When I first met Brad Sprague it was 2011 and he was trying to build his business as a life coach. Myself? I was just trying to make a friend (and sense of my life). The fact that we did ultimately connect probably had little to do with either of our motives, at least in the grand scheme of things. Being at cross-purposes with each other was not a deterrent to God however, who was just doing what I perceive God is always doing – building His kingdom by way of His family, sometimes in spite of us. God just wanted Brad and I to discover our brotherhood in Christ and enjoy the byproduct of our interaction, which has been considerable. The staying power of our relationship and the fruit it has born can be traced to our brotherhood in Christ, who is our life, pure and simple.
Life coach, counselor and mentor are all modern words that cover the gaps created by our mishandling of the word “pastor.” Pastor in our modern understanding has come to mean the main speaker and/or the chief administrator. No matter what we have told ourselves, we did not get these ideas purely from the Bible.
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder … shepherd the flock of God among you. (from 1 Peter 5:1-2)
Our word “pastor” can be traced to Peter’s word “shepherd” which he is using as a verb not a noun. This is because the word “pastor” is more of a gift to be exercised than an office to be occupied. A deeper study into the biblical meaning of elders (presbuteros) and overseers (episcopos) would help us in recovering a truer understanding of what it means to shepherd or pastor.
My brother Brad, functioning as a life coach, was actually shepherding my soul. His work began, rightfully assuming that God is always at work in His children. Without preaching a single sermon or administrating a single program, the pastoral gift was in full expression as Brad pulled alongside and began asking his well placed questions. Brad’s mission was simply to help me discover the story God was writing in my life.
Shepherds coach, counsel and mentor others so that they can personally meet God in all His goodness in the midst of their often bewildering circumstances. There is simply not enough of the “conventional” pastor to go around and watch over the souls of their flock to such a degree. Tragically, true shepherding is often outsourced because it is so messy and time consuming. Regardless of what my brother Brad was calling himself, he was shepherding me in the truest sense of that word.
One of the most valuable things Brad did for me was to hand me a simple devotional called The Blue Book. Mature brothers always point those entrusted to them directly to the Father, who is much closer than most of us understand. For this reason The Blue Book can be a true shepherd’s best friend. What greater good could we do than to help each other discover how to keep company with God. Jim Branch is the author of the Blue Book, another one of those brothers without the title “pastor” who shepherd the flock so well. Jim would say that he is simply helping us discover the ancient rhythms of God that were whispered into us when He breathed us into being. He would add that place and time are important elements to this process because they help us ward of three of our soul’s greatest enemies; crowds, noise and busyness.
I’ve given out hundreds of Blue Books simply because of the profound impact it has had (and is having) on my life. They can now be purchased on Amazon. I know. The New Year has already started but order yourself a Blue Book. Order some for friends and help them begin watching over their souls in a whole new way. Work through it together and explore the kingdom of God. Perhaps we will discover Christ (the Good Shepherd) in us and help actually fill some of the gaps left by the extra-biblical ways we have chosen to function in the Body of Christ.
Father, may 2017 be a year when You find more and more of Your sons and daughters at Your feet listening intently to Your words of Life, keeping company with their Father who is on earth as He is in heaven. So be it.
Since I have begun more intentionally gathering with other believers in smaller groups without any title or authority other than what friends extend to each other, Church has begun to take on new meanings. The following was written as a Thanksgiving word of encouragement to those whom God has graciously connected me to;
Happy Thanksgiving Dear Family. Please don’t read this in your phone. It is WAY too long.
“How good and how delightful it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!
A strand of three cords can not easily be broken.”
These are just the words that came from my heart as I think of you friends this AM. We can only speculate the delightful strength of our cord – with our multiple strands!
A few years ago the Lord encouraged me with one of those quiet inner, yet persistent, promptings. It consisted of this; “Find ways to love and serve those near to you and to tell them My story; the one I am writing on your heart (with the implied caveat; if and when they are interested). Accompanying the quiet inner prompt (which I am learning to recognize as God’s voice) was this, “….and just watch what I will do.” As I have watched (which is what I do) I have discovered something remarkable. The Church is alive! It exists! It just wasn’t where I was looking! We don’t have to build it! We just have to discover it! It’s not an event. It is not a 501(c)(3). It doesn’t have a physical address. It is not even an it! It is an “us”!
We are the Church! You and I are the living breathing representatives of Christ in this earth. That is why our lives are crammed with adventure and purpose! We are the light of the world! While Christ was the Incarnate Word; He is now incarnating His Word in us in the presence of each other and before an unbelieving and skeptical world that He died to save. (By the way, the process He uses to do this is called discipleship. That transformational process is what exposes the Light of the World – Christ, who is our life. He Himself, in us, is the engine behind the harvest and the Great Commission.) Absolutely remarkable!
