Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Day That is Coming...But Not Yet

"You remind me of the Apostle Paul." -- said to me by my friend, Ben Wall, years ago, as we did ministry together
I have long felt a kinship with Paul of the Bible. I think that anyone who has seriously committed his life and soul to advancing Christ's Kingdom can find a version of his own story in Paul's story, but I still like to think that he and I have a special affinity. And while I like to imagine having a powerful, global impact like he, that's not what I'm talking about.
Remember when Paul (he went by Saul then) used all his zeal and passion to defend "God's religion" from moving into error by Christians?  I used to do that. Remember when Paul was then interrupted by Jesus and was told to stop what he was doing because he, in fact, was working against God and didn't know it? I feel like that happened to me. Remember how Paul sat in Damascus, dazed and confused and blinded, waiting for Jesus to tell him what to do? I experienced that.
And remember when Jesus promised and then commissioned Paul personally, "I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." I so totally feel like I have had this experience.
I feel sent, like Paul, to the "gentiles" of our day. No, not "non-Jews", for I am one of them, and indebted to Paul for initiating such a powerful ministry to us. The gentiles of our day, at least in America, are the "non-churched". I don't really like that word, but haven't found one I like, and so will trust you know what I mean.
And you know how Paul went first to the Jews in each city he visited to see who would accept the Messiah so that he knew who he could count on in that city to be a church fellowship for these hard to accept gentiles? I feel like I'm supposed to do that, too. The way Paul and his buddy Barny explained themselves to the Jews was, "We had to speak the word of God to you first." (Acts 13:46) And I honestly feel like, too. As a matter of fact, that is a PERFECT description of the season of Paul's life that I am in right now, right here in Amarillo. The "Jews" in my life (per this analogy) are my friends at the Southwest Church of Christ. Probably the best statement from Paul's life, that reflects this current priority of mine, is a comment by Luke when he said, "Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ." (Acts 18:5)
Up ahead, however, a dramatic decision awaits me. (I am fortunate that I have many brothers and friends and intimate allies that surround me. And I don't know about Paul, but I need them. They remind me of what matters most when I'm weary. At the first sign of possible discouragement or distraction, they notice and firmly keep my eyes on the Goal.) And sometimes I put my head down to the ground and watch my feet take one step at a time and forget, but God oftentimes forces my head up to look ahead...and when He does, excitement and passion and conviction (and emails like this one) just pop out of me.
Before too terribly long, the day is coming that I will turn resolutely to the "Gentiles" and take the Word of God to them. It will be great because I know there are folks out there who are just waiting to hear about this life-giving message from me, and are ready to embrace it with both arms by letting go of everything else...and that many of my "Jewish" brothers will go out there with me. But it will also be sad because it will mark an end of the current season of life for me, the one where I get to preach Christ to "my own people" first, inviting them from the religious life we were brought up with to the abundant life of a singular focus on Christ's mission.
The way Paul said it, when it came upon him, was..."We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us." (Acts 13:47)
The way Luke continued his commentary about this was..."Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." (Acts 18:5-6)
I am currently preaching to the Southwest Church of Christ, explaining and declaring to them the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus from the law of Moses and from the Prophets and from the Gospels and from the Letters (see Paul's version of this in Acts 28:23-25). And it is awesome. I have joined many among these people who have been doing this for years before I got here, most notably the elders and ministers that I get to work with, and there are dozens more.
So for now, I am full of joy as I pursue this season of life and calling, patiently watching to see who else has already and will continue to join us in discovering the "more and more" available to us in Christ. But I also enjoy lifting my head, looking forward, and seeing that the time is coming (the day and hour I don't know) that my heart's desire to see new life flow into the hearts of those outside our Southwest walls, because of the people inside of our walls. It will be a time in my life where I feel I will have been faithful to God's commission to go to "the Gentiles" and share with them our lives and this great news.
Then, I hope and pray, what happened in Paul's life will happen in mine..."When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region." (Acts 13:48-50)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

My Great Trip Home

"And the man got up and went home." -- Matthew, telling of a man who had quite a day
"Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." - Jesus, giving instructions to a man who had had quite a day
"My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." - A promise of Jesus, to those who love him

