants, not her activity.” What if listening is the master skill of prayer?

So, here’s something to think about. How big a role does (not should, but does) listening play in your disciple making? In your praying? In your family? In your ministry? In your teams? How often do you use good, curious questions? Not leading questions, but questions designed and delivered because you’re really wanting to understand more about the other person, of more of their point of view? When you’re having one of those argument fantasies – you know the ones I’m talking about – how much of that conversation is you asking questions, and how much is you giving them a piece of your mind? What might happen if you flipped the script in your imaginary conversations, and used that creative juice to make a list of questions that might help you understand this person you love, better? Because listening is the master skill of love.

So, pray with me and with Francis, God, grant that we might seek not to be understood, as to understand. Lord, let us listen. Amen.

That I may live and keep your word

I’m working my way slowly through Psalm 119, again.

Psalm 119 is all about the words, the testimonies, the commands, the teachings of God. It’s an acrostic psalm, suggesting order – both the act of ordering life and the state of order, as opposed to chaos. It uses the whole alphabet, suggesting wholeness and completeness.

It’s pretty clear that the voice is a Levite teacher, teaching God’s people about the good life, life in the community of the spoken-to. It’s a whole life, an ordered life. It’s a wholeness and order that allows people to thrive, even in the midst of evil and disorder.

Today’s reading was Gimel, verses 17-24.

Gimel

17 

Deal bountifully with your servant,

that I may live and keep your word.

18

Open my eyes, that I may behold

wondrous things out of your law.

19 

I am a sojourner on the earth;

hide not your commandments from me!

20 

My soul is consumed with longing

for your rules at all times.

21 

You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones,

who wander from your commandments.

22 

Take away from me scorn and contempt,

for I have kept your testimonies.

23 

Even though princes sit plotting against me,

your servant will meditate on your statutes.

24 

Your testimonies are my delight;

they are my counselors.

These little 8-verse mini-poems can be fun to interpret, as the brilliance is in how so much can be woven into so few words. In this passage we find the Speaker, who is speaking the entire time to God. We learn the Speaker understands himself  to be a sojourner on the earth – a traveler, somewhat homeless and definitely vulnerable. He is God’s servant, though, and we’ll see what he thinks that means, regarding God’s responsibility and his.

This particular poem lacks the naive tone of many psalms about the Word. That is to say, this poem has bad guys. Real ones. They are powerful (princes), whereas the Speaker is a pilgrim in a land not his own. They have focused, bad intentions (they sit plotting). Worse, the Speaker is the target. Not just a bystander, not just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the actual target of intended, carefully planned evil coming from multiple directions (‘princes’ is plural) and from people who have the power to do real, lasting harm.

Like Presidents of neighboring nations developing a dossier and planning to disappear you. Or ISIS leaders targeting you, hatching a plan and issuing a hit. On you. Personally.

This isn’t just some unfounded bogeyman fear, either. The Speaker has reason to believe people can hurt him. He’s already been the victim of “scorn and contempt” (which, in honor societies, come with real financial and security threats), likely from the “insolent and accursed” people of verse 21.

In a world where God is not the last word, the Speaker has reason to fear.

There is another character in this poem. It’s the main character, as it alone appears in every. single. verse. God’s words, his teachings, his rules, his commands. God’s word is the primary character, though always receiving the action.

Think about this. The speaker doesn’t say:

I am a sojourner on the earth, hide not from me the path to safety!

Open my eyes, that I may behold an accurate diagnosis, or a way to mitigate the evil that targets me!

My soul is consumed with worry and the sense that I have to figure this all out!

Nope.

While princes sit scheming, I leave them to you, and I sit meditating not on my defenses, but on your words.

Your testimonies (not the media) are my delight, and they (not the news, the pundits or the fear mongers) are my counselors.

I am a wanderer, yes, but don’t let me miss your words.

My soul is consumed, yes, not with obsessive fantasies of tragedy, but with desire to hear your voice, to think your thoughts after you, and not chase my own in a circle.

Open my eyes, and I’ll be looking not at more bomb footage, not at a Yahoo! bit on how 10 out of 10 people who die knew someone who knew a guy with cancer, not another depressing market analysis being made by people who are either always wrong or always right only in retrospect … open my eyes and I’ll be looking at your words, waiting for the wonder.

The Speaker is compulsive, yes. His mind is enthralled with the living word of God. Due to habits of selective and sustained attention, this thoughts and emotions trend toward the Book. That, and really only that, is in his power.

He can’t stop princes, pancreatic cancer or Pashtun jihadists. He can really only choose what he will think about. And only he can choose that.

But who is supposed to be thinking about all that evil, present and future, real and imagined?

Let’s go back now to that bit about God’s responsibilities and ours, as his sojourning servants. It’s the Speaker’s responsibility to obsess over and delight in the Scriptures and the Voice within them. It is God’s job to “deal bountifully with us, so we can … live and keep [his] word.” Since you’re his servant, it’s his job to keep you alive, to take away scorn and contempt and the vulnerable positions attendant thereunto. It’s his job to thwart the insolent and the accursed, and to handle the outcomes of people (and societies) who “wander far from [his] commandments”. It’s your job to become absorbed in a different conversation.

In other words, in this story, the Speaker gets to live, in order to live out the words he’s obsessing into, and because God deals bountifully with him. God gives more than the chaos takes. God’s provision is more than enough. It is God ALONE that makes us to dwell in safety.

Recall, finally, that this whole psalm is a prayer. The psalmist isn’t talking to himself, or listening to himself. He is saying his words to God, and he is listening to God’s words. Obsessively.

That is the responsibility of a sojourning servant of God in the midst of a tragic world full of evil intent. Our watchcare is His business. Our question should not be whether he will do His part, but rather whether we are doing ours.

May the LORD deal bountifully with us, that we might live to keep his word. And may that be the end of the matter.

Amen.

Fear Not, Little Flock

I’ve had some thoughts banging around in my heart over the last couple of weeks, and I feel like maybe the Spirit would like me to write them. But where to start? Hmmm…

About 6 years ago we were Stateside and I was speaking in a fellowship. There was time for Q&A, and one fella asked me, “Now that you’ve lived in another culture, what’s the thing the church in America is missing? How are we blind and don’t know it?”

Wow. Big question. I don’t recall my answer. It was hopefully something like, “I’ve only been gone a year, so I have no idea.”

A few years later, again, back in the States, I was at a conference and we were praying or singing or something and I was struck with the realization that the pervading spirit in Narnya is despair. I don’t know if I mean an actual demon specifically tasked with making people despair, but I do see now that the vast majority of Narnyans go through life convinced that nothing they do matters and that nothing will ever change. They operate with no hope, and it pervades the church, as well. That was a big step for us to realize.

After that, glancing back at my home culture became much easier, and my line of sight was a little clearer. There’s no condemnation in this – every culture views the world through cracked and cloudy lenses. This is not the primary point of this little article, but it sets the stage for an important contrast that I hope will leave you with more courage and better accuracy as you follow Jesus where you are. The pervading spirit I feel when I am in the States, taking in media, talking with believing and unbelieving friends, is fear. The story that seems to always be on everyone’s lips is a fearful one – either a story of impending doom, or a story about how to avert it with this product, that medicine, this investment strategy, or that lifestyle. Feeling this mist enter my own blood again, I’ve looked around and I think I’ve noticed a few things about the presiding American cultural narrative.

It appears that that Americans:

  1. Seem to believe that something started existing the moment they noticed it. Here’s an example. A toddler was recently killed by an alligator at Disney World. That is just horrible. Of course, the story was all over the news. It was all over Yahoo! news over here. But then, other alligator attacks started showing up online all over the place. Last week I even read of a hyena killing a toddler. Of course, the toddler was asleep…in a nature preserve for hyenas. Do you see what I’m getting at? Absolutely, every one of these stories is appalling. But if you follow the news you get the feeling (it’s a feeling that is carefully being cultivated by the people producing the news so you both feel “in the know” and like you need more info) that these attacks are unusual. In fact, there has been no uptick in toddlers being attacked by wild animals. This didn’t start when America noticed it. It’s always been going on. At a pretty even pace, more or less. This attitude, that it’s happening more and more because I notice it more and more, has a name. It’s called the adolescent mind. It’s a characteristic of adolescence that things become real only as I experience them, and they began when I noticed them. Americans are famous all over the world for this attitude. Sorry. Again, no judgement, just observation.
  2. Americans (me included) seem to have an unconscious internal program running that insists that all of us were endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable responsibilities – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A) We have the responsibility to stay alive. At any cost. This makes disease and death the most frightening thing ever, and makes the cancer journalists the most highly paid and sought-after tabloid writers in the market. We have created a new narrative with a new villain named Disease. And now we are all responsible to eat clean (suggesting a moral component to food), do CrossFit and have washboard abs, and stay impossibly athletic into our 80s. That’s all good stuff, but that’s not what defines “good”. B) We have the responsibility to do what we want – liberty. It’s been observed that the dominant cultural marker of millennials has been “keeping my options open”. God forbid I make a commitment and then miss out on something I want because I limited my freedom to keeping my vows and promises, stated or implied. C) And we have the responsibility to be happy. We have become a nation not of citizens, but of consumers of government. We seek not enlightenment, but entertainment. Our churches work to keep us happy, not to make us holy. We confuse opulence for security and sedation for comfort. This is our great shame.
  3. The North American worldview is basically mechanistic. We believe that everything exists in a cause-effect relationship. Every time something good or bad happens, we look to see the “because”. Further, we experience the universe more as a machine than a mystery. Think of the number of sermons you’ve heard that enumerate “keys” to marriage, leading, following, growing, whatever. Keys get put in ignitions, in machines, so we can make them do what we want. Our cultural story is less about inhabiting a mystery and more about mastering a machine. This also makes us reductionistic – we look for the ONE solution, and this leads us to oversimplify in our quest to control what happens to us (remember, we have the responsibility to stay alive and happy, no matter the cost).

Now, understand, I am an American. I’m glad I’m an American. I love America. I’m writing this on the 4th of July 🙂 There are many excellent things in the American worldview. Things that make us industrious, tolerant of risk, personally responsible, and able to make decisions alone, when necessary. That’s all good, and comprises a needed contribution to the global mission of God. But this little piece is aimed at helping us see some ways we, as American believers, still think the same way our pagan neighbors do. To use Paul’s language, we won’t be able to discern the will of God – generally or in specific situations – when the way we think is the same as the way the world does. That’s why, in order to not be conformed to this world, we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds, i.e. changing the ways we think. To do that, we have to see the false narratives for what they are. This is the point of Romans 12:1-2.

Here’s another example of the American cultural mind assuming that something is new because we just started attending to it. Doomsday. Zombie apocalypse. End of days. The world we live in is becoming increasingly unstable. We are approaching the zero hour on global catastrophe. How do I know that? Because I read it on the internet, and that’s always reliable, right?

Actually, ever since 9/11, American culture has been coming to grips with the fact that we (humans, from all nations) are vulnerable to loss and plague and war and death. As those things keep popping up, and as the internet and technology continue to expand in their capacity to bring “news” to us from all over the place, we become more and more convinced that the whole thing really is about to burn down. It reminds me of the Palantir in The Lord of the Rings. The Steward of Gondor had this stone he could see far off with, but the Dark Lord was showing him what he wanted him to see, in order to take away his courage. I wonder sometimes if Satan is doing that, catching the Western church up in a false story in which it’s wisdom now to be afraid, and to order life around the possibility of catastrophe.

Because my friends from other cultures all agree that the world has always been this unstable. We just started noticing.

I am not innocent of this. I wasn’t convinced that Y2K was going to be the end of all things, but I was sure that any reasonable person would agree that something was going to happen. (For those of you too young to remember, Y2K was the Year 2000, when computer dates rolled over and that was supposed to somehow destroy all banking and nuclear power plants and launch global missile arsenals, or something). A guy had come to my college to get some of us to buy gold and prep for the sure and certain outcome of global destruction. His arguments were convincing, but I could feel then what I still feel now, though I couldn’t describe it then. I knew, in my bones, that I could not follow Jesus and follow this man’s fear at the same time.

Yeah, nothing happened.

But it didn’t stop me from being pretty sure that there would be global collapse of the dollar in 2012. That didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it won’t, nor that it’s not wise to buy silver or hard assets, but I did start recalling, right about then, how my grandmother’s generation had been certain the Lord would appear in their lifetime. And then I recalled all the church services I was in growing up, carefully laying out dates and stuff about Israel and demonstrating with no room for doubt that they would see the Lord’s return. They have all since passed away. I am beginning to wonder if there is something about middle age that makes us think that since we’re reaching our expiration date in a few decades, the whole world will, too.

More recent examples of my American propensity to read cosmic significance into anything I notice: I was sure ISIS would be about 4 times bigger than it is by now, and that Ebola would have covered the globe by now, as well. When they first hit the news a couple years ago, the apocalyptic tone in the stories – which made us all watch them over and over – spoke to the adolescent cultural mind in me, and made me afraid. I called it wisdom, but it was fear.

It’s funny, I was reading about the plague of 540 AD this morning. Well, the plague wasn’t funny. It’s funny how we read facts as omens (and even those facts are skewed), convinced that the world we’re seeing is the worst it’s been. In 540 AD plague broke out in Pelusium in Egypt. In less than two years it reached the heart of the Roman empire in Constantinople, killing as many as 10,000 people a day. Ebola hasn’t done that. Carried, we know now, by fleas, it spread all over the known world, killing noble and commoner alike. All the recognized boundaries erected against loss and suffering were moot. It reached Britain and Ireland (places the empire itself could not conquer) in by 548, and spread inland from the ports. Even the sea, which had stymied mighty Rome, was no match for Black Death. People everywhere fled their farms, leaving crops rotting in the fields. Whole swaths of empire became little more than ghost towns. Apocalyptic, one might say. End of days.

But it wasn’t.

Furthermore, the Kingdom of God kept coming.

There is no media that can be trusted to teach us the story of the world. Liberal media has an agenda. Conservative media has an agenda. By the way, they are the same. To make money, and to put their people in power so they all can have more money and power.

The underground alternative media, in all its quirky forms, has an agenda. Money. Yep. Their job is to tell you how the other media is all playing a tune, and and to make you feel in the know, so you’ll keep coming back to their site and they can sell more ad time. All media in any culture has one job, to tell the multifaceted narrative of that culture’s values. It’s all the same story, different threads, and it’s not the real story of the world.

In the real story, the world is broken and chaotic. Bad stuff happens. And sometimes even to us. Bombs go off, diseases erupt, hurricanes blow and markets crash. But in Jesus, and in Jesus’s students, God is healing the whole world, making all things new, and undoing the darkness. Our job is not to survive the chaos, but to love the world through it.

As we are loved through it.

It was in a very, very unstable time. In a moment of considerable scarcity, when his audience was not in a position of power or security, that Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

I find a propensity in me to read Jesus’s commands in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 12 and imagine those apply to secure Sunday School environments, where we’re all eating knock-off Oreos and drinking too much watered-down KoolAid. But in real life, given all this instability, it’s only wise to take lots of precautions. But I am convinced now that if Jesus were to pop in and give a speech right now about “how things are getting these days” or about disease or chaos or loss or any of the bogeymen of our cultural narrative, he’d just repeat Matthew 6 and Luke 12. He would tell us not to make any decisions from the fear in our guts. In fact, that fear in our guts is the lie.

I want to get to Jesus’s teachings on this in moment, because we’re almost ready for them. The contrast is almost clear. But first, let me draw your attention the recent relentless flooding in Houston, Texas. Or the Nashlantis flood in Nashville a few years ago. Or hurricane Katrina a few years before that. Let’s think for a moment: how many doomsday stashes in how many basements were lost in those floods? How many people put a lot of hope in their wisdom, just to have it washed away long before their date with global collapse? It wasn’t even doomsday and they lost their stuff.

I am pretty strong and have some martial arts training. So, let’s say I want to take your hoard. What are you gonna do about it?

“I have a gun,” you say. How about I just take that away from you, because I am trained and you are not. Where did that gun get you?

Worse than the obvious outcome, in the years before I took away your gun, how much sacrifice/redemption story have you not lived, while you’ve been busy living a survival story? Because you can’t live both. Jesus made that clear. You have to hate your life, deny your self and its survival, if you even want to start as his student.

But let’s say your stash is up on a hill (no floods) and you’re better armed and trained than me, and maybe you even have friends up there with you. You manage to hold back the horde from your hoard (both ugly words). What did that get you?

Did you know, you’re still going to die? You’ll fall off a log, or get sick, or just age out. You will have ordered your whole life, or at least your internal narrative that colors and informs your whole life, around the one thing you can be sure you can’t have – survival. You. are gonna. die.

So, Jesus says, “Listen when I say, What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Jesus says, “Those of you who order your lives around keeping your lives will lose them. But those of you who lose your lives will find them.” There are two categories here, and they don’t overlap. You cannot make life decisions in both directions simultaneously.

Now, lest you write me off and put me in a camp with dumb lazy people who live soft and silly lives, I have a GOBag. We keep weeks of food in our pantry. There’s a 72hr kit in my car. We keep the car above half a tank. Why? Because bad stuff already happens here. Put another way, we have identified a minimum preparedness helpful to serve a world without living that world’s story. In the world, not of it. We frequently lose water. The city is due for a big earthquake. Politics are a little wonky here.

So this is not an article telling you to be lazy. Or a pacifist, necessarily. When Jesus was about to be taken by the authorities, he asked his 12 men, “How many swords do you have?” When they said that among them they had 2 large knives, he didn’t chide them or rebuke them for having them (classic pacificism). He also didn’t say, “You each need a sword and a bow, and you need a month of MREs in a cave in Engeddi” (survivalism). He said, 2 little swords among 12 men against the best trained armies in a thousand miles would be enough.

I’m not advocating un-readiness. I’m insisting that the American fascination with avoiding pain and death, and our rush to create solutions to what we perceive as problems might have told us a story that feels true, but isn’t.

Jesus told us the true Story. He didn’t say, “Hoard and you’ll have enough. Keep and you’ll find. Lock and the door will stay closed against your hungry neighbor.”

He said ask, and you’ll receive. In his story, God is not watching the world slowly wind down into entropy. God is a good Father, who gives to his children when they ask. He simply does not give us a snake when we ask for lunch. In Jesus’s story of the world, we are commanded not to give much thought at all to what we’ll eat (or what our kids will eat … remember, in this story He’s a Father, too), or how we will keep the elements off us. Why? Two reasons. God already knows and has a plan for how he will provide for us. He already prepped. Second, ordering our lives around mitigating scarcity and chaos, trying to be sure we’ll have enough, reading the tea leaves (via the internet, even) and letting that spirit of fear live in us….Jesus says that’s the hallmark of your pagan neighbors. These are the things the nations seek.

In Jesus’s story it’s irresponsible to lay up stashes for yourself on earth, because of moths and thieves and floods and hurricanes and such. It’s a sure loss. You can order life that way.

OR

You can order your life another way, storing up treasure in the other dimension, where floods and moths and well-trained wanna-be soldiers can’t reach or steal it away. “Wisdom” says to seek first the basic needs of your family, and then the kingdom of God. Jesus says seek first the reign of God, and he will take care of your family. Is that scary sometimes? Yes. But his success rate is much better than yours, and his rifle never misfires.

This might seem overly simplistic to you. It seemed that way to me. I felt caught, for a while, between what I thought the Proverbs taught and what I clearly heard Jesus saying. But I discovered recently that’s a false pair. It’s not Solomon vs. Jesus. The true pair is Proverbs vs. Ecclesiastes. In Proverbs we learn to work hard like the ant because lean days are ahead. In Ecclesiastes we learn, it won’t much matter because we will all die anyway; may as well live first. Even that’s not a versus-pairing, though. Both are true. And I found myself pinned between those two views.

It’s into that paralyzed thinking that Jesus speaks to me, not to answer all the particulars, but to tell me that the Kingdom of God is at hand, whatever else may be happening, and to invite me to live THAT story. Not in addition to my “stay alive, free and happy” story, but instead of it.

Look, I like seeing my gas gauge full. There’s a good feeling you get when you open a well-stocked fridge. When all the pipes here freeze, and it only throws us off a little because we keep hundreds of liters of water in the garage, it definitely feels better than not being able to bathe. But two swords is enough. There is a real difference between being boy scout ready, and making real life decisions for our families driven by the events of empires that have always been rising and falling. It’s not new.

