Sleeplessness picked at my brain and tickled my body last night until I finally gave in and retreated to the recliner and my old journals. Stretching back over forty years, these journals have become my counsellors, my instructors and often my accusers. They remind me that an honest working title for my life thus far would be, “Stumbling Disciple.” I’ve vacillated from mountain heights of glory and inspiration, to lonely valleys of failure and despair; from exotic places and experiences of God’s faithfulness, right down into hopelessness and crushing doubt. I’m amazed at the glorious, giddy truths the Holy Spirit has given me, and appalled at the scope of what I’ve already forgotten. These writings keep my life in perspective.
Last night I noticed that under the steady passing of years, one cadence seems to drone like a soundtrack to my life: “Not enough!”: Not enough prayer; not enough worship; not enough accomplishment; not enough practicing, writing, compassion, exercise, serving, witnessing, faithfulness or creativity. The nagging voice of “not enough” seems to greet me in the morning and chatter on until I fall asleep at night.
Whether friend or foe I’m not certain, since it both condemns me and pushes me forward into action. But this I know: today my sufficiency is in Jesus alone. I am clearly and without question, inadequate without Him. I’m only a stumbling disciple trying to get it right. Yet He has told me, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for (my) power is perfected in (your) weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
Today I’m choosing to boast in God and to rest in the adequacy of His promise: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” And my soul says “Hallelujah!”
I’ve been thinking recently how the teachings of Jesus can be captured in a few simple ideas that even a child can understand:
“Believe in me”:
Throughout history God has spoken through prophets, angels, scriptures, stone tablets, and even a donkey. But in his final attempt to reach our darkened hearts He sent His Son. “The Word became flesh and lived among us”. He loved us, taught us, and showed us the true face of His Father. God did not reveal himself as a philosophy, a set of commands, a book, or a religion, because none of those means could accomplish the task of “making all things new.” Only Jesus could could accomplish such a thing. And so He presented Himself in evidence and issued a simple invitation: “Believe in me”.
“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” John 7:37-38
“Seek first the Kingdom”: (Matthew 6:33)
Jesus didn’t come to simply save us from our sins. He came to remake the world; to offer the human race a “do-over”. He is not merely the Savior of my soul or the centerpiece of the church; He is the center of ALL things. “[God] planned to bring all of history to its goal in Christ. Then Christ would be the head of everything in heaven and on earth.” (Ephesians 1:10) We modern believers are still weak on this concept, wanting to reduce the gospel to a personal experience and roadmap to a future in Heaven. But that is not the Kingdom! The Kingdom is that universal dream for a perfect world that every person carries in his heart. Newsflash! God carries that same dream!
Love one another: (John 13:34)
Nothing could be more simple. Jesus said the world would actually recognize us by our love. So they do, right? Not quite. They sometimes recognize us by our judgments, boycotts, and religious pride. Other times they don’t recognize us at all. If we were to actually demonstrate this one thing – loving others supremely – the world would virtually throw open it’s heart to the Gospel!
And finally – after we’ve begun to master these first three commands, we are called to make disciples of others who will make disciple of still others in this rich and living way that puts the world back together again and fills everything with glory.
One of my prayers for 2017 is that I will grow in the area of discernment. All the “fake news” talk we’ve been hearing about lately isn’t really news for many of us. We’ve known about partisan sites, conspiracy sites, and sensationalist sites forever, but the problem lies in spotting them when they support the very same ideas that I hold so dear. So as one who deeply cares about Truth I’ve been asking God for the spiritual gift of discernment. How amazing it would be to clearly hear the Spirit whisper, “No son… don’t fall for that. It’s a lie”.
I’m also learning that Truth seldom resides at the extremes. C.S. Lewis says, “The Devil sends lies into the world by pairs”, and of course he does it to divide people and communities. The “free will” versus “God’s sovereignty” debate has kept the church tied in knots for centuries. But what about today’s “liberalism” versus “conservatism” debate? Does the Truth reside at the extreme end of either of those worldviews? Lewis suggests that the Truth often lies in the tension of the middle. It’s not that God is mushy in regard to Truth, but he certainly is neither a political conservative nor a liberal. He is the solid reality behind our foggy ideas.
A second prayer commanding my attention is that I will become a peacemaker. In a world so fractured by anger, accusations and finger-pointing we Believers are called to be agents of peace, looking for opportunities to bring healing and grace into each situation. Saint Francis captured it flawlessly in the prayer we’ve treasured for centuries:
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”
In my last post I wrote about the imperative of restoring beauty to the Christian Gospel. Common people flocked to hear Jesus not only because his words were beautiful: “Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile;” but even more so because his life was beautiful. God himself had stepped into human flesh and was living among us as a lover of outcasts, a healer of broken people, and a perfect reflection of His heavenly Father.
It’s impossible to read the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman taken in adultery without feeling the awesome beauty of this sinful woman finding forgiveness before she even asked. That was Jesus – the Word become flesh. But the incarnation continues in his disciples, the word is still becoming flesh in us, or at least it ought to be. The true follower of Jesus will always be looking more like his master.