I walked into my house at 10:00pm last night and my heart filled with an unspeakable warmth and confidence at what happened next.
No, there was no friendly greeting awaiting me at the door, nor some surprise party. As a matter of fact, even though my house had 10 people in it, I passed right by or in front of all of them without even a hint of acknowledgment from them.
I was coming home from quite a day. I had experienced a great staff meeting, a moving funeral, a great lunch, some powerful reading, a 2-hour-long ministry conversation about the advancement of the Kingdom of God, a fantastic dinner with my family, a trip up to the emergency room where a good friend suddenly went, and a final, incredible 'spiritual counsel' conversation with another good friend. Doggone it...I absolutely love my days.
But the crowning glory of the day happened as I walked in my garage door. The silence was deafening (so to speak). As I walked through our den towards the hallway, I passed by the doorway to the living room to see my wife with a group of 4 women sitting comfortably on the floor, eyes closed, heads bowed...and I heard the whisper of their voices praying. Like I said, an unspeakable warmth made itself at home in my heart as I passed by.
I passed my daughters closed door, avoiding the temptation to open it on my sleeping daughter, knowing that inside was her gorgeous red hair sprawled out all over her pillow, her beautiful, soft cheeks just inviting me to give them a goodnight kiss. Then I passed a son's room, picturing his Indian-dark skinned arms wrapped around his elephant, his feet sticking out the side of his crib. And finally, another son's room, who's door I rarely pass because of how deep he sleeps, my intrusion not being enough to ever wake him up. But I did this time, satisfied that my children are in their rooms safe and secure in rest.
I made my way down the hall and down my basement stairs. As I turned the corner into the room, I saw three of my friends sitting together hunched over on the edge of their seats, heads bowed...and one of them was praying. Part of the confidence was that I knew these guys would be here. They meet in my basement each Tuesday, and we engage in the art of living life together. And although I missed the bulk of the meeting, without any awkwardness at all, and without them skipping a beat, I walked in and leaned back with my full weight into a chair, and listened to their incredible prayers...always the climax of our meetings for me.
I couldn't help but remember just over a year ago, finding this house in Amarillo, TX and my wife declaring this would the one we would build our home in. And I remembered going from room to room asking God to fill it with His work and with the Spirit of Christ.
Thank you, Father. 

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Minister's Lot

"Brothers, pray for us." - Paul, Silas, and Timothy, to the church of Christ meeting in 1st Century Thessalonica 
"This one morning in the year we reserved to refresh the reader's memory upon the subject of prayer for ministers." - Charles Spurgeon, minister of the Word, to the readers of his daily devotional book
"When my heart is troubled, my flesh is aching, my spirit is weary, and my soul doubts one of a thousand available doubts, and I am tempted to quit the glorious work of Jesus Christ, I wonder which of the many specific prayers that has been offered up for me is redeemed...and I stay for yet another day. My debt to those pray-ers I will never be able to repay." - Yours Truly, minister of the word, to those who pray for me.
I want to make a serious, world-altering, life-giving request of you on behalf of myself and ministry team that God has graciously supplied to us here in Amarillo, Tx.
Pray for us.
With a full time focus on the Kingdom of Heaven, ours is a unique weight to bear. We do it joyfully, mind you. But it remains looming and large, appearing impossible most of the time. Ours is a message of glory and of doom, and we must speak it without respect for the opinions or reactions of man. There is not a work under the sun that is it's equal in its importance.
Please pray for us.
Whereas most people look out over the fields of people and see strangers, or potential clients, or a means to some end, or a problem to deal with, or a prisoner who deserves his punishment, or a hungry person who won't work for his food, we are blessed and cursed to only see souls. And with that carry a burden of responsibility that never can exempt us from care. The confines and protection of polite apathy towards those who we despise, dislike, disagree with, or are opposed to us are not luxuries that we have access to. We have been called to care. And when we try to justify and act on our rights as independent human beings, momentarily forgetting our calling, deep down we are defying the Spirit of Christ that is at work in us. It leaves us carrying, along with our rebelliously claimed right to a life of our own, a constant sense of heaviness and guilt until we submit, once again, to our call.
So pray for us.
We must preach the truth, whether we have mastered it in our own lives or not, shaming ourselves publicly in our inadequacy of following what we proclaim. We must lead the way in suffering like our Savior, making us look foolish in the eyes of the world, tempted constantly to settle into and preach a diluted version of materialistic, comfortable, and self-exalting Christianity - and even our flocks affirm us and reward us when we live and preach the compromised message that bows to what they are at ease with, in living or in doctrine. When we live rightly in our calling, we must suffer from those outside the church, inside the church, and even from within ourselves...all three being witnesses of our naked failures to be in ourselves what we proclaim they must...and all three rebelling against us at the suggestion.
So please pray for us.
But don't pity us. We who are in ministry for very long have many times faced the Christ's impossible challenge to live His life, felt the resulting despair and confusion and loathing for it, and have been asked by him, "What? Do you want to leave me, too?" We have answered his half-desperate, half-challenging question with our eyes wide open, "To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." And it is because of the awakening of that life that he keeps unfolding and giving to us that we move towards Jesus as he stretches out his hand. It is because of the surety that nothing else matters that we watch his feet and slowly and insecurely follow in his steps.
So please, please pray for us...pray two very important things: 1) Ask we be given peace, joy, and righteousness as we dare count the cost of being His ministers of the Word, and 2) Thank him for the peace, joy and righteousness that he is giving us as we dare count the cost of being His ministers of the Word.
I love you.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Secret Spiritual Discipline