I like how I feel when I take my supplements and when I eat all the veggies Joy cooks. I like the sense of self-control when I just don’t buy the sugary drink. But even if these choices stave off some disease, in the grand scheme of the story of the whole world, short lives and long lives are both short. If I play the avoid-dying game I do two things: I waste the fact that Jesus already set me free from the fear of dying (according to Hebrews), and I play a game we all know I can’t possibly win.

You cannot choose if the world will get crazy, or if you will get sick. You can take some steps. But understand that if you begin to live a story that’s all about not getting sick, or not being caught unprepared, you’ve lost the plot, and you’ve lost a primary means of grace.

Just after the “Do not lay up treasures on earth … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” part Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If the eye is single, your whole body will be full of light. But if the eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

When my eye is on what we’ll eat or drink, or how we’ll stay warm, then Jesus says I can’t trust my sight. I am not in a good space to make decisions as his student – as a citizen of the Permanent Kingdom.

I wonder, with assessment and not harsh judgement, if American believers are often in just that state. We are supposed to be the Society within our societies that lives a different story, sings a different song. But instead, I wonder now and again if the blind are leading the blind, who are leading the blindfolded – all into a ditch.

You have attention enough for one Story. You can either pay attention to the story of empires falling and bodies giving out, or to the Story of the kingdom of God. All these kingdoms must be shaken, while “we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”

My encouragement to you is not to be afraid. Is the world breaking? Yes, but maybe not faster than ever it was. And even if so, the kingdom you inhabit cannot be shaken.

I encourage you, in the name of Jesus, to fear not, little sheep, because your Father is good, and strong, and told Jesus to tell you to let him see to your survival. This is a major way we can live the gospel before our neighbors.

I encourage you, in the name of Jesus, not to be led by the external vicissitudes of empires that come and go, but by the Spirit who has sealed you and empowered you to heal a world, not to survive it.

I encourage you, on behalf of Jesus, not to seek to keep your life, but to seek to lose it, and to live your life exposed and vulnerable. Because you will surely die, as will your children and their children after them. But until you die, you can choose to live, free of the false stories of your culture, free to run in the Story Jesus tells, and you can teach your children that story, only if you live it. You can either fear, or you can love. Choose love.

I encourage you to sit down this week with Matthew 6 and Luke 12, and to ask Jesus to help your heart hear his kind shepherd voice, and make the truth set you free.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Dawna Markova:

I will not die an unlived life,

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise …

 

Amen.

Another prayer

I’ve been reflecting a lot on Paul’s prayers to fuel my own attempts at ‘extraordinary prayer’. As I do, it’s remarkable the resonance I find with our 4Priorities, and especially with ReCentering Jesus and Equipping for Unity. I jotted some thoughts on Ephesians 3:14-19 down in my journal to help shape my praying imagination as I intercede for us and for our local brothers and sisters. I thought I might share them with you to help fuel your extraordinary prayer, as well. If you’d like the extra fuel, read on. If not, no harm done, and have a great day!

Here’s the text:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Paul’s endgame is “that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God”. Imagine that for a moment, and imagine the effect – both direct and indirect – that a people filled with God would have on a city, on a culture. No goodness that God wants to give thwarted, no corner of our personalities untouched. All that God is totally permeating all that we are. Infinity quietly (and sometimes not quietly) suffusing the mundane. A people utterly Godsoaked.

To get there, Paul thinks we need defining, transformative experiences of the love of Christ – experiential knowledge of a vastness that defies category and definition. We need experience that outstrips explanation, when often what we have is just the opposite.

There is something here that’s easy to miss but absolutely crucial: this love can only be fully known “with all the saints”. This is a group exploration, and the group required to pursue it is “all the saints.” Division aborts sanctification and blessing and fullness, and sometimes I fear we have gotten used to a normal that isn’t normal at all.

The same kind of “unity required for further growth” idea is present in Ephesians 4, and in Colossians 2, wherein our “hearts knit together in love” provides the matrix necessary for us to receive and comprehend the mystery of Christ. To offer a weak metaphor: no one, no matter how skilled or brilliant, can lasso a butterfly with a single strand, but even a child can catch one in a net. A net knit together in love.

A fractured pitcher holds no Water, and does a thirsty world (and thirsty saints) no good. Ok. Enough metaphors 😉

There is a wideness and a depth to what we’ve inherited, and as long as the church lives divided, she’ll only know one dimension of what’s hers. And she can only show what she knows.

Toward all this, Paul’s desire is that “Christ may dwell in [our] hearts (our cores) through faith”. A condition must be nurtured in each believer – a way of life Dallas Willard has called “vivid companionship with Jesus”. Saints betting on his presence down in our cores, and that very expectation opening the doors to all the rooms within us, giving him opportunity to set up shop in all our corners, and in all the layers of our lives. His real, current presence not mainly a theological fact, but the dominant experience of our lives.

I don’t live here often or steadily enough. What’s more, there seems to be little I can do to wrestle myself into the “mood” to feel him in my heart, or little I can remember or believe to “truth” myself into a steady state of vivid companionship with Jesus.

That’s why the very first part of this prayer is so encouraging to me. The first domino in this beautiful cascade of goodness is an action that God takes, and he takes it with all his might. With a force equal to the fullness of his glory, he reaches into us and acts on that part of us that is always ready for him – beneath our good and bad theology, beneath our emotional and social disturbances, beneath our wounds and attachments and ambitions, and beneath the distractions that fill us with noise – God himself, with a strength commensurate with his own, strengthens us in our inner man, and aims that power at the endgame…a people filled with God. In response to a prayer, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Paul knows that this generous action on God’s part is absolutely necessary. He also knows that it’s not always sufficient, because of the way God has made us, and because of the way he has conspired to save us. So Paul employs his Pray-and-Say strategy.

He prays because it’s first and always God’s work in us, and without that the engine doesn’t turn. But he also says what he’s prayed, I’m convinced, because he knows that the process usually requires the saints’ intelligent participation. So he tells us what he’s asking God for, essentially activating the cooperation of the willing in a transformation that begins and ends with God.

So, this week, I’m letting this prayer from a master apostle inform my praying AND my saying. I’m praying it for us, and I’m saying it to us right now. I’m also praying it for our local Family, and I’m saying what I can when I can as I encounter the brethren along the way.

If you think it might be helpful, you could do the same. Pray and say.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

How to get started now

Today I moved over 8,000kg in 45 minutes. I’m tired.

I am almost 100,000kg (or 220,000lbs) into my total volume goal of 1 million pounds lifted this year using the squat, overhead press and deadlift. I really believe in these movements as the basis for strength, not just for men, but for women, as well.

A dear friend posted this comment, and I’d like to take the opportunity to help some of you who are interested in building a basis of strength to get started.

She said:

Thanks for these two posts! Am processing as a middle-aged woman who wants to be a faithful servant of the Lord and His people for as long as He gives me breath. Prov 31:17 comes to mind. Would love to hear any thoughts you might about specific physical goals for women!

Well, I’d love to share some thoughts! How about that?

It comes down to this – time. We only have so much, and we’re hoping to use our time training to make the best investment we can in our current health and long-term usefulness. So, what’s the best use of training time for most of us?

People train because it provokes adaptation. Training and exercise aren’t the same thing. Exercise is burning some calories. Training is doing specific things, aimed at stimulating specific kinds of adaptations that your body is designed to make in response to stress.

So, what kind of adaptations do we want? Well, all kinds. We’d all love to have excellent endurance, plenty of strength, crazy agility and gumby-like mobility. But it’s hard to train for all those adaptations at once. So, which one is most important? The research says strength.

Really, it says strength is the base of the pyramid, because positive strength adaptations mean you need less energy to do more (endurance), and you can usually do it faster (speed). Stronger joints get injured less frequently as you later build agility, and moving increasingly heavy weight over time (small, small increases over long, long time) builds strength in the full range of motion (mobility).

Further, strength adaptations take longer to make, but it takes a lot longer to lose strength adaptations than other kinds of adaptation. High school athletes get in adequate cardiovascular condition in two weeks before the season, and a week after the season is over, they’ve lost it. Not so with strength. Put another way, you can add adequate (not olympic, but adequate) cardiovascular fitness to a foundation of strength. But cardio fitness has no strength carry-over. You can have all the cardio endurance in the world, but it’s not going to help you pick up that bag of gravel. Cardio is good, but it’s not a good foundation.

Is this different for men and women? No. For older and younger people? No. Older people take longer to recover, but they make the same adaptations. Men and women make adaptations the same way, but the hormones responsible for those adaptations are flowing in higher volumes in men, so men get bigger and stronger. Women also get a little bigger, and lots stronger – but less so than men on both counts, usually. And everybody burns lots and lots of fat.

So, for anyone looking to build a foundation of strength, I’d recommend the following:

  • Use StrongLifts 5X5. It’s a program a Dutch guy name Mehdi adapted from the strength programs of a strength-training great. It’s excellent for beginners because it comes with youtube videos that teach you proper form, and (best of all) a free app for your smartphone that tells you exactly what to do every time you go to the gym, and tracks your progress for you. The 5 movements in this program are gold. Learn them well, incrementally increase the weight you lift every time you to the movements, and you won’t be a beginner for long. This guy will tell you to start with just the barbell. You won’t want to. BUT START WITH JUST THE BARBELL. It’s better to make small progress over a long time without stalling, than to make quick progress and stall a lot. Stalling a lot teaches your body to fail.
  • If your gym has a coach, ask him or her to teach you perfect form on those 5 lifts. Form is everything. Get those 5 lifts. Do your workout and go home.
  • If you want to scrap one of the lifts and keep it to 4, lose the bench press. There is almost no carry-over into real life for most people, as most people aren’t playing professional football or having to throw an opponent off them from their back in the UFC ring. If you only want to work with 4 movements, scrap the bench press. Maybe do some push-ups instead.
  • End of Three Fitness is a great site. I think the guy is a believer. His programs work, his advice is good, and he has the professional chops to make me trust him. Also, unlike other sites that teach you to grow strong, he doesn’t use profanity every three lines and isn’t into the frills and fluff.

I’d work with that, man or woman, young or old or in the middle. Start there, stay with that until you’re stalling all the time (unable to complete your sets frequently), and then either move on to intermediate training plans, or stay with the beginner plans (which are 90% of the gains you want to make, anyway) and start adding conditioning or sports. I.e. run.

Ok. Enough for now. Stay tuned for another post in the OneLove category soon. In fact, the system didn’t alert readers to it last time, so you may have missed one. I’d love to get your thoughts on that, so take a look and leave a comment!

Strong and True.

The Spirit’s Unity

I’m taking a short break from the ROOTED series to work on something for the church here in Narnya. One of the absolutely essential tasks facing the expat worker community and the local believing community here is the recovery of some ways to live out the unity of the Spirit practically. In another post sometime I might unpack why that is so mission-critical here (and, I’m increasingly convinced, everywhere). But today I thought I’d post some of the first section of something I’m writing to strengthen the disciples and fellowships here in my city. I’d love your feedback if you have any – you can contribute to something that might prove very helpful here.

What I’m working on is a brief treatment of the concept of the unity of the Spirit and how to keep it, working mostly from Paul’s letters (as he’s the one who coined the phrase), but also engaging John and maybe James on the topic. I’m thinking I’ll talk in terms of “the Spirit and Unity,” “Christ and Unity,” “the Father and Unity,” “Deviations from Unity,” and “How to Keep it.” Something to give readers handles, and something that follows the relational nature of the Triune Godhead, since the unity of the Spirit isn’t a doctrine to agree with, but a relational reality to be protected and practiced. Below is an early version of an early chapter. The tone and word choice will be slightly different from my usual voice on this blog, since I’m writing to a very different audience, culturally, and because I will have to translate this before publishing. Again, I’d love your thoughts.

In a coffee shop

I want to start with a story that I’m ashamed of. Ten years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in the United States, drinking my coffee and reading my book. Two guys were sitting at a table nearby, discussing something from the Bible and talking about a sermon they had heard that week. I started to listen in, and found myself thinking some pretty terrible stuff.

Wow, what he’s talking about is pretty shallow. That wasn’t much of a sermon. We do a lot better in our fellowship.

People really should come to our Sunday morning meeting, because it’s so much better than the other meetings in this area.

I mean, it’s great these guys are believers, but they really need to experience real spiritual community and solid teaching like we have in our fellowship.

I’m so glad our Sunday meetings are better than the one I’m hearing about right now, and I’m so glad God is working uniquely in our fellowship so we can fix these other churches and set everything to rights.

To be honest, none of these thoughts fully formed themselves in my mind, but I remember feeling these thoughts. I believed these things were true. Such pride. Such foolishness. I’m still ashamed of what was in my heart as I remember that day.

But it gets better. I’m telling the story because the Lord met me at that table. He quietly chastised me. Did I really think that he was working uniquely in my fellowship, and not all the other ones in my city? Did I really think I had some kind of inside line on Jesus? What is wrong with me that I can look at two brothers – my brothers in Christ – two meters away from me and not rejoice that they are attending carefully to their hearts and to the teaching they are receiving? The problem wasn’t the shallow sermon they were discussing; it was the shallow love in my heart for people who are Christ’s.

In that moment the Lord touched me and I had an experience that marked me. I don’t chase experiences, but a discipleship with no experiences doesn’t get far. On that day, at that table, I felt in my heart my connectedness to all the saints everywhere. I sensed in my bones how we are all one – all of God’s people, all those in Christ, are one body, and I felt that. And with it I received a sense of responsibility to care for and serve the whole body, never valuing one part of the body more than another. From that moment on, my relationship to Jesus has been intrinsically tied to my relationship to the saints, and the force and skill with which I love them. On that day, for just a moment, I touched and felt the unity of the Spirit.

The Spirit’s unity

But I want to be clear that the unity of the Spirit isn’t a feeling. It’s not ‘spiritual unity’, but rather ‘the Spirit’s unity’. We’re not talking about a vague idea that we give assent to, nor a mysterious feeling we sense when we like another believer; we’re talking about an objective reality created, maintained, and owned by the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit of God has made us one – he has woven us into one fabric, and that fabric comprised of every believer of all times is the Church. What holds that fabric together in reality is the unity of the Spirit – the oneness created and perpetually maintained by the Holy Spirit. It’s a real thing, whatever we believe about it. And this reality is his. We did not create it so it does not matter in the least if we want to be one with a particular person or group of believers. He did not ask our opinion on the matter. We are one.

Oneness

Oneness is ONEness, not twoness, not manyness. Paul goes to great lengths in a few passages to make this very clear. Let’s explore them.

Ephesians 4:4-6

“There is one body and one Spirit just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

This is a hymn that Paul’s readers would have already known. Apostles in the early church often left hymns with the churches they planted or helped to plant, in order to make certain that core doctrines were preserved whole and in one piece among churches who might not be highly literate or might not have much of the Scriptures available to them. The hymns were the means of preserving teachings the apostles thought were absolutely central and essential to the life of the church.

He quotes this hymn, not to tell them what to believe, but to tell them how to live. He expects them to PRACTICE what the hymn preserves and teaches. What the hymn teaches is the absolute centrality of practiced oneness to the way of Jesus and the life of the church. The clear emphasis is unity.

There is one body. Not 2, not 3, not 7, not 70. In the whole world, there is one church, comprised of all the believers everywhere. In your city, there is one church, comprised of all the believers in your city. One body.

There is one Spirit. We will explore this one a little later, but for now it is enough to say that to offend the unity of the Spirit is to offend the Spirit of God himself. It is not a small matter.

There is one hope. We will all be together in the new heavens and new earth. We are all on the same journey now to the same destination, and our current silly divisions won’t matter then. So why do they matter now? Why do we intentionally live life with Jesus in ways we know we will never live when he appears again? Why do we tolerate divisions now that he won’t tolerate then, and why do we think he is happy with them now?

There is one Lord. There is one King, with one kingdom. Not many little fiefdoms feuding with each other, or ignoring each other. One kingdom, with one King, and none of us are him.

There is one faith. There really aren’t lots of different ‘kinds’ of Jesus-followers. There is one faith. Why do we gather like there are many?

There is one baptism. Baptism is the pledge of allegiance to our One King, and there is only one such pledge. You are HIS, and you belong to no other. There is one chief shepherd, and all the sheep are his. You are no one’s sheep but Christ’s. Submission to him means mutual submission among the saints. In your baptism you pledged allegiance to Jesus, and to all the people who are His. You owe your full allegiance to him, and to all the saints – not just the ones you like or agree with.

There is one Father. So there is one family. He is above all of us, and in all of us. Even those you disagree with, and those who have hurt you. And he is at work through all of us, even the ones whose decisions you don’t like.

There is but one of all of these. One. Paul did not say there should be one Father, one Lord, one faith. He said there is. There is only one church, one God, one Christ, one Spirit.

Paul says that living in this oneness is what it means to live worthy of the gospel, worthy of the Voice that called us.

What would happen if we actually lived like that?

Philippians 1:27-30

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”

Paul paints a vivid picture. Imagine a valley. Down in the bottom, a small band of soldiers stands silently, side by side, shields interlocked, spears hovering over top – locked in formation and standing firm. No cowardice, no chaos. No one running away, no one running headlong at the enemy. Perfect, disciplined unity.

Maybe some of these soldiers have problems with each other from time to time. Maybe they had a fight last night and some harsh words were exchanged. But today, on the battlefield, they will die for each other before they break ranks. Each man’s shield protects the man to his left, and he trusts the man to his right to protect him, whether they are blood brothers, dear friends, or not. Because they are soldiers, and this is what soldiers do.

At the other end of the valley the enemy army has begun to advance. They outnumber our brave friends 20 to 1. As they march on this little band of sword-brothers, our friends still don’t break ranks. They don’t move. They don’t waver. The enemy commanders begin to wonder about their plan. We outnumber them 20 to 1, they think to themselves. Why are they not running away?

And a suspicion grows in the enemy commanders’ hearts. What if this little band of soldiers knows that reinforcements are coming? What if this isn’t going to end like we hope? What if their discipline holds, and they don’t break ranks, and they can hold this ground long enough for their King to arrive with his cavalry, and cut our lines to shreds? What if today isn’t the day they die? What if they hold, and we fall?

As the first lines of the enemy horde descend on our friends, they hold. They fight. They bleed, and some die. But the shield wall holds. They fight as one – as one man with many spears, many shields. They are unmovable, because they move as one. And their enemy’s hearts begin to melt.

This is the image Paul is giving to this church in Philippi – a military city with a long military history, and a church with many soldiers in it. He says that he might be able to come to them, and he might die in prison before he can. But whether he comes and sees for himself, or if he just hears, he wants to hear that they are living worthy of the gospel. Again, worthiness is defined by the apostle as living in practiced unity with all the saints in the city.

The church at Philippi was experiencing conflict, likely driven by disagreements between the leaders (see chapter 4, verses 2-3). Paul doesn’t tell each group to live as one, while they live divided from each other. He says that he wants to hear that ALL the saints in that city are living as one, “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind fighting side by side for the faith of the gospel.” He wants them to fight – not against each other, but alongside each other, for the furthering of the gospel.

When the church lives like that, the enemy (spiritual and earthly) have reason to fear. When she lives broken apart, the enemy always wins, and the church always has reason to fear. Always.

But how far does this one-mindedness need to go? Can we just agree to disagree?

1Corinthians 1:10-12

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”

When Paul writes letters to churches, he writes to all the believers in a city. Never to one group or another. He will carefully greet each group when that’s necessary, but always the saints in a city are the church at that city.

The letters to the Corinthians were written that way – to all of them. When Paul wrote 1Corinthians, the city church there was broken into factions around their favorite teachers or leaders, the way churches in the States and in Narnya are broken up. Paul writes to them – to ALL of them – in the name of Jesus Himself, saying he wants:

ALL of them to agree

NO divisions

All of them UNITED in the same mind and the same judgement (to come to a shared conclusion)

As you read that, I’m sure you’re saying, “That’s impossible.” And you’re right. Without the Spirit of God, it is impossible. So what?