Has Jesus called us to change the world through politics? No! Has he commanded us to go into all nations pointing out sin? No! Has he commissioned us to argue the world into faith on Internet discussion boards? No! But this is our call: “…as He is, so also are we in this world.” (John 4:17) Our call is to be like Him; to be beautiful like Him.
“You are the light of the world! A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. So let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14, 16). In a world as dark as ours, a beautiful shining city will draw multitudes into its gates.
My older brother, Terry, inspires me. At sixty-five he’s still competing in marathons and triathlons. This weekend he cycled 116 miles up to Pittsburgh so he could run a race on Saturday. I putzed around the house reading, playing music, and chatting with friends. Could I have cycled alongside my brother? Not in a million years, even if I tried really hard. “Trying” couldn’t carry my flabby frame more than a few miles before I’d collapse in defeat. But would I be capable of it if I trained and prepared? Of course! If I paid the price my brother has paid, then I could probably do the same sorts of things he does.
When it comes to living a life of discipleship, trying just doesn’t feed the bulldogs. Regardless of how hard I try to be like Jesus, I inevitably find myself sidelined on the trail, panting for breath and begging for mercy.
No, discipleship is more than trying. It is a life of strict training towards the goal of becoming like Jesus. For years I thought of spiritual disciplines as exercises in gaining God’s approval, like the little gold stars I used to earn from my teachers. But grace taught me there’s no point in trying to earn points with a God who isn’t keeping score. Since we’re unconditionally loved and saved by grace, our days of trying to impress God are firmly behind us. But spiritual disciplines do have a place in the life of a disciple: They train me to connect more deeply with grace, and they help me to grow into the loving, selfless, and spiritually attentive person Jesus wants me to become.
Just as there are hundreds of ways to train for a marathon, there are unlimited disciplines to help us towards spiritual maturity: Intentionally looking for Jesus in the face of strangers, actively listening to others, or to God, regularly devoting my driving time to prayer, or setting aside time every day to thank God for His blessings. In fact, whatever our weaknesses, God can show us disciplines to help along the way.
As disciples we must ask ourselves, “Am I training, or merely trying to become like Jesus?”
Becoming a disciple of Jesus is not rocket science. At it’s core there are just three basic stages for the serious follower to experience: Believe, love, and serve.
We enter into the Kingdom, and the life with Jesus by making a decision to believe He is who he says he is. “…That whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” What is it, you might wonder, that we are called to believe about Jesus? That He is the Christ: God living in human flesh to redeem the world from darkness, sin, and death. He is the Way out of our fallenness, and the Life that manifests itself in a fullness of being that remains inconceivable to the mere biological man.
The next stage of discipleship is to become the sort of person God had in mind from the beginning: a person who loves from the heart. It was said of the early church, “Behold how they love one another!” “My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us – perfect love!” (1 John 4:11-12) A true Disciple is identified by his love. Unfortunately, today’s church is often known more for our judgments and divisions. Thus our witness has been shipwrecked before a watching world.
But if we progress this far we have but one more stage in the journey: we must embrace servanthood. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.” (John 13:13). The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of servants, each of whom reflects the humility of their servant-King.
The world awaits our discipleship. Only when the followers of Jesus begin to fully mirror him in faith, love, and serving will this broken planet truly behold the beauty of the gospel.
Barnes and Nobel has a way of firing me up. I just finished searching the Christian life section of one store here in Charlotte looking for a book, any book about the Kingdom of God. There were exactly zero. I checked with the clerk to be sure I wasn’t overlooking something. “I’m sorry, we don’t seem to have anything like that”, she replied. “And how many books do you have about ‘Heaven’?” I asked. “It looks like we have about one hundred twenty different titles in stock.” Those of you who know me realize that this is one of my hot buttons. Why the big deal, you might ask? Because the Kingdom is THE message of Jesus, and because this unhealthy fixation on heaven guts the power of his message. Take discipleship, for example:
In the late eighteenth century when the gospel of the Kingdom was replaced by the “good news” of the “minimum requirements for heaven”, spiritual transformation was relegated to the optional, a laborious pursuit meant only for the serious-minded. Well-intentioned believers could rest in the assurance that, “I’m saved by grace. I know where I’m going when I die.” Well… if that’s the point of the gospel, then there is absolutely no need for the troublesome work of discipleship!
Heaven-oriented Christianity has little in common with the rugged call of Jesus to follow in his steps as disciples. Having bought the ticket, it only remains to hold on to our faith until the hour of death. On the contrary, Kingdom-centered faith recognizes the task before us: to become more and more like Jesus, and to bring His influence to bear on everything around us.
“Conversion is the miracle of a moment;
Discipleship is the labor of a lifetime.”
– E. Stanley Jones
Discipleship belongs to the Kingdom like food belongs to the living. Jesus’ gospel begins at the ground-zero of each converted heart and spreads into everything we touch until the world shines with His glory. It’s not enough to be saved – we must be changed! Conversion is no longer seen as the end-point of the message, but the doorway into a life of grace that moves every follower into a lifelong process of spiritual transformation. In a world torn apart, the only hope for the nations will be seen when believers become disciples and begin to walk as Jesus walked. (1 John 2:6).