"Tearless grief bleeds inwardly and destroys." - Christian Nevell Bovee
"Let your tears come when they do.  Let them water your soul."Eileen Mayhew

"Time engraves our faces with all the tears we've felt but have not shed." - Natalie Clifford Barney

"Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are like rain upon the blinding dust of the earth, gently soaking and softening our hardened hearts." - Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1860

"I run across many people who are afraid to let themselves really cry - afraid that it might look weak and pathetic, afraid that they might never be able to stop, sick and tired of the constant feeling of wanting to, and therefore not truly "allowing" themselves to.  But we have the desire to cry for a reason.  God gave us this ability for a reason, and it is a blessing, and it has a sacred purpose, so let the tears flow whenever the urge hits.  Forget all of the invalid programming of your past, about what's allowed and what's not, what's strong and what's not.  Tears are the necessary lubricant of the heart and the place in which the deepest connection to God and each other is possible." - Jim Spivey

How long has it been since you've cried?
I sat with a Senior Student from Pepperdine Tuesday night who, unprompted in the midst of a worship gathering that was really touching her heart, told me, "It has probably been 2 years since I've cried."
Why would she say that? So what? It had nothing rational to do with the conversation we were in.
I knew what was going on inside of her head for the past two years. Reasonable voices suggesting to her: "Maybe you just haven't needed to cry. Maybe you just aren't one of those "criers". Maybe it's because your strong enough to find a productive outlet for what bothers you."
We didn't address crying directly at all, even after she said it. Her statement was in the midst of a mighty conversation about a relationship that has welled up bitterness and anger in her. But in the context of our conversation, this seemingly unrelated statement about her "cry history" made perfect sense to both of us without elaboration.
Why is that?
I was outside of a beautiful chapel overlooking the ocean, getting ready to speak Monday night to an incredible group of students about the Spirit of God, when a couple of buddies came out to pray over me. I was already convicted personally by what I was about to preach, but their presence helped me admit it to myself. And as they said, "Amen," and started to leave, I asked them to stay while I prayed. They did.
And then my tears came.
I'm getting really good at crying. It should be a spiritual discipline.
As I write this, and while the reasonable voice in some of your heads keep making the case that exempts you from the need or capacity or personality for tears, let me suggest that maybe there is another voice talking to. Maybe not, but maybe. 
Inside of my head there is a more Reasonable Voice saying to me: "Maybe you just needed to cry. Maybe you are a real, raw human being after all. Maybe it's because you are strong that you can submit to the productive work that is done through the God-given capacity for tears."
For the person who can't start crying and wants to, my coaching can only come in the two words, "let it go". It will be hard, spiritual, counter-cultural work for sure.
And for the person who can't seem to keep from crying, welling up in tears from the smallest things, and you want to stop, my coaching can only come in the two words, "let it all go". 