One more story

I was talking with a dear friend of mine last year. We were discussing this very thing, and I was sharing with him my burden to see the church everywhere live in the unity of the Spirit. He looked at me and said, “It will never happen. Too many people who think they are right. Too many pastors who won’t give up the power they’ve worked so hard to protect. Too many good believers and pastors who just don’t know how to live as one. Too many believers have been taught to fear each other. It will never happen.”

“Maybe not,” I replied quietly, “but I can see only one choice in front of me. I can look at the terrible, sad mess we’ve made of things, and I can accept the current state of affairs as normal – all the while feeling the heartbreak of the Father and watching the world he loves burn down while we busy ourselves fighting each other or marketing our fellowships so people will like us better than the next bunch of believers down the street.

“Or, I can obey the Scriptures. I can decide that I won’t participate in the destruction of the Temple of the Living God. I won’t sit by while God’s beautiful and beloved children defile his table with their hate and unforgiveness, or their simple neglect of each other. I won’t quietly let spiritual leaders nurture bitterness and resentment toward each other, while their cities burn down around them. I will, instead, with all my might, endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and I will beg others to do the same. I will succeed or die in the effort.”

I can say, “It’s impossible; it will never happen.”

Or, I can say, “It’s impossible. Let’s get it done.”

I have made my choice, and what I’m writing to you now is an attempt to help you as you make yours.

Come, let’s live worthy of the gospel. Impossible is what we do.

StrongDad

A few weeks ago I posted my Key Result Areas for the next 3 years. One of them – Me – included, “Athletic physicality – StrongDad.” I wanted to take a moment today and expound on that one a bit, in part to give me more accountability, in part to give guys out there a little help in an area that can be overwhelming and life-threatening at the same time, and in part to introduce a topic on the blog that I’ll write to now and again – namely, Strength. While this is open to all my readers, this string will be aimed at the men. Ladies, feel free to read on, but if something sounds harsh, just remember I’m talking primarily to the guys, and guys are designed to be tough 🙂

Last year I was struck by the sheer number of times we are commanded to be strong. And I was struck, almost as crisply, by the way folk on the Jesus Journey seem to almost elevate weakness. While I am the first to insist that what we do is “not by might, and not by power, but by [His] Spirit,” I also want to insist that none of the Biblical writers ever command us to be weak. They tell us we need to let the Lord’s strength fill our weakness, and they tell us not to put our trust in our strength, but they are conspicuously forceful and consistent in their command that we, as God’s people, be strong. Do a search.

It’s not helpful to spend lots of energy focusing on our weakness, apologizing for our weakness, or blaming our weakness for our lack of courage, failure of nerve, or simple unwillingness to cultivate a little fortitude. It just doesn’t help, and that issue of helpfulness is where the strength conversation becomes distinctly Christian. We want to be strong in order to be helpful, and stronger people are, on the whole, more able to be helpful than weaker people. Just pay attention to who you ask for help next time you move house. And obviously, it’s not primarily physical strength I want to draw our attention to here. When emotionally fractured or spiritually undisciplined or underdeveloped people move to a place like where I live to do this kind of work, they tend to go home pretty quick, but usually not before they implode their teams and drain them of years of vitality and potential fruitfulness. We don’t need strong people in this line of work because God likes strong people better, or because we like strong people better. We need strong people because stuff is hard and strong people can do hard stuff. And when God chooses to make them weak in a particular way, we treat that as an anomaly (as Paul did, praying fervently three times for it to leave him because he counted it an oddity), and we can learn how to inhabit God’s strength. Still, strength.

Physical strength has a role to play here, too, as we’re not gnostics and we don’t believe that our bodies are just shells and that real life is totally un-physical. The discipline, dedication, willpower and simple relentlessness it takes to become physically strong (not to get abs or to get ripped or shredded or skinny or hot or whatever ridiculous aesthetic goal present culture idolizes, but actually strong as a human being) has significant carry-over into the rest of life. Men should not be weak. It doesn’t help them be men.

So, enough for now about the Strong bit. The Dad bit is as important to me. Last year I had a month or two where I ate whatever I wanted, I didn’t train, I got up at a different time every day. Everything was just loose. I and remember thinking, “If some chump who got up at a different time every day, never did anything that amounted to mastering himself, and generally coasted, tried to marry my daughter, I’d kick him to the curb. Why in the world am I allowing myself to be that guy?” Fellas, it was a gut check.

I remembered working in the yard with my dad as a kid and being routinely amazed at how immensely STRONG he was. Not big, not strapping, not muscular. Just flippin’ strong. If he hit his thumb with the hammer, the hammer broke. Every time. He was made of iron.

At the time I was having this revelation, I was made of jello and chocolate nougat. Not iron. And I could hear the Father telling me to be strong. That part of being Dad is being the Hero. God was, I feel, inviting me to go with him into the land of strong. Into Joshua and Caleb’s yard. Into the wilderness with David and his lunatic commandos. And he was showing me how Fatherhood is the pinnacle of manhood. How being spiritual men is about being spiritual and about being men. And men, when fully formed, Father well. Even the single ones, they uncle well, and then they spiritually Father well. God was helping me sense the connection between strength (in all its forms), fathering my own kids, and the broader calling I feel to one day spiritually father leaders for the global church.

Now, I am learning more deeply of late how thoroughly every facet of life interpenetrates, conditions and informs every other area. So I’m not going to try to be spiritually strong while I “grow fat leaning on a pulpit”, as Jim Elliott was fond of saying. And I’m not going to arrange my whole life around counting calories and antioxidants and grams of gluten and stupid isolation exercises to get a nice pump and make my pecs pop. I’m going to follow Jesus into the arena where strong men are made, and I will show my sons what that means. I will be the man I want them to be. I will be the man I want my girls to marry. And I’ll use my body to get there. Just like when I fast I use my body to help the rest of me engage something real, I will use my physical training to do the same thing. Physical training only profits a little, but when leveraged as part of bringing my body into subjection, it goes a long way.

So, posts in this subject area on the blog are going to explore the role of strength in the Jesus Way, as well as discussions of physical training – and especially strength. Sometimes I’ll post my own goals, as well as my progress or lack thereof as I make my way toward strong.

For now, I’ll leave you with three quotes from the Bible on the topic.

The first from God himself to a young leader who has just inherited a task well above his pay grade (Joshua 1:6-9) –

Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

 

The second from a father to his son on when it gets tough (Proverbs 24:10-12) –

If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;

hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.

If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not He who weighs the hearts perceive it?

Does not He who watches over your soul know it,

and will he not repay man according to his work?”

 

And the last from a weathered apostle, to all of us (1Cor. 16:13-14) –

“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all you do be done in love.”

My prayer today

My soul clings to the dust;

give me life according to your word!

 

When I told of my ways, you answered me;

teach me your statutes!

 

Make me understand the way of your precepts,

and I will meditate on your wondrous works.

 

My soul melts away for sorrow;

strengthen me according to your word!

 

Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law!

 

I have chosen the way of faithfulness;

I set your rules before me.

 

I cling to your testimonies, O LORD;

let me not be put to shame!

 

I will run in the way of your commandments

when you enlarge my heart!

 

–Psalm 119:25-32

From the Carmina Gadelica

In the steep common path of our calling,

be it easy or uneasy to our flesh,

be it bright or dark for us to follow,

be Thou a shield to us from the wiles of the deceiver,

from the arch-destroyer with his arrows pursuing us,

and in each secret thought our minds get to weave

be Thou Thyself on our helm and at our sheet.

Rooted: Christ the Mystery – Stewarding the Mystery

In our last post in the ROOTED series we saw how Paul opens with a huge vision of Jesus, set in a colossal cosmic drama – a magnificent Story in which we play a part. We saw how Paul presented Jesus, we considered what he was up to, and we thought about the implications for us.

The next idea we’re going to encounter is Christ the Mystery (Colossians 1:24-2:5). This is a dense topic, and honestly I can feel a little paralyzed as I think about trying to unpack it. It’s possible to start developing the ideas here and find that when you’ve finished you’ve just restated the New Testament. The mystery of Christ, and what it means to steward, declare and receive it, are the hub of New Testament theology. So, to give it barely adequate (but not exhaustive) treatment, we’ll break it up into three sections, giving a post to each:

Stewarding the Mystery

Messaging the Mystery

and

Catching the Mystery.

As we explore this, it will be useful to change the order of our questions, beginning this time by considering what Paul is doing, and then considering Christ and our practice in each of those three streams.

Ready? Here we go

What is Paul doing?

It looks to me like Paul is making some introductions. Having introduced Jesus, he’s moving on now to introducing himself, the gospel and the church. And he’s doing it all relative to “the mystery of Christ”. Let’s start with how Paul presents himself to these saints who have never met him.

Paul is an apostle. One of the things apostles do is they steward the mystery. To get a handle on that let’s examine the word “mystery”. In the New Testament, this word refers to something that was always true before, but totally unknown. We can even say that it was unknowable, but for revelation. And that’s what makes it a mystery – it has been revealed. Mysteries (in the New Testament use of the word) are very true things (not new things) that we could not have known, but God has revealed them and now they are known, and as knowable as they can be by us human folk.

Ok. So, that’s what a mystery is. What does it mean that apostles steward the mystery? Stewards ran houses, businesses, shipping agencies, estates. Someone else’s houses, businesses, shipping agencies, estates. And they ran them for the well being of that owner’s beneficiaries. Stewards made what masters wanted to happen, happen. Think slave-with-authority, and slave-with-responsibility.

Now, when we say “steward the mystery”, it’s easy to begin to envision something mysterious, mystical, magical. “You know, I steward the mystery. I’m kind of a big deal in mysterious circles.” But that kind of image is misleading. Think less illuminati-magician, and more delivery boy. If an employee of Papa’s Pizza makes a pizza for Papa’s daughter, delivers it, and of course refuses payment because it’s for his boss’s family, that would be stewarding the pizza.

To use another image, if we were to think of each of the Ephesians 4 persons (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) in light of the mystery of Christ, we might think about it this way:

Evangelists want it announced.

Prophets want it seen and heard.

Teachers want it understood.

Shepherds want it experienced communally.

And apostles want all this to happen (perhaps with less concern over any one of the parts of the process than each of the others might feel), with the mystery remaining whole and in one piece; and they want it to happen in ways that make it likely to happen again, and again, and again.

Paul is introducing himself this way because he is very serious about these Colossian saints coming into the full experience and expression of Christ. He wants them to know what he’s doing – namely, unpacking Christ and all the many ways to engage Him, to be engaged by Him, and to reveal him (to perpetuate the mystery) to the world. Paul is letting them know who he is and what he is, Whom he works for and what his aim is, so they know how to dance with him. It’s an act of love. Answering, “Who is this guy and why did he write us?” before he gets to the nuts and bolts that he doesn’t want them missing while they’re wondering about him.

You can hear his concern for the recipients (inhabitants, participants, hosts) of this mystery all over the passage.

I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.

In my flesh I fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church.

The stewardship FROM God given TO me FOR you.

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face.

Paul understands himself as a steward of the mystery, entrusted with the message of the mystery and tasked with helping the recipients of the mystery catch it well.

So what?

Mission agencies, ministries, churches, parachurch organizations, etc., can be classified in one of two ways: those who focus on making individual disciples, and those who focus on the church. And they tend to argue that one must come before the other, or to insist that one of these is our job and the other is God’s.

“We make disciples.”

“Well, we plant churches.”

“We make disciples that spontaneously become churches.”

“We develop faith communities where disciples can grow organically.”

In reality, most seem to oscillate every 5-20 years or so, swinging back and forth between these two positions, or positions very near these. The literature certainly does.

In the New Testament, while different workers at different times might have different endeavors they were focusing on, apostles seemed to be somewhat ambidextrous. You see it here in this passage. Throughout the passage Paul presents himself as a steward, tasked by God for them. But his burden or sense of responsibility is two-fisted. In one hand (1:28-29), he and his team warn and teach everyONE, that they might present everyONE complete in Christ. Proclamation, warning, teaching and formation executed with individuals in mind. This sounds like the “make disciples” camp.

But in the other fist, gripped just as tightly, is the communal reality (2:1-5). He wants their hearts knit together in love so they can catch the mystery he’s proclaiming, the continual revealing of the self-giving God in Christ. This sounds like the church/community planting camp.

In reality, I’m thinking it’s both. Americans like things to go in straight lines. We joke about what comes first, the chicken or the egg. Most of the rest of the world couldn’t care less what came first. They just want breakfast. We think the universe is a machine, and if we could just find the one key, everything else would rumble to life. The cause/effect dichotomy that we’re so fond of – most of the world is less fascinated with that. Do disciples become churches or do churches nurture disciples?

Yes. In a non-linear way, yes.

And apostles steward the mystery so both can happen. Getting clarity on that might be useful right now. Paul thinks it’s important that they know what kind of person he is, and what he’s after with them. How he intends to help them, based on how God has made him and what God has called him to do.

He has to know who he is. And they have to know who he is, so they can take his help. His ability to help them is dependent on that clarity on both sides.

I propose that one essential piece of our generation’s task in the cosmic drama of healing the world is recovering clarity on these Ephesians 4 personalities. God has never stopped calling and tasking these folks. He didn’t turn off those parts of the Body for 1,700 years. They’ve always been doing what they do. Or they’ve been shut down for doing what they do.

But getting clear on who these folks are, helping them discover what they are supposed to bring the rest of us, helping them learn to die for the church (and not helping them leverage the church as a self-actualization ramp), and helping them learn how to come at the church so she can accept their help (like Paul does so masterfully in this passage) seems to me like a strategy that could change the game.

For further exploration

Posts on this blog in The Katartic Fist category will be directed at this conversation.

Alan Hirsch has done some illuminating work on this question. Especially “The Perpetual Revolution”. He has a very google-able internet presence. His work seems to rely on sociological metaphor. But it’s clear. And it’s useful in tandem with…

Watchman Nee’s “The Normal Christian Church Life” (not to be confused with “The Normal Christian Life”). The time and attention given to the Scriptures in this work are laudable. In my opinion, still the best book on the topic.

Wolfgang Simpson’s “Houses That Change The World” is also good.

 

Rooted: Christ and the Story

Plot is everything. And characters. Knowing the story – the story of an argument, a relationship, a business, a movement – orients you. Knowing what story you find yourself in allows you to know the characters as they are, and to find the plot.

In my last post I introduced a series of blog posts I’m calling “Rooted”. Through these posts I’m hoping to shed some light on what it means that the church’s foundation is the person Jesus Christ. And I’m hoping to help us all get a better grip on how to start communities that truly are founded on Jesus, how to get our own roots deep into Jesus, and how to help disciples and churches realign themselves with the one foundation.

Paul is also very interested in setting (and re-setting) Christ as the singular foundation. In his letter to the saints at Colossae, he does just that. Last time I asked you to read Colossians through, and to give special attention to Colossians 1:1-23. And I asked you to ask 3 questions: 1) What do we see about Jesus here?, 2) What is Paul doing in saying what he says?, and 3) So what? Assuming you’ve done that (and assuming you’ve read the post before this one), let’s get down to exploring those questions.

What do we see about Jesus?

Paul lets it fly here. Christ is the beloved Son of God. He’s King of, well, everything. He is the singular Agent of God’s creative action, and he’s the Agent of God’s redemptive action. And he has secured for himself the unique position of preeminence over and in all things.

First.

Best.

Highest.

GodKing.

In short, this Christ is cosmic. And he’s fascinating.

What is Paul doing?

He’s fascinating because he is. But Paul is presenting him in all his fascinating glory because one thing he’s up to here, I think, is he’s trying to cultivate in his audience a fascination with the person of Jesus. Christ is fascinating, enthralling, captivating, beautiful, amazing, worthy of total obsession, good, strong and heroic. But he’s also, by some strange alchemy, easy to miss. It’s easy to base our practice of the Jesus Way on something other and less that the magnificent Christ.

Right out of the gates Paul blasts us with lots of awesome stuff about Jesus, because he’s attempting to capture our imagination with our hero. As we’ll learn later, everything that happens in our transformation is a function of us paying attention to Jesus – literally, looking at him. Paul knows that, so he leads by painting our imagination in bold colors with the beautiful and cosmic Jesus.

Another thing Paul’s doing is establishing the Story. There is one story. God creates, and God redeems what he created. In this Story we find Christ as the prime mover in both movements. But what I want to draw your attention to right now is the depth of this story. The story Paul is telling started a long time ago (creation), and it arcs through its most important moment in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it will make its way toward a sure and certain future in which Christ has reconciled literally every last tangible and intangible thing to himself. This is a cosmic meta-drama. It’s THE story of everything. It started long before you were born, long before you believed, and it will continue long after your cameo is over.

What’s more, you’ve been caught up into the story of Christ’s thrilling heroics. You’ve been forgiven, redeemed, and translated into the Kingdom of the Son of God’s love. What’s more, God has been active in you since then. Paul makes sure to tell the Colossians that he’s heard about what Jesus has been doing in them – in particular how he has been teaching them how to love. And they’ve been catching on, from the looks of things.

But the story isn’t just deep, and it doesn’t just include them. It’s not narrow. It’s wide. The story’s breadth is as important as its depth. Paul lets the Colossians know, twice (v. 6, 23) that the gospel that has come to them is also spreading across the whole world, and the God at work in them is also simultaneously working everywhere. They are not alone, and they are not the center. The story is deeper and wider than they know, and knowing that is important.

So what?

Let’s refocus.

We’ve seen that Paul presents Christ big, and he does that first.

Paul tells us that the story we’re in is long and deep, and Christ has brought us into a story that, while it includes us, is not about us. Our salvation is part of the two part drama that defines the whole of everything – God makes, and God rescues.

And Paul tells us that the story we’re in is wide and vast. God is not just at work in us. He’s at work all over the world.

Let’s think about why these things matter, and how to respond to them in ways that root us and ground us in Jesus.

What might happen if we intentionally cultivate an obsession with Jesus that PRECEDES ethic or dogma. What if, before telling people what they should believe or how they should behave, we helped them understand Whom they should trust, and how he behaves? What if we gave more time to talking about Jesus, and less time to talking about ourselves (how we are good OR how we are bad)? And what if we gave more time to thinking about Jesus? What might happen, do you think? Knowing that new competencies and new character are primarily acquired through imitation and not so much through explanation, what effect do you think consistently setting Jesus before our minds (and others’ minds) might have on our development as people?

Letting us know that there is something much larger going on than just what God is up to in us can be curative for two ailments I’ve personally witnessed in my assignments in the East and in the West: despair and parochialism.

Despair happens when things slow down. You stop seeing evident signs of new life or of God’s dynamic saving action in your immediate vicinity. And slowly, you start to buy the lie that if you’re not seeing it, it’s not happening. Or the other lie, that since you’re not seeing it here, it’s not happening period. You start to fear that nothing you do really matters and that nothing is going to change. I have seen this some in the Workers in Narnyy, and in the Narnyan spiritual leaders and saints. Knowing that God is active elsewhere can give you hope, and set you looking under the surface of things where God has never stopped working right where you are. God doesn’t seem to push on all fronts at once. Sometimes it is ours to hold the ground and wait expectantly for deliverance. Knowing that the Lord of Hosts afoot elsewhere can help us endure with patience and joy.

Parochialism is a big word for the kind of small-mindedness that leads us to believe that we are the center of God’s cosmic plans. His “next big move” will start in our city, and will ripple out across our country, and even “over there” (wherever over there is). The United States is just as much “over there” to God as Iran is, in case you hadn’t noticed. People seem to have this need to be in the center, on the ground floor, at the beginning. But that’s just silly. We can miss what God is doing right now because we’re constantly trying to be the next big thing. This leads to horrible sins like competition, territorialism, and that irritating need to mention the most recent book or the most recent strategy or model or whatever. God is active everywhere. If he includes your city in some major renovation, praise God! If he is speaking to your fellowship or house church or family, praise God! And don’t be surprised that you’re not the first person he’s spoken to about that. He’s talking everywhere.

He’s saving the world, you know. And you’re part of that now. Not the center, but undeniably part. You’re now an active citizen of the Kingdom of the Cosmic Christ, and he’s all kinds of good.

