All posts by Don Stephens

I'm a musician, teacher, and sheepdog with a passion for the Kingdom of God. Currently I work with Youth With a Mission, traveling and teaching on Worldview and the Kingdom of God.

Discernment in confusing times.

I recently polled my Facebook friends on whether or not they believed the mainstream narrative about the Coronavirus.  The results were revealing, with a vast majority answering “No”, a few in the affirmative, and another handful admitting they don’t know what to believe.  People are confused.  While some embrace hair-on-fire conspiracies, others are happily acquiescing to the approved experts who inform of ever-changing models and protocols, and warn us to stay put.  

Several have asked about my take on the situation, which is probably worth about as much as a gum-wrapper.  But if turning my thoughts into words might help us look a little less like the Keystone cops, I’m happy to give it a try.

I think we’re facing a double-headed crisis.  On the one hand is an unpredictable and dangerous pandemic, and on the other is a great uncertainty of what to believe about the pandemic.  In a world of so many story lines, we’re all wondering what truth remains when the computer and television screens are switched off. 

Up front, I’m not a conspiracy person.  Conspiracies distract me from the simplicity of Jesus and his Kingdom.  God told Isaiah, “Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do, and don’t live in dread of what frightens them.”  (Isaiah 8:12) Alarmism is being peddled from every direction, from the fear-mongering of the left leaning media, to the fear-mongering of right-leaning conspiracies. That’s not to say there’s no truth in any of it; both sides may indeed contain elements of truth, but fear should never lead the way.  Love is to lead. And as it does, fear will be cast out.   (1 John 4:18)

We Christians believe that the world is a battleground of good and evil, where our enemy strains to enslave and destroy the human race.  On top of that, we also believe that in the last days, (which, according to Acts 2:17 and Hebrews 1:2 began with the ascension of Jesus), “perilous times will come”, with deceptions, plagues and persecutions.  But these warnings are only footnotes to the good news, not the good news itself.  Disciples of Jesus ought to focus on the main attraction, and not the footnotes.    

My hope is that the church will seize this moment with wisdom and courage, and offer hope to those around us. Nobody knows for certain where this plague will go.  So lets take a deep breath and seek God diligently for discernment as we move forward.  After centuries of shooting ourselves in the foot with our dire prognostications, lets avoid making that mistake one more time around.

Of all the spiritual gifts, I believe discernment is God’s gift for this hour.  Over the years I’ve made a steady habit of praying, “Lord, give me discernment; show me the truth.  Don’t let me fall into conspiracies, empty rumors and foolishness.  Give me clear eyes and insight into the truth.” 

Here are a few humble suggestions I’d put forward:

  • Focus on the good news of Jesus and His Kingdom.
  • Avoid gloom and doom.  (That is certainly not the good news).
  • Cry out daily for discernment, truth, and understanding.
  • Steep yourself in scripture.
  • Cultivate humility, inviting God to challenge and correct your ideas and opinions as needed.
  • Stay prayerfully informed from a variety of news sources, both liberal and conservative, checking them carefully for facts.
  • Honor the Truth, whose name is Jesus, remembering He lives in you.  
  • Let love, not fear, lead the way.

Isolation or investment?

My greatest fear about this Coronavirus is not catching it.  Nor is it a crashed economy, losing my retirement savings or government over-reach.  I suppose any of those things could happen with powerful consequences.  But my greatest fear is that at the end of this extraordinary time of disruption I will not have experienced the full transformation God is trying to work in me.

Just as the prodigal son was changed by his social isolation among the pigs, I believe God wants to change us during these difficult days: challenging our assumptions, exposing our passivity, and supercharging our impact upon the world.  In the distant land the wayward son awakened to his sorry condition, remembered his father’s kindness, and realized that he was squandering his life in a dead-end routine among pigs. 

We were born to change the world; every one of us, or perhaps more precisely to make a Kingdom difference in the little portion of the world around us.  C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Enemy occupied territory, that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed… and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”   (Or… if you prefer Kanye West, “We were born into a broken world, and we are the cleanup crew.”)

The question I keep returning to day-after-isolating-day is, “What am I doing at this moment to make a difference in the world?”  These exceptional times are not for treading water or entertaining ourselves until the coffeeshops, churches and restaurants open again.  These long hours are God’s gift to us; a “time out” to consider our ways, our purpose, and the imprint we could be leaving upon the world. 