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Retreat Chronicles VIII - Creating an Atmosphere

"Lord, are you going to wash my feet? No, you shall never wash my feet." - Peter, willfully fighting against the atmosphere Jesus was trying to create.
"Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!" - Peter, laying down his will in submission to the atmosphere Jesus was trying to create.
"Are you resisting the forces pulling at you that just might be the Lord, softly but insistently tugging at your mind?" -- Jerome Daley in his book Soul Space
We started our Friday afternoon very satisfied and thrilled to have a set of words that articulated what a disciple of Jesus is. We thanked God, and then we sent everyone out for some some solo time armed with 4 questions for God, with the expectation that He would speak:
1) Where are you?
2) Who am I to you?
2) Why me?
3) What is left unsaid between you and me?
We went out because we know that there is an atmosphere that we need that gives us access to the very voice of God and to his Holy Spirit. And we know that God is the master at creating that atmosphere and doesn't need our help (or interference) in creating it. When we make the time to subject ourselves to the Atmosphere of God, we transform. We were about to embark on what I believed to be the most important discussion of discovery that we would have on this retreat, and I wanted all of us to come right out of this atmosphere that transforms us before we attempted a discussion of this magnitude.
I've only had 15 years of full-time focus on people, but in those years I have noticed certain tendencies among human beings. I'm no psycho-pro, so I'm admittedly an amateur in my observations, but this is my blog and email list, and it carries no authoritative weight with anyone unless you decide for it to, so here it is. 
When a human being finds itself in a certain environment of any kind, the human being has a tendency to react in certain, predictable ways. They still have a choice, mind you, to decide against that tendency. That is the power of the will. The will of a human being can be an unstoppable force for good when used forcefully against an environment that tends to hurt humans. But it can also be a horrible obstacle from good when it is used forcefully against an environment that tends to heal humans.
When the atmosphere is hurtful and wrong, the will needs to kick in. When the atmosphere is helpful and good, the will needs to be laid down.
It's not outlined in list form in Scripture, per se, but Jesus seems to create a certain atmosphere that makes a human being react in certain, predictable ways. It all depends on the human being's will, of course, and whether the will kicks in or is laid down when they experience the "atmosphere of Christ". So people's reactions were usually one of two things: transformation or refusal. One thing that the Christ didn't really allow for was "neutrality".
"So what's your point?" you might ask. Well, my point is that if the atmosphere that Christ created is what transforms people, than the atmosphere that a church of Christ should produce the same thing. So, it is the job of every church member to be like Christ (a disciple) and when they come together, to be like Christ's church...or said another create an "Atmosphere of Transformation."
The 3rd objective of our retreat was "to discover and articulate the atmosphere necessary to transform into a disciple of Jesus" (see Retreat Chronicles I). Said another way, we were trying to answer the question, "What is the atmosphere that every human being needs in order to change into someone with the qualities of a disciple (see Retreat Chronicles VI). And said one more way, we wanted the things that you could look anyone in the eye and say with conviction out of your deep love for them, "you really NEED this...even if you don't think you do...if you want life to the full."
When we returned from our personal "Atmosphere's of Transformation", we started into the question...and we were all over the place on this one. It was some serious chaos. Everything was good and right and true, but there was no sense of totality and completeness and comprehensiveness in our sharing. We did this for quite some time, and I was inwardly hoping that the objective would suddenly be found by and through our continued banter. But no such luck....until, that is, we prayed...this time together.
I interrupted our chaos with a call to prayer, and right as we bowed felt compelled to ask Doyle to lead it. Doyle is our worship minister, and looking back, the best person in our group to word this prayer for us, because he is constantly and always thinking about and creating 'atmosphere' that would, with God's help, lead to transformation. As He prayed, I felt compelled to pick up my pen and write...several words came out of my pen onto the paper...and they seemed to capture the essence of all that we were saying. Upon Doyle's 'Amen', I put them to the team and with a little revision, we felt like God had delivered.
For a human being to be transformed into a follower of Christ, they need these things:
To be LOVED by disciples.
To be TAUGHT what a disciple is (and why it is the best).
To be CHALLENGED to become one.
To be MODELED in front of, so they see it in the flesh.
To be ACCOMPANIED on the journey.
To be FREED to become a disciple (from sin, lies, and religion)
To be REMINDED of why we are disciples.
To be CELEBRATED in the becoming of a disciple.
When a human being is unconditionally loved by followers of Jesus with no strings attached, they are taught what a disciple of Jesus really is, because it is being modeled in front of them. The life of disciple is so real, so true, and so freeing and abundant that it challenges humans to consider becoming one themselves, and when they do they join into a circle of people who are all on the same journey together, constantly reminding each other why they are on it when it appears to be hard, and the life of celebration that they live together because of the great freedom they continue to find and experience is incredible.
In this environment, human beings tend to react in a certain, predictable sort of way...the transform into disciples of Jesus.
It is the primary job of the church to create this environment for all nations of human beings. This is what I intend on doing for the rest of my life. Creating it for myself, creating for my wife, for my children, for my church family, for my neighbors, for my city, for my enemies, for the world. And this is what we in leadership intend on doing together.
May God make it so.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Freedom is Obvious

