Are you a zoo or a jungle?

I’ve heard lions roar twice in my life. One time was at the St. Louis Zoo and the other was in Ngoro Ngoro crater in Tanzania. While the event was the same (a lion roaring), the experience was quite different!

I happened to be at the lion exhibit in St. Louis when the lion let loose. I remember watching through the glass/bars as he paced and stretched. Then he let out a tremendous roar that drew people from all the nearby exhibits. It was amazing to see the people flock to take pictures and admire this magnificent beast. I imagine it was the best part of the day for the kids at the zoo.

That event stands in stark contrast to my other experience. I was on safari in Tanzania at the end of a two week long trip. My group was going through Ngoro Ngoro crater and we had just stopped for lunch. We were outside the caravan of Jeeps taking pictures when someone spotted some lions off in the distance. They were a significant distance away, but people got a little nervous. Then, for some unknown reason, the male with the group roared. He sent the majority of the group scrambling for cover. I remember seeing one woman fumbling to open the door, slamming it behind her and locking it for good measure. It was quite the opposite of the zoo. No parents took their children by the hand to bring them closer to the King of the Jungle this time!

I share these stories because I feel like God is asking me, is asking us, “Are you a zoo or a jungle?”

As a Christian, I believe I have the Spirit of the One and Only God living inside of me. The Spirit of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is pulsing through my veins, animating me with the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. So the question is, how am I treating him?

Am I a zoo, where people can observe God in me at a safe distance, never fearing that the two of them will meet? Or am I a jungle, where the Lion reigns supreme and anyone in close proximity to me had better take note that they are about to be encountered by the Risen Christ on his home turf? Am I a cage confining the Spirit to a lifetime of entertaining religious tourists, or does the atmosphere change when I walk into the room because I carry God inside me and He has the freedom to cut loose?

We all have to choose what kind of environment we will be. Humanity’s default is to put God on display for profit and we must consciously fight against that tendency. We are after changed hearts and lives and that can only happen when we bring the Kingdom of Heaven near.


“Stages” of Discipleship

As I continue to prepare for this Fall’s sermon series, The Normal Christian Life, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about discipleship. Jesus commands us to make disciples – not to have people make “decisions for Christ.” I believe Jesus envisioned a similar approach to what he did with the 12: grab some friends/relatives, walk through life together and, while doing so, teach and demonstrate what it means to be a son or daughter of God. Equip them, counsel them and develop Christ’s life within them. Then, when they are fully trained, they will be like their Master and can be sent out to repeat the process with others.

Like many people I’ve met, I was never discipled in an intentional way. Most of what I am and have has been gleaned from others, but my progress into maturity would have been much faster, much healthier and much more enjoyable had someone walked with me through the process.

As someone who is now discipling two young men, my challenge is to meet them where they are, figure out what stage of maturity they are in and help them to advance to the next stage of Christlikeness. It isn’t easy, I’ve never done it before, but it is invigorating and life giving. My goal is to get them to maturity faster than I got there and to see them surpass me when they get to the same stage of life I’m in. If I can do that, I know I’ve succeeded as a discipler.

Now, as to the “stages” I’ve mentioned. These are simply my own creation. I didn’t get them from anyone and they aren’t endorsed by any big-name preacher. They are simply how I think of people when I meet them. Feel free to take them and use them or change them into something that works better for you. The point is that you take ownership of the fact that you are called to disciple others and encourage them into Christlikeness.

I use the analogy of human life for my stages. It makes sense to me to think about discipleship in this way. The stages, as I see them, are: birth/baby, child, teenager, young adult, adult and elder.

(1) Birth/Baby
David Pawson has an excellent book and sermon series entitled, “The Normal Christian Birth.” The distilled version is this: in order for someone to have a good birth into the Kingdom, they need to (a) Repent of their sins and cut ties with their former life, (b) Believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, (c) be Baptized and (d) Receive the Holy Ghost. To miss any of these 4 components is to have a bad birth into the Kingdom that will hamper your walk with Christ until it is corrected.

Once someone is born again, they are a baby, a spiritual infant. They need a loving father and/or mother to look after them, love them and care for them. Babies are a lot of work. They require a lot of input and their only output tends to stink. Babies make messes, get into things they shouldn’t and need to be taught how to be part of a family. The Vineyard has a saying, “Faith is better caught than taught.” While solid Biblical instruction is essential to discipleship, people in the “Baby” stage rely more on models. The discipler has the divine responsibility to model for the Baby what it looks like to be part of the People of God. Doing life together is paramount in this stage.