You may not be familiar (or even keen) with prophetic words but my life has been influenced by them. To be sure, some have been laughable and harmless as they were quite easy to forget. The legitimate ones have always been encouraging in their tone. They have also been mysterious in that they did not make sense at a purely rational level. Some have been profound. A prophetic voice that I trust told Daneille and I in January of 2011 that our family was going to be radically changed in the near future. My response was, “Hmmmm” (I suppressed the “Reeeally?!” part.) Granted, that was three grandchildren ago but I have come to understand this word with greater clarity. It was about much more than my immediate blood kin. It was about the family of God (those washed in His blood) that is distributed and in place all around me and throughout the world with divine intentionality. The realization of this has provided a kind of ongoing “OMG!” experience for me.
I recently explained to an institutional branch of my family that I was separating myself from the institutional side of them (Grace World Outreach Church) but that I was going to hold on tightly, if they will allow me, to the precious relationships God had formed between us over the past 21 years. These bonds are sacred in His sight. These bonds represent the community of the saints – the Bride and the Body of Christ. Most of the heads of these spiritual leaders were nodding in approval. OK, so the cord is slightly raveled here and there. I acknowledge I myself am part of the fray. The good news is that this condition is only temporary. Because He has reconciled all things to Himself in the cross, we are all, even in our present individual and corporate condition, joined in Him, one to another. We just don’t all know it yet.
I went on to explain that I had lived roughly 1/2 of my very serious Christian life outside the institutional structure (wineskin); and the other 1/2 half of my very serious Christian life inside the western institutional model (wineskin). Having experienced them both, I have decided that for the remainder of my life, I should cast my vote for a far less serious, far less structured wineskin that is actually flexible enough to contain the new wine of the Holy Spirit. We wonder why God withholds miracles or revival. Our structures would burst at the seams under such a strain. Our current vested egos and pride would explode under the pressure of His glory. There is currently not enough safe physical or relational space within these aged wineskin hearts and structures of ours for all those whom God loves and all that God desires to do. Only the net of divinely woven relationships could ever handle the strain of such a catch. But He is changing His Church. The Church, as God sees it, not as we have currently envisioned it or organized it. We might come closer to an accurate vision of the Church if we were to think of it as a great net of which we are a functional or a non-functional part.
“God’s kingdom is like a fishnet cast into the sea, catching all kinds of fish. When it is full, it is hauled onto the beach….That’s how it will be when the curtain comes down on history.” Matt 13 (MSG)
I went on to explain to my beloved friends that I had tasted something in that first-half of my Christian experience that I refer to as community. This something vibrating in me also resonates powerfully when I read the narrative of the New Testament and the story of that community of saints. I have tried to report (as a watchman of sorts) to my dear friends who are overseeing institutions and are committed to them what I think I am seeing and experiencing. Since we are made of the same fallen stuff and filled with the same Spirit, I assume, in a sense, at the core, your story is like my story and that my story is like yours. In other words, the things that trip me up trip you up. The process that transforms me transform you as well. My heart has been telling me for years that there is a yearning kind of vibration in creation as well as in the body of Christ for more. The devout have looked everywhere for it. Could it be that we will eventually discover it was closer than our skin?
This vibration at times expresses itself in some discordant ways. I have heard this longing in my conversations with those who have just up and left the institution without ever saying why. They might not even have been able to say why. If I could restate the essence of their complaint it is, “It just didn’t feel like there was Life here. (and certainly not abundant Life).” The vibrations coming from the microphone did not resonate (or match) the longings in their hearts. Their thoughts usually contained this sentiment; “My lack of resonance is way to complicated to explain. My experience tells me that you do not have ears to hear me anyway. Adios.” Because my sentiments matched their own and I understood their hearts, I chose to remain in the institution, thinking what I had been watching (in my observations and experience) was somehow relevant in the sense that I was the exit interview that never happened with; 1) all those who have come and gone, 2) all those who had stayed but who had exit plans, and 3) possibly even those who never came to begin with. I assure you I didn’t arrive at this apparently egotistical self-appraisal by myself.
I am tasting again a sense of community. It has happened with you and with friends in other smaller gatherings. It reminds me of something I have experienced before and of something I have read about in the New Testament. My experience with you has been life giving. Our experience registers on my heart as something alive; more accurately stated, it has registered in my heart as Someone who is alive! A few more verses and I will wrap up my Thanksgiving homily.
Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that. Gal 2:20 (MSG)
This mystery has been kept in the dark for a long time, but now it’s out in the open. God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing. The mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, so therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory. It’s that simple. That is the substance of our Message. We preach Christ, warning people not to add to the Message. We teach in a spirit of profound common sense so that we can bring each person to maturity. To be mature is to be basic. Christ! No more, no less. That’s what I’m working so hard at day after day, year after year, doing my best with the energy God so generously gives me. Col 1:26-28 (MSG)
If our cord is proving more enjoyable and stronger with our many and varied strands, what might His Body look like as this tiny kingdom seed takes root and believers are awakened to the immediate reality of Christ in us, the hope of glory. The enemy’s days will be numbered as all of us strands are gathered and woven together. What might His Body appear to be if we are all woven together into a tapestry of fabric so beautiful, so strong and enduring that by its very nature men are compelled, even before the great day of the Lord, to bow their knees and proclaim with their tongues that certainly Jesus Christ is Lord over all. Christ In Us will be the ultimate headlines of the Universal Times. Subtitle; In His cross He has reconciled all things unto Himself.
He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—He is supreme in the end. From beginning to end He’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is He, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in Him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of His death, his blood that poured down from the cross.
Col 1:18-20 (MSG)
All that to say, it a delight to find myself being woven together with you.
I apologize that I so regularly violate length-of-email, text and conversational protocol. I am thinking of another verse that says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”
So, forgive me my friends. For the time being, I am the chief of transgressors,
Your Fellow Strand,
For the past several months I have been serving as a moderator to a conversation. The topic of discussion has been “abiding in Christ”. In our dialogue Luke 6:43-45 will soon factor in.
For there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.
Some may remember the strategic punch line of the old Evangelism Explosion presentation; “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into my heaven? How would you respond?” For those unfamiliar with Dr. James Kennedy’s evangelism program, this cruise missile of a question was launched by the team leader at one whose eternity was in question.
As I am mulling over the idea of fruit bearing, I am thinking a new program might be initiated. It could be called Discipleship Explosion. It’s missile would be; “When you stand before the Lord and He asks you to show Him your fruit, what variety will you display?” How would you respond? Would the species of your fruit be of the actions/deeds variety or more of the disposition/attitude variety? A blend?
Closing in on four decades now, I have been haunted by the notion that salvation and discipleship have become two distinctly different tracks a believer can follow as a Christian (at least in western culture). It is as though salvation is an essential track and discipleship is an optional track available for certain “called” ones whose zeal typically qualifies them for advanced education or specialized training. I believe the splintering of salvation into two tracks is an idea inspired and promoted by the wrong kingdom.
I believe this condition has left us with the fallacy that church attendance is a viable option for a Christ follower who has opted out of discipleship. Attending church would have been an utterly foreign concept to first century Christians. They would have never thought of church as an event or a location – something they could opt to attend. If they had any consciousness of themselves at all, I believe they would have simply thought of themselves as the Church. Having church or going to church would have been nonsensical ideas to them. You might be asking, “Where is he going with this?” Truly I wonder that myself on most days.
I know my words are troublesome to some of my closest friends and family because I am asking questions about things they have been taught and fully believe are sacred. After all, it was in the institutional little “c” church where they invited Jesus into their hearts and entered into a community of believers who, together, worked to preserve the things they together deemed sacred. How could this possibly be bad? It may not have been. In fact, more than likely there were elements of His eternal kingdom present in that setting which would account for the legitimate faith and new life that was birthed there in that context.
How blessed that new life was if the overseers of that little “c” church in fact recognized its essential yet partial place in the grand scheme of the kingdom of God and, in the culture these leaders established, they were able to deemphasize themselves (and their sect) as a sacred or, worse yet, the sacred institution and instead drew attention to itself as a part of the sacred organic community of saints that it actually was in God’s sight. And…
How blessed that new life was if the overseers of that particular flock modeled big “C” Church by the way they integrated themselves into the relational fabric of their community and demonstrated with their own lives how Christ is present where two or three have gathered in His name (which might occur at anytime and any place). The lives of the elders conveyed to their community and to the world that little “c” church is way too small to contain God’s ever-expanding kingdom. In the culture they intentionally were building the community’s overseers and elders warred against anything that might convey that those on staff or in ministry were the more-called ones. By virtue of their very lives they conveyed that all lives are “called” lives and all lives are holy lives. And…
How blessed that new life was if its shepherds were visible and lived on the same plane with the hearts entrusted to them. How blessed they would be if, through their modeling and mentoring, those leaders reproduced other hearts, after their own kind, who knew how to shepherd and care for the souls around them; always casting the kingdom vision that we are each sovereignly placed and equipped to love those nearest us; that the circumstances and situations of our neighbors are both our responsibility and our opportunity. And…
How fortunate that new life would be if their spiritual fathers recognized that it was in this place where their lives, both broken and blessed, were intertwined with each other; that these messy relational networks were the appointed and essential context of their own transformation. And…
How blessed that new life was if its shepherds demonstrated that the abundant Life of Christ as Savior, Healer, Deliverer, Counselor and King was as natural as breathing and exists independent of all the institutions and programs that men have or ever will organize.