"It is for freedom that Christ has set you free." - Paul
"If the son sets you free, you will be free indeed." - The Son
"Our hearts inherently know what freedom feels like. To give something less than freedom to people, and then trying to call it freedom, can only be done by usurping the heart and making the case only in the head. Any genuine, authentic, honest, integrity-filled human being will not, and can not, buy that." - Yours Truly
It was late at night. I was finishing up a project in college that was due the next day. I was the last one in the communication building, and the school I went to had a curfew, and I was closing in on both finishing my project and finishing my day.
Time was up, and I headed for the back exit. To get there, I had to go through a little cubicle that had three doors: one that lead to the lobby (where I was), one that led to the Campus Radio Station's back door exit (where I wanted to go), and one that led to the Speech Pathology department. I opened the first door, went in, was careful to lock it behind me since I was the last person there, shut it, only to find that the door leading to the Radio Station's exit was locked. So was the speech path door. I proceeded to pronounce a small curse on the engineer who was genius enough to design such a system as I came to the realization that I was trapped.
Trapped. Imprisoned. Bound. Jailed. Pent up. Closed in. Squeezed. It was not a good feeling. In fact it was horrible. Keeping my peace in the midst of such a loss of choice was beyond difficult.
After vain attempts at unlocking any of the doors with every one of my keys, busting up my fists and elbows on the skinny, tall windows in the doors, and yelling my throat raw as the campus security guards passed by the building outside...If finally figured out a way up through the ceiling by climbing the doorknobs and over the doorframe. It was quite the personal drama.
And let me tell you...there is a huge, undeniable, obvious difference between the feeling of FREEDOM and the feeling of BONDAGE. No one has to explain it to you. It's clear as air.
But spiritually, it seems, everyone is explaining it. Including me. It's crazy when you think about it...having to explain freedom.
Can you imagine if I started calling out to everyone from that little cubicle of doors I was locked inside of, announcing and pleading and convincing people of the truth that "Freedom is in here!" Can you imagine the doors being unlocked, the doors swung wide open, being invited out to do whatever it is I could find to do out of there, but answering back, "No way! Freedom is in here. I'm NOT leaving."
I'm so sad that that is exactly what I learned growing up, and exactly what I taught for years. I would find it especially easy to look at other people in their little cubicles and argue with them about how they are not free in theirs, but if they would just come into mine, they would be free. It was easier to feel like I was "sharing truth" with them, because they would listen and argue. All the people outside of the cubicles just looked at me like I was crazy. But I would comfort myself with, "The road is narrow and only a few will take it."
Dude, the road is narrow enough when I actually offer the true freedom of Christ. He doesn't need me to add a bunch of rules that I have contrived out of the Bible and make the road even narrower.
A spoke on the freedom we have in Christ last Sunday to this band of brothers and sisters in Christ in Amarillo that I am becoming family with, but I was still being preached to by the Spirit of God on the subject all afternoon, and into our nations Independence Day on Monday. I was reflecting on my life I've lived, on the real and genuine need of my heart, on the freedom I want my wife and children to have when I had to stop and thank God for something...
I have grown incapable of accepting anything that feels contrived.
I know what freedom feels like. And I know what bondage feels like. I'm not going offer people bondage anymore and call it freedom. I'm going to offer freedom and call it life.
Father, may it be on earth as it is in Heaven.