(2) Child
As a Baby grows up into a Child, they start a more formal educational process. In addition to what the disciple has already learned about repentance from sin, believing in Jesus, baptism and being filled with the Spirit they also need to learn about living a holy life and have their entire world view shaped by a meditation on eternity – the New Heaven and New Earth that God will bring us into. Some think that teaching about Judgement, Heaven and Hell is for advanced disciples, but the Bible makes it clear that this is an “elementary teaching” (Hebrews 6). The sooner Christians start meditating on eternal life with God and storing up heavenly rewards the better.

A disciple in the “Child” stage tends to be really good at regurgitating information and really bad at critical thinking and application. They can correctly cite a bible verse, but don’t really know what it means or how the context of the verse nuances its application. Children tend to be very concrete thinkers and are, therefore, rather rule (Law) bound. They need skilled teachers who are able to affirm where they are and who also expose them to a wider range of truths, texts and applications. It is important to note that the Bible frequently holds two opposite and opposing views in tension and talks favorably about each.

(3) Teenager
Teenagers look all grown up, but are still immature. As disciplers, we can be too quick to think that someone has matured. Just because someone knows a lot of Bible verses, prays regularly, and has budding gifts does not mean they are mature or ready for leadership. They still need to go through a period of testing to see what is really inside of them.

Like their natural counterparts, spiritual teenagers tend to go through a rebellious questioning phase. They start examining the things they believe and try to push the boundaries, just to see if they can. A good example of this is the “hyper grace” movement currently circulating in the American Church. The “hypers” are exploring grace, trying to understand what it really means. Because they have that trendy, edgy feel so common in teenage cliques, they are getting quite a following. And they say outrageous things, “because Jesus paid it all, I don’t have to confess or repent. I live in sinless perfection.” OK, that sounds awesome – I’ll see you in five years, then you can let me know how living in a community of people who never confess or repent of their sins works for you.

Disciples in the teenage stage are at a critical juncture. They are in a place where they have a lot of knowledge (and think they know it all), they have spiritual gifts that are starting to manifest and an appearance of maturity. What they (oftentimes) do not have are mature characters. They are not in possession of the Fruit of the Spirit. This crisis point is essential to draw out what is really in the person’s heart. Will they rebel and go their own separate way, rejecting what they have learned and proving that they were stony or thorny soil? Or will they resubmit themselves to The Lord Jesus and enter into young adulthood?

(4) Young Adult
For those that successfully make the transition to the Young Adult stage, a whole new world opens up. They enter a world of endless possibilities and freedom. Because they have submitted themselves to authority (first Jesus, then their discipler and lastly their congregation) they now have authority. They can be trusted with some leadership responsibilities and their voice carries weight in the community.

Disciples in the Young Adult stage always have a busy life. Oftentimes people in this stage are working full time; married, engaged or seriously dating; living on their own and making their own way. They are learning to be responsible and productive. After receiving for so long, they are now making the transition to giving.

This is also a crisis point – will the disciple learn to choose relationship with Jesus as their highest goal and highest good. In the busy-ness of life, will they still take time to nurture their relationship with God?

Most people I know tend to get stuck in the teenage or young adult phase for a long time. They are either on the verge of total surrender and obedience or on just the other side and have gotten side tracked with life.

At this stage, the disciple is learning the cost of discipleship. They are beginning to realize that money doesn’t grow on trees and churches aren’t miraculously endowed with money each year. Just as it takes money to run a household, it takes money to run a church. They realize that all the food they ate in home group had to come from somewhere. They realize that everyone has a busy life and the time their spiritual family spent pouring into them was more precious than they could really comprehend at the time.

As these realizations begin to accumulate, the young adult starts to make the transition into Adulthood, maturity. They begin to give of themselves. They volunteer, they tithe, they evangelize and disciple others. Eventually, they decide that they will take responsibility for their own growth and seek to bless, love and encourage others.

(5) Adulthood
These are the people every pastor wants in their congregation. These are the committed, dedicated, passionate people that make ministry happen. These are the regular volunteers, the tithers, the people hosting home groups and teaching Bible studies. These are the people welcoming new believers into their homes and living lives of true discipleship.

