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.

The Sound of God’s Heart

Years ago Youth With A Mission in Kona was sending off an outreach team to some far-off nation of the world.  The student-missionaries were surrounded by teachers and seasoned staff praying and waiting to see if perhaps the Holy Spirit had anything He wanted to say on their way to the airport.  And sure enough, His word came forth from one of the older saints:  “Don’t go!  Don’t go unless you love them!  Apart from love your message will be barren!” 

That powerful memory has returned to me recently, especially since a dear friend has challenged me several times about the importance of being “authorized” to represent Jesus. Although the resurrected One gave us the authority to preach, heal, cast out demons and make disciples, it was all predicated on the foundation of His life: The love of the Father.  Anything divorced from that love will remain sterile, barren and meaningless.  “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am only a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”  

“Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and knowledge; and though I have the faith to move mountains, but have not love… I am nothing.”   Eloquence, miracles, prophecy, wisdom and even faith itself are meaningless apart from love. 

Years ago I had a vivid dream that changed me: I was resting my head against Jesus’ chest listening to his heartbeat.  But the sound of his heart surprised me;  instead of the “thump… thump… thump…” I expected, each cadent throb of His heart spoke “people… people… people…” 

God’s Kingdom is a show-and-tell endeavor.  The language that opens the souls of broken men and women is love. 

Certainty or Confidence?

Years ago I read a newspaper interview with a spry 105 year old woman who had just celebrated another birthday.  I forget nearly all the details of the article except for one question the interviewer asked:  “After so many years of life, what do you know for certain that you would like to pass on to others?”  “Oh”, she said, “I don’t know anything for certain!  But I do suspect a few things.”

After spending the bulk of my life doing my level-best to call young people into discipleship, a steady willingness to “rethink” seems to be an important key to transformation.  We must be wary of certainty, and aim at confidence.  I have come to believe that when Jesus opened his ministry with the command to “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” he was calling the world to something more than a one-time decision to follow Him, but rather to a lifetime of rethinking the ideas, attitudes, and habits that have littered our minds by the spirit of the age.  Discipleship is a lifelong process of being transformed “by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:1-2) 

In the series, The Chosen, Peter reacts to something Jesus has said: “But this is different.”  And Jesus, with a twinkle in his eye, answers, “Get used to different.”  So often we in the modern church have allowed our religious ideas to harden like concrete into certainty, and  in the process have short-circuited the opportunity to grow and change.  

“Get used to different.” (And by the way, this applies to The Chosen, too. As much as I enjoy the beautiful storytelling of the series, it demands discernment between the clear Biblical truth, and the creative license of the writers. Test all things)!

In the classroom I begin nearly every session with the challenge, “Test everything I say.  I too am a disciple, and though I am confident in what I teach, it’s possible I could be wrong.  Look at these scriptures with me, and if they do not support what I teach, then stop me, and help me to see my error.”   I hope you will do the same.  I’m far from an authority on the things I write about, but I present them with a degree of confidence that they seem to be true according to the scriptures, plain reason, and experiential fruit.  

The disciples of Jesus are not hardened scribes, but lifelong learners.

Gratitude, an Army, and a Dance

“What do you have that you did not receive?”  1 Corinthians 4:7

Today I turned seventy, and some have asked what it is like.  I’ll tell you, it’s an experience of profound gratitude.  I came wailing into the world on January 17, 1953, with nothing owed to me.  And before I took my first breath an army was assigned to my care: doctors, nurses, administrators, dietitians and diaper-changers.  

My first day of school, and the first day of my seventies.

The army expanded as farmers and pickers, truck drivers, and toy makers, jumped into the act to keep my little demanding self fed and entertained.  Teachers and preachers, scout masters, school-staffers, den mothers and doctors swirled ‘round my young soul in a tango of training, a ballet of discovery in a  world unexplored. 

The dance grew with craftsmen and makers of pianos and flutes; of guitars and ukes, designers of autos and airplanes, and pilots who shuttled me to far-off places. There’ve been bakers of baguettes and clerks who sold them to me in lonely airports, and strangers who smiled at me when I was alone, or walked me to the bus station in a foreign city. Firemen and soldiers have guarded me while I slept, and symphonies have soothed me in times of distress.

Others joined quietly: unnamed coal miners,  linemen, and gas-field workers who kept me warm and mobile, or kept the lights burning, authors and book-writers, artists and illustrators, balladeers, and inventors, Romantic composers and Renaissance painters who stood me before beauty, while sanitation workers and plumbers quietly kept the toilets flushing and the garbage at bay.  Do you see the staggering complexity that has undergirded my life?   I get lost in the thought of how many have fed me, nurtured me, inspired and sustained me . Keeping a soul alive for a week is Herculean.  Keeping it alive for seventy years is a miracle! 