Some practical tips to help us root and ground in Christ:

  • Develop a preference for the gospels in your reading and teaching. I’m not saying only read or only teach the gospels, but consider alternating. Matthew, a letter. Mark, Proverbs. You get it. Make the bread and butter of your Scripture exploration explicitly about Jesus.
  • Get your hands on The Jesus Storybook Bible and read it to your kids. Or your friends’ kids. Or yourself. Seriously, I love hearing how God’ Never-ending Never-giving-up Always and Forever Love compels him to stick to his Secret Rescue plan, where by Jesus makes all the sad things come untrue. Best kids Bible / adult devotional I’ve laid hands on in a while.
  • If you’re a reader, try Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus and How God Became King.
  • Consider enrolling in a Story Formed Life seminar somewhere. At least google it and use the materials to guide your group study or your own devotional plan for a bit sometime. I’s worth the time to learn the Story, your place in the Story, how to Story, and how to be formed by that Story (instead of some other lame one).

Next time we’ll explore Christ the Mystery. Take some time and sit in Colossians 1:24-2:3, asking those 3 questions – What do we see about Christ, What is Paul doing, and So what?

 

Rooted – Introduction and Invitation

Do you ever feel like this whole Jesus thing should be working better?

We have all these tools, all these books. In the West we have seminaries and church campuses and cool programs, or if we’re not into that we have house churches and intentional communities and urban renewal. In Central Asia we have a collectivist culture that is inherently supposed to make everyone better at spiritual community (right?), cultural norms closer to those of the Bible so we can “get it easier”, and persecution, which just magically makes the church grow (right?). All over the place we have really great people trying really hard over long periods of time. So, why is it not happening, on the whole?

It’s happening in pockets, I know, and in some beautiful ways. And some good things are happening everywhere. But on the whole, we aren’t seeing what we’d expect to see if the gospel really is like a mustard seed that, though small, grows into a mighty tree that blesses the nations. Some people who follow Jesus are becoming like their master, and are becoming fishers of men. But most, if we are honest, really aren’t. At least, not in the ways or to the degrees the Scriptures would lead us to expect. We are not actually discipling the nations we live in.

I’m not being critical, here. I’m being reflective. If anything, I’m trying to give voice to something that’s been nagging at you – and that should be nagging at you. You’re right. Spiritual leaders, pastors, shepherds, church planters – you love the people you care for and you really want this to work. You want fruit. You want transformed people, and transformed communities. And you want to see those communities heal the world. And you’re putting a lot of effort into it, and wha’s coming out often doesn’t make sense to you. You’re right – something is off.

Disciples, parents, students, folks – you’re following Jesus and you’re not seeing the transformation in you that you know is yours in Jesus. You are sometimes, and in some ways. But you can sense that something, somewhere is off. Good news! You’re right! There is more than this.

Across the next few posts I want to share with you some thoughts from Colossians (and some other supporting passages) that might help here. To do that, I want to start with a statement Paul makes 1Corinthians 3:10-11. Paul is talking about his work in Corinth, starting a church there, saying, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Fo no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

The foundation of the church at Corinth (and of every city church) is a person, not a dogma or confession, not a plan or a program, not a philosophy of ministry or a rule of life. The foundation is Jesus Christ. And Paul says he laid Jesus Christ as the foundation of the church at Corinth.

Huh. So, how do you do that? How do you lay a person as a foundation? Seriously, what does it mean that Jesus is the foundation of the spiritual-social-kingdom unit called “the church”, and how does that play out practically? Can you explain what, exactly, that means? Have you experienced what that means, and can you lead another into it?

And, perhaps more apparently, what happens when Jesus isn’t the foundation? Or, when we’re not rooted in Jesus, what happens? And how do we re-direct our roots into Him?

Because here’s the thing. A building’s foundation sets the limits for that building, and it determines the shape the building can take. And system errors in the building – places where things look like they should be working, but aren’t – are often faults in the foundation. A tree’s roots determine the limits of that tree’s growth and fruitfulness.

To borrow another metaphor, a body’s health, function and ability to affect the world around it is limited by how efficiently it’s connected to the brain. Brain-body connection. What we’re after is a healthy, robust, agile, athletic connection between the Head (Jesus) and the Body (the church), including all its members (you and me).

So where can we turn for some coaching on how to lay Christ as foundation for new churches, how to reinforce that foundation or reset the structure onto that foundation? Is there Scripture that lays out for us what it means to be rooted and grounded in Jesus, and how to see that play out in transformed lives, transformed spiritual communities, and transformed geographic communities?

I’m glad you asked.

Paul’s letter to Colossae is exactly that. From the city of Ephesus Paul had trained other workers, who had spread all over Asia Minor, preaching Jesus and growing churches. One such church was at Colossae. In this letter Paul does a little bit of corrective work, but (unlike many of his other letters) on the whole this letter represents what an apostle concerned with foundations would write to saints he cared about, but whom he did not know personally. In other words, when given an opportunity to say whatever he wants to people he does not know, Paul says the letter to Colossae.

This letter is intensely Christological – it talks A LOT about Jesus. But it’s less a letter about orthodoxy (right belief), and more a letter about orthopraxy (right practice). It’s a letter about how to live into Christ, and how to live Him out, individually and together. It’s a letter in which a master architect reinforces this church’s Christ-foundation, which his a friend of his had laid. It’s a letter in which a master gardener helps the saints sink their roots deep into Jesus, and not some other good thing.

In the next couple of months I hope to unpack this letter, specifically as it reveals to us what it means – in real life – that Jesus is the foundation of the church. Along the way, we’ll be giving some thought to how this speaks to some of the most frequently asked questions I have faced as an elder and shepherd in the United States, as an apostolic worker in Central Asia, and as an apostolic worker seeking to train new workers and to architect ways and means that will help all of us everywhere live from our hearts and heal the world. Questions like:

  • What is the gospel? What kind of communication is it? What are the non-negotiable content pieces, and how does it change across cultures?
  • Why do so many believers’ discipleship crash or go way off course? Or, more commonly, just sputter out?
  • What is the Christian walk really all about? What defines a Jesus-follower’s life? Under all the noise, the rules, the programs, what is discipleship really all about?
  • How does transformation really happen? What is the mechanism of change?
  • Why does the practice of spiritual disciplines sometimes seem to make us better, and sometimes worse?
  • Why is the church so fractured? Is there a way to see oneness again?
  • Who should I gather with?
  • How should we gather as believers?
  • What are we after when we gather as believers? What’s the goal, here?
  • Why is it that sometimes we get together and we’re better for it, sometimes worse for it, and most often largely unchanged for it?
  • What is the role of family in all of this?
  • What are the structures of church life that we want to work with? Or, what is the goal for folks looking to build carefully on the foundation, which is Christ? What do we build with?

You may have asked some of these questions before. You might be wrestling with one of them now. You might not. But for all of us, it is critical to know how to practice Christ.

For those of you whom God has called to lead the church structurally (elders and deacons) or catalytically (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers), I’ll be giving some attention to how to root people and groups into Jesus, and I’ll be trying to raise some questions about how to do that so we can all help each other get better at this. For those of you whom God has called to practice Christ in other ways (the other 90% of Body of Christ), I’ll try to give practical, concrete ways to live into Christ and to live him out. For all of you, dialogue (posting comments) will only help the process. None of us have this down perfectly, and we are smarter together than any one us is alone.

In this, you’ll have a job to do, too. To prevent this from becoming another exercise in consumer-Christianity, where I produce something for you that you “buy” by reading it, I’m going to ask you to do something simple. Before each post, I’ll ask you to read a bit of Colossians and to think about 3 questions:

  1. Where do you see Christ in this passage?
  2. What is Paul doing (what is he trying to accomplish by writing this particular stretch of text)?
  3. So what? (How might this affect our practice of life, or of ministry?)

Do we have a deal?

If so, before you read my next post in this series (the “Rooted” series), please read the whole letter to the Colossians once quickly, and then read Colossians 1:1-23 slowly, asking the 3 questions above.

In my next post, we’ll explore Christ and the Story, and we’ll see how Paul orients us in this journey-into-Jesus.

Finding Jesus on Sunday

A question a reader recently offered went something like this: How, practically, do we go about encountering the living Lord Jesus on a Sunday morning? This is a great question, and I’d like to approach it from three angles: memory/imagination, intention, and means.

Jesus told us that when we gather as his people and for his ends (i.e. in his name), he’s there in the midst of us. It’s significant that he doesn’t qualify this with the presence of any special persons (preachers, pastors, leaders, etc.), participation in any special activities (sacraments, “worship” music, Bible study, etc.), or any special state of being on our parts (holy enough, happy enough, sad enough, contrite enough, excited enough, etc.). In the middle of the way we are, he comes to be who he is. And that’s the fact we must remember. He’s here with us, so our task is to find him and be with him here.

That brings us to intention. The one question Jesus asked more than any other, possibly more than all others combined, is What do you want? When you get to whatever meeting it is you’re going to on a Sunday, what do you want? What are you after? Let me give you two ways to think about this.

The first is a responsive prayer from the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer. It’s part of the morning office that I pray each day:

Call: Who is it that you seek?
Response: We seek the Lord our God.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your heart?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your soul?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your mind?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your strength?
Response: Amen. Christ, have mercy.

The beauty of this prayer is that we are asked if we are orienting each aspect of our personality toward seeking the Lord our God. And in each case, the asking itself allows us the opportunity to do so. And, in each case, we are likely oriented toward something else, and there is mercy for that.

The second is this. We’re staying with a friend in Niles, MI at the moment. She has a big house, and it’s a big house that sort of has 3 distinct areas and a central sort of hub. It’s very possible for someone to be home, and for someone else to walk in the door, go about life in the central hub, and eventually make his way into one of those distinct little areas without ever meeting the lady of the house. If you want to run into her, you have to come in the door looking for her. If you walk in preoccupied, she could be sitting on the couch waiting for you and you could miss her. If you walk in and think that what you’re doing there is getting dinner on for the kids, or getting the kids to bed, or getting a few things done while you have a moment, you’ll miss her. You might even run her over on your way to what you think you’re doing. That’s especially true for us, as we’re staying there sort of long term. Familiarity with the space down-regulates your awareness of who is in the space with you.

That’s how it is on a Sunday morning for many of us. We walk in the door and do lots of stuff, but forget to go looking for Jesus. It’s important, once we have remembered that Jesus has come to be with us exactly as we are at that moment, to take each movement and orient it toward finding and encountering him dwelling in our midst. Why are you singing that song? When the talker/preacher/teacher is talking, are you listening to see if you agree (hubris), are you trying to learn something new, or are you expectantly listening for the Lover’s Voice? We live by the words that come from God’s mouth – in the present tense. We need to walk into the meeting expecting a Meeting, and participating in all ways like people walking through the house either looking for the Host or in happy dialogue with him.

So, we have memory/imagination and intention. That leaves us with means. Sadly, most of the means most of us employ on a typical Sunday morning are an odd combination of Old Testament Temple cultus and Constantinian Roman Catholic sacerdotalism, shot through with solid post-Reformation theology. In English, we don’t meet like Jesus’s first students, but rather like the church met after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Empire and power structures and rituals were locked into place to control the means of grace.

There is good news, though. However we meet, even we are making use of means that really give the Lord very little room to be Lord among us, he still stands at the door and knocks, and whoever can hear that knocking and lets him in – he will sit down with you, and you will sit down with him. That is ever and always within each of our reach.

There is more good news. Paul prescribes for us means for meeting. The longer discussion of this is found in his first letter to Corinth. But a very useful short form is found in Colossians 3:15-17. In these few verses, Paul tells us that our gathering should be characterized by the peace of Christ, the word of Christ, and the name of Christ.

One means our team has found for maintaining the peace of Christ is taking the Lord’s Table weekly. We take it each week, we do not allow anyone to hold any grudges or unforgiveness when they take it, we strongly discourage opting out of it (rather, we expect each person to go make peace then if they have not already), and we do it as part of a large family meal (like the earliest believers did). It is difficult for a wound to fester into true, rooted bitterness in seven days or less. And every seven days we know that the Table is coming, so we come ready.

Paul tells us that the word of Christ can dwell richly in our midst as we teach and admonish each other in all wisdom. We teach and admonish each other. Not one guy talking to us for 40 minutes. Each other. There is a place for extended teaching by one person, but weekly and at the expense of the one-another is probably not it. And we don’t just teach each other; we admonish each other. We warn each other off foolish paths and onto wise ones. We get in each other’s business. And we do it with all wisdom. We don’t shoot from the hip, we don’t make stuff up, we don’t almost quote something we think Jesus might have said, and we don’t hang our opinions on someone else’s neck. We study the Bible when we’re not together, and we offer the tribe the fruit of our hunt each week. In all wisdom.

A community that meets in the name of the King is a community meeting for his purposes, to secure his ends, to actuate his agenda. It is a missional community. It is a community whose momentum is go-momentum. Not come-momentum. The community is moving toward the world, not asking the world to come to the community. It is staying in neighborhoods and pushing into new ones, not pulling families out of neighborhoods to all hole up safe and sound from the world. Jesus meets with us when we come to get what he is coming to get, and to give.

Luke describes what Paul prescribes. At the end of his gospel he records an encounter between two disheartened disciples and the risen Lord. Their hearts burn within them as he shows them Jesus-in-the-Book, and he is revealed to them “in the breaking of the bread”. He’s revealed at the kitchen table. As a man who has ridden a chair at the table, and as a man who has ridden a pulpit – I’ll take the kitchen table every time. Later, in Luke’s account in Acts, we find the disciples eating together, taking the Table, praying and continuing in the apostles’ teaching. We find them doing this without the apostles. Luke is describing what Paul is prescribing.

Now, when I return to the States, or even when I go to the international church gathering in Narnya, I am often disoriented and confused. What are we doing here? Where are all the other saints in this city right now? Why is that guy still talking? Does anyone else have a song they want to sing? How about a word from the Lord that they heard this week? Why are we de-activating all these men and women by asking them to sit quietly while one man talks? I know we’re doing this this way because we don’t remember when we didn’t. And I know that the guys and girls leading this show are trying to help as best as they know how, and that the Lord has given them something to give, too. And I remember that Jesus is not totally limited by the means we give him. He chooses to allow himself to be limited, but he’s not totally limited. I can still find him. I can still strain my ears for the Voice. I can still open my heart to him in the singing and fill the house with my voice so he can know I’ve stopped by to see him. I can join my heart and my voice with the others who pray. I can open the door.

And I can always get together with a few people for lunch or dinner afterward to have church 😉

Grounding

We’re on vacation, so I’m not working. It’s great. As we slowly uncoil, I’m finding my energy returning. I’m starting to dream bigger again, starting to plot and scheme diabolically again [cue evil laughter], and I’m starting to want to create again. It’s good.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is Colossians. I know I’m supposed to be studying Ephesians right now. Well, maybe not “supposed to be”, but I told you that I am. But we’re on a break 😉 I’m actually reading Joshua, intermittently skimming Ephesians for breadth and to get a feel of the warp and woof of it, and I’m letting something else – related closely to Ephesians, but not tied to it – take shape in my mind. It’s looking something like this.

A friend recently indirectly asked me, “What’s your teaching? What’s the thing that when you teach it, it seems really fruitful.” This is a question he asks people with some frequency, looking to activate them further and to help them aim their efforts at reproducing exponentially what Jesus has put into them. I, as is my custom, hijacked the question and began to ask myself, “When people give me room to speak in their fellowship or house group or mission agency or whatever, and when they tell me to talk about whatever I want, what do I most often go to? What is it that my instincts tell me is super-important?” Invariably, it’s Christ. I know that sounds very trite and cliche, but I mean it in a particular way, and I mean it in the way I think Paul meant it.

Paul told the Corinthian believers that foundation of the Church (which is itself the pillar and ground for the truth) is Christ. He, as a person, is the foundation of the Church, and no other foundation can be laid but him. And on that foundation, we are told to be very, very careful how we build. I am increasingly convinced that, in a handful of strategically and tactically critical ways, Western Christianity (and Christianity in lots of places, it turns out) wanders from that one foundation. This is what I’m most often drawn to speak to. Not the problem, so much, as ways to find our feet planted and rooted in Jesus again. I find myself always wanting to provide clarity and motivation to return to “the simplicity that is in Christ”.

Toward that end I’ve been working on a series of trainings, all focused on clarifying and correcting rootedness. So far, they look like this:

> The gospel is about Jesus. Not about you or me or sin, but about Jesus. You and I and sin make appearances, but it’s about him, and this is really important because only a gospel about Jesus can produce disciples that are about Jesus, and churches that are about Jesus.

> The mechanism of human transformation is direct experience of Jesus. We don’t change by trying to change, or by passively sitting by. We change by “beholding Him”. There are ways to do this and ways to miss this.

> Christ is the ground of our gathered life. Not theological affinity, not race, not political similarity, not denomination. Just Jesus.

> When we gather, the goal isn’t to sing songs (though we might), and it’s not to learn something new (though we could). We gather to encounter Christ. There are ways to gather Christocentrically, and there are lots of ways not to. Gathering without encountering the living Lord Jesus in our midst is, at best, a waste of time. At worst, and more commonly, it leaves us worse for having gathered.

> Discipleship, and disciple making, are about nurturing a present-tense relationship between the disciple and Jesus in which the disciple is learning and changing by experiencing Jesus directly in the context of obedience events. This is what it means, as Paul says in Ephesians, to “learn Christ”.

There’s more going on in my head about this, but my sense is that we can feel that we, as God’s family, are out of alignment. We can feel how it rarely “clicks”, and how often our best laid plans and most diligent efforts don’t amount to much. It seems to me that being off-center about things like the gospel, the Church, transformation, and disciple making can really screw us up. And have really screwed us up. Not for lack of trying, but simply for lack of clarity. I find myself burdened to engender clarity on those issues whenever I can. I want to lay the right foundation, and I want to reinforce and straighten foundations when needed and as I can.

That reinforcing of foundation is what Paul’s doing, I think, in his letter to Colossae. Here’s a fellowship he didn’t plant, and that he’s never visited, and has no plans to visit. What does an apostle who is pretty fixated on this foundations stuff do when he has the chance to say whatever he wants to a cluster of believers that he’s never met? In reading Colossians, we see he spends two chapters demonstrating how Christ is everything, how he’s the focus of the cosmos, and how he’s the source of everything they need. He transitions to practical ethics by drawing out a competing view of how transformation happens, and then he shoots it down and says, “Transformation doesn’t happen that way; it happens by sustained, affectionate attention to Christ, who is your whole life.” And the rest of his discussion of praxis is soaked with the word “Christ”. Check it out sometime. Colossians is our example of how an apostle reinforces a churches rootedness in Christ. Delightful, and brilliant.

Something you could do that would help me as I develop this further is this. If you have a question or a thought about how Jesus is the ground, the foundation of our practical Christianity, or if you are curious about one of the bullet points I offered above, please post to it here. A little dialogue here will help me a lot as I seek to be as useful in this way as I possibly can. I have lots I’d like to learn from you all, and especially with you all, and I’d love to hear from you on this. If there are lots of questions in one direction, I’ll write a separate post to it.

Peace to you each!

This Sunday, what if we tried this?

I was thinking today. If I were a local church leader, here’s what I’d do.

First, on a Sunday morning, I’d ask everyone what they would do to minister to their extended families and/or their neighborhoods if they had one extra day a week. I’d give them time to think about it and to write it down.

Then, on that same Sunday morning, I’d ask them to get up and to go sit down in extended family groups or by neighborhood, and I’d give them a good chunk of time to discuss with one another what they wrote down.

Third, on that same Sunday morning, I’d likely read the Great Commission from Matthew and then dismiss the crowd.

The next Sunday morning, I’d read the Great Commission again, along with Acts 2:42. Then, I’d put them back in their groups and ask them to pray together and to make a plan that incorporates one or more of their ideas. I’d lay some ground rules for how to have a conversation like that so everyone participates, and so that someone can lead and maybe someone else administrate so the plan is actually workable. The only big rule would be that the plan would need to incorporate everyone, and that it would have to use families working together as families. But mostly I’d leave them to themselves and I’d pray silently for them while they worked. In the last 15 minutes or so of the meeting, ‘d have groups share their plans aloud with the whole crowd, and I’d give them a little more time to tweak their plans after hearing from one another.