It pains me to think I’ve had a slow start in coming fully on board, but I’m engaging this morning in what may be the latter days of our confinement, hoping I’ve not squandered too much precious time.    

Updating this blog is one response I’m making this morning.  What are some of the actions God is calling you to?  

Worldview and the Coronavirus

Worldviews inevitably go astray when they depart from the middle way of truth: Materialists are half correct when they say the world is material. But it is more! Spiritualists are half correct when they say the world is spiritual. But it is not only spiritual. The world is a glorious mix of both spiritual and material. That is the truth and the natural order of creation.

As we followers of Jesus approach the coronavirus we stand in need of recognizing the middle way. Already I am hearing some friends say reckless things like, “I’m not concerned. God will protect me.” God does protect us. But that is only half of the truth. The other half is that God has given us an understanding of how viruses are spread, and we need to honor the natural component of the sickness as well.

One friend mentioned that it’s not “unbelief” to wash up, avoid crowds, and take precautions any more than it’s “unbelief” for a Christian surgeon to scrub-up and wear a mask for surgery. No one wants to be operated on by a surgeon who simply “trusts in the Lord” to keep infection away.

A Biblical worldview honors both the spiritual and the natural. Foolishness sees only one end of the equation. The Old Testament is full of laws about social distancing from lepers, avoiding unclean foods, and practicing proper sanitation. These are legitimate injunctions regarding the natural world. But at the same time, we are admonished to trust in the Lord with all our hearts. That is the spiritual end, and both sides are important. As we plot our way through the challenge of coronavirus I encourage you to keep social distance inasmuch as you are able and to practice good hygiene. But I also encourage you to trust in God. Do not be afraid! God’s Word is full of promises about these sorts of situations.

As you distance yourself and take wise precautions capitalize on the time to memorize Psalm 91, and the many other promises God has given to us. And don’t fall into the foolishness of half-truths! We are in this situation with God at our side.

Perfect Harmony

Back in 1971, the New Seekers recorded a commercial jingle for Coca Cola, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony. It became one of the most influential TV ads in history, and an expanded version, (dropping the Coke references), rose to the top of popular charts all over the world.  The tune was lilting, but it was the lyrics that captured the imagination of the young.

I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company.
I’d like to see the world for once, all standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills for peace throughout the land.

The song tapped into the heart of a troubled world and a generation at war with itself, giving voice to hopes and dreams programmed into our primordial DNA by the Creator Himself.  Without doubt, the entire human race is longing for a world in tune with itself; a world of perfect harmony. 

But perfect harmony doesn’t just happen; It takes the long, skillful work of composers, arrangers, conductors, musicians and instrument tuners.  And it’s the same in the Kingdom. Jesus gives us the master pitch, and brings us into tune with Himself: “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus our Lord has done for us.”   (Romans 5;1) But that’s only the beginning, the tune-up note for the symphonic beauty which follows: “Peace on earth, goodwill towards all men.” 

As we step into 2020 we find ourselves in a discordant world of political bickering, divisive opinion, finger-pointing, and contempt. I pray that each of us would refocus our lives on the Prince of Peace, the Master of perfect harmony; learning his ways of honor, love, and respect. Disagreements are inevitable; ugliness is optional. May our discipleship lead us into that world we’re all dreaming of.

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the sons of God.”
Matthew 5:9

Why do so few understand the Kingdom?

Today I’m reading in Luke 8:10 “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables…”  Almost every time I stand before a class I find a small group of students who gladly receive the Kingdom and walk away changed to the core of their being. Revelation does that; it rearranges the furniture of our soul.

But there is almost always another group who remains oblivious and unchanged, as if they cannot see what others are seeing.  I’ve often expressed my frustrated wonder that the entire class isn’t left standing on their chairs rejoicing and demanding to hear more glad news of the Kingdom. 

I think the key to these two groups may be found in our posture towards Jesus.  In nearly every group of Believers there will be a portion who are after God for what he will do for them.  In the Gospels we see crowds of the curious pressing on Jesus for miracles, healing, and bread in the wilderness.  Skye Jethani refers to these as believers who are living “from God.”  These beloved people see God as their butler and therapist, ever attentive to their own happiness, their own well-being, their own health, wealth, and desires.  And our gracious God often obliges them, (like the crowds in the wilderness), by meeting their needs.  But their relationship with Him is little more than what Jethani calls “consumerism with a Jesus sticker slapped on it.”  These are the ones for whom parables will have to suffice. 

