Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist most famous for developing his “Hierarchy of Needs.” Often presented as a pyramid, it says that our most basic needs (at the base) are for the body – food, water and shelter. Once those needs are met, we next desire safety, then love, then esteem. And once we have gotten ourselves all these, at the top we seek “self-actualisation” – to become all that we can be. It’s in this last category that many people put spirituality and religion. It’s a rookie mistake theologically, but we westerners fall for it over and over.
Scripture presents God’s kingdom as laying at the very base of our needs, and vitally connected to all the others. “Humans don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God’s mouth”, Jesus quotes Moses. “Anyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again”, he tells the woman at the well, whose pyramid of needs has become a pile of rubble.
Jesus is the foundation, not the decoration! God’s kingdom isn’t the icing on life’s cake – it’s the yeast that makes it rise in the first place! Yet people continue to think of Jesus as the gift for “the one who has everything,” and Christians as folks who have their lives in order and then play religion with their leftover time, energy and money. (Do we prove them right?)
If we present Jesus as “the final piece in the puzzle” to those who have tried every other form of entertainment/stimulation/inspiration and found them wanting – well, they’ll soon find him wanting too. He just won’t fit as the final piece, he won’t be chaplain to our self-actualisation. To the one who had everything, Jesus said “Go and give all your possessions to the poor; then come and follow me.” Jesus is the gift for the one who has nothing, surely.
What does this mean for sacred agents? Firstly we must denounce the distinction between spiritual and physical. “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices” says Paul. We must rediscover the all-of-real-life Jesus who works powerfully in and through the mundane.
Secondly, if Jesus is foundational, the danger of silent service is that we help people build a tower that won’t stand. Why give someone a car and then walk away with the keys in your pocket? If Christ is the real key to lasting transformation then we cannot keep this secret or leave it till last.
How do we know when we’re doing our mission well? What’s our rule of thumb for “good evangelism” over “bad evangelism”? If we judge our mission by how it’s received we are navigating by very unreliable stars. If many people respond positively to a message we can easily think it was great evangelism, and if we offend many – indeed any – we can assume it was our mistake.
In fact, sometimes we can search and search – and search and search – for the perfect way to put the message of the gospel so that it will be guaranteed to succeed. We want a 100% success rate. But that’s not what we see in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Mark 4). Jesus points out there will be a whole range of responses to the same message. (If you do the maths, that farmer only needs a 2% success rate to make a profit.)
There is no perfect technique that will win over everyone we’re called to. If that’s our standard, we’re expecting to be better evangelists that Jesus himself. People were drawn wonderfully to him and had their lives transformed. Well, some of them were drawn. Others, like the rich young ruler, walked away.
And worse, the things they said about Him! People called him demon-possessed, evil, insane. People called Paul a fool, a babbler, a try-hard, a traitor. Do we think we should have a better strike rate than them? No, Jesus said if some will reject him, some will reject us. (And he said when they reject us they’re really rejecting Him and the Father.)
So which voices, which feedback do we tune into to evaluate our effectiveness in mission? The danger is that if we hold back the message until we find a way to offend no-one, the only one we’ll offend is Jesus himself. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory.” (Mark 8)
So how do we know when we’re doing well? Given the range of receptive soils, sowing liberally would be a good strategy. Enthusiastic receptivity is not necessarily a tick (think rocky soil). And vehement rejection is not necessarily a cross – well not in that sense! But if people are receiving and rejecting us for the same reasons that they received or rejected Jesus, perhaps we’re around the mark? And in line for the ultimate feedback “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
It’s happening everywhere. In lounge rooms and cafes, along beaches and bush trails and in boardrooms. On any given day it may be unspectacular, but friends, it’s changing the world. Disciples are making disciples.
Intentional discipleship requires a framework of some sort. Regularity of meeting, for a start (every week rather than every now and then). From there, an agreement to focus the conversation, rather than merely chatting, moves the practice from something good towards something great. Disciple-making that’s, well, disciplined, is hopefully not too radical an idea. And time is of the essence. God is at work in real time, so every hour matters.
It doesn’t need to be overly-regimented, but a basic framework will make an enormous difference. In the past I’ve used four conversations around Loving God, Loving Neighbours, Loving Fellow-Believers, and Receiving God’s Love. They act as headers to explore all of Scripture and all Christian practices. But there’s a hugely important fifth topic that focuses the energy of the other conversations with laser intensity. It’s the conversation of Vocational Discernment: What is God preparing you to do?
Without a tailored conversation around each individual disciple’s unique shaping, gifting and calling by God, discipleship mentoring so often loses intensity in the following ways:
1. It gets lost climbing the asymptotic mountain of theoretical perfection. The trainee is measured up against a long list of ideals and spends huge energy trying to make 1% improvements towards an imagined ‘ideal Christian’ that God does not expect of any of us individually.
2. It wastes time and energy shaping the trainee into a body part they’re not made to be – often the part that the mentor is.
3. It gives a false impression of non-urgency where the trainee has their whole life to plod towards general ‘fitness’, rather than training for an event (or events) that God has entered you for in his great Games.