At the end of that second Sunday meeting, I’d tell them that where two or three are gathered in His name, He’s there with them in a way He’s not with them when they are alone. I’d explain that “in his name” means “as his agents”. And ‘d tell them in no uncertain terms that they had just gathered as his agents, and that he had been in the midst of every single group, and that I was 99% certain that their plans were his plans given to them, and that they must obey them. In fact, I’d on the spot cancel the following Sunday’s BigShow, and I’d tell them NOT to come to this building next week. Rather, next Sunday is that extra day of the week – a day we are giving back to them to meet in his name, pray through their plan and execute it. And as they execute it, they should expect Jesus to engage them directly and to disciple them while they seek to disciple their communities as communities.

That following Sunday some people would just stay home. Their loss. But some would have a cookout or a bonfire or a block party for the neighborhood, and they’d bring up Jesus. Some would mow lawns in Jesus’ name. Some would spend the day with the elderly in their neighborhood, or at the group home down the street. Some would prayer walk. Some would pick up trash. But all of them would encounter Jesus – I’m sure of that – and that’s not something I could say if we’d kept the BigShow on for that week.

The following Sunday we’d read about when Jesus sent the 12 out to teach and heal and take the land, and how he debriefed with them afterward. And we’d debrief. And from there, gathered as his agents, we might begin to re-imagine together what a monthly meeting rhythm might look like. And we might come up with something that got passive individuals off of pews and got engaged neighborhood teams and family teams out discipling communities in Jesus’ name. Maybe a big meeting every other week. Maybe less often. Maybe more. But lots of getting at it as local neighborhood families taking direct action on the disciple making target together.

If I were a local church leader, I might do that this month.

Hey, Ephesians, long time no see

A few weeks ago a passage in Ephesians leaped off the page at me. It’s the stretch in chapter 4 where Jesus gives the global church apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers so they can equip the saints for the work of service, and from there the Body builds itself up in love, with life flowing from Christ and with the Body growing to eventually match the head. A beautiful passage, and a strategically important one for me right now. I’m sitting in that passage in particular, praying with it, dreaming around it, and executing much of what I do in light of it.

I’ve also decided to take a few months and study Ephesians in depth. I have always loved this letter, but I’ve been leaving it alone for the past several years. The group I was with in Nashville studied Ephesians together for about 35yrs (well, maybe 2), and though it was good, it wore me out a bit. But it’s been long enough now, apparently, and I am seeing things this time through that lead me to believe my last pass may have overemphasized a few things to the exclusion of some others. As I go along, I’ll be posting bits – not my whole study, but bits and pieces that are germane to something like a blog.

This time I thought I’d tell you how I got started. These letters were originally read aloud. They are written with that in mind, so a good way to get a feel for the overall rhythm and structure of a letter is to read it out loud. Another practice, one I use a lot, is the fly-over. I leave my Bible open somewhere and as I pass by throughout the day I glance down and look at few places on the two open pages I can see. Or I’ll flip the page back and forth a few times and look for points where I can see the argument being tied together. This takes patience, and you usually have to do this for a period of days before all the significant patterns emerge. Using this method I came across three things of interest to me today.

The first thing is the basic layout of the letter. I grew up being told that the first half of Paul’s letters are often theology and the second half ethics. At least with this letter, that kind of approach doesn’t do justice to the genius. The first half repeatedly insists that there is a Story afoot, it’s God’s story, and we have found ourselves in it. And it insists that it is being in the Story that totally defines us now. By telling and re-telling that story in the first three chapters Paul tells us what God is up to, how Jesus fits into that, how we fit into that, and who we are as a consequence of that. From there, the second half of the letter is given to teaching us how to walk out what we are – how to live in the Story.

The second thing I saw was the looping Story-arcs. Four times Paul tells basically the same Story, focusing on one thing here, on another there. But, taken together, we get a thorough picture that I’m not sure we could have gotten another way. We are ready, by the time he’s done, to learn how to live in that Story. More on that later, maybe.

The third thing is cool. Twice in the space he uses to tell those four versions of the Story, he pauses to pray, and to tell his audience what he prays. When you examine the prayers, you see that Paul appears to be telling the Story, and then pausing in the realization that unless God helps them see it – deep in their bones see it – they won’t understand or be able to mobilize the Story inside them. So Paul prays specifically for God to do what they cannot do for themselves, but he prays it as a support measure to the telling of the Story. One layer of Story, seal it with prayer. Awesome.

Tomorrow I will sit down into the four arcs. I’ll let you know what I see.

Team Vagabond

I’ve been experiencing a sort of renewal of late with regard to the pragmatics of family life. To be able to make sense of what that renewal is looking like, I’ll need to build some background.

The first piece of background is something you’ve likely heard me harp on before. Individualism is silly. Not evil, not the root of all evil. Just stupid. Incongruous with reality. I’ve been saying that for years, but it’s critical to understand. The Enlightenment, which insisted (rightly) upon the value of the individual has been taken to its extreme in the West, where affluence has put people in a position where we can each take a crack at self-realization without needing the resources of our communities and families. And by affluence I mean the financial situation of the rich, middle, and lower classes in America, with the exception of the extremely poor. Having lots of disposable income has given us opportunity to buy into (literally) the myth of the self-contained human individual. In reality, there is no such thing, and the rapid dissolution of the social fabric of Western societies (far faster than any prior empire in human history) is testament to the fact that humans were never designed to live as individuals. I recall God once saying that – “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

Second – and I’ve always known this – family is important. God works through families. God saves the world through the family of Abraham. Here in Narnya, we seek families coming to trust in and loyalty to Jesus together (for several reasons). God made families. God loves families.

In my heart I’ve really pushed back against this one, though. Not because I disagree with the premise, but because I’ve been pretty appalled by the incarnations I’ve seen of this value. Leading in a church for nine years I heard the word family used in terrible ways.

“I’m looking for a church that can meet my family’s needs.” Ok. Would you like a side of fries with that? Can I supersize it for you?

Or, “We need to get back to the values this country was founded on – God and family.” That would be fine if it were a politician saying that while presenting a compelling platform. The trouble is that when I heard this (and I heard it often) the “we” referred to believers or the church. I don’t even know how to say all that is wrong with this sentence. The Way of Jesus does not exist to sustain America or the nuclear family. Nor is America God’s solution to the problem of global sin and dislocation. I’ll just stop there.

At the core, what bothered me was that when the Western church said “the church needs to help families” it tended to mean that the church’s function – ergo, the gospel’s function and God’s function – was to rescue/improve/build my family. My family didn’t exist for a greater purpose…my family was that greater purpose that God, Jesus, the Bible and the church were supposed to serve. This notion is totally contrary to the clear teachings and example of Jesus.

With each way that I heard “family” used to mean “an extension of myself” or “the consumer unit you should serve” or “the unit that you must protect from the world by cloistering it away safely”, I got less and less interested in thinking about “family”. Again, not because I didn’t love family or care about the notion. But rather because the word “family” had come to mean something different than what God means when he says it, and because it was being offered as a primary competitor or obstacle to us actually healing the world. I didn’t like that, but I didn’t know what to do with it.

So, so far we know that 1) individualism is dumb and we know that family is important to God, both as a unit to save and as a unit through which he wants to save, but 2) I have had trouble with it because no model I had seen or heard of was itself salvific – it always ended in what’s best for my family. Which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus said and what Jesus did.

That brings us to the third piece of background. Living in Narnya as an apostolic worker, the work in this particular cultural milieu can be really disintegrating for a family. Men and women live fairly segregated lives, so there hasn’t been a ton of ways for my wife and I to work together. On top of that, we’re a gajillion miles from our extended, so our kids are prone to feel even more rootless – and identityless – than we do. Our team goes a long way as a surrogate family, but we all know there is a difference. So, in recent months I’ve been praying for ways to integrate the apostolic task and our family thrive. We want our family to work together in the apostolic task in ways that increase our effectiveness, and we want the way we engage the apostolic task to increase our family’s thrive.

So, with those three pieces of background, here’s what God has been doing with us to help us along. Most of this I’m actually learning from a new friend in the Way named Jeremy Pryor. Check out his stuff at pathsofreturn.com if you’re interested. What I was missing was a compelling vision of family and of my role in it, and I was missing some practical tools.

So, what if my family isn’t a group of individuals that I nurture to adulthood, when I’ll set them free to go and make disciples and whatever? And what if, conversely, my family is not the community I’m primarily to protect from the world until they are old enough to go out and create cloisters of their own? Neither of those visions are compelling to me, and they don’t make a bit of sense when lined up with the Bible, the God of the Bible, or the Christ of God. What if my family – my household, which is larger than my nuclear family, but we can start there – is my primary team, and I’m the coach and/or team captain? We don’t exist for ourselves, or for the individual success of one or more of our children. We, as Team Vagabond, work together to bless and to build people and communities until Jesus fills the whole world with himself.

That’s been the primary renewal-engendering shift: identifying my family as my primary missional team. They are not so much my primary ministry as it is that we are the people who take care of each other while we together work to heal the world. And we engage this task in ways that are compelling and that have resonance with each and all of our gifts and wirings. To make a shift like that you need new rhythms. Here are some of ours. The first three have been staples in my household for a while, the fourth is a new addition, and the fifth is a future project that I’m praying toward right now.

> Nightly bible reading/discussion and prayer. We like to use the Jesus Storybook Bible.

> Weekly Sabbath wherein we try hard to do no work and we focus on resting and allowing/encouraging one another to come to an all-stop. In a culture like Narnya, the environment sometimes doesn’t allow an all-stop (the water lines burst, the neighbors pound on the door, the police come, etc.), but we see about a 90% hit rate on this one. Without Sabbath, people de-humanize one another and begin to treat each other as units of labor – valuing one another based on what we did or didn’t get done or do right or do good enough. That can kill a family.

> Weekly huddle time (me and my lovely wife), where we check-in and plan for the coming week’s work and ministry. Usually this is on the first day of the week, but we might move it to a lunch out later in the week to get a jump on planning the kids’ inclusion in our work for the coming week.

> (Almost) daily morning Team Vagabond meeting. Here the kids review the most recent Bible stories in clusters. This helps them keep a sense of the metanarrative. We also talk about that day’s strategic goals (ministry goals or family needs), we assign the kids tasks to contribute to our family achieving those goals, and we talk through the impact that doing those tasks (as well as maintaining generous, kind, patient attitudes) will have on our success with those goals. Then, we pray toward the strategic goals and through each of the tasks. The goals could be as vague as”Today we’re going to give extra time to praying for Mr. Nick,” or as special as “Tonight Miss Junia is coming over, so we need to practice hospitality together so she can feel the welcome of God,” or as mundane as “We’ve had lots of team mates over this week and mommy needs Team Vagabond to really step up and help out today in getting the house back together.” This one addition to our rhythm has done a TON for our family and for me as I seek to lead well and to connect deeply with our kids.

> Using travel. A super cool apostolic ninja has been coaching me. He has made clear that a dad’s travel is morally neutral – it’s not bad or good for a family. It’s how it’s done that matters. As I am called upon more and more to travel to coach, teach, train and help other workers in other places, I want to take one kid with me on each trip, and occasionally the whole family. This will allow us a neat way to take advantage of our apostolic assignment to build our family, and to do our apostolic work together as a family. I’m praying for a few donors who feel with me the value of something like that and want to help us pay for our kids’ travel when I bring them with me. We’ll see how the Lord works that one out. Feel free to drop a line if helping this way rings your bell 😉

These five practices, along with engaging the task as a family team and engaging the family as a team-on-task, is what we’re doing these days. And I’m loving the effects.

I’d love questions on this one, and especially any practices or paradigms that you parents out there have found helpful as you seek to incorporate your family in the healing of the nations!

Emotionally Compromised

One of the most exciting things I know of is the experience of being Spoken to. Hearing the Voice. And in the middle of a melee, sword arm tired and shield cracked, it almost doesn’t matter what he says. What matters most is that he’s Talking. The fact that the Voice is coming right now confirms that he’s still in this with us. We are not alone. The King – the Captain – is still mounted, and he will help us hold the line.

My recent encounter with the Voice in Philly (see previous posts) was part of a longer conversation. Without that wordless dialogue, I would never have been able to receive and metabolize what he said next. I wouldn’t have been able to “eat this scroll”.

He is most recently talking to me through Joshua and Nehemiah. And my wife. First, my wife. When I shared with my team the sense of despair and helplessness that Jesus had given me, we talked about forward movement off it. One of the things my wife mentioned was needing to be inspired.

I didn’t like hearing that. I’m the team leader. I know it’s my job to inspire. To keep the team inspired. But I canâ’t make stuff up. I can’t feel my neighbor’s despair, I can’t join them in the black hole, and then make up some rousing crap to inspire my team. And anyway, that is not at all what Jesus wanted me to do. Jesus wanted me to help some of my team mates give voice to what was happening inside them as they identified with their neighbors and friends – as they became flesh and dwelt among Narnyans, with all that has to mean.

But I also know my team needs to be inspired. Honestly inspired. And I need to do it in a way that’s authentic – that is, I have to be able to really go there and be there emotionally myself. We have a No-BS policy. That begins with me. Still, without inspiration – without literally breathing into their sails, we can’t thrive or reach or preach or disciple.

So, of course, I told Jesus that. And I let it be.

His response started with my reading from that day. It was Nehemiah 4:14, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember Adonai, who is great and terrible, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” I liked that. I wrote in in my journal. And then I forgot about it.

The Conversation continued at home group this last week. A friend led us through Joshua 5:10-15. There was lots of good stuff. The primary impression I took from it was that Jesus would like me to study Joshua for a while. Noted, my King. I’ll start tomorrow.

So, Monday the Dialogue unfolded further as I unpacked Joshua 1. This is familiar territory. Three times God tells Joshua – who has seen plenty of blood and carnage as Israel’s military commander for the last 40 years – to just not be afraid or discouraged. To be strong and very courageous, because the LORD is with him. And the people tell him that they’ll follow him utterly, if he’ll just be strong and courageous, and if the LORD remains with him.

How do I drum up strength and courage when You tore my heart out three weeks ago? I’m comfortable with You only meeting me in pain for periods here and there, but when at the same time You call on me to be bold and courageous, how do I do that?

Back to Nehemiah. So, Nehemiah is a brilliant leader, and he has excellent intuition, strategic ability and emotional intelligence. The Cause is the rebuilding of the wall, and the salvation of Jerusalem, and the glory of God. But the people’s enthusiasm for “The Cause” waxes and wanes over the course of the book. Especially when the enemy seems hell-bent on killing them all – or at least on stopping the work and frustrating The Cause. Nehemiah 4 is one of those moments when the people are wanting to drop the cause and see to their own survival. Put another way, they’re having trouble connecting emotionally with The Cause.

So, Nehemiah takes the men from extended family groups, arms them, and stations them behind the gaps in the wall. Now, they’re not fighting for the project. They’re not fighting for The Cause. They’re fighting for their brother, who is standing next to them. And they are fighting for their children who are 100 meters behind them, hiding in their houses.

Nehemiah put them in a position where they could emotionally identify with the task, and where the risk was personal. He didn’t station them on the wall, where they could pray, “Lord, save my friends down there in the gap.” He put them in the breach, where they would have to pray, “God saveussaveusSaveUsSAVEUS!!!!!”

It hit me like warm sunshine on my face that Jesus had been doing the same thing with us. Since Philly, I find myself totally confident that Jesus will rescue Narnya. And when I pray I tell him as much. But I also have lost a friend – he died and tumbled into the Dark last year. I know that the salvation of individuals is not guaranteed. So, as I pray, weeping, I pray that while he’s saving Narnya, could he please not leave my friends behind. He’s been putting us in a place where we feel our friends’ situation with them.

We are emotionally compromised. And that’s exactly where he wanted us all along.

Now, still honest about the LeadSkyCloud of despair that we sense all around us, and still allowing to seep into us so the gospel can defeat it within us, there is something to inspire us. Now, when we’re too culture-stress angry to care about “Narnya”, or when we’re too smashed under our friends’ despair and our lack of satisfactory answers to fight for The Cause, we can fight for our friends.

When I came here as a strategist, I came for the whole country. The Muslim world. And I’m still in that fight, and the larger game still guides my strategic decisions and my planning. But I fight for Nick. I fight for AC. I fight for Abe. I fight for Jenny. I fight for Victor, for Tom. I fight for my Narnyan friends.

We can see where the despair comes from. We know the lie, and we know the Liar. And I’ll tell you this right now. We’re tired. We’re sad often. We’re broken under the weight of the injustice and hopelessness that every one of our neighbors lives in every single day. And most days we don’t know what the heck we’re doing.

But we will not be cowed by any of that. We will remember Adonai, who is himself great and terrifying, and who is himself Speaking to us, demonstrating his presence with us. And we will fight for our friends. We will stand in the breach next to them, and we will win this City by fighting for our friends. We don’t know exactly what Jesus is up to here. But, by God, we will stand in this hole and we will fight for our friends.

There is a gameness that is naive – American hearts seeking to win a people for Jesus. And there is a gameness that comes once you’ve tasted the air your friends always have to breathe. It’s not an energetic gameness, and it’s not the afraid-of-the-dark triumphalism that makes us quote verses at the night. It’s the gameness of people who died on a cross when Jesus did, and who don’t know how this is all going to turn out, but come hell or high water, you’re going to find them fighting for the blind and the dying.

Adonai is great and terrible. Let the enemy consider himself on notice. We will not be moved. We love our friends. We have been emotionally compromised. It’s on.

The Hard Kernel of Hope in the Sweet Despair

I’m processing out loud here.

So, I shared with my team yesterday in our team meeting what Jesus had done with me in Philly (see the last post). I didn’t have a goal with it, I just sensed that the Lord wanted me to share it with them, to maybe clarify their own emotional situations or to give some flesh to their observations of their friends and neighbors. But, as always, we had an open floor for conversation and a few really good things ensued.

One of the guys reflected on his own observations of his friends, and how all of them seem to reflect that hopelessness in the way they describe their situations. Some even going so far as to ask, “Why did God fate me to have such a terrible life?”

One of the ladies gave voice to her frustration and anger at how women are treated here. Not so much how she’s treated, but rather how women in this culture are property. We had seen a man a few days before beat his wife up on the beach. A couple of us had approached to intervene, and the wife shouted us off. “Who are you?!? This is my husband! Who are you?!?!?!” That had rocked my friend, and she had since been struggling to manage her own anger over that, and the sickness in her gut over the situation here for women.

She actually asked what we should do about the sickness, the despair. She said something like, “I don’t have any answers. I don’t know what I’d tell a woman if she asked me what to do. Even the believers have this fatalism, and think this is the way it must always be. What do we do? Do we just sit in it?”

And in that question, something came clear for me. I sat with the question for a moment, trying to say “no”. But I couldn’t. What I said amounted to this: We sit in it, but not passively. We don’t hang our arms over the precipice and shout down to our friends that we have the answer. We don’t shout down. We jump down into the dark with them. We willingly fall into the hole. And when we strike bottom, we hold our friends’ hands and we, together, cry out to God to save us. Not, “God, go help them.” Rather, “God, come save us. Us. The people down in this hole. We. We need a Savior.”

That might make you uncomfortable. That isn’t my goal. But, well…yeah.

Our 4 2-month interns were apparently much helped by the meeting. Seeing a team wrestle with honesty, anger, and compassion over the people it serves was a good experience for them. One of them asked this question: “How do you not get lost in the despair? If you’re going to embrace your neighbor’s hopelessness and pain, and own it as your own, how do you from there go about being light in the darkness? What about our hope?”

And in that question, something else became clear for me, as well. Down underneath the miasma of my friends’ despair (which is not often acute, but always there), I am not without hope. Down below it all, there is the hard kernel of indestructible hope. I can’t quite articulate how it’s connected to the resurrection of Jesus, but I can feel that it is. It can’t be drown, and it can’t be obliterated, and it can’t be washed away. It’s not some shining beacon, and it doesn’t really warm my belly, but I have hope. I am, after all, His. But that hope doesn’t make the despair any less real. For example, my friend died without Christ last year. I’ll go to his one-year funeral next month. I have no hope for him. And nothing assuages that. I despair – for him. My own hope does nothing for that. And that’s how it should be, I think. But even that despair does not push out or push away the acorn of stubborn hope.