But there are others, disciples who have left everything to be WITH Jesus, to apprentice themselves to Him because of who he IS.  These are the ones who are given eyes to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom, who are gifted with revelation into the nature of reality and Truth. When the crowds turned away and Jesus asked his disciples if they would leave as well, Peter answered , “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.”  (John 6:68).

It’s up to each of us to classify ourselves: will I be a part of the crowd who presses on Jesus for what He offers me, or will I be a disciple who sees no other possibility but Him?

Mandela’s Garden

Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years of his life in prison for the crime of promoting a color-blind nation. It was a sentence that ripped him from his family, career, and community, and confined him behind concrete walls on a guarded island.

He passed his last eighteen years imprisoned on Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. While others might have been broken by such a sentence, Mandela was no ordinary man. Hope sustained him as he transformed his prison cell into a school room and a corner of the prison yard into a garden. It was his way of taking the little desert he’d been given and turning it into a bit of Eden. Day after day he tended his garden, faithfully watering, pruning, weeding, and cultivating until he possessed a little chunk of paradise right there in the midst of a penal wasteland. And God Himself surely watched him and decided He could use a man like that.

This is our call. We’ve each been entrusted with a personal little fiefdom that consists of our relationships, gifts, talents, possessions, vocation and time. For some it is a humble place, rocky and poor while others have been entrusted with riches and influence. Regardless, we each have the opportunity to work our little plot and develop it into a garden of beauty, order and abundance. This is what disciples of Jesus do.

And this is how great kingdoms are born: when the “underlords” of smaller lands and fiefdoms band together and pledge their allegiance to a sovereign, then all those little territories are knitted together into a great kingdom. God’s kingdom is no different. Even if our little world feels limited and poor, we can each work the ground we’ve been given, and bring our works to the Lord. And as we do, bit by bit the earth begins to shine with God’s glory. Are you faithfully tending your garden today?

The State of creation Address

Last week we were treated to the president’s State of the Union Address before live television and a joint session of Congress.  Donald Trump brought us up to speed on the progress we’ve made in areas of economy, employment, defense, border security, and foreign relations.  And he reminded us of the work that still needs to be done, calling all Americans to unite for the common good of the nation.

I wonder if maybe we could use a “State of the Creation Address.”  Of course Jesus – our Servant King – would be the one to deliver this important speech.  He might tell us about the progress we’ve made in feeding the poor and lifting them out of their poverty (1), of the innovation and creativity of the human race, of the progress we have made in healthcare and medical research, and of the growing peace and stability among the nations. (2)  Yes!  All these things are true!  He might mention that life expectancy and freedom are on the rise across the world, and that faithful missionaries are pushing deeper and deeper into the most unreached places on our planet, translating scriptures and planting churches of happily redeemed people. 

But then he would certainly remind us that much is yet to be done: that vast populations struggle under oppressive belief systems, that human trafficking still flourishes and millions of unborn babies are being murdered every year in their mother’s wombs while divorce, greed and crime deface his beloved people.  He might lament our political hostilities, or the plague of ignorance that stubbornly holds many in bondage.  And I’m pretty sure He would remind us that we truly are our brother’s keeper and that there are dozens of broken people within walking distance who still haven’t heard the good news of His glorious reign!  

In the end, I feel sure our compassionate King would remind us that He still loves his world, and has delightful plans for it’s redemption.  “For as truly as I live”, (He might say), “my glory WILL fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.  So let us redouble our efforts to see the work finished.  With prayer and faithfulness we CAN do this together because I am with you even to the end of the age.”

Vocation and calling

Skye Jethani tells us in his wonderful book, Futureville that every Christian has three callings: The “highest call”,  the “common call”, and the “vocational call.”  It’s an idea that brings welcome clarification to me, especially as we begin the new year. 

Our Highest Call is the calling to Jesus.  Human were specifically designed to function in a living relationship with Him.  “In Him was life, and the life was the light of man.” (John 1:4)  To attempt life apart from Jesus is an empty, dead-end street of frustration no different than trying to drive a car without gas.  The highest call is where everything begins, it’s where we discover our true personality and purpose for getting out of bed in the morning.

The Common Call: Once reconnected with the Source of life the common mission of every disciple is to apprentice himself to Jesus and become like him in every way.  This is our call to love our neighbor, to forgive our enemies, to pray and feed the poor, to serve one another and to bring glory to God in all things.  All believers have these first two callings in common.

