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The stark realities of how leadership and follower-ship work on planet earth surrounded the birth of Jesus.  The Magi, or kings of the East, were carefully following the light they had.  An unusual celestial phenomenon, a moving star, was leading them to the legendary Leader of all leaders.  God has always provided the light needed to find Jesus.  The willingness or unwillingness of the heart determines whether that light can be seen.  (John 1:9…the true Light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.)

Strangers arrived in Jerusalem asking questions.  “Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews?  We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”  Herod called in the Chief Priests and teachers of the Old Testament scriptures.  His question, “Where was the Christ to be born?” was answered immediately. “In Bethlehem in Judea for this is what the prophet has written,” they quoted Hosea 11:1.

Strangely, these Bible-answer men were not interested in finding Jesus themselves.  The scripture was for answers…not for discovering the answer Himself.  They never even bothered to join the Magi’s search.  Here’s how the players stack up:

  1. The Magi were honest seekers, following whatever scrap of information they could find.
  2. Herod was a dishonest seeker, eager to dismantle any potential challenge to his control.
  3. The religious leaders were intellectual seekers. Truth was useful as a tool but was never allowed to lead them to a real encounter with supreme reality.  Religion was their kingdom.  Indifference was their protective wall.

It is important to realize that the New Testament opens with what amounts to a devastating exposure of the basic problem of the human heart.  In one vivid, brutal story, scripture rips the cover off all human pretenses.  All of our hearts have been tested by God’s spiritual electrocardiograph.  The history of our personal heart problem with heaven’s leadership is exposed.  Some of us seek Him, find Him and worship Him; some attack Him; most of us ignore Him.

(Excerpt taken from The Safe King book and study guide. Dig deeper and find out more by getting your copy of The Safe King on Amazon).

DISCIPLESHIP LIFESIGNS

I think we have made an assumption that isn’t valid.  In the post-modern church we have imagined that we could produce disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We have tried programs and processes.  We have developed curriculum and study guides, classes and seminars.  All created with high hopes and then dashed with harsh reality.  Why?

Could it be that we have assumed the role of the Holy Spirit?  Why do I suggest this?  Because the Spirit is the source of LIFE.  He alone can produce genuine living disciples of the Lord Jesus.  His work is called in Christian theology…Regeneration.  If a person has become a genuine child of God by faith in Christ there is spontaneous change and growth that cannot be faked or simulated.  Here’s a list of Spirit instigated Lifesigns:

  1. A powerful hunger for the Word of God and a willingness to obey it.
  2. A desire for constant communication with God in prayer.
  3. A holy hatred for sin (especially the sins of the tongue and the ego)
  4. A love for other Christians and a powerful desire to worship, fellowship and serve with them.
  5. An attitude of gratitude and praise.
  6. A spontaneous witness…they have to tell their story
  7. A spirit of generosity
  8. A love for God and His Kingdom that prioritizes everything else second and becomes the center of their value system.
  9. Abiding peace
  10. An unquenchable joy
  11. Courage and endurance in suffering and persecution
  12. A willingness to forgive

This is not an exhaustive list.  This is my personal list and I am still adding to it.  These life signs are more to be caught than taught.  They are derived from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  They can be coached and mentored in the way a gifted athlete can benefit from training and coaching, but they cannot be generated by mere knowledge.  You either have the life of God transforming you or you don’t.  Disciples don’t teach life…they follow and enhance life.

An Ancient Way of Making Disciples

 

When the Christian leaders of the 21st century compare notes they wonder aloud why we have so few genuine followers of the Lord Jesus.  The crowds that attend on Sunday mornings seem to be made up of spectators rather than committed practitioners.  So, there is a revival of interest in producing disciples of Jesus.  It’s the “next big thing” even though it’s very old…Book of Acts old. The first thing we do is focus on comprehensive classroom programs that promise depth and diligence, character and zeal.

I’m not a skeptic but I am skeptical about this knee jerk educational approach to making disciples.  My reason for doubt?   We often have tried the academic approach to making disciples in the past.  We call the churches that do this well…”teaching churches”.  But, by any accurate measurement, churches that increase the academic programming as a means of discipleship are using a recipe for under-performance.  If we are honest, we must admit that our people do not usually live lives that match the level of knowledge they have gained from our instruction.  In the next blog I will offer another way to make disciples.

Desperate Preoccupation

I was watching the audience at my grand daughters high school choir concert.  Like me, the parents and grand parents were not paying attention to their kids.  Without exception they were focused on their cell phones!  They were emailing, face-booking, tweeting or on an app.  Some were reading the news, weather or sports or a book. I thought, “Who are we kidding?  We no longer attend our kid’s sporting events or school concerts to encourage them.  Instead we are catching up with our on-line world.