But it’s important to note that Jesus never said to us, “Be the light of the world.” He said, “You are the light of the world. I am the light. I don’t need to worry myself over “if I embrace the darkness around me, how can I be the light?”. I am the light, and I will embrace the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Light wins by contact with darkness, not by pushing it away.

I explained it to my interns this way. Culture stress, situational stressors, family conflicts, the emotional violence of being displaced, homelessness, sickness, fatigue – these all have been chipping away at our emotional body armor, and for some of us it’s beginning to crack. What has happened as a result is that the emotional atmosphere here has gained admittance into our hearts. And that was always the Plan. Now, inside us, the risen Lord will meet the despair of Narnya, the gospel will encounter the pain of this place. Not on some white board or on some theologian’s legal pad. Inside our guts, in our hearts, in our raw and raggedy souls. And in the mix, the Invitation might emerge. We might come to know in our bones something of how the gospel speaks to the Narnyan heart. A gift we might not have likely received nor been able to give another way.

The way this plays out might look like this. If 3 weeks ago, my Narnyan friend Abe would have expressed frustration at his own despair, or that nothing here would ever change, I would have opened my Bible and unpacked how the gospel can speak to all that and how Jesus is coming to make all things new. And he would have looked at me and he would have known that, fundamentally, I did not understand.

If the same interaction were to happen today, I’m pretty sure it would look different. I expect I’d tear up. I might even cry. We’d talk about what he’s feeling and we’d known that we understand each other. And then I might open my Bible and we’d look together at how Jesus says he’s making all things new. And, again weeping, I imagine I’d hold my friend’s hand and I’d ask with him for Jesus to make all things new. To make this place new. And I’d ask him to save us, and to show us how to help.

And then, if Abe was game, I’d offer to explore the Bible with him so we could find out together how to help Jesus make this place new. Because, honestly, I don’t have a flipping clue. I truly don’t know. But, I have this hard kernel of hope inside me that insists that Jesus does, so we’d be disciples together. And when Abe wanted to be Jesus’s assistant more than he wanted to be accepted by his people, he might even ask for baptism.

Maybe it wouldnâ’t look like that at all. But maybe you can see the difference. In the first instance I’d try to cure the problem. That dehumanizes people. I am strong and you are weak. You have problems, and I have answers. You are sick and I have medicine. The opposite of cure is care. In the second instance I’d be caring. I’d be caring because I feel it, too.

The thing is, we never lead someone out of the valley of the shadow of death. That’s never been in our power, and it’s never been our job. Our job is to lose our step and fall into the valley with them, and when we get there (as the people who know God), we start crying out for God to come find us, and to lead us home. And maybe that’s how they learn to do it, too. Maybe that’s how they learn Christ.

At least, at this point, that’s what I’m thinking. I’m not sure it’s right. I just know this is where I’m going because I don’t see a better way that is honest with both the Lord and my friends at the same time. Answers are easier. But easy never saved anyone.

Sweet Despair

Jesus gave me a very powerful, negative, painful, freeing emotional experience recently, and it is changing my life.

I was at a conference in Philly, and my friend Josue was leading worship. We were singing ‘Savior, you can move the mountains’ or some such and he paused and asked us to articulate out loud the mountains faced by the people we serve. Before I could think of it, I found in my chest a total hopelessness that nothing was ever going to change, and a paralyzing despair that nothing we do will ultimately matter. And I knew that was it. That was what I had seen written on the faces of every one of my Narnyan friends. That was what conditioned the work ethic of men that stood in metro stations offering to weigh you for 20 cents, thinking that that was their meaningful work. There is no meaningful work when nothing you do matters. That was what was behind the answers to my questions when my friends would stop half way through explanations of why things are the way they are. “It’s Narnya,” they would say.

But I didn’t think all of that. I felt it. I knew it the way I sometimes know the will of the Lord or the next strategy step. Gnosis. And it started to smash me. I put my hands on the table in front of me in an effort to hold up under the weight of it. But it was still too much, so I fled the room and went outside into the sun. I sat on a curb because standing was too tiring, and weeping I prayed. I prayed the feeling back at Jesus, because my words wouldn’t come. I wanted to lie on the ground, not in worship, but because the weight was so much.

I don’t have experiences like this often. I read the mystics. I’m not one. But Jesus has been getting me beyond words, or maybe beneath them. Praying images instead of phrases, sensing instead of always articulating. Sometimes, here, we’re just too tired to do the work of making sentences, and we find ourselves praying a little deeper than vocabulary and syntax will go.

While I was praying, Jesus made it clear again that I, if I’m honest, had been feeling the same thing about my work that my Narnyan friends feel about their lives. I had been fighting off the creeping worry that nothing here is really going to change, and that we’ll spend 20yrs here and nothing we do is really going to matter. For me it was a fear – for them it is the warp and woof of their lives. Jesus helped me see that part of what I had been feeling was mine, but part of it was what I had been intuitively absorbing from my ambient environment. I am a poor feeler. I’m a strategist. But, finally, I was feeling with my neighbors what my neighbors feel. I wasn’t putting on flesh like clothes. I was becoming flesh and dwelling with them, in the experience they dwell in. Jesus was in all points tempted like we are, and now I was finally able to know what it is like to be them, because through my own feelings, Jesus was able to download their feelings into me.

Something like this has happened to me before. But in that case, Jesus used my pain over the sexual abuse victims I had counseled to give me some of his pain over the world, and at that time specifically Africa. It had really messed me up.

This time it’s not his feelings coming through the door my own emotions created. Now, its their feelings coming through that door. And it hurts. And it’s welcome. And it’s setting me free.

Without the Holy Spirit, I don’t know how they get out of bed in the morning. Their theology is fatalistic. “If God wills it” it happens, and everything is qismet – fated. The powerful are really, really powerful (the President’s 11yr old son just bought a multi-million dollar summer home in Dubai), and 90% of the population will never hold any real control over their lives at all. You buy your job here. Or your relative does. Humanitarian workers buy tools for orphanage workers, and the workers just sell them. Why not? If nothing you do is really going to help the kids, if nothing is ever really going to change, the very best – perhaps the moral – thing you can do is sell the stuff so your own family can have better food. If you can’t change things – if you can’t help the kids – at least you can help your family.

It is crippling. It makes my stomach hurt. And I’m okay with that, because it has defeated the anger that had been growing inside me, and it’s making me capable of compassion. We’ve turned a corner. I’m not angry at them anymore. I can’t be. How could I be? I’ve felt what they feel – a more concentrated and sudden dose, maybe, but still the flavor that’s always in their mouth, coloring how they taste everything else. I understand at a much more visceral level now some of why they do much of what they do. And it’s hard to fault them. That’s one immediate result of this. Anger falls. Compassion rises. This darkness is precious to me.

Another immediate result is that I don’t have to fight back the despair anymore. That’s exhausting. I don’t have to fight at all. I can just receive it, let it wash through me like a wave, well up in me like a grief, and turn it into prayer. I can learn here, over again, within me, what it means to receive now the Kingdom, and to see with new eyes. And I can let the light shine in my heart anew, without trying to combat the hopelessness or manufacture the joy. I can own their despair and pray with them for the light to shine on us who live in darkness and in the shadow of death. And that is good.

While I’m not ready to say that I’ve got the good news for Narnyan hearts, I do suspect that this will inform across the long-term how I come to articulate the gospel here. The gospel must address this despair – it must include Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom has come, and that change is in the air. He is making all things new, and they can join him in that.

And I’m finally ready to call them my people. I had been resisting that. But I’m not anymore. In the parking lot in Philly that’s where I arrived. I agreed with Jesus, and I prayed for my Narnyan friends, and I asked him to set my people free. Then I realized that I had called them my people. And it was enough.

I’ve tried to articulate some of this to a few people at different times. A few understood in theory, a few understood from experience. Some didn’t understand at all, but they tried. But that’s ok. My sense is that this is for me to understand my neighbor, and to help my team understand some of what they have been feeling – to give context and shape meaning for their own struggles. And that, too, is enough.

 

The Homeless Necessity

I beg your indulgence. This post is designed to encourage and give clarity to people in my line of work. It’s not meant to exclude anyone else. To some of you, it might sound a little us-focused, but this one is for them. They could use the encouragement, so I hope you understand.

This is for all you apostolic workers out there, and for those of you struggling to understand us.

Blood is considered a connective tissue. It’s not muscle, not bone, not an organ. People like me, like my team mates, are blood. The apostolic worker is connective tissue, and more specifically, blood. In the global body of Christ, we’re the blood.

In your body, where is your blood? It’s not here, it’s not there, yet it’s everywhere. It has no home, except everywhere, and when it does stay in one place, it stops being what it is. It carries bits from one part to another, and carries fresh oxygen to the whole. It is homeless, yet is somewhat at home in the whole Body.

We’re the blood. It’s important for us to remember that. We won’t feel at home anymore anywhere. Wherever we go, we’ll be a little different, and our job will be to be a little different, because we’re carrying within us some of what it means to be the last place we were. When I go to the States, I’m a little Narnyan, and that’s what I’m supposed to be. It makes me lonely, and that’s alright, because what I am able to bring to those I love in the States because of my experience being somewhere else is worth it to me. And when I return here, some of the grace and light I experience with my believing friends in the States comes with me, spreading strength and perspective to my team mates and helping me encourage believers here.

My friend Phil lives in Antioch. He IS Antioch. He’s made of Antioch. He incarnates Jesus as an Antiochan. That is what he is for. He is bone and stability and place. The located necessity.

My friend John is a networker. He pulls people together and helps them give their strength to each other. John is a ligament. Without him, two strong muscles would never be able to connect to truly move the body. They couldn’t produce coordinated action. John makes that possible. The binding necessity.

There are other organs, other parts, other muscles. And each is necessary.

But we, friends, we’re the blood. A little lonely everywhere, yet able to live anywhere. And that’s what we’re for. We’re weird, not because our clothes fall out of style, but because we have been broken and remade on a different potter’s wheel. No one will likely ever really understand us, except another one of us. We will only be at home in the whole world. And that’s ok. We’re the blood. The homeless necessity.

Since we last spoke…

It’s been a while since my last post. I’m stopping myself from apologizing for that, so that I don’t teach myself that I owe the blog. I’m a little screwed up that way. Anyway, a handful of things have happened.

I’ve had a handful of really good opportunities to share my testimony with local friends.

I got to do something called The Straight Path with my unbelieving language tutor. It goes through several of the commonly accepted prophets from Adam to Mohammed and shows how the NT and the Qur’an insist that each and every prophet points to Jesus Messiah as the way to Allah. Went over medium well. We’ll see.

Our car’s engine exploded on the way back from a town about 4hrs away. Awesome. Been trying to get it fixed for over a month now. Beautiful. But one of my Aikido friends – a 40yr old guy named Tom (not really) – has been helping me navigate the ridiculous minefield of getting major repairs done here. Like I’m his kid brother. I’m super-grateful about that. It runs contrary to my personality to accept being the weaker, needy one in a relationship, but I think it will turn out very woman-at-the-well when it’s all said and done. It looks like we’ll have to sell the car without an engine at a considerable loss and try to find another car. Having a vehicle that’s big enough for our family and maybe a few other team mates is a security priority here. We’ll see what God does with that.

On Joy’s initiative we’ve started having one of my old students, Junie, over weekly for family dinner. This is the girl that invited us out to her home on the trip that killed our engine. We got to know some of her family on that trip, particularly her uncle who lives in our city. He has started coming with her, too, and we’re excited about the prospect of integration into this extended family network. Pray that the word of the Lord would run fast and be well-received.

I also got a very part-time job at a university in the city. I’m really excited about this. It’s the premier university in this part of the world, and they teach all their subjects in English. My job will be to teach their English teachers best practices, and to train their academic content teachers how to teach content using English as a medium to students who aren’t first-language English speakers. I’m excited because a) this is my vocational speciality, b) I have wanted a way to do goodness and to provide something meaningful to the local culture in the name of Jesus, and c) it provides a more readily-understandable integrated identity for me – that is, when I say I am a professor at X University, people can easily understand that and can put me in a socio-economic and vocational slot that makes sense to them. I am less foreign for it, and that is oh-so-good. And I feel more honest about the work.

Other stuff has happened, too. We’re pregnant again – well, mostly my wife. We’re hoping it’s a girl, but any brand of human will be fine. Boys are….energetic, and we have a cool girl name picked out.

Our team is changing. The family that got here first is moving to another field. Nothing bad, just moving. Another family is moving as well. Spiritually, this all feels right. Emotionally, not fun. I don’t make friends easily, and once I do, it’s not fun having them leave. And periods of change, while exciting, are exhausting for us. But, here we go again, right? I mean, what in the last 7 years has been stable for very long, anyway?

I just took a trip to the States for a conference or two. I really enjoyed that. I saw old friends, saw new friends, was touched deeply by Jesus (more on that in another post), and think I might have caught a glimpse of what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life, starting a few years from now.

Also, I saw The Avengers. Good stuff.

PLEASE BE CAREFUL

I am very glad that some of the things written here have been helpful to some of you. A few of you, hoping to be a help to others, have reposted some of what I’ve written on social networking sites and the like. This puts us at risk.

So, here’s the deal. If you want to copy/paste something and re-post it, that’s ok. Please DO NOT associate my real name with it. I’d rather someone take something I’ve written and make millions of dollars, claiming it’s his own (like that will ever happen) than to have what I’m writing lately associated with my real name. I’m using a pseudonym for a reason. I am connected to others here and elsewhere, and if certain people draw certain conclusions about my activity, those conclusions and their consequences will harm those others as well. I am very upfront about who I am and Whom I worship, but there is a certain degree of paranoia within the government here, and they only have a few categories in which to place people they don’t understand. For that reason it is imperative that I remain invisible.

Thanks for your help with this! I’ve enjoyed your comments, and hope to be posting again shortly.

Men should not cry

Today I had a gospel interaction that I was not expecting.

I’ve hired one of my Aikido friends to be my language tutor. He needed work, and I need a tutor – preferably a non-believer. Let’s call him AC. So, today we were having our usual language lesson, and this conversation fell out. My words are in boldface.

I have a question.

Go ahead.

America has everything you need. Why did you come here? What is here that would draw you from America. Everyday something goes wrong here. Everyday you work hard for a standard of living far below what you’d have in America. Why, really, did you come?

Ok. I’ll tell you. There are a few reasons. One is bigger than the others, but really, there are three. The first isn’t the most important, but it’s real. We didn’t want our kids to grow up knowing only one language, only one culture. People in America tend to feel that the US is the center of the universe. We wanted our kids to know the world they live in. That’s hard to do from the US.

That’s it?

Well, that’s just part. Secondly, we wanted adventure. We’re not sit-in-a-chair people. We want to live. You go to France for a month or two – that’s not adventure, that’s vacation. We want to go deep and experience another part of the world.

And third?

Third is this. So, you know that I’m not religious.

You’re not religious. You’re religionless (atheist)?

No, I’m not religious, and I’m not religionless.

There’s a third way?

Yep. I follow Jesus. Religions are attempts to make stairs to heaven. Attempts to control God. If I do this, God will do that. If I don’t do this, God won’t do that. Or even sillier, hoping that my good deeds will outweigh my bad ones. My sins are many and my goodness is small. There’s no hope in that.

Then where is there hope?

Grace. There are no stairways to heaven, but God reaches to us.

Tha’s written?

Yep. In the New Testament.

You read that? Have you read it a lot?

Honestly? Probably 500 times.

But, I’ve heard that they changed the New Testament.

That’s just crazy. I know why they say that. Here, let me show you. I’ve read all the “holy” books and I wouldn’t read one that had been changed. I don’t have time to follow a lie. [Here I showed him how we have copies of the New Testament that pre-date Mohammed, and how our translations come from these. After Mohammed certain heretical books emerged that “changed” the message of the New Testament…maybe these books are what the imams are talking about when they say the New Testament has been changed.]

In the New Testament does it say that another prophet will come after Isa?

It says many will come.

Many? No. There are prophets that don’t bring books, and prophets that bring books. Does it mention another book-brining prophet?

I know what you’re talking about. Isa said that the Spirit of God, who had been with him and with his students, was going to come to live INSIDE his students. This was the one to come after him. Not a human prophet. Now, I’m not saying that Mohammed is a prophet, or that he is not. I’m just saying that the New Testament doesn’t mention him.

But you don’t accept him. Do you accept him as a prophet? If you did, you’d become Muslim. Explain that.

Here, I paused and I looked hard at him.

If I speak openly, are you going to get angry?

No, I won’t get angry.

Your eyes say something else. I see something in your eyes.

What do you see?

Something.

Do I have radical muslim eyes?

No. It’s just…

Here, something happened to me. I was under-rested and over caffeinated. And God, I think used that. Actually, I think God set that up. I was emotionally tenuous to start with. I teared up and shed one or two.

I’m pretty lonely, AC.

Don’t cry. I’m gonna cry. Why are you tearing up?

I’m pretty lonely.

Why?

I love Isa. I mean I LOVE Isa. I spend hours a day in the New Testament. Hours. Not due to some debt, but just because it’s food to my spirit. I love his words. But doing that – reading and thinking about it that much – leads me to talk about him and what he said all the time.

That can’t make you lonely.

No, but this can. I make friends, and I talk about Isa. And this conversation invariably happens. They say, “I’m a Muslim and you’re something else,” and with their faces they say we are friends, but their hearts move away from me. And I am alone again. In your eyes, I see the danger of that now. Again.

You think my heart has moved away from you?

No, but I see the danger. I can see your mind hearing me say, “I think X,” and jumping to conclusions, saying, “He also thinks Y and Z.”

You only know me a little. You say you’re not a Christian like I think about Christians. You’re not them, you’re you. Fine. I’m not them. I’m me. And I’m not going anywhere.

[Here, that thing in his eyes left.]

Ok. Fair enough. One day, when we have an hour or so, I’ll open my heart and my mind and let you know my mind, like friends.

That’s sounds good.

Then we finished class. After class the conversation continued a bit like this:

Thanks for tolerating my outburst of emotion.

No problem. But don’t do it again.

I shouldn’t do it again?

No. We have a saying that men shouldn’t cry.

Oh. We cry. Well, sometimes. If you cut me with a knife, I won’t cry. If you call me names, I won’t cry. But children starving in Africa make me cry. And if my friend’s mom dies, his heart breaks and mine breaks with it and I cry.

Well, of course. We all cry about that stuff. But not from loneliness.

Ah, AC, I wasn’t crying over loneliness. Well, not just that. It was a small part.

Then why were you crying?

Well, in small part because I am lonely. The second reason was this: I see you and I are on a road, and the road forked today. One way had us getting closer as friends; the other had us separating. I saw the potential of separation, and it made me sad. But the big reason was this…I love Isa. I mean I really LOVE Isa…

Ah! The feelings gave a door to your feelings!

What?

The other feelings opened the door for your feelings about Isa, and they came in force like a volcano.

Exactly! That’s it.

I see.

But I’ve learned, men don’t cry.

Right. [He smiled]

I am emotionally exhausted by this conversation and very happy it happened for several reasons.

  • God orchestrates crappy things like not getting any sleep and being force-fed tea at a job so that my insides can be so unstable that I cry.
  • Most of my life I’ve been lonely. That very human feeling provided the door to my friend’s heart, and disarmed the mechanism inside him that would otherwise have put me on the wrong side of the us/them line.
  • When I share with him again, it will be the act of friend opening his mind to a friend. That can only be received well.
  • He discovered for himself how strongly I feel about Jesus.

And best of all, I manufactured none of it. Shukur Allaha.

Your coat and your shirt

So my senpei needed a ride home the other day from Aikido. On the way home it came up that I usually take another student home from Aikido – both he and the senpei live near me. Senpei asked me if I take him to the metro station or to the stop light. I told him that, no, I take him all the way to his house.

“All the way to his house” he asked. “Why do you do that? That’s a little out of your way, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah, but you know how I’m always thinking about Jesus and talking about Jesus?”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” he grinned.

Grinning right back, I said, “Well Jesus said that if someone asks for my coat, I should give him my shirt, too. So when Naz asks me to take him to the metro, I take him all the way home. My shirt and my coat.”

“Your shirt and your coat. OOOHH! Your shirt AND your coat! How beautiful is that! It’s so good when someone actually does what they say they believe. That’s what real faith is, you know, action. Believing is doing.”