But finally we have the Vocational Call:  This is where God reveals and develops His unique gifts and contributions in us to serve the world around us.  I’m a musician and a teacher. But as I write this post there’s a friend across the room who is gifted in business and hospitality.  He manages this little coffeeshop, makes each person feel like the most important person in the world and serves his customers with joy.  Others who come here are nurses, construction workers, truck drivers, artists, policemen, and sanitation workers.  The Kingdom needs every one of these vocations because each one brings order, beauty and abundance to the world around us.  And here is the mind-blowing thing about vocations:  They matter!  Where would we be if the cooks, the truck drivers, the plumbers and the musicians disappeared from among us?  In the Kingdom everyone and everything matters!

May you experience a fresh understanding of God’s calling in your life as we enter 2019. 

PS: Futureville is about the Kingdom.  It’s a great read and covers much more than just calling and vocation.

Second floor windows

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”    (Matthew 25:34).

Author Bob Goff points out in his wonderful book, Everybody Always, that the second floor windows at Disney World are dedicated to the people who helped make the Magic Kingdom a reality: the architects, builders, artists, and accountants who’s dedicated work moved the dream from Disney’s  imagination to a real, geographical place.

Several Bible passages suggest that our rewards in the Kingdom are very much like these windows, except that a Kingdom inheritance  is way better  than a cool-looking window.

Hopefully we don’t need to be reminded that our rewards and inheritance must never, ever be linked to our salvation. Adoption into God’s family is initiated and sustained entirely by grace.  But once we’ve been received into the Kingdom, the One who is “making all things new” has plenty of work for us to do.  And he promises rewards for those who are faithful.*  Scripture doesn’t spell out exactly what our inheritance will look like, but certainly it’ll be sweeter than a  window at The Magic Kingdom.

Bob suggests there might be some value in imagining what our Kingdom “window” might say: “Lover of outcasts, and healer of bodies”, “Teacher of children, and a vessel of cheer”, “Builder of homes and leader of men”,  or “Fixer of cars and example of love”.  The happy souls in Matthew 25 seemed to have been surprised about their own rewards: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality?’… And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you were doing it to me!’’”

However it plays out, we can be certain that God has plenty of work for us to do, and that everything we do matters: “Therefore, my dear friends, stand your ground, and don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

*1 Corinthians 3:1-13 & Matthew 25:21.

Building Disneyland

In 1964 Mom and Dad packed up our Ford station wagon and drove us across country to Disneyland, the epic fulfillment of my eleven-year-old dreams. The magic kingdom with it’s pirate ships, jungle cruise, talking animals and Matterhorn was no disappointment. It set my imagination on fire.

(Photo by Jorge Martinez)

Two weeks later when we returned home, bone-tired of travel, I set out to build a architectural replica of Disneyland, complete with waterways, rides, avenues and, of course, the Fairytale castle. (Especially the castle). I gathered an old model train platform, paper mâché, clay, lights and pumps and spent the remaining weeks of Summer building and wiring until I ran out of capital and returned to school where my young imagination was powered down and my psyche was crushed into adolescence.

I share this childhood memory to point out something deeply human that was happening in my young heart: I was dreaming of a perfect world, and of helping to make that world a reality. The success of Disneyland testifies to a universal vision we all share. “Uncle Walt” intuitively knew that if he built his fantasy kingdom, the masses would come year after year to experience “the happiest place on earth”, where beauty surrounds like oxygen and adventure beckons from every direction. It’s doubtful he realized the origin of his concept, or that His success was built on a dream God placed in our human soul. Yet with all it’s delight, Disneyland will never rise above a hazy, commercialized reflection of the true Kingdom; for there is no King within the castle’s fiberglass facade, and it’s magic begins to dry-up like grass clippings before we’ve exited the parking lot.

But every time we pray the Lord’s prayer are we not calling on God to build the real thing right here on earth? “Let your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” “For as surely as I live, (says the Lord), all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord… the wolf will lie down with the lamb… a little child will lead them… and they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks… Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war…”* Just as Disney built his magic Kingdom on worthless, Florida swamp land, God will build His on the tired, bloodstained soil of this earth. Piece by piece and person by person He is quietly at work, inviting each of us into His eternal vision. Today I understand that my eleven year old imagination was never far from home!

* Matthew 6:10; Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 11:6; and Numbers 14:21