These are the glory years of the Christian life. They are years where you are growing in communion with God, stepping into your true identity and calling, doing meaningful/fulfilling work, and seeing the Kingdom expand one man or woman at a time. The dividing walls between secular and sacred have come crumbling down and you can find God anywhere you look. You know God and are known by Him. You have peace.

(6) Elder
Very few people, in my opinion, make it to the Elder stage. For the record, I’m not using the term to mean the position of oversight talked about in the Bible. I’m using the term to talk about those venerable saints that make you shake your head in wonder.

In order to become an Elder, I think one needs to have been walking with Jesus for 40-50 years. Given that most of us really commit to the discipleship process between 20 and 30, that puts Elders in their 60’s to 80’s, provided they have done their homework and grown up before they grew old. Elders have an unmistakable air of grace around them. The only word to describe them is “holy.” These are the people Proverbs talks about when it says, “Grey hair is a crown to the aged.” These people have walked the walk, stood the test of time and been found faithful. These people know Jesus.

I’ve met a handful of Elders and they make me uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. On one hand, they seem to be able to look through my bravado and see the insecure young man underneath. And at the same time, they make me feel so loved and encouraged I think I can do anything.

Elders leave a lasting legacy. Their lives have such a dramatic impact on the world around them that they are not easily forgotten, at least by the people that knew them. There is an almost critical shortage of Elders in the Body. Too many grey haired wonders have hung up their spurs and retired. Too many have gotten weary. Too many have been ignored by those obsessed with the new and the young. We need a resurgence of respect for the Elders of the Church – they would save us from a lot of needless struggle.

So there is my list. I know it was a lot of reading, but I hope you found it helpful. As always, I love to hear your comments.

Thanks for reading!

Saltwater Fish and Freshwater Fish

This Fall, I will be leading my congregation through a sermon series entitled The Normal Christian Life. I’m seeking to answer the basic questions of Christianity for myself and then share them with the congregation. One of the questions I’ve been wrestling with is, “what is sin?”

A quick survey of the available literature reveals that the Church is really good at condemning certain sins, absolutely excellent at recounting various lists of sins from Scripture – Old and New Testament – and pretty abysmal at answering my question. The exceptions to this that I have found so far are John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

Piper and Grudem both answer the question, “what is sin,” by explaining the Reformed doctrine of “Total Depravity” – which in plain English reads like Psalm 51, “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Piper and Grudem both do a great job of explaining that (pre-Rebirth) we aren’t sinful because we’ve committed sins, we commit sins because we are sinners. Grudem goes on to explain in Chapter 24 of his book, Systematic Theology, that the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity does not preclude people from being moral or performing acts of justice. It is just that, in a sinful state, we are not able to do anything that pleases God. “Our righteous acts are as unclean as a menstrual garments,” is Isaiah’s poetic phrasing in chapter 64.

As convincing and correct as I find both Piper’s and Grudem’s arguments, I felt something lacking. I couldn’t envision a clear and concise way of explaining this concept to an unbeliever – it was too heady and lacked conviction. So I set to work praying, asking God for a way to preach this message in a way that would be easily understood and carry the proper punch. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’ll share what I have so far.

As far as I am aware, there are two main categories of fish – saltwater fish and freshwater fish. Each type of fish has evolved to be comfortable in that certain environment and to transplant a saltwater fish into freshwater (and vice versa) is to kill the fish.* So, if I wanted to save a bunch of fish in the ocean, I couldn’t just dump them off at a neighbor’s farm pond – the change of environment would kill them. If I wanted to transplant those fish, I’d have to find a way of changing the internal environment and chemistry of the fish so that they could survive the different level of salt in the water.

That is exactly what Jesus does for us.

We were all born as “saltwater fish.” If I were to corrupt David’s Psalm to fit my anaology, it would read “Surely I was a saltwater fish from birth. I was a saltwater fish from the moment my mother conceived me.” Through no conscious effort on our part, we were born saltwater fish. And the salt in the water is symbolic of sin. Fish in the ocean can see the salt in the water, even though it is all around them and directly impacts how they live and function. So it is with us. Until the Holy Spirit gives us the ability, we are blind to our own sinful nature, our own corrupted thoughts and desires. It isn’t until Jesus draws us to himself that we are able to see things clearly for the first time.