“Yep.”

Ingest Jesus and his Way. Make his words your manifesto. Do what he says. Explain your course of action by referencing the things he said. In this way, make disciples of all peoples.

The Word became flesh and lived with them

Last week I went to my senpei’s new dojo. The central dojo is opening a branch closer to my home, but I’ll still have to go to the old dojo for a while because of my work schedule.

There were just a few of us – the teacher and 3 students – and after class we hung out in the tea house attached to the gym where we’re renting space. It was good. This time I said nothing about Jesus. I just was with them, doing what they did the way they did it in the spaces they do it in. We were us – not me and them. Four Aikidoka at a table laughing at each other and talking about fighting. It was good. And I didn’t feel lonely, which is a rare bonus.

I have little patience for relationship-evangelism, where you hang out with people for a year and a half and never get around to actually talking about Jesus. There is a word for that kind of witness – cowardice. If Jesus is your whole life, then open your mouth. You can see how strongly I feel about that.

I also don’t hold a really high appreciation for cramming the message into every margin and making awkward connections that make the message unwelcome and the messenger into a gospel-salesman.”Is this seat taken? Thanks. Yeah, I saw on the news that several people died in that tornado last week. Tell me, if you were to die today, do you know where you’d go?” I don’t like that. I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m just saying I don’t like it. But I think I respect it more than the let-them-see-my-life-and-never-say-a-word approach.

But still, not saying anything last week was just right. It was just right because they get plenty of word from me, as well. The Word (not the vague idea or the suspicion that something good is going on, but the Word) was becoming flesh and really dwelling with them. And I’m down with that.

Some twisty questions

The other day a friend wrote me with a potent and difficult question. Actually, it was a lot of questions, glued together with a little bit of honest doubt. Honest doubt I can respect, and honest doubt I can work with.

The questions essentially took these shapes:

It seems like in the Old Testament, often, God just kills people, or groups of people, including kids. And it seems almost arbitrary. Is God like that?

Is God primarily a God of love and grace, or justice? It seems like you have to lean one way or the other. And even then, killing all those kids…was that justice, or something less noble?

What do we do with people who do good things, groups who gather to do justice and to promote peace and connectedness – but who do so with no referent to God whatsoever? And what does God do with them?

I have been in the Jesus Way for a while now – long enough to have grown dissatisfied with pat answers to questions like these. I have found that what I need is a focal point – a single thing that can provide the interpretive lens for everything else – and the good news is that we have one.

I had an apologetics professor who was able to demonstrate the relative historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. This is significant and deserves some explanation. His name was Gary Habermas, and if you were willing to admit that the New Testament was ancient literature (and really, who can contest that a very old book is ancient literature) he could show you that it is totally reasonable to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead. I won’t take the time here to do it, but google him sometime and I’m sure you’ll find something like the demonstration I’m referring to.

But for us and for now, I’m comfortable starting with this claim: it is reasonable to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, and it is unreasonable (in light of best historical praxis) to believe he did not. This is really good news for us, because this gives us our focal point.

Well, really, Jesus himself gives us his resurrection as our focal point. One day, religious leaders asked him about his authorization. Where did he get the authority to say what he said, to do what he did, and to claim what he claimed? And his answer was to reference Jonah – he said that just like Jonah was in the fish 3 days, he would be killed and placed in the belly of the earth for three days, and then he would get up again. Essentially, he said, “Kill me, and in 3 days God will raise me up as evidence that he is with me and I am with him.”

If he hadn’t said that, and had risen, that would have been supernatural and weird. But not evidence that he’s right. If he had said that, but had not risen, then he’d just be another starry-eyed kook. But he said it AND he did it, or rather, God did it. And that says it all.

In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is God proving that God thinks Jesus is uniquely right about God.

This means everything. This fact allows us, with all the intellectual honesty in the world, to believe Jesus is right about God. Practically, we can permit ourselves to believe what he says, even when that contradicts what we think about God. We can trust him as our teacher in all-things-God.

So, for my friend’s questions – we have an excellent starting place.

What is God really like? Well, Jesus said that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen God; and God thinks Jesus is right. So, we can look at Jesus and see everything we need to know about God. And then, with that image fully entrenched in our imaginations (and divested of much of the emotional confusion we had before we latched on to Jesus-as-divine-image) we can look back into the Old Testament and try to make sense of things.

What of people who do good things, make peace, build community – all without God? And what does God think of that? Well, whatever Jesus says is what God thinks. And Jesus says, “If they’re not against us, they’re for us.” And he also says, “Without me you can do nothing.” So, it sort of seems like he appreciates their effort, but without the Source it will amount to nothing. And they shouldn’t be surprised by that, because a) he said it, and b) he sent His Spirit to fill the witnessing church and to inspire the Scriptures.

Both questions are a little twistier than that (though not much), and all good questions usually are. My goal in this post is not to answer the questions. I don’t do that often. My goal is to give us some good news – we have a Jesus-Way of asking these kinds of questions, and we have a Way to get at the answers, if there are answers to be had. The life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide the focal point through which the whole of the Scriptures and the whole of human experience should be interpreted. And we know that’s the case because when Jesus dared God to prove him right by raising him from the dead, God took him up on it.

God thinks Jesus is – among other things – right.

Follow me – discipling friends into the kingdom

So, my sempei invited me to Sensei’s table again on Friday. He was without his car and wanted a ride and an excuse to leave early. I think he also is starting to like me. Or, at least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

When we got in there, my sempei and the Sensei immediately got into a discussion about some guy who used to train with them, but who had become one of those dojo-hopping punks that keeps saying, “I’ve studied this art, and this art, and this art with this teacher, and that teacher and this other teacher over here.” Then Sensei says to us, looking at me, “You know, there’s a difference between drawing close to a teacher and just joining a dojo – or even between drawing close to a teacher and adhering to a religion.”

Without thinking at all, I replied, “Yeah. You know, Jesus didn’t say ‘Do this religious act and say these religious words.’ He said, ‘Follow me. Come live life with me and learn to live your life like I live mine.'”

“Look! There it is,” Sensei said. “All of you, be quiet a minute and pay attention to this. Think about this. He said that Jesus didn’t say to do religious things, but to follow him and to learn how to live your life.” Then, to be sure he had the whole room in on it, he translated his statement into Russian for the Russian-only speakers in the room.

Now, this really couldn’t have gone down any better. Let me tell you why. Ten minutes before that encounter I was talking with a fellow Aikidoka in the locker room. He had asked me if I do namaz (the 5-times-daily ritual prayer), and had said to me the entire morning namaz ritual in Arabic. I had asked him if he understood what he was saying, and he said, “A few words.” I told him how I pray and how I go about it, and I asked him if he did namaz, to which he replied that he wants to, but he can’t because he’s single. I asked after that, a little confused, and he explained how, since he harbors lustful thoughts and feelings as a single guy, he can’t do namaz. You need to be clean before you approach God for grace. Sad times.

Now, in that conversation, he said that what counts is a clean heart, not so much the doing of namaz. At that, my sempei interrupted and told him not to talk about things he has no idea about. If you’re a Muslim, you must do namaz. It’s like an interior dojo where you’re training to become a good person. Even if you don’t understand the words, it works like meditation to quiet your insides. Of course namaz is necessary.

Once we were all dressed and getting our shoes on, my fellow student leaned back into this with me, telling me I shouldn’t do namaz if I’m not a Muslim, and that if I want to do namaz I can always become a muslim. He then started telling me all about Jesus and his life and what he said (none of which was accurate), and I asked him where he heard that, and if he had read it himself, which he firmly deflected. Sempei overheard again and tore into him, asking him why he keeps bringing this up…is he trying to make me a muslim? Sempei continued, explaining how all roads lead up the mountain, where God sits at the top, and that something like that is written in the Quran, and that the New Testament is really interesting. I agreed that it is really interesting, mentioning that I’ve read the Quran a few times and the New Testament hundreds of times, and that I enjoy conversations like these, and added to my fellow student that these conversations are best if the participants actually read the books before they talk, so maybe he could first go a read them, and then talk to me. That would make for a great time.

We walked away from that conversation, heading over to Sensei’s tea room, and I felt like it had gone well, but that I wished I could tell my sempei that religion won’t do it for him in a way that won’t upset the delicate power distance for which his age and rank demand respect. I was wishing that there was a way to tell him that it’s not about religion without having to say it directly to him.

And when we got to Sensei’s table, that’s exactly what happened. How cool is that?

The conversation at Sensei’s table continued around the notion of problems with other dojos or something like that, alternating between Russian and Narnyan at a speed I couldn’t track. At one point Sensei turned to me and said, “Every teacher, every prophet had problems amongst his students. Did Jesus have problems amongst his students? How many did he have?”

“Well, at one point,” I replied, “he had several thousand. They followed him because he healed the sick and raised the dead and did miracles. They thought he was a great prophet. But he would say things like, ‘One day, people will kill you for following me. Are you still ready to be faithful?’ Many left him when he said that. His steady core group was 12 men.”

“Ah, yes, he did many miracles,” my sempei added. “Sensei, have you seen that Mel Gibson movie? It’s beautiful.”

“I have,” Sensei replied. “But the 12 had problems, too?”

“Yeah. Once, they said to him, ‘We know God has chosen you to be the world’s one true king. When you are made High King of the world, can we be kings with you?’ And Jesus responded, ‘If you want to be great, you must be everyone’s slave. Those who are first will be last, and the last will be first.'”

“Aahhh. So wise,” my Sensei smiled.

And from there, everyone in the room set themselves to finding ways to apply Jesus’s teachings in the dojo. Like how someone could choose to line up in ways that honor other students over himself, teachers serving students instead of the other way around, and a few other things that I couldn’t quite understand, and which may have been total misrepresentations of Jesus’ intent. But what’s important is that in this one conversation Jesus’s invitation to follow him had been heard, it had been distinguished from invitations to religion, and my friends had spent their energy seeking to understand and apply the teachings of Jesus to their lives. I was, with little effort, discipling my friends into the kingdom. That’s like crack to me.

Reflecting on the experience, I can see in that encounter the convergence of three non-negotiables – without any one of these, this would not have happened. Years of internalizing the life and teachings of Jesus converged with supernatural help from the Spirit in a situation I was in because I moved toward people when given the opportunity.

If you would, pray for my Aikido friends, and for me, and that the message of King Jesus would run fast and be well received.

‘Connection’ and the good news to the Narnyan heart

Introduction

We were trained in cultural acquisition by Donald Smith – an anthropologist and apostle – in Portland, OR. He has described culture as an onion, with the core giving shape to each layer. By observing the outside and working our way in concentrically, we can amass observations, find connections, and draw conclusions about what makes the heart – the core – tick. And from there, we can learn to describe the gospel in terms that are understood, and in ways that answer the nagging questions resident in the heart of the culture we seek to reach.

An example

One of the core assumptions in the American worldview is that the universe is a machine which can be broken into constituent parts, studied, and eventually mastered. This assumption underlies the way we approach everything we do. Even things that are patently non-mechanical like theology are unconsciously approached this way.

For example, Systematic Theology can take God and pin him down in a pan like a frog on a dissection tray. It often takes a mystery as vast and broad as the cosmos, and reduces it to angelology, bibliology, soteriology, and a bunch of other -ologies, all driven by the assumption that the universe is a machine and should be approached as such. I don’t say this to criticize systematic theology (that’s a different essay), but to show that even when the assumption doesn’t fit, we still operate from it. That’s a sign that it’s down in our core.

Another example is our fascination with “keys”. If the universe is a machine, then life must be about the pursuit of and use of the appropriate keys. How many sermons have you heard that go, “10 keys to ___________”? The fitness industry is consistently going back and forth between which foods are “key”, which exercises are “key” – and stating that they are “key” suggests that by having this one thing, other things become less necessary or unnecessary.

Americans tend to assume that there is one answer, one central cog, one thing – a key – that, if in place, will make the whole thing “work”, and we’re constantly trying to work our way down to that one central thing. This view fits some of the time, but often situations are more complex, tapestries of cause and effect and side-effect woven together in such a way that removing any single thread undoes the whole. In situations like that, there is no key, no central cog – just the thing itself, made up of a million equally essential parts. Still, we will look for a single key, or a few “central” threads, because of this unstated and unconscious assumption on our part that the universe is a machine, and we must find the keys.

Connection

The Narnyan core also hides unconscious assumptions which drive the way they think about everything. One Narnyan core assumption that I am proposing is that the universe is a tapestry of connections, and that life is about finding, understanding, creating, and protecting those connections. I have seen this most clearly in 5 ways.

  1. Language – Each of my language nurturers have corrected grammar errors or explained preferred ways of saying things using the notion of “connection”. When I have failed to use suffixes that match, the correction goes, “No. It doesn’t pull together. It doesn’t make the connection.” It’s not that the subject and verb don’t agree, it’s that I have failed to speak in a way that demonstrates or creates the appropriate connection. Similarly, some things are said certain ways to make clearer or more pronounced the connection between two words in a sentence.
  2. “A connection emerged” – Sometimes you meet someone and you find that you have some things in common…went to the same school, knew the same people, had the same hobby, whatever. To an American, this is of passing interest. With Narnyans this seems to change outcomes (I need to triangulate this one further). One example is when a local friend of mine was pulled over by the police. The initial interaction was harsh, with words exchanged that my contact described as inappropriately rude. From there, however, things changed as they continued to talk and found that they both went to the same high school, but at different times. Further, they both knew the same person – 10 years ago. Discovery of these commonalities changed the outcome completely. When I asked my contact what had happened, he plainly stated as though it was obvious, “A connection emerged.” So, afterwards the policeman said, “If there are ever any problems with other cops, call me.” The situation went from cursing and a likely huge ticket to my friend being let go and the promise of future help because “a connection was spontaneously created and emerged”. When I pressed my friend further about how to create connections like that, he told me you don’t create those – they emerge on their own and their existence changes how things happen. Then, he looked hard at me and said, “Everywhere, at all times, connections are necessary.”
  3. Friendship – When I’ve sought Narnyan coaching about friendship and relationships, without fail my coach has used “connection” and not “relationship” to describe what’s happening. For example, when talking with me about maintaining relationships, my local friends don’t say “maintain relationships”. Rather, they refer to “guarding/keeping connections”. Each one has said that friends should be routinely called for no reason other than to keep the connection. Different individuals have suggested different frequencies of calling/texting (between once monthly and 10 times a day), but always the reason is to “maintain the connection”.
  4. Detective work – In American English, when we describe what Sherlock Holmes does, we say he investigates crimes using the process of deduction. Deduction – subtracting potential causes until there is only one left. It’s very, very interesting to me the contrast between this and the Narnyan notion of how an investigation is carried out. The word for this process is “establishment-of-connection” – the making of connections. When I asked for a description of how this works, my nurturer said the detective attempts to discover or make connections between the victim and potential perps, between perps and motives, between X and Y. It’s not a subtraction of potentials (deduction), it’s starting with the event/victim and seeking to discover the connections that are there. The contrast in thinking approaches suggests that the assumptions that drive both are different, and further suggests that the notion of “connection” goes right down to the Narnyan core.

Implications

Our cultural acquisition training happened in an authentic context: by seeking to understand the Chinese immigrant community in Portland so we could articulate the gospel compellingly to them. In our training we learned that two characteristics of the Chinese cultural core is the quest for harmony and a strong attention to the past and the future that can often push the present to the margins. Or, put another way, the present is interpreted in light of the past and the future, which get the most attention.

This being the case, we saw that presentations of the gospel that centered on the individual’s experience or their present need weren’t likely to be particularly helpful. Rather, we learned to present a Story to the Chinese that graphically demonstrated that God made the cosmos harmonious, and that harmony had been broken in the deep past. But God had acted to restore harmony through the cross and resurrection, and that in the deep future, the world would be characterized by a degree and quality of harmony which it had never known, because of the cross and resurrection, and through the People of Harmony. Now, you can become part of the People of Harmony. In other words, we learned to articulate the News such that it was obviously good news to our audience. It answered their questions in terms that fit their view of the world.

Likewise, if it is the case that “connection” is a central core idea in the Narnyan worldview, then there are some practical implications to consider. First, the incarnated gospel. We may need to consider how we use our resources (time, money, phone cards, emotional energy) for the purposes of creating and maintaining connections. This resonates with our commitment to reach, and our guiding principle of learning suggests that we focus some energy on learning how people maintain connections, and what it says when we do and when we don’t. We need to think about our weekly planners in light of this.

Second, the proclaimed gospel. Discussions of the Fall of Man could be presented as the cosmic “connections” being cut through the sin of man. And the current world situation – war, loneliness, infidelity, famine, godlessness, confused religion – being the fallout of mankind living “dis-connected”. The gospel could be presented as God’s means of restoring these integral-connections between God and man, man and man, and man and creation. Further, the Narnyan penchant for conveying important truth through story could be respected and built upon through the judicious and creative use of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

Conclusion

An expat friend here once said to me, “I don’t think anyone has successfully asked and answered yet the question, “What is the good news for Narnyans?” I think he might be right, and that lack of fully contextualized message might be part of why the message spreads so slowly here.

Discovering core assumptions should help. More work needs to be done with this, both in triangulation and in experimentation with these means of spreading the gospel, but I think that the beginnings of an answer to my friend’s question are taking shape, and I am hopeful about what that could mean.

Fire worshippers are smart

The sun came out last week a couple times, and again this week. And it warmed up, too. Let me tell you, that makes all the difference. I’m like Superman without super powers. I’m solar powered, but I can’t fly, lift crazy stuff or shoot lasers out of my eyes. While bullets don’t bounce off me, subtle hints and emotional cues do, but I don’t think that’s a super power. Anyway, I’m solar powered.

I’ve been a little surprised over the last couple years how much the weather affects me. You’d think growing up in the wintery northern midwest that I’d be used to dismal, depressing, hopeless winters. But they’ve really taken it out of me lately.

However, the sun has provided the external metaphor my soul needed to reset my internal spiritual mojo. That’s not the entire story, but I am doing a lot better, and it is definitely related to the return of the sun.

Narnya has pre-Islamic Zoroastrian roots. I’m beginning to think the Zoroastrians had it right by celebrating New Year in the spring. It’s falsely assumed that they worshiped fire, but in fact they worshiped a single deity that was most revealed in fire. They marked new year with a holiday called Nov Rus, still the central holiday in several countries in this part of the world. Nov Rus is associated with the spring equinox. It’s preceded by four special Tuesdays, each associated with the four elements: Water Tuesday, Fire Tuesday, Wind Tuesday and Earth Tuesday. And the holiday itself is a celebration of new life, the end of winter, and new beginning.

I once had a student who told me that they celebrate new year in the spring, but we do it in the middle of winter, and nothing changes. “How,” he asked, “can you celebrate a new beginning in the middle of winter?” Three winters in, and I think he has it right. Here, in Narnya, it’s harder to insulate yourself from the winter. Winter consistently freezes your pipes and takes your water. It slows maintenance and ensures periods without gas, and therefore without heat. It downs powerlines and steals your electricity and gives no guarantee of when it will return. Winter here cannot be completely hidden from. To use Emerson’s words, it steals away your vital heat. And celebrating the death of winter and the birth of spring is something I can get behind – body, soul and spirit.

Our family and our team are slowly beginning to sanctify this holiday. Missiologically, this is called ‘engaging redemptive analogies’. Each week we celebrate how Christ is the fulfillment of that particular element’s symbology, meditating on Scriptures that say as much, and praying those Scriptures into our bones, and into the hearts of our local friends. I’m even beginning to consider marrying this holiday to Easter for as long as we live here. Nov Rus anchors people in the seasonal rhythms and raw elementality of the created world (i.e. incarnation) and in the hope for and celebration of new life (i.e. resurrection). It can, like Advent before Christmas, provide for us (and, perhaps, for local saints) four weeks to prepare our imaginations to truly celebrate Christ as “all in all”, and as the fulfillment of our hope and of all the symbols and shadows that point to him, and it can help us use our embodied vulnerability to the weather and the yearly rhythms to bring our whole, embodied personalities to bear on celebrating the end of the old world and the beginning of the new in the death and resurrection of the King.

Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking.

Last night…

I’d like to break off a little praise-Jesus-what-what. Last night was pretty good.