I read recently that the little metal band that holds the eraser onto the end of a pencil requires no less than thirty processes, from mining and smelting to shaping and coating.  Thirty processes!  And that’s just for the band that holds the eraser!  

My mind strains to think of vanilla-growers and chicken-pluckers, of road-pavers and engineers of bridges and tunnels, of builders and butchers, of packers and produce-managers, of cooks and servers and geniuses who keep the Internet online, shoe-makers, shirt-stitchers, of postal workers and barbers who keep the deliveries coming and my cow-lick at bay.   It’s no exaggeration to imagine an army of millions has served and assisted me in this great dance of life.  How fortunate to be the recipient of all this goodness!

And you, too, are included.  Maybe you’ve danced with me for only an afternoon, or perhaps you’ve held me tight over the years.  For your part, I am fiercely grateful.  You have shaped me by your friendships, laughter, tears, and embrace, all woven together by an unseen Hand, who issues the invitation:

“Your Heavenly Father, His Glorious Son, and the Spirit of Life
request the honor of this dance”.  

Profound gratitude.  That’s what turning seventy feels like.

*(This post was inspired by The Great Dance, by my friend C. Baxter Kruger).

Upstairs / Downstairs

One of the church’s most deadly distractions from the Kingdom is our silly “upstairs / downstairs” idea. From the early centuries of the church, Gnosticism and Greek philosophies began to seep into our thinking which separated God’s world into two levels of reality: the upstairs “spiritual” level, where God lives, and the downstairs “natural” level, where mortals live, work, and watch America’s Got Talent in the evening.

We live downstairs in the “natural” world while God lives upstairs
in the “heavenly” world.

This messed-up worldview has kept our lives as divided as whites and colors on laundry day. We imagine God almost like a reclusive old grandfather living on the second floor, while the rest of us are grinding away at life down below. Of course God loves it when we go upstairs to visit Him on Sundays, or when we need His advice. But he never, ever comes downstairs to get involved in our messy existence on the ground floor. He’s just not interested in our music, work, TV shows, or the sports car in the garage. (He’s way too religious for those sorts of “natural” things). So we mostly leave him alone in His upstairs apartment where he can watch TBN, The Gaithers, or his favorite series, The Chosen, in peace and quiet.

The Kingdom, of course, is exactly the opposite: God has moved right down into the midst of our stuff on the ground floor, and He moves throughout the house tinkering, laughing, helping out with our messes, or rolling up His sleeves to lend a hand with the science project. He also loves America’s Got Talent, and I think I even caught Him tapping his foot to one of my ragtime tunes on the piano.

There is NO Upstairs-Downstairs, but only one world where God and people live together!

This upstairs-downstairs idea has done immense damage to both the church and the world. At times it has kept me from reading good “non-religious” books, from expressing political opinions, and occasionally it even keeps me from enjoying too much laughter and good times with friends. But the saddest and most dangerous thing of all is in “partitioning” God off from the rest of life. The Kingdom means God has invaded all things with his presence. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” There is no division; neither upstairs nor downstairs. He inhabits it all.

Conspiracy, or not?

Because it is the nature of darkness to hide, there are indeed
conspiracies afoot.

C.S. Lewis famously observed, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”  I think the same can be said of conspiracy theories. 

I see on one side those who mock reasonable questions about the origins of the Covid virus, the integrity of our elections, or the agenda of the World Economic Forum with, “Oh… that’s just a conspiracy.”  But equally disturbing are the ones on the other extreme who think EVERYTHING is a conspiracy.  They wear me out with their alarmism and suspicion. 

The reality is certainly somewhere in the middle, where the sound sensibility of the scriptures exhort us, “Do not believe every spirit…”  “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.”  “… Evil people and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”  “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” 

Lewis wisely points out a foolish and deadly denialism on one side, and an unhealthy fixation with darkness on the other.  Instead, let us walk in the sanctified center of wisdom: If the origins of the virus, or the outcome of the election seem suspicious, then by all means ask your questions, pray, and do your research.  Or if you can’t be bothered, then at least affirm your brother and the questions he may be asking.  Engage in reasonable conversations, and arrive at your own considered conclusions.  But don’t try to drag me into a rabbit hole that will divert the whole river away from the shores of truth and reason.  We are called to declare the good news of the Kingdom, while taking only a passing interest in the deeds of darkness.  (Indeed, enough interest so that we can pray intelligently). 

“If you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding… then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God.”  May we live curious, questioning lives of healthy examination, while we keep our hope and our focus on the One who is the truth.   