Ask the question What do you sense God is uniquely shaping you for and calling you to do? (And how, with whom, when, and where?) Keep coming back to it as a discipline. And hold onto your hat…
A remarkable thing happens when a grandchild arrives. The house needs to be “baby-proofed”. It’s been quite comfortable for adults for years, even decades, but suddenly it needs to be looked at with a different set of eyes altogether! Parts that have been comfortable and convenient for adults are realized to be hazardous or inappropriate for a little person.
A house that on one level is “perfectly adequate” gets a necessary transformation, all determined by the weakest, smallest family member – who perhaps hasn’t even arrived yet! It might be bemusing, even bewildering. It might be frustrating, too – oh, the things we suddenly need to fuss about! But deep down we know it’s right and good and also exciting.
Our churches need to be regularly “baby-proofed” for spiritual children – even those we haven’t yet seen. Many churches are predominantly filled with those who have been Christians for decades. And until we deliberately look – even seeking outside advice – we can be quite blind to how ill prepared we are for new believers.
From time to time I hear people say they would “never” invite an unbelieving friend to their church. I always press them to think specifically about just what it is that would be unhelpful to an enquirer. Sometimes it’s one big thing, sometimes it’s fifty little things. But they need to be named, and they need to be attended to.
A great (and brave) question for leaders to ask congregations is this: “Is there anything we’re doing, or not doing, that keeps you from inviting a friend?” These little ones – immature, messy, noisy, demanding ones – perhaps ones we’ve not even met yet – these are the VIPs of God’s extended family. Not only must we ask “What hazards need to be removed?” but then also “How could we make this place wonderfully welcoming for children?”
It takes a village to raise a child, it’s said. Nowhere is this more true than in the task of spiritual parenting – of making disciples. Christians grow through exposure to the whole body of Christ. It’s not realistic to raise children in isolation until they are ready for the village. The village must get ready for them. How ready is yours?
I had a rude awakening last week. It was the height of the December rush, work was incredibly busy, the kid’s end-of-school week was just done and renovations were underway at our house. Read: stress.
It was just as I was grappling with a kitchen installation that I saw through the window a young man striding up our driveway, clipboard under this arm.
My heart sank. I hate doorknockers. My single thought as I approached the door was “How quickly can I get rid of this guy?” And sure enough, before his opening sentence offering re-roofing was complete, I’d packed him on his way. I was firm and kind – though probably not in equal proportion.
Actually I was fuming. Who buys a roof that way?! I screamed inwardly. If I want a new roof then when I am good and ready, I will research companies on the net and in my own good time I will make the call.
And right then came an Advent moment – I realised that Jesus is a doorknocker. He comes when he is ready. He breaks into our world in his own way in his own time. (And he will again.)
Boy can he be inconvenient! When he called his first disciples on the beach, they could have said “Look mate, can’t you see we’re in the middle of a shift here?” But instead they drop their nets, and some good fish rot, and some good customers are lost – because the kingdom of God has come by.
Jesus doesn’t just come to town, he comes through town and some people drop everything and follow while others – people like me? – just can’t fit him into their schedule and agenda. Jesus never fits into anyone’s agenda. You can’t fit him into your life. But you are invited to fit into his.
“Here I am, I stand at the door and knock,” he says in Revelation 3. Will we truly receive him or send him packing? But furthermore, what does this say about our roles as sacred agents – ‘doorknockers’ on his behalf? Are we prepared to risk the irritation and ire of those who aren’t ready?
PS Doorknocker, quite possibly angel, I’m sorry! I skipped the reroof but got the reproof.
Anyone who takes seriously their role as a sacred agent – a representative of God’s Kingdom in the here and now – will know the feeling of being outnumbered and overwhelmed. The media, the government, local institutions seem to show very little regard for Christ. Compounding the pressure, we see friends, neighbours, even close family members ignoring or rejecting outright their need for Jesus.
The trap for us, who feel these pressures very acutely, is to become defensive. When we feel threatened, whether by Islam or Oprah or Dawkins, an instinct can be for us to recoil into a stance that is not Christ-like and works against our very own mission. We can be fooled into fight (pushy debating and lobbying and power plays) or flight (retreating from the world into our own little safe corner) and each of these can be to shoot ourselves in our beautiful feet that our meant to bring good news.
Fight and flight postures each keep us from being in that peaceful, joyful zone where we are open to God’s Spirit and ready for opportunities to engage creatively with the world around us in the name of Jesus. Think of Jesus himself when his opponents were actively setting traps for him. Neither fight nor flight, but brilliant thirds ways that were wonderful demonstrations of God’s kingdom.
For me, a key thought I choose to bring to mind when the world looms large is that Jesus will certainly triumph in the end. As bad as the scoreboard seems now, we know how this game ends. Like the masked man in The Princess Bride backed up in a sword fight to the edge of the cliff, we can still smile to ourselves and indeed to the world. We know a secret. We know we are perfectly safe and nothing at all can separate us from Christ’s love.
The world will give us all sorts of trouble, but we must actively take heart – Christ has overcome the world. Let’s neither pull our heads in nor thrust our chins out. Let’s walk taller – not with an arrogant swagger, but with the noble gait of those who will turn the other cheek, wash feet, and with Christ be overcomers.