Category Archives: Discipleship

The compelling power of beauty

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.

Trying vs. training

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?”

Three stages of discipleship

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.  stepping-stones-2

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.

The forgotten call

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).

Down in the dirt

“If you want to see God move, then stand up in the church and tell everyone what you’re really like.”   – Mary Webster

Not long ago I heard someone say, “I came from a very religious background: we lied to each other incessantly.” One of my favorite church moments of all time happened several years ago in Hawaii when an older Pentecostal saint – a holy woman in all of our eyes – stood up in testimony time and said,

“I have something to say this morning:  We come to this church week after week and we get out of our cars and greet each other: “How are you, brother?’ ‘Oh Praise the Lord! God is good!’ ‘Amen! Yes He is, all the time!” That’s what we say in the parking lot. But I’m just sick and tired of it! I want all you people to know that I’m not OK. I am one messed up woman in desperate need of grace. I don’t have it all together, and I’m starving for some honesty!  Do you think we could start telling each other the truth around here? That’s the only way we’re ever going to get through this!”

I wanted to stand on the pew that morning and shout! Religion pretends. It masquerades and hides behind makeup, clichés and polite smiles. But the Kingdom simply cannot be built on such illusions and pretense. Jesus demands the raw material of real people, with real struggles, hammering out real community. Kingdom disciples get down in the dirt, confess their failures, stand together, and throw all their trust in the mercy of God, because Grace is the ecosystem of the Kingdom, and Truth is its foundation.

“For the law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
– John 1:17

Kingdom how-to, part 2

Last week we asked the question, “How does a person actually live the Kingdom?”   When it comes to being a Kingdom disciple there are many things to keep in mind.  This new life is, after all, in polar opposition to almost everything we’ve learned under the present world system. But possibly the most central characteristic of a Kingdom disciple is the childlike love relationship he enjoys with the King.

When God launched his epic plan to undo the destruction of sin, he did not send a book to be read, a legal code to be followed or a philosophy to study, but a man we could know.  “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”  (John 1:14 The Message) This invitation into love and  friendship with the King is the womb of all activity for the attentive disciple .

Kingdom citizens wake up in the morning knowing they’re loved, and having their ears pinned to the heart of Jesus.  They expect to hear his voice, and are eager to respond when he says, “Son, daughter… let’s do this today!”   Notice – He works with us!  He includes us!  He never sends us out to work alone because in God’s eyes every day is “Bring your kid to work day”.  We live, work, love, and create with Him, because partnering with us has been the intention of his kind heart from the beginning.

“The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children”     -Luke 18:16
The relationship between God and the Disciple of the Kingdom is a bit like the friendship between Calvin and Hobbs, who awaken each morning in the embrace of friendship, off on yet another new adventure. And best of all: they get to do it together!

Three great fears

Three great fears tend to worry the sons of Adam:  “Do I matter?” “Do I belong?” and “Am I able?”   While modern culture tells us we’re merely “dust in the wind”, the Kingdom answers all three questions with a beautiful richness that is absent from any other philosophy, science or religion.

Do I matter?   Aren’t we all aching to know that our lives matter; that we’re more than spare parts to a great machine we call the universe? To this question, Jesus made the delightful observation that we are so valuable to the Father that “Even the very hairs on your head are all numbered”.  (Matthew 10:30)  In a universe where not a single sparrow falls without his notice, we are the crown of His creation, made in His image and created to leave an eternal mark on the world.  In fact, so precious are we to him that Jesus crossed all worlds, entered our darkness, shared our sufferings, and redeemed us at a staggering price.  The Kingdom assures us that not only do we matter, but everything we do matters; that even a cup of cold water given to a thirsty child in the name of Jesus is noticed and valued by the Father.  (Matthew 10:42)

Do I Belong?   Most of us easily default to feeling like cosmic orphans, searching for a place to belong.  Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4-5 that Even before he made the world, God … decided to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. We are not an afterthought to God!  He has had us in his heart since before creation itself, awaiting the moment when he could adopt us into His circle of Trinitarian love!  We are His pearl of great price for which he sold everything.  And now we have been included in his large and glorious family! 

Am I able?  “Do I have what it takes?” This is where the Spirit shines so beautifully.  The full work of redemption didn’t stop with forgiveness.  It was completed on Pentecost when God returned by His Spirit to live once again in his sons and daughters as he had in Eden.  Abba’s aim from the beginning was to win us back, flood us with His life and fill us with His power!  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”  (Acts 1:8)  “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to the Father.”  (John 14:12)  There is much left to be done in this world, and the Spirit makes us equal to the task!   So yes, we ARE capable…  “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord!”  (Zechariah 4:6)

The sons of the Kingdom understand that they are loved, included, and designed to make a difference in the world.  And that is a message of hope our friends are waiting to hear!