I think we will pay a huge price for this drift into chronic preoccupation.  It is so totally anti-relational and yet it feels relational.  After all we are staying in touch with people by “liking” their latest posts…right?  We hate it when our children are preoccupied with their electronic networking, because we feel them drawing away from us.  But when it’s us doing the same thing, we justify it by cloaking our distracted-ness with good intentions.

Don’t you wonder how God sees what’s happening?  Certainly he is used to being ignored by most of his human creatures most of the time.  I suspect He doesn’t like it any better than we do. Wouldn’t it be radical and revolutionary if we simply got absorbed and preoccupied with His Word and communication (prayer) with Him?

Smart Phones are great tools.  I’m certainly not going to toss mine in the trash.  But, I want a desperate preoccupation that’s goes after a vertical relationship not merely horizontal ones.

Expectation

When we hear the disciple’s question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt.18:1) we tend to judge them harshly.  How humbling it must have been to have Jesus place before them a little child and say, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven!” (Matt. 18:3-5).

The disciples were ambitious.  They expected to be honored.  Hadn’t they left their previous vocations and families to follow Jesus?  And so, time after time they raised the question of status even up to the evening of the Last Supper in the upper room.

Like those first disciples, many ministry leaders tend to take themselves too seriously.  Children take their play seriously, but not themselves.  Consider Michael Quoist’s thoughts from his book Prayers for Life.  (He writes as if God is speaking.)

“I don’t like old people unless they are still children.
I want only children in my kingdom, youngsters– twisted, humped, wrinkled, white-bearded—all kinds of youngsters, but youngsters.
I like children because my likeness has not yet been dulled in them.
They have not botched my likeness.
I like them because they are still growing, still improving.
They are on the road. They are on their way.
But with grown-ups there is nothing to expect anymore.
They will no longer grow.  No longer improve.
They have come to a full stop.
It is disastrous–-grownups think they have arrived.”

It seems to me that expectations of kingdom leadership must be constantly brought in line with child-likeness.  Not childishness or infantilism, but unpretentious willingness to grow and change.

Anticipation

There’s a wise quote that is attributed to Wayne Gretzky the hockey star.  “A good hockey player plays where the puck is.  A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”  This insight easily translates into other areas of life.

Let me paraphrase Gretzky’s quote with a ministry twist.  “A good disciple maker focuses on where the culture is.  A great disciple maker focuses on where the culture is going to be.”  Christian leaders need to be futurists who wisely anticipate what is needed in spite of the crazy speed of change that is sweeping us along.

Could it be that the gift of prophecy is the Spirit of God’s way of preparing us for what’s coming next?

In the book of Acts there are numerous references to how the God did this. For instance, in Acts 8, Philip the Evangelist had an angel of the Lord interrupt a revival he was leading in Samaria (8:4-8).  He was told to “go south to the desert road to Gaza” and there he met the Ethiopian eunuch.  The result was the beginning of the expansion of the early church into Africa! (8:26-39)

On another occasion a prophet named Agabus took Paul’s belt, tied his hands and feet with it, and said, The Holy Spirit says, in this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles” (Acts 21:10-11)

My own experience with this kind of “God directed futurism” has proven to me that God can be trusted to get us ready for what is about to happen. If we are only ready for what’s next at the moment, we are not ready for next year or the next decade’s opportunities and challenges.  But, be assured God will be ready for what’s coming.  If we learn to use the gift of prophecy well…we will be listening for His voice and be ready also.

Reflection Brings Fresh Insight

You can only tour so many castles before they all blur together.  My wife and I spent three weeks in Ireland in 2011.  It rained almost every day we were there, at least sprinkles and showers.  When the magnificent landscape was fogged in we found the ruins of dozens of castles to explore.  At first it was dramatic and breathtaking to climb the fortress towers and walk the ramparts.  But gradually each castle seemed like the ones we had already seen.  In fact, we couldn’t keep them separated in our memories.  I know this sounds crass, but we actually got bored with them.

I think the same sort of thing happens when we hear the Word of God preached.  The incredible truths that can each inspire awe in their own right can get so familiar that we get tired of them.  Great preaching is wonderful to experience.  Coming away week after week with your soul full to overflowing is exhilarating.  But, then it comes to be expected and finally it can be taken for granted and unappreciated.  The important question is:  how can great vistas of truth be kept fresh and impressive?