To continue with the analogy… the Kingdom is freshwater territory – saltwater fish don’t feel comfortable there, they are as hostile to that environment as the environment is dangerous to them. You can be the biggest, baddest fish in the ocean and it doesn’t matter – the Kingdom is Freshwater. Conversely, you can be the kindest, gentlest, most virtuous saltwater fish there ever was – and it still doesn’t matter because the Kingdom is Freshwater. Neither of them can live in the Kingdom for any length of time unless they become a different kind of fish.

Whichever of the two fish mentioned above you relate to the most, you still have to come to Jesus. He alone has the ability to change you on the inside so that you are comfortable in the Kingdom and that it will be a life-giving environment for you. Obtaining Eternal Life in the Kingdom isn’t about being moral and following a bunch of rules – it is about submitting your life to Jesus as your Lord and Savior. That is why we say we are “saved by grace through faith and not by works.” Will we go on to do good works after we’ve been transformed? Of course! That is what the children of God do – but we can never confuse our external acts with our internal state before The Lord.

That is what I have so far friends. Was this a helpful analogy for you? Why or why not? Could I clarify anything? Would you feel comfortable using this analogy when you are evangelizing?

I want to refine this concept because I think it articulates the heart of the Gospel, but I need feedback. If you would take a moment to comment below or send me an email, I would greatly appreciate it. As always, thanks for reading.

* [Full disclosure: in researching this allegory I did discover that there are certain subtypes of fish, mainly bull sharks, that can seemly survive for extended periods of time in either environment. For the purpose of this example, those fish are excluded. =) ]

What I Meant to Say: Metanoia (Repentance)

Matthew 4:17 is the nucleus of Jesus’s life and ministry. “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” is the essence of Jesus’s work on the earth. Everything we see in the Gospels flows from it. Therefore, it is essential that we understand what Jesus means in those first few words recorded in Matthew.

I’ll preface this by admitting that the word “repentance” has a lot of baggage associated with it. The word has been damaged in our culture and is in great need of explanation so that we can understand it correctly. Repentance is the absolute first step to salvation – it is imperative that we understand it well and can explain it to others.

Let us first examine what repentance is not.

When we proclaim the Good News, we want people to repent. However, getting people to repent is not us trying to convict other people of their sins so that they will turn to Jesus for forgiveness. Convicting people of their sins is Holy Spirit’s job (see John 16). A great many saints have taken this approach through the years and God, in His mercy, has allowed it to be fruitful. Even still, I do not think this is the most effective means of advancing the Gospel.

I’d like to go on to explain what repentance is by comparing and contrasting two Greek words, metanoia and paranoia.

Paranoia is a word we are familiar with in English. It describes a disease wherein someone is absolutely consumed with thoughts of other people, specifically, that other people are out to “get them” or do them harm. This is exactly what the word paranoia means in Greek – para means “alongside” or “beside” and noia is the word for “thinking” or “mind.” So, paranoia has a double meaning – it can mean “outside your mind” (meaning madness), or it can mean “thinking about the people beside you.” Paranoia is literally the fear of man, being consumed with thinking about the people around you and what they are thinking about you. Paranoia is a disease of the enemy that steals, kills and destroys a sound mind.

Metanoia is commonly translated as repent, which is really unfortunate because that isn’t anything like what the word means in Greek. If you think about it, re means “to do again” and pent is from the word penitent which means “feeling or expressing sorrow for sin.” So repent literally means “to feel sorry and do penance over (and over) again.” Yuck. But it helps explain why we evangelize the way we do. We’re trying to get people to feel sorry for their sins.

Contrast that with the actual Greek word metanoia. Meta can mean “to change” or “above” and noia once again means “mind” or “thinking.” So metanoia also has two meanings – “to change your mind/thinking” or “to think about the things above,” meaning God. If paranoia is being concerned with what other people think of you, metanoia is being concerned with what God thinks of you.

So, what does Jesus mean when he says, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”? I think what he means is this: “The Kingdom of Heaven, God’s reign and rule, has come near to you. I’ve proved it by healing the sick, casting out demons and even raising the dead. God is real, and He is coming as a King to overthrow His enemies and establish His Kingdom on the earth. How are you going to live in response to what you have seen and heard? Are you on God’s side or not? I am the Way, the Truth and the Life – I am God’s terms of peace. If you will submit to me as your Lord and Savior I will spare you from the wrath that is soon to come on the earth. If you don’t, them you stand condemned already as those that have rebelled against God and rejected His terms of peace.”