The playground bully

I have a confession to make about this blog: It frightens me. I’m afraid of being wrong, afraid of being boring, and afraid of offending people.  And that’s just for starters.  But fearful writers don’t connect.  Playing it safe, they’re too timid to inspire or to speak the truth.  And so I wrestle for courage every time I post.

The other day God reminded me about playing on seesaws when I was a kid.  I was scrawny in those days, and my happy seesaw-memories often crash-landed with some bully on the other end talking smack about bumping my boney butt to the ground.  And so I hung there, disabled and distressed.


Fear is a bully on the other end of the board who leaves us dangling, steals our joy, and intimidates us into silence.  Having only two weapons in his toolbox, when a child of God refuses to open the front door to Satan’s lies, he sneaks around to the back door to threaten us with fear.  I’ve been learning to reject the lies for awhile now, and so I regularly get badgered at the backdoor.

But faith is no lightweight on the seesaw. With the full gravity of Reality backing it up, faith sees from God’s perspective and leaves fear dangling and defenseless. “I sought the Lord and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked unto him and were lightened. (Psalm 34:4-5 KJV)

These are fearful days. It’s easy to allow our popular godless culture to intimidate us into silence, shaking in our shoes when we ought to be shouting in assurance.   “When the son of man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”  (Luke 18:8)

The daily challenge to stand our ground is not rocket science.  It’s as simple as making the choice to believe God in the presence of the bully.   For me this morning, that means clicking on the “Publish This Post” button.

(I couldn’t find any copyright information on the photo above, but it was too good to pass up!)

Front row seats, but missed the show

Mark 6:52 is such a sad verse: “For they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, for their heart was hardened.”

One of the great benefits I’ve discovered in writing this blog is that it requires me to live with my eyes open.  If I drift through the days with a dull heart, I will have nothing to say.   (And lets be honest, there are great chunks of time when I fail to update for that very reason).

One of the best, most powerful “prophetic words” I ever received was when I was about to leave for my YWAM training in 1994, and a friend from church locked his gaze on me and said, “Pay attention!”   Those two words became lodged in my heart and over the years have come rushing back into my mind in airports, gardens, classrooms and conversations.  Annie Dillard, the insightful author of A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has said “A writer is a professional observer”, and I would add “so is a disciple of Jesus Christ.”  

How sad that these disciples had a front row seat for the miracle of the loaves and fish, and yet never actually saw what happened.  Their heart – that miraculous holy place within us – had become hardened.  May God spare us from that fate and give us eyes to see.  Perhaps this is why Paul’s prayer for his Ephesian friends was “That the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.”    This has been my prayer for many years now, both for the church and for myself, because I have a secret fear: that sitting in the front row, I may still miss the show.

John Piper has said “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”   So in the words of my friend, lets “Pay attention!” 

The idea that changes everything

One of the great miracles of the early church is the story of how this little fellowship of fishermen, household slaves and tax collectors evolved into a force that supplanted the pagan culture of the world’s greatest empire.   “We have filled all you have”, said the great Tertullian in the third century,  “your cities, islands, forts, towns, assembly halls, military camps, town councils, the palace, the senate, and the forum.  We have left you nothing but the temples.”   Armed with grace and truth, this was a church that out-loved, out-thought, and out-died their Roman neighbors.  It was a church with a vision for a better world, and a blueprint for a new kind of Kingdom.

Perhaps we could learn something from them.   The modern western church by contrast has largely exchanged grace for judgement, martyrdom for materialism, and truth for education.  When the Son stepped into His role as Messiah he introduced something new into the mix of life passed down through the Jewish scriptures.  To the ancient injunction of Deuteronomy 6:4, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength”, he added “and with all of your mind“.  (Mark 12:30)   Here, I believe, is one of the places where the contemporary church parts company with early believers: we have abandoned the Christian mind, leaving the heavy lifting of how we ought to live to the academics and even, (God forbid), to the government.

One of the towering Truths of the kingdom is that the King himself IS Truth.  The God who created all things, and holds all things together, (Colossians 1:15-17), is the same God who shares His mind with his people.  (1 Corinthians 2:16).  The early church knew that they carried within them the One “in whom is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”.  This was the well of wisdom, the engine of innovation, and the fountainhead of reformation in the early centuries of the Christian church.   Kingdom disciples honor this gift and look to the Lord for fresh insight, ideas and inspiration.

On a personal note, I’ve just finished teaching a delightful group of musician/disciples here in YWAM Denver.   We had many moments of laughter and tears as God unfolded the beauty of His kingdom as the hope for our broken world.  I live for these moments and find myself feeling profoundly grateful that God allows me to do what I love.