Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
Some things are very difficult. Ranking right up there with licking your elbow and contacting a government department is this: Trying to remember a tune while listening to a different one.
Sacred agents live with a similar difficulty 24/7. If the world into which we are sent was merely cacophonous, it wouldn’t be so hard. But it tends to play a particular song of its own, while we are called to march to a different beat. If that makes you feel and look a bit unco then you’re no Robinson Crusoe. So how do we do it?
I like to think of Daniel and his amigos. Somehow they sustained that art of living with one’s feet in Babylon and heart in Jerusalem – the double-life of a sacred agent. How did they cope? By hitting Pause and hitting Play.
None of us can claim to have more responsibilities or a busier life than Daniel, yet paused three times a day to physically open his windows to face Jerusalem and pray. It was a conscious act of reorientation which he needed 21 times a week. How many quiet times can I afford not to have? Or am I stronger than him? Daniel switched off the Babylonian lullaby that constantly sought to spiritually pacify him and tuned in to Radio Jerusalem.
And they pressed Play. If they weren’t the authors of Psalm 137 then it was someone with the same heart: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? / If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill / May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. They never wanted to forget the heavenly tune of God’s kingdom. They needed to be able to whistle it even in (especially in) the direst of trouble.
What are your practices of pressing pause and play, of tuning out and tuning in?
When I coached my daughter’s basketball team, the first thing I wanted to teach them was how to get rebounds. Having the ball makes a lot of difference in most sports. So I told them what I’d learned from watching Dennis Rodman in the Chicago Bulls’ glory days. I asked them ‘What makes the most difference in getting rebounds?’
Being tall? No, that’s the 4th most important factor. I saw Rodman constantly outdo much taller players. Being skilled? No, I’d say that’s the 3rd most important. Even the cleverest players would come up empty handed when Rodman was nearby. Was it getting in the best position? Well, I’d say that’s the 2nd most – and very – important. But I still saw Rodman pinching rebounds that taller, more skilful players were in the prime position to get. So what makes all the difference?
Far and away the biggest factor is simply wanting the ball. Watching bad-boy Rodman on TV, it was really obvious. No one wanted it like he did. Quite short for a power forward, he lead the NBA in rebounds seven years in a row and his team won five championships.
It also got me thinking about evangelism. If there’s one thing we could work on, what should it be? Do we need people ideally shaped by God for evangelism? Yes, but it takes more than that. Do we need to train people in the skills and techniques of evangelism? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make it happen. Do we need to position people in just the right place, working, befriending, eating and drinking with sinners? Definitely. We’ve worked on all those things and I hope we continue to.
But my question is: Do we really want the lost sheep like the Shepherd does? Is the bottleneck to evangelism not so much in the skills of our hands and the knowledge of our heads but in the desires of our hearts? Do we talk and pray about this honestly? Because if deep down we prefer our warm fellowship not to be disturbed by outsiders, what will happen is this: We’ll go through all the motions of attempting the rebound – wanting to be seen to be trying in the eyes of the Coach – but never coming up with the ball much.
Meanwhile, God uses the Dennis Rodmans of our churches – often uneloquent, amateur odd-bods – to win people for the kingdom. And their point of difference is just this: They have in their hearts God’s heart for the lost that he fervently loves.
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?