The sentence I highlighted above, “How are you going to live in response to what you have seen and heard”, is what I understand Jesus to mean with the word metanoia. Repentance can only happen when we have been confronted with the Superior Reality of God’s Kingdom. When we see God’s Kingdom triumph over the kingdom of this world through signs, wonders, miracles, love, mercy and forgiveness then we have a choice to make – will we align with Immanuel (the God in our midst) or will we continue our allegiance to the Prince of this world through unbelief, skepticism, cynicism, fear, revenge and unforgiveness? While metanoia is oftentimes accompanied by remorse over sin (Acts 2:37), it isn’t always (see Acts 10).

To clarify, I don’t want to do away with the English understanding of repentance, that is, “to feel sorry for our sins.” As Disciples of King Jesus growing in holiness, we will experience sorrow for our sins. We will grieve how we have hurt God’s heart through willful disobedience and we will ache over how we have caused pain to those we love when we act contrary to our true nature. What I am trying to make clear is that, as it pertains to Evangelism, we are required to confront people with the Reality of God’s Kingdom in such a way that it gets them to think about God. And if we can get them to ask questions like “What does God think about me? Are we on good terms? Were Jesus to come back right now and establish the Kingdom, would I be on the winning side or losing side?” so much the better.

I long for the Church to reclaim metanoia. I long for us to look for ways to change people’s hearts and minds by demonstrating the true Gospel of Grace. I long to see Disciples of Jesus carry His Presence in such a powerful way that whenever we walk into a room, we can truthfully say, “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you.”

I believe that day is coming. I believe it is promised to us in the Scriptures. My prayer is that I will live to see it, even pastor a group of people who will be the living embodiment of the “greater things.” Amen, let it indeed be so!

Rude Awakening

11:00pm. 12:00am. 12:30am. 3:00am. 4:40am. Those were all the times my son got up last night. And he was wide awake at 4:40. Uuf da.

There are so many wake up calls when you become a parent. And not just the ones in the middle of the night. I’m talking about the wake up calls of character. It turns out I’m not as patient, kind or gentle as I originally thought. I just never encountered anything that riled me up too badly.

As 5:00, then 5:30 then 6:00 rolled around with no signs of Emory slowing down, I decided to make a pot of coffee. I grabbed my old favorite mug – wide rimmed, rustic country style with a picture of corn on the side. It reminded me of all my early morning quiet times pre-children. Fond memories for sure, but they came with a bitter edge this morning.

You see, I used to think I was so spiritual. Up at 6 of my own accord to read the Bible and journal while I sipped coffee with a splash of cream – that was my picture of the ideal Christian life. But here is what I realized – it is easy to be spiritual and not holy.

“Spiritual” is a word thrown around with nauseating frequency these days. Worse, it is a non-word, empty of any significant meaning. People use the word to describe situations or experiences that give them the tingles, but don’t transform their lives. They are “spiritual” and carnal at the same time.

Spirituality is an individual pursuit. It is you worshipping in the context of yourself. It really isn’t anything short of idolatry.

Holiness, however, can only be worked out in community.

Holiness is being like God. It is reflecting His image as purely and consistently as we can and we only know if we are being successful if there is someone else to see it. The presence of another human being reveals our hearts far better than hours spent alone in private meditations.

I am not holy unless I am holy at my absolute worst. When everything is against me, when everything is rubbed raw, when I am squeezed to a pulp – what comes out? Trials don’t build character, they reveal it. I don’t get to explain away my feelings, words or actions by saying “I’m tired,” “I’m hungry,” “I’ve been around too many people,” “I have stress at work or at home.” I don’t get to do that because God doesn’t do it.

It humbles me to think of how God interacts with me. I throw tantrums and pity parties enough for six people, I can’t imagine how He deals with me so gently knowing that He deals with the same stuff in each of the 7 billion people currently on planet Earth. What humility. What grace. What patience.

And I am made in His image and likeness. I’m designed to reflect and incarnate His character. I have His Spirit and His Mind. I have a new heart that longs to please Him.

I also have a long way to go in this journey of holiness. I have recently become aware of a whole host of things that were previously hidden from me. It is more than a little discouraging, but I’d rather know what is there so I can deal with it than continue in dysfunction and unholiness and hurt the people around me.

So here is to being decidedly unspiritual and embracing the work of carrying my cross of obedience and holiness. Here is to working out holiness