Why I Am A Christian (Rewrite)

In 2001 I was living in postwar Sarajevo, Bosnia. The World Trade Center had just been attacked, and people were asking existential questions. I wrote a piece entitled “Why I Am a Christian” which received an unusual amount of traction at the time. I recently went back and updated it. It’s a little longer than my other blog entries, but if you take the time to read it, you’ll see why.

When I was a new believer, if a person were to ask me why I’m a follower of Jesus, I would have drawn from the beautiful, subjective experiences of my new found relationship with Him. I would have spoken about “peace”, “forgiveness” and “life” with deep sense of wonder and gratefulness. But if you were to ask me that question now, so many decades later, my response would go so much deeper, beyond the subjective into the depths of reality itself:

Today I follow Jesus not only because of the beautiful inner work He did in me during those early days, but also because the Biblical story offers the only complete and viable answers to life’s most universal questions

  • Who and what is man?
  • Is there meaning to life?
  • What’s wrong with the world?
  • How can the world be fixed?
  • Why is my heart so deeply moved by beauty, compassion, and stories?
  • Why do I dream of a different, more perfect world?

Jesus answers all the questions:
While the Materialists, Marxists, and Postmodern intellectuals wrestle in vain to make sense of these questions, Jesus gathers them all up and assembles them into a story that gives a complete accounting of all nature, life and human longings. No other worldview even comes close to that. Search for yourself the philosophies of Materialism, Marxism, Postmodernism, Islam, Buddhism, and New Age Spiritualism. They fail spectacularly in answering even the most basic questions of life.

The Way to Beauty, and Life:
I’m a follower of Jesus because wherever it grows, Biblical Christianity produces consistently beautiful and enduring fruit. No other “way” has built so many hospitals, orphanages, rescue missions, has fed so many hungry people, lifted so many out of poverty, emancipated so many slaves, or established so many organizations to serve, educate, heal, and bless the human family as the simple followers of Jesus, who believe that “inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, my brothers, you did it unto me.”

The Foundation of Science and Creation:
I’m a Christian because creation itself testifies of a wondrous order that can only point to a loving, genius Creator. The world’s greatest scientists from Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, to Carl Linnaeus and Max Plank have believed that only an infinite, personal God can account for the intricacies of fireflies, animal instincts, eyesight and hearing, the Fibonacci and the water cycle, the rotational clockwork of the planets, and the natural laws of nature. Man and animals alike exhibit a capacity for love and relationship that could never have arisen out of a cold, impersonal time-chance universe. Follow the science, and you will come to an infinite, personal God who designed us with mind-boggling DNA, self-consciousness, and emotions that cause us to tear-up in the presence of profound beauty.

The Basis of Civilized Society, Order and Blessing:
I am a follower of Jesus because the Biblical story offers the best and only viable foundation for a civilized society. Look at the nations of the world. Where there is freedom, purpose, prosperity, justice and compassion you will find Jesus at the foundation.

Christianity Explains Us:
But it doesn’t stop on the cultural level.  Christianity goes deeper to undergird and explain our own personal passion for beauty, life, relationship, understanding, order, meaning and story:  I was created in the “spittin'” image of a loving, creative, genius of a God.  And that explains so much about who I am. The Father, Son and Spirit is eternally relational, and so I, (we), long for relationships.  God ordered the universe, and so we desire order.  God creates, and so we love to create. God works, and we enjoy work. God thinks, and we are thinkers.  God writes powerful, meaningful stories  And we too have a great yearning to live deep and meaningful stories!  

The Satisfier of Personal Need:
And finally I am a follower of Christ because of the deeply personal way He meets me in everyday life; because he steps into my human brokenness, darkness and despair and meets me with a love and quiet presence that stills my soul with assurance and peace. I follow Jesus because he is the true source of life, purpose, truth, wisdom, understanding, and reality itself.

Experiencing Life

It’s an unchanging key to the Kingdom: life expands and contracts according to our preoccupation with self.  “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”  (Matthew 10:39)

We get stuck in our own needs and wonder why life isn’t “better” for us.  The solution is simple: Raise your sights and your concern to those around you, forget about yourself and ask what you can do for the person standing in front of you.  That is Christian maturity: the bearing of fruit.  Life is too short to be self-conscious, timid, and retiring.  A mature disciple of Jesus is one who has become outgoing, servant-minded, and others-focused. The question to ask is, “What can I do to help that man bear his load?”

Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, noted that the great problem in his psychiatric hospital was how to get the patients to do anything for others, “for they are not interested in others; they are interested solely in themselves – that’s why they are here!”