I think the answer lies in adequate time for rumination or digestion.  When I saw too many castles one right after another I had no time to process what I was seeing.  Later, when reviewing my photos, my appreciation grew as I took time to carefully study one fortress at a time.  The same is true of Spirit filled preaching.  I find that listening to a message I’ve downloaded  a second or a third time can greatly enhance my appreciation of its truth and deepen its impact.  I get to chew on it (ruminate) and, like a cow chewing its cud, my slowed-down-mental processing gives me much better spiritual digestion.  Sometimes too much of a good thing coming too quickly produces waste.  Time to adequately concentrate brings a much higher degree of enjoyment and long term benefit.

WHAT’S GONE WRONG WITH THE HARVEST?

I am staying in a house in Chiangmai, Thailand that is surrounded by rice fields.  This year the patchwork squares of diked land parcels are dry.  The usual monsoon rains have not arrived.  There is despair in the air.  The all important crop is not going into the ground.  There will be no harvest here.  The mood that a missing harvest creates is something that can be felt, even by someone like me who is not dependent on rice.

My spirit makes the switch to the greater harvest of souls which also seems to be endangered.  This city is the Colorado Springs of the Far East.  Before the British lease ran out on Hong Kong in the late 90’s most of the Christian ministries based there moved to Chiangmai.  There are thousands of missionaries living here.  But I can find little evidence of the expected harvest.  I recently spoke at one of the five International Churches in the city.  The room was full of ministry professionals of many varieties.  Afterward in conversations with individuals I found out that most of the arriving missionaries return home to the States within four years.  Many don’t last two years.  The reason is startling…frustration over lack of results.  They arrive with bright vision and high hopes for a bountiful harvest.  Then reality kicks in and the spiritual drought and missing harvest provoke depression, discouragement and death of a vision.

Are there any bright spots?  Is God bringing in any fruit from this part of His Harvest Field?  Yes, there is good news.  The problem is that most of what God is doing is happening outside of the control of Western Missionary efforts.  The hill tribes in many Asian countries have experienced wonderful multiplication of Christ-followers, leaders and churches.  Many NGO’S and ex-pat workers try hard to take credit for what God is doing.  There is no lack of shame in that embarrassing scramble to “show product” to supporters back home.  Could it be that God has removed His hand of blessing from many of our western missionary teams?   Is it possible that God is making it clear that He doesn’t need us, or, at least He doesn’t need our ministry technologies, techniques and expertise? The Rain of God’s Spirit is necessary.  Everything else is optional.

Kingdom Connoisseurs

Some people get it and some are turned off by it.  The reign of God would seem to be the very ground of reality.  The grace of God, which we all need, only get’s its value because of Who is offering it.  Grace that takes over is far superior to grace that merely forgives.

What makes the Kingdom of God the main thing, the big burner?  Allegiance is indispensable to being sold out to the agenda of the King.  The loyalty of the heart is the issue.  If the focus of the Lord’s Prayer, ( “Our Father who art in Heaven, honored be Thy name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”), is  taken seriously, the Kingdom is supremely precious.  If it is minimized and relegated to just one more thing in a variety of options, it is devalued.

When I personally discovered that the Kingdom of God is the Pearl of Great Price it changed my value system.  It turned my life upside-down.   The kingdom became a magnificent obsession.  Once in a while I meet connoisseurs who also have sold everything to possess the ultimate prize.  More often the reaction is a stifled yawn and a bored glazed look that tells me that the Kingdom gospel of Jesus is still undiscovered or unappreciated.

In order to buy the Pearl you have to “sell” everything else.  That seems to be the sticking point.

Spit On or Spit Out?

The last book of the Bible is the Book of Revelation.  In the third chapter a letter to the church of Laodicea can be found.  It is a letter from Jesus to a luke-warm group of Christians in which He threatens to “spit them out of His mouth”.

What is so offensive about being neither hot nor cold?  The middle of the road seems like such a safe place.  Isn’t avoiding extremism a virtue?  Why wouldn’t Jesus prefer well-balanced non-fanatical followers?  I don’t know…it naturally seems to me that the middle of the pack is a good place to be.

Until I realize that Jesus is asking for total commitment, not half-hearted or nominal commitment to Himself and His Kingdom.  He is using the graphic visual illustration of vomiting to make clear how He feels about moderate, partially committed followers.  There it is compelling and unavoidable: the call to get “hot” in your whole hearted surrender to the leadership of Jesus.  It will make others uncomfortable. They may spit on you with verbal abuse and rejection.  They don’t like hot hearted Christians.   So, in the end it comes down to who you want to please.  There’s spit involved either way.