How blessed that new life was if after witnessing the reality of Christ in their community, they would be (at an age-appropriate time) invited to consider an eternal relationship with Him that begins, develops and ends with Him as both Savior and Lord; those two ideas traveling always as inseparable companions.
How blessed that new life was if they were privileged to see Love being modeled by listening hearts who knew, from personal experience, the landscape and the potential of the human heart beyond its depravity; always conveying the eternal glory, worth and potential of a redeemed heart both now and into eternity. How blessed that new life was if that precious new nature was nurtured such that its spirit grew up strong and confident in its identity as a beloved child; not just tolerated as one hamstrung with a depraved heart.
How blessed that new life was if they witnessed their elders enduring patiently with one another, where they witnessed and experienced a culture being shaped by its own stories of reconciliation. How beneficial it would have been for that young impressionable life to see people coming into the community as they witnessed something akin to the New Testament and connected to something that their aching hearts had always yearned for; a safe place where they might be seen and heard, nurtured and celebrated as a beloved child of a King.
For the record, I don’t believe another program (which would have also been foreign to NT Christians), will be helpful (even my freshly conceived DEP – Discipleship Explosion Program). I suspect programs may actually do violence to the spirit of true discipleship. I believe discipleship is as inseparable as salvation is to our relationship with God. I am deeply concerned that much of what we have done in Jesus’ name has obscured the essence of true discipleship as it has redirected our focus and dependence toward buildings, programs and onto the professionals who administrate them. (i.e. institutional little “c” church) and away from His ever-present Holy Spirit, His inspired Word and the sacrament of daily life.
Father, grant us the courage to ask questions and to dream. Amen.
The teaching that most of us have had regarding the Kingdom of God, places it, whatever we may think it is, off in the future. Many even think of the Kingdom as heaven itself. I suspect this is partially correct. However, at the invitation of some of my mentors, I have revisited this subject of the Kingdom and, in the process, encountered the kindness of God leading me into repentance (a change of mind) and consequently into a new level of abundant life.
In their fatherly spirit, my mentors posed this question to me, “If the kingdom is a distant-future event, why then did Jesus instruct us to pray that it come to earth as it is in heaven?”
I have learned, that for calculated reasons, fathers ask questions. The best fathers ask the best questions and are also the best listeners. As catalysts, fathers are not just interested in transferring information; they are focused on stimulating thought at the heart level. Although they recognize its value, they know the point is not just accurate doctrine; it’s the relationship. They know that when we commune with each other, we commune with God. It is in the flow of life’s dialogue that Love has many of His best opportunities to expand His Kingdom. My growing Kingdom family calls this “doing life together”. Note; It’s a much bigger idea than attending church. It is a bold stab at being the Church.
Perhaps when they are very young it is the command that is most beneficial to the child; but for the maturing child, it is the questions that the father poses and the invitations the father extends that are most important to the formation of the child’s spirit. The response to a command is compliance. The response to an invitation is an investment. Big difference (at least at the heart level).
The outcome of compliance may be visibly impressive. The outcome of an investment may not be visible for quite some time. But regardless of what is visible on the surface; from God’s perspective, His kingdom expands each time a human heart embraces Truth and makes Him (the Truth) their own. Father’s know this. They have no other objective than to see them mature into the full stature of Christ. Children are a father’s reward and glory.
Fathers invite instead of command because of the room it gives the child’s heart to respond. The right kind of response embeds the seed in the child’s heart such that it will grow up and eventually become a unique living expression of Christ Himself. The Word will eventually become flesh. A father’s greatest delight is to see his children becoming good stewards of their own hearts; becoming Kingdom investors in their own right.
Prophetic types have envisioned a kingdom expansion where Christ conquers the earthly realms of influence which include media, government, entertainment, education, science and the business marketplace (the arena where I have spent my adult life). Because I know that all things are possible with God, my imagination makes room for prophetic visions such as this.