May God deliver us from the shallowness of soul-sucking selfishness!    

True Education

John Wesley used to exhort the early Methodist circuit riders to “Read, or get out of the ministry.”  Severe?  Perhaps, but I’m convinced that reading is an absolute essential to discipleship.  We are called, after all, to be lifelong learners; disciples of the Kingdom never master the curriculum.  There will always be more. 

Francis Schaeffer says “True education requires thinking across the various disciplines, and not just being qualified in one particular field”. Evangelicals are the worst at this.  We are often “experts” in evangelicalism and ignorant of history, philosophy, art, culture and government. Thus, one of the greatest failures of today’s church is our abandonment of the Christian mind.  “My people are destroyed through lack of knowledge.”  (Hosea 4:6). Because we have abandoned the call to love God with our minds, we have stalled the advance of the Kingdom, and fallen into cultural damage-control.  We’ve become mental midgets facing the end of the world as we know it. 

The apostle Paul, with his sterling credentials asked Timothy to “bring the books” when he came.  (2 Timothy 4:13).  What books?  We don’t know, but we do know from reading his epistles that the apostle had a thorough grasp of history, law, culture, philosophy, and poetry.  “All things are Thy servants”, David wrote in Psalm 119.  “All things”.  If we have discerning hearts, we will see God’s truth embedded everywhere, from nature, mathematics, and beauty, to stories, literature, and poetry.

Saint Athanasius reminded the fourth century believers, “You will not see anyone who is truly striving after spiritual advancement who is not given to spiritual reading.”  If I could encourage young disciples of Jesus with one discipline, it would be to read! (Well… to read, and to PRAY!!)  We ought to read broadly, read critically, read with discernment, and read with humility. 

Here’s a link to a cross-section of books which have shaped my worldview and my walk with Jesus.    Perhaps you have your own favorites you could share in the comments section.  A good book recommendation can change a life and open a whole new world! 

Never in trouble

I just noticed an uptick in views here at Dispatches, and I’m wondering if perhaps people are looking for some perspective on the simultaneous crises happening around us. Certainly the world is looking more dangerous and chaotic than at any time in the immediate past.

Dallas Willard reminds us, “The Kingdom is never in trouble. And you are a part of the Kingdom. So you are not in trouble.” My YWAM friends in Kiev, (where I was scheduled to speak in five weeks time), surely feel like they’re in trouble. They’re sheltering in the basement and praying, while missiles fly overhead, and explosions rock the city. This is reality: life is a battlefield, but Jesus is at our side.

In every great, triumphant story there are battles. Without great battles there can be no great victories. Jesus promised us several things in life: peace, power, and trouble in this world, “but take courage… I have overcome the world.” His Kingdom is secure. It is not in trouble. And besides, He reminds us that “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.”

If I were a prognosticator I would say that for those of us who live in the West, things will likely get worse before they get better. We will need to learn that we cannot trust in the idols of people and politics. Many of us have become complacent and hopeful that the next election might save the day. We will need to repent from those idols and return to the King and the Kingdom as our only hope.

In the meantime, we must learn to pray and intercede, not casual prayers, nor prayers “on the run”, but focused prayers in agreement with others around us. We must gather for prayer. These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary, life-interrupting action.

Then I believe we will begin to see great changes and great victories around us.


Several years back I went into a local restaurant with an old and dear friend in Hawaii. Taking our seats, I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and placed it, screen-down, on the table in front of me. Within moments the waiter appeared, looked me in the eye, and informed me, “I’m sorry, sir, but in this restaurant, we don’t allow cell phones to be seen. You’ll have to put that away.” Ha! Busted! It was a momentary embarrassment, but a beautiful policy and lesson!

Two nights ago, in another restaurant I walked past a table of eight diners. Six of them were staring at cell phones. How sad and demeaning to think that the image-bearers of God can sit face to face with each other and find more interest in screens and pixels.

We disciples of Jesus must do better; we must establish a higher, more beautiful culture. One of the very first names given to God in the Old Testament is El Roi, “The God who sees.” (Genesis 16:13). Certainly He sees all things, but he is clearly captivated by the sight of His own image in the face of his sons and daughters. “Turning toward the woman, Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do you SEE this woman?’” (Luke 7:44). I like that. Fussy, distracted Simon saw only an embarrassment at his dinner party, but Jesus was utterly enchanted by the street woman in front of him.

Often it’s the small things that set the disciples of Jesus apart as a “city on a hill”: our priorities, our focus, and the things that take our attention. At this moment, and the next, the most important thing in the world is that person standing right in front of me. Jesus sees her. Do I? Do you?