My TOEFL students mention corruption a lot, and they were wanting an authentic reading sample to practice with. So I took them to youtube on Tuesday and introduced them to Oscar Romero – former Archbishop of El Salvador and social justice martyr. Then I gave them a speech he made about the roots of and cure for social injustice. They read the speech and came ready to discuss it. In the speech there is an oblique reference to the woman caught in adultery, and I asked them what Romero’s rhetorical purpose was in using that (that’s a TOEFL-style question). They couldn’t make sense of it, so we googled the phrase and wound up on youtube again watching the adulterous woman scene from “The Passion of the Christ”. The man in the class wasn’t there, but that actually allowed the girls a little more freedom in the conversation. They seemed really taken by Jesus. From there we discussed Romero’s claim that the cure for social injustice is for each human being to be saved from sin, and what that might mean practically. That was my TOEFL class.

From there I went to Aikido and had a normal class. I’m getting better. But that’s not why Aikido was cool. After, I declined an invitation to Sensei’s chay with my Sempei, because I was thinking that he wanted to go home and was only asking to be polite. And he was. But he wavered a bit and after he showered he asked me again to just go drink one chay and then we’d leave (thinking my need to go would let him leave without burning 3hrs at Sense’s table). I agreed, and I drank chay and answered an English question or two, and tried to find an exit from the conversation. They were talking about opening a new branch of the dojo and were discussing potential class times. They asked me when foreigners would like to train and would 10pm be too late, and I told them that I wouldn’t know but 10 would be too late for me because I get up pretty early every day…two or three hours before I go to work, usually. Here’s how the conversation between me and four of them went from there:

“Why do you get up so early?”

Well, sometimes I train a little, and I shower and I pray every day.

“Every day you pray? Is it at a certain time, like Namaz?”

No, no. I just pray because I want to.”

â”What do you do when you pray?”

I read the Ingil for half an hour or an hour, and after that I pray…for my heart, my sins, my hopes, my family. For my friends, for you guys, for the dojo, for the City. For the world. And I just worship Allah.”

“You pray for us? For the dojo? What do you pray? Why do you pray for us?”

I pray for progress for the dojo. And for you…you guys are made in God’s image. When I look at your face, I see some of God’s dreams for you. You are my teacher, and you’re 50, and I understand that. But still, I feel that we will be friends. We must carry our friends, no?, so I carry you to God.”

“What language do you pray in? Do you understand what you’re saying?”

Yeah. Sometimes in English and sometimes in Narnyan. But what is in my heart is what I pray.”

“Are there special movements or positions?”

No. Sometimes I am sitting. Sometimes I am kneeling. With me, I use my body to communicate to Allah how my heart feels about what I am saying. For example, my friend’s wife is really, really sick. When I pray for her, sometimes I am on my knees, or on my face. But sometimes when I pray I am so happy I could dance.”

[Here they break off into a conversation about how people sometimes do Namaz in the middle of Aikido class, and how unnecessary that is. And why do they do it in Arabic? They don’t understand a word they are saying. Then they continue with me…]

“How beautiful that you do this.”

Well, for me, it’s all about grace. I don;t do this to make God happy. Here, here’s a good example. It’s written that sometimes people trust their own good deeds to make God accept them. And because of this, Jesus gave this parable [insert the parable of the Pharisee (I explain this person as an imam or mullah) and the tax collector]. So, what is necessary is not good deeds to make God happy, but to trust in his mercy.”

“That…is absolutely….true.”

For me, prayer is not my debt to God. My life is my debt to God. My sins are many. My life was empty. And he grabbed me, and he gave me hope, and he put his Spirit inside me, and he changed my life utterly. After that, I began to read the Ingil, and it’s there, from Jesus, that I began to learn how Allah loves me, and I began to love him back. I watch people every day, walking around, thinking that God is far away. But God isn’t far away. Allah is near, and he loves these people, and his heart is broken because they do not see how much he loves them. And so, my heart is broken with his for them, and so I pray. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Narnyan well. Do you understand me? Sempei, are you alright?”

“Me? Yes, yes. I’m just thinking deeply about what you’re saying. I want to ask you a few questions. Ok?”

Sure.

“So do you have enemies?”

I did. And I was their enemy. But Allah has forgiven me much, so I must forgive them. Period. And Jesus told me to love my enemies. So I do. They may be my enemy. But I am not theirs.”

“Wow. So did you begin to pray and then your life changed, or what?”

First Allah grabbed me and saved me. I could not change myself. I needed a savior and he sent one. Then, I began to pray and read the Ingil, and slowly, slowly, he is changing me completely.”

“Beautiful. Do you guys see that? Beautiful.”

Along the way, the two girls in the room were on the edges of their seats, occasionally explaining to one another what I was meaning. And, throughout, my teacher (the Sempei) was settling deeply into what I was saying, and something real was going on inside him as we talked. All this was in my halting Narnyan, but where I felt meaning might be obscured I’d negotiate it with them until it was clear. I’m less excited about what I said, and more excited about what they asked.

And along the way, two things flashed in my head crystal clearly: 1) Three times a week, when I leave at night and my wife is left to put the kids down herself, and it wears her out, this is what that is for; and 2) Every night when I just want to fall asleep, and she says, “Do you want to pray?”, and we pray for these guys – this is directly connected to that. Part of my gift set is that I can sometimes clearly intuit the connections between things. And I saw it last night – this was as much her work as it was mine.

And for those of you who pray for us – this was your work, too.

Now for the hard part of waiting for the next act, and living out love in the meanwhile. Tomorrow I’m supposed to go to a Russian bathhouse with my sempei, so we’ll see if more conversation goes on over steam, ridiculous heat, beatings with eucalyptus brooms and near-nudity.

The Planet Core

A dear friend – more like family, really – back in the States recently wrote me about some intense emotional difficulties she was having. Something really rough had recently happened, and she was also under lots of situational stress at the time. Altogether, a good environment for crazy feelings to erupt. She talked about having flashes of joy and periods of peace, but always being so close to the brink, teetering on the cusp of despair.

I’ve had my own run-ins with strong, negative feelings and situational stressors lately. I wrote her back, sort of from my own experience. Apparently, by some twist of Providence, it was helpful. Maybe it will be helpful for some of you. Maybe not. But, here it is, with some minor alterations:

“So, here’s what I’m learning here. This tug of war between peace and anxiety, depression and despair – it’s at the surface level of my soul, and yours. It’s the surface of the planet, where weather changes rapidly and nothing is sound. In periods like this, when I’m fighting for joy and what I’m getting is anger, it’s important to realize that these feelings are on the surface. But there is another layer to my created emotionality. There is the deep, still center. The planet core. There, “Christ may dwell in your heart through faith.” It’s when all hell is breaking loose on the surface that we have a chance to learn to burrow down deep, to meet Christ inside us, and to commune with him in the interior rooms. The mystics referred to this as mystical union with Christ, and they talked about sinking down with your mind into your heart until you’re seated with Christ in your still center and knowing each other there. Put another way, peacefulness is a feeling that reflects the reality of peace. Joyfulness is a feeling that reflects a reality called joy. Despair is a feeling that reflects a reality called desolation. And anxiety is a feeling that reflects a reality called chaos. Now, here’s the thing – you’re pressed but not crushed, struck down but not destroyed. The realities of joy and peace – whatever is happening on the surface – are already inside you. 2Peter is clear about that. The inward you IS being renewed day by day, whatever is happening to the outward you. Inside the planet core you HAVE peace and joy. “The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” That is all inside you already. You’re not waiting to get it. But it’s in the basement, where Christ is sitting with a hot cup of coffee and a good, sturdy chair to get ‘stuck’ in. Go downstairs, and if you don’t know how, ask Jesus for directions. He’s already there, so he’s found the stairs.”

I pray you find that space inside you, and learn to dwell with Christ in your own heart by faith.

Jonesing for Jesus: Milk and Christomania

Scholars and commentators disagree as to how to translate – much less how to interpret – 1Peter2:2. The ESV has it “pure spiritual milk,” while the KJV renders it “sincere milk of the word.” The “of the word” is added by the KJV translators because the Greek here is difficult and they appear to be making a connection to 1:23 in order to make sense of it. It could be spiritual-not-physical milk, metaphorical-not-literal milk. It’s hard to say. Practically, this is an important question because we’re told to long for this milk, whatever it is, and we’re told that by it we grow up into salvation. So, a command and an indication that this is our part in the dynamism of being progressively saved. This is no small matter.

Thankfully, the meaning can be made clear by the context. As the phrase “of the word” isn’t actually there, and as in 2:4 there is reference made to tasting that the Lord Jesus is good, it seems clear that the milk we are to long for is Jesus himself. This is strongly reinforced by the last mention of our salvation in 1:8-9. There we’re told that our part in the dynamism of our present obtaining of our coming salvation is this: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, [thereby] obtaining the salvation of your souls.”

The parallels between these two passages are striking. In both the outcome is progressive, experienced salvation. And in each, there is reference to experiential (dare I say “emotional” or even “visceral”) engagement, specifically with the person of Jesus Christ (not just with “God” in some vague sense). In 1:8-9, we love him, we trust-and-give-loyalty-to him, and we celebrate with joy that defies cognitive articulation. In 2:1-3 we have tasted that the Lord (clearly, from the pronoun in v.4, the Lord here is Jesus Christ) is good, and we long for him. We jones. We cry, like infants, insatiably until we get him.

This is extremely significant. But before I explain why, I want to take a brief aside into my own experience in order to illuminate why precision here is important. I pastored for 9 years. I found that nothing helped my enjoyment – visceral, emotional enjoyment – of Jesus like studying the Scriptures. And nothing was a greater threat and damage to my enjoyment of Jesus like studying the Scriptures. It’s possible – sometimes even likely – to engage the Bible and miss the King. Don’t get me wrong here … I love the Bible. I know few people who love it more than I do. But the Scriptures aren’t the 4th member of the Trinity. The Scriptures are given to us to bring us – always, ever, only – to Jesus the Messiah. It’s in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden, and it’s in him that the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell in bodily form. And it’s him we’re called to adore, trust, hold faith with and celebrate. The Scriptures, according to Jesus, are given to us to help us do that.

This is great news. It totally uncomplicates what it means to be one of God’s people, and to be part of God’s People. We are the people who addict ourselves – at every level of our personal and gathered personalities – to the living and present Christ. Our task is to discern and engage Jesus totally.

This is the case that Paul is constantly making. He preaches Christ. He tells the Corinthians to discern Christ. He tells the Colossians that Christ is EVERYTHING, and that nothing else counts. He further tells them to direct their attention and affections to Jesus Christ. And he tells the Philippians to celebrate the King always, and then he repeats himself. Christomania is both the experience and prescription of Paul.

That we find the same emphasis in Peter is significant. It’s not just Paul’s pet language. Two very different Early Church leaders are making the same case, suggesting that early leadership shared an understanding of the Jesus Way a) that centralized personal and corporate engagement with Jesus; b) that this engagement was to be cognitive, emotional and visceral; c) and that the practice of Christianity should be defined in terms of this engagement. We, at every level and in every way, are the Jesus People.

So, how do I, tired and a little depressed, cultivate this kind of whole-person engagement with Christ? I don’t know. But here’s what I’m doing and I think it’s working.

1. I’m asking him for help.

2. I’m using the Scriptures copiously. I’m using them with focus (study) and with volume (sustained attention through frequent reading). And I’m using them like Jesus said to, “Search the Scriptures, for they tell of me”

3. I’m consistently trying to help the spiritual communities I’m part of to focus on Jesus, and then I’m riding their energy in (they are not all tired and depressed).

4. I’m being ruthless with myself, while being at the same time patient with my expectations of emotional energy and careful to attend to Jesus, not to my feelings about him.

5. I’m using music, specifically Rich Mullins’ Jesus Record and the Waymarks album from the Northumbria Community.

6. I’m remembering that I can’t make myself feel anything, but I can direct my attention to the object of my affection, and that is what kindles the flame.

7. I’m trusting my Teacher and Friend to meet me in this endeavor and to make up the difference.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve said here, and to hear how you bring all of you to bear on connecting with all of him. Email me.

1Peter 1:1-12

I’ve been studying 1Peter with some expat friends. As I do, I’ve been finding it helpful keep in mind what Tom Wright has said about first century Hebrew theology: monotheism, election and eschatology. Or, to put it another way: one God, one People of God, and one Hope for the People of God. So, here are some things I’m noticing in 1Peter1 –

v.1-2: Election (the Jewish version) is redefined in trinitarian terms. Check it out…it’s cool.

v.3-9: Our salvation hasn’t happened yet. Not really. To borrow Paul’s term, we have the earnest money. When I think of what I was saved from, what I enjoy now, all that I have experienced – I am so grateful. But to think that this is just the earnest money – just the beginning and just a tiny portion of what “being saved” will eventually mean for me, that begins to really warm my tired heart, and it begins to broaden my view and to set my imagination on the deep future.

And that Future – our sure and certain Hope – appears here (the third element of Jewish theology). We, though we are presently tried, hold up and even rejoice, because of our sure and certain hope. We KNOW something very good is coming. What to do with that hope appears in the second half of the chapter.

There is another nifty Hebrew thing going on here. The language in v.8-9 is Abrahamic faith-talk. The language of the Hebrew imagination of God’s Promise. God has Promised, and though you don’t see it you believe; though you wait for it you remain loyal. But here, this immensely Godward and identifyingly Jewish language is used concerning our attachment to the person of Jesus. This reshapes what it means to be a Jew, and indeed what it means to be a person in God’s covenant community. The “People of God” are those who trust Jesus, and who love him, though we have never seen him.

And somehow, by deeply celebrating King Jesus, we presently obtain something of our future salvation. ‘Mechanism’ is a terrible word for this, but I lack a better one at the moment: the ‘mechanism’ of our present obtaining of our salvation – the way we download our future life into our present reality – is by celebrating Jesus in ways that are ‘inexpressible and saturated with glory’. There’s more there in verse 9 than meets the eye, I think.

Blot out my name

The Way of Jesus, the cruciform way, is a spiral. You keep coming back to the same lessons, but somehow larger, more, deeper, better. Like a circle, but still making progress.

Ten years ago I was in Nashvegas and I wanted to leave. I had been there a few months, newly married, and had moved from a place where I knew what I was doing and I was pretty good at it. In Nashvegas my role was unclear and consistently changing, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I wanted for Jesus to tell me to leave.

Instead, Jesus took me to Philippians 2, where Paul says that he has no one like Timothy, who will deeply and sincerely care about the welfare of the Philippians. He says the reason for this is that “everyone else seeks after their own interests, not the interests of Jesus Christ.” Jesus quietly rebuked me, and he asked me if I was going to be motivated by his interests, which necessarily meant accepting and cultivating a visceral concern for the welfare of the church – and, at that time, for that church – or if I was going to be motivated by my own interests. Quiet and irrefutable. And it changed me fundamentally. I became, in my bones, a servant to the Church.

Today, this morning, ten years later, I ran across Moses’s prayer in Exodus 32:32 – “But now, please forgive their sin – and if not, then blot out my name from the book you have written.” Imagine that. I tried to pray that for the Narnyan people. But I can’t seem to, yet. Part of it is because my burden is broader than this one people group, whereas Moses existed for Israel. Part of it is because I don’t want to stay here forever. I want to do other things, too – I sense some calling to a wider arena. And I’d like to train others to do what I do. Part of me fears deeply identifying with this people group – with these persons – because it may consign me to a lifelong assignment here. And, being pretty emotionally fatigued lately, part of me fears feeling deeply at all. But part of it is because I am seeking after my own interests, and not the interests of Jesus Christ. Simple and irrefutable.

I can feel it, like when someone is rubbing your back and they find the knot that is at the center of a complex network of pain, this preference for my own interests over those of Jesus is at the nexus of my recent melancholy. Sickness, winter, being snow-bound, these all play a part. But the central root is this preference for my own interests.

So, brothers and sisters in the cruciform way, now to lay the axe to the root…

Dead already

I was in a Russian coffee shop the other day with a friend of mine. He’s interning with us for a year. I really like him. I was asking him how he thought the team was. I ask this question a lot, both to hear from team mates and get their insight, and to train them to key into the welfare of the community they serve with. One of the things he had been noticing was that this winter – the worst the City has seen in over 20 years – is really wearing the families down. Along with it has been a severe, weeks-long, debilitating flu that has rolled through every family, and that hasn’t quite let go of us. He’s right.

I’ve been putting off writing the first post for this blog because I wanted the first one to be bright and inspiring. I might be waiting a while, and I think Jesus told me to get this thing up and running. So, we’re starting with this one. I’m currently in a period of melancholy – melancholy owing to seasonal affective disorder (google it if you need to), sickness, the “Anger Phase” of cultural adaptation, and I’m sure there’s something wrong inside my heart. I can feel it, but don’t quite have a finger on it, yet.

Anyway, I agreed with my friend. Winter is wearing us down, and it’s supposed to get worse. Lots of expats are leaving the City, leaving Narnya right now. For lots of reasons. I’m not judging at all. Could be they are being re-deployed. But in our conversation, I found myself talking about how freeing it is – how very good-news it is – that Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me, they must first deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.”

Sometimes we act like as we follow Jesus, slowly-slowly we become the kind of people who can deny ourselves and take up our crosses. But that is not at all what Jesus said. He said that if someone wants to follow him, they must first deny themselves (one time, settled decision), and then daily choose to embrace how that works out. This is the prerequisite to discipleship. This is the entrance, not the goal. Without this settled decision, Jesus will not take you on as his student. Without this settled disposition of self-denial, you can’t really learn much from him. He was clear about this, and that clarity is a ruthless kindness.

And that’s actually really good news. When I decided to follow Jesus, when I understood this call this way, I decided that my survival is not the end goal. I decided that my story is not about what happens to me. I settled it once for all that I don’t have to make it out of this life in one piece. And every day, I get to choose to embrace the consequences of that decision. This isn’t because I’m some kind of super-commando. In fact, I’m kind of a wuss. It’s because I’m a disciple of the Man who chose the cross, and the student is not above his teacher. I can either think like this, or I can be another man’s disciple instead.

But, really, this way of living is easier than the alternative. It’s freeing. Right now, I don’t like my life. I wouldn’t mind a different one. Every day – literally – something goes wrong. Every attempt I make at intentionality is thwarted. I talk like an idiot. I make cultural mistakes constantly. I moved here in my prime – that is, I was in my prime, good at what I did, and now I am TERRIBLE at everything I try. I don’t like it here right now. And, really, I may never.

And I’m okay with that. No amount of hardship will make me leave. If I get cancer, I won’t just assume I’m supposed to go back to the States. I’ll ask Jesus. And I’ll do what he says. If things keep getting harder, if I keep getting sadder, or more numb, that has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether or not we stay the course here or go. That’s the freeing thing. What happens to me is significant, and I feel it (sometimes too much), but I’m perfectly free to set that aside as I make decisions about what to do day to day and week to week because Jesus saved me from my own survival when he demanded that before I ever call myself his student, I settle it once for all that what happens to me is not going to be the central plot of my story. I denied myself. That’s finished, and thank God, I don’t have to wrangle with that ever again.

I don’t have to deal with questions like how much is too much?, how long?, when is enough enough?, where’s the line? The line is miles back and years ago, and I’ve already crossed it. I’m dead already. And thank God, because if I had to make decisions in light of my feelings, my family would have the most erratic course ever, and I’d never know if I was being faithful.

I think this is what it means when Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. People say that the metaphor suggests that you and Jesus are paired up pulling a plow, but that’s just not right. That interpretation comes from the American farming world. The ancient Near Eastern interpretation of the yoke-metaphor is one of kingship. When we embrace him as King, his demands are light, and we find rest for our tired, beat-up souls in obeying him. The same guy that says, “You see that cross on that hill? That’s your future if you follow me, and you need to decide right now, before you take the first step, that you’re okay with that,” is the guy who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It’s easy because the questions that others have to deal with, the questions that can literally pull you in two, never need to trouble the sleep of a student of Jesus. I don’t have to accomplish the mission and come back alive. I’m already dead.

Something is wrong in my circumstances. In this City, that’s ALWAYS the case. And something is wrong these days in my heart. But, even that can be dealt with because the pre-requisite self-denial is settled and sealed. I am dead already.

Praise God, and hallelujah.