Fatherly types compliment this. They envision a kingdom expansion where Christ actually conquers the realm of His people’s hearts prior to (or in the midst of) the conquest of these various mountains of influence. That is why you may hear fathers often say to their children;
Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)
The Kingdom of God is simply that timeless and eternal domain where Christ has reigned, is reigning and will reign forevermore. When God does answer the Thy kingdom-come prayer which he has instructed us to pray, he does not necessarily go to Warren Buffet and launch a top down revolution. That is His prerogative but more often than not He will come to you and I and work to establish our hearts as the primary domain of His rule. As we find favor, we may migrate upward to the pinnacle of these arenas of influence. However, if we do not become the kingpins of influence, we can take comfort in the kingdom reality that the last shall be first.
How astonishing that the beachhead of operations for heaven’s invasion of earth is your heart and mine! The allied forces of heaven and earth, God’s will and ours, are aligning themselves together to overthrow this earth’s real trilateral conspiracy; the world, the flesh and the devil. So, what will this Kingdom-invasion look like when it occurs, for instance, in the marketplace? I will offer you a report from my theater of operations.
Before I begin, I would invite you to keep three things in mind about the Kingdom of God. 1) It is as small as mustard seed; easily overlooked; a stock that is too obscure and risky for most to consider. 2) The irony is that, if we would see with our eyes of faith, we would know that the Kingdom of God is also like a hidden treasure; in other words: it is the stock pick of all eternity; it is that one investment that will pay dividends now and forevermore. 3) The Kingdom of God (that realm over which He reigns), is also within us. Our hearts – that realm where we live in Him and He lives in us, is an essential command post for God’s mission to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ.
A brief battle field overview. The earth and all that is in it belongs to God. It was created by Christ, in Christ and for Christ. It will all end up as a part of His Kingdom. It is an eventuality that every knee will bow and tongue confess that He is Lord. However the enemy is temporarily occupying territory that belongs to God. He is temporarily ruling this space with an elaborate campaign of misinformation. His is a kingdom of darkness where he manipulates men and culture with half truths and blatant lies. He is so successful that many saints are ready to pack their bags and leave this earth. They seem willing to relinquish the domain of this earth to him. What a grand strategy of the enemy; to dupe his opponent into believing that the battle cannot be won; to bluff him right off the battle field!
A day will come though, when the children of light will inherit their freedom and this fallen world will be forced to reckon with their righteousness, peace and joy. The love of these sons and daughters will finally be released as they walk in the security of their identities; their love will make the gospel actually appear to be good news. It will become much more credible to an onlooking wounded and cynical world. I believe the gospel is going to be restated with the credibility of transformed lives and the power of His Spirit. Do you believe in this Kingdom prospectus enough to invest? I can hear Jesus asking, “Do you believe I am able to do this?”
So how are we ‘foot-soldier-saints’ to assess the battle that is going on in our domain of opportunity/responsibility? First it is critical to understand what is the domain we are responsible for? And then, what does our responsibility look like? It is my belief that our realm of responsibility is simply our hearts and every living spirit God has sovereignly placed in relational proximity to us. Once identified; our mission is simply to love them as Christ has loved us.
Hint: If you look at your network and you see people moving away from each other with an attitude, rest assured the kingdom of darkness is ruling. If you see people headed for the back door with that “I’m done with this” attitude, the devil is having a great day. Any language that attempts to sanctify this like; “God has released me.” is just a sad cover up for a wounded, rejected, religious spirit that needs the Kingdom of God in their heart. If Christ is reigning, this attitude will have been dealt with at the cross. Until the judgements, bitterness and resentment are dealt with, Christ is not reigning; the domain of the Kingdom has not yet expanded into this heart. No matter how well we spruce it up with sanctified verbiage, it is death and sadly; it is contagious. It spreads and defiles everything around it. I am speaking from painful personal experience that I would not trade for silver nor gold.
Spiritual fathers and mothers see through all the disputes; all the turf wars; all the divorces; all the spirits moving in opposite directions and invites them to look at their own hearts with diligence (since it is from that place that life comes from) and assess from which kingdom did this attitude originate that says, “the problem is other people”. Spiritual fathers invite the children back to the table in the midst of their pain and encourage them to reinvest in the Kingdom (which is in them).
Oh, what a day it will be when we CEO’s, Pastors and Husbands learn to truly listen to the hearts of those nearest to us. What a blow to the kingdom of darkness it will be! We will make the astonishing discovery that the complimentary gifts and resources were there, right next to us, all along. We will discover those would be meddlers and enemies were actually gifts from God. We will discover that in the tension, we are being invited to die to our independence and pride so that Christ’s life will be be made visible. We will find that humility, patience and a host of other Christ-like attributes are present in even greater power than the pull and expression of our fallen natures (which we have mostly seen in the exaggerated strength religion adds to the flesh.)
In the presence of Christ’s progressive reign in our hearts, we will discover the grace to acknowledge our complicity with Satan’s kingdom of isolation, bitterness, fear, resentment, gossip, guilt, shame and pretense.
Father, awaken our hearts to the high calling you have for us to live innocently and blamelessly, free of judgements and bitterness. Help us to recognize the present day-value of your kingdom. Help us, this very day, to recognize where You are inviting us to invest in eternity. Thank You, Lord that You have come and that with Your Life, You inaugurated Your Kingdom. Thank You that, through Your Life in us, You will expand Your Kingdom until that day when all things are reconciled to You. So be it.
Jesus, as the Son of God, didn’t use qualifiers. He would just say, “the kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of vast worth, or a dragnet.” An experience I had the other day has caused me, a son of God, to observe that…
The Kingdom of God is also a little like a Wobble Trap.
Myself and a few friends hosted a gathering yesterday for the men of our local fellowship. Note; If you want to appeal to that wild-at-heart thing in a man, as a retreat organizer, by all means include food and firearms. Note; if you want to appeal to that wild-at-heart thing in a man, as his woman, or his would be woman, …well, I’ll let you organize your own retreat.
One more suggestion for a successful retreat; let your guest of honor be a wobble trap. Trap refers to the device that launches a clay pigeon so that aspiring marksmen can attempt to break it mid-flight. Many trap launch clays in the same place shot after shot. A wobble trap almost never launches clays in the same place twice. It is in that respect that a wobble trap is a bit like the kingdom of God.
When they stepped up to the firing line, our shooter-guests did not know the full capabilities of the wobble trap. We introduced them to the machine by setting it to throw the clays repeatedly in the same place. Each shooter had a dozen or so shots. When it came his turn, each man, would call, “pull!” and the clay would launch. On this first round of predictable shots, the average kill ratio was often better than 50%. We then set the machine, without the shooter’s permission, to launch clays anywhere within a 100 degree range from left-to right. Result; the new kill ratio was typically less than 50%. Then, once again, without permission, we added the variable of vertical uncertainty. After this adjustment, the kill ratios dropped to much less than 50%.
I proposed in our debriefing that the kingdom of God is a little bit like a wobble trap in that life tends to throw us things that we did not anticipate and that we would have certainly not requested. In our wobble trap parable; the authentic follower of Christ, whose beliefs and understandings place God in a place of sovereignty and control, is often left wondering why this or that particular circumstance has been thrown at them. I am reminded of the lyrics of a song;
He picks up Gideon’s Bible…
Open at page one….
God stole the handle and
The train won’t stop going…
No way to slow down
I think this philosopher/troubadour represented a common response men have to life in its propensity to allow a broad range of unpredictable, unwanted and uninvited circumstances. In our trap shooting context, it was the assistant’s touch of a button that gave flight to our clay targets. In life, especially for Christ followers, we are left with the mystery and uncertainty of whose got the handle (or the button) that launches and sets up life’s circumstances.
For years I was troubled by the notion that God, in His sovereignty, either directly or indirectly had the handle and that the fact that I was not hitting many targets frustrated me and fueled an essential, yet pitiful, victim- oriented, complaint-centered life of introspection and prayer. The verse from Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot characterizes the dark and unproductive reflections of my life in that season;
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Christianity has provided many pat answers as to who’s got the handle and why targets fly where they do. Many, who I listen to, are near despair at the formulaic answers to life that traditional Christianity has offered them. In our post-wobble trap debriefing I thought I heard this question; What does our Good Shepherd have to say to hungering, hurting human beings who are confused and, in a few cases, offended at a God who seems to just let the train run off the tracks and slam into our lives?
For clarifications sake; The kingdom of God is simply the realm of Christ’s expanding reign. It is where Jesus is actually ruling. It is where righteousness, peace and joy and love are having their way in human hearts and spilling over into our networks of friends and families and coworkers. The Kingdom is where Christ’s presence in us is manifesting itself in its flow of deed and truth form one to another. The kingdom is that space that is being reclaimed by God in our hearts which has been previously occupied by half-truths or blatant lies which have only served to establish false reference points for Christ’s abundant life. Christ is reclaiming all that is rightfully His by establishing His kingdom on earth in willing human hearts, one liberating truth at a time. Will we cooperate or will we just persist in rehearsing our same lifeless cliches and prescriptions to ourselves and others in Jesus’ name?
Those of us who lead should risk it all; hosting post-wobble trap debriefings. With our new ears (the ones that came with our new hearts), we can learn to listen; creating safe spaces for His people to grow into their identities and inheritance. I am going to do what I can to sustain this dialogue; giving it plenty of room to breath.
The tragic thing is that in the religious cultures we have created (which are not limited to churches), the dynamics often develop such that the man on top, usually the senior pastor (if its a business, the CEO), is the last to know what is really going on in the hearts of those entrusted to him, and sadly, he is often the one least inclined to ask.
Will the kingdom of God expand one 501(c)(3) at a time? Will the new tax exempt entity, with its more professional professionals, provide us with a new life-giving vision, where personalities and politics do not eat away and undermine the very essence of family which was God original intent? Will the kingdom of God come as existing non-profits hone their game, creating new, more appealing materials, programs and conferences? I am doubtful to say the least. But, at the same time, I am very hopeful because….
I do see God’s kingdom expanding one heart at a time. I see believers, scattered (strategically) across denominational, racial, gender, generational, social and national lines, responding, in Christ, to life, with all it may throw at us. I see the true shepherds of His flock arising to speak
and lead from their earned authority to the hearts of those entrusted to them; teaching these Christ followers to find Him in the midst of the uninvited, unwelcome circumstances that life seems to have thrown them.
As we individually learn to respond to Jesus, right square in the middle of our messy circumstances, he will establish a kingdom beachhead in our hearts from which He can further His mission in reestablishing His kingdom’s dominion over this earth through human beings as He originally intended. As we move ahead, enjoying the fruit of His reign in our hearts, we will sing a new song of Life, characterized by the boldness and joy that is now ours as citizens and sons of His kingdom. We will tell a new story that matches His claims and vindicates Him as the One who redeems all things according to His majesty and glory.
The Lord does not guarantee that life will be a predictable and welcome experience. However He does promise, regardless of outward circumstance, that we can have His Life in abundance. How ironic it is that when we encounter and respond to Him in the midst of our circumstances, He becomes our Lord in-fact. How amazing that the establishment of His Kingdom on earth is dependent on our heart’s response to the wobble trap feature of life. It is in this sense that I mean that the kingdom of God is a little like a wobble trap.
Father, help our hearts to see that, in all that life throws at us, it is with You with whom we have to do. Help us be less concerned with why life has transpired as it has and more concerned with just how we can respond to You in the midst of it. Thank You.
And this gospel of the kingdom must be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations and then the end shall come. Matthew 24:14
I hear reports that we are making headway getting the scriptures translated into all the languages and dialects of the earth. Implicit in this report is often the understanding that this feat of translation will facilitate the “and then” aspect of this verse; “and then the end shall come.” Many believers anticipate this milestone as the linchpin-event that will immediately precede the return of Christ and the unfolding of events more distressful than this earth has ever known.
What we do know about this day is that the matter of its timing has not been entrusted to us. That is precisely why we are told to be ready 24 hrs/day X the days of our lives. As I have been reviewing a handful of verses on His ability and His power, I have agitated a haunting set of questions that have lodged themselves in my mind. Just to mention a few;
Is the gospel of the kingdom what we have been digesting here in the West and disbursing to the nations for the past few centuries? Is the gospel of the kingdom just the news that Christ has become a means of saving our souls and transporting us out of this world? Is the gospel of the kingdom the message that says; “if we invite Jesus into our hearts, we shall be saved?” Or, is the gospel of the kingdom something different; perhaps something radically more? What if we have got this wrong and most of christendom is measuring time and growth from false reference points? That is really just too painful to consider yet I cannot escape these questions.
One source of my unease is my own experience. For many years of my life I thought I was preaching the gospel. I had the doctrine of salvation down pat (or at least I thought). It was on the tip of my tongue for more than three decades before I discovered how limp and ineffectual it was on the lips of a man whose knowledge and convictions outweighed his love, peace and joy. How sad that I was speaking my convictions yet was preaching a gospel with my life that appeared to be, at best, just average news; certainly not good news. I believe the world I was trying to save saw through me. They knew intuitively that my joy and power did not match the gospel’s claims. They knew that I was not the real deal. That is a painful proposition to entertain.
The other source is the scriptures themselves. They point to an experience with Christ that transcends what most have tasted. Since God paid the ultimate price with His Son to restore the affairs of this earth back to His original intent, I do not want to settle for some compromised vision of our Life in Christ which was really just a spiritual path of least resistance. It is my sense that without a kingdom-vision guarding and interpreting scripture and experience, what we can reasonably expect and accomplish will become the default, yet false reference point, for life in Christ. That is tragic and nearly too painful to consider; yet, I find I must.
I understand the dynamics of forming a vision that is doable. The broad pathway of a workable plan at least protects my heart from disappointment when things don’t play out as scripture or my childlike heart suggested that it should. This route allows me to hedge my bets and keep unnecessary disappointment at bay. Listen to the fatalism and unbelief of fallen, unspoken logic; “I will just dumb-down my hope, so that when it is deferred, as it always is, I will be spared the inevitable sickness of heart that is always the reward of this futile exercise.” Does this sad line of reasoning at all sound familiar?
The easiest thing for the devout is to simply dismiss the New Testament as an anomaly instead of referring to it as a benchmark, or better yet, a starting-block for normal Christianity.
Christ is coming again. I do not know when but it will be with amazing power and glory. Living in a body that is being progressively humbled and is crying out for transformation, I am eagerly awaiting that day when everything, especially my body, conforms, without further protest, to His goodness and power. The pain in my body, that seems to defy prayer, (at least so far) tempts me to adopt a belief system that dismisses healing as a bygone gift. Here is further fallen reasoning (in Jesus’ name of course); “If I set healing aside, I can at least avoid being sick in both body and spirit.” At all familiar?
These days, my heart will not let me do this much violence to the Spirit of the New Testament. The light that I have today informs me that He is coming and has come in power. I know nothing about when the “is” of His ultimate coming will be. I do know I must live out of His Life – the power that has come. My sense is that if I do not, the gospel of the kingdom will not have really been preached which would forestalling God’s restoration of things to His original intent (at least in my neighborhood).
The truth is; Christ is in us. We are in Christ. He is our abundant Life. Christ is the power of God. Right now, in this current age, in this current moment, regardless of our perception, or even our belief, we have been raised from the dead in Christ and seated, with Him, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. God has done some good things so far but has the earth really seen expression and evidence of our new nature; our new identity?
I see Christ turning to us, His would-be present disciples, asking, “Do you believe that I am able to do this? Do you believe that through the exertion of My power that I can liberate the spirit of a man who is still living in an earthly body such that the transformation validates my claims that I not only save men’s souls but I transform them even now, from one stage of glory to the next?”
Since the Reformation (nearly 500 years ago), the world has seen a surge of life that emerged through the doctrine of grace. Is it possible that another even greater surge of grace may be coming to us in the shape of His Kingdom? Could it be that the next great phase of God’s campaign for the liberation of this planet is being re-presented to us; the next phase of warfare designed to move us back, closer to His original intent?
The world has seen the gospel presented and the Church formed without due consideration to the Kingdom of God. It has not yet seen a light shining forth from the Church that has been filtered and amplified through the lens of the Kingdom. All creation longs for it but has yet to see the sons of God liberated into the fulness of their inheritance-freedom.
The Word of God presents this day (as well as days of trouble) as an inevitability. The Church has been divided as to whether the Kingdom is a now-Kingdom or a then-Kingdom. Isn’t it both? The Kingdom came in Christ. Through His death and resurrection He has established the foundations for the Kingdom. The Kingdom is everyplace where Christ is reigning. It is within us and will expand with our cooperation. It would probably not be inaccurate to say that creation itself is pregnant with the Kingdom of God. It would follow that we ourselves are pregnant with His Kingdom.
What do the birth pangs look like in you? How do you envision the expansion of the Kingdom taking place within You? What will the process of expansion of His reign in your heart entail?
My story: The contractions in my life have often involved the painful observations that things are amiss. God has often allowed me to try and deal with matters in my own human strength long enough to exhaust me. I eventually discover that I have not even understood what the root issues even were and that I have in fact been wrestling with God Himself. From round to round I would see things in me that were very painful to acknowledge but, if I wanted to press on to know Him, I could not sweep these ugly things under the rug. The way was through the pain, not around it.
The Kingdom of God is the domain of a Father, who provides the safety and security of His love as a place where we can be transparent before Him and others with our lives. Fathers know the landscape of the heart. They know what God’s original intentions look like. They know the Father’s ways of restoring. They are accessible. They hold their sons hands as He shows them things that are difficult and painful to acknowledge and to take ownership of. His presence gives us the courage to see and take responsibility for things we have previously found too painful to even acknowledge. With our “Thy kingdom comes”, we might add, “and Lord, raise up the fathers”.
Father, May you soon hear a collective “Yes” from Your children; a childlike “Yes” that acknowledges that You can even make children of Abraham from stones. May our “Yes” be the linchpin-event that immediately precedes Your restatement of the gospel, the gospel of the kingdom and a reign of Christ (even in a world that is under seige) that is far more glorious than the hearts of men have yet conceived. This time Father, permit us to proclaim it with the authority of scripture and the authority of our transformed lives. May we stand boldly and joyfully in Your most holy presence and in the presence of a dying world with lives that demonstrate a living hope anchored in both this age and the next. I love You Lord. I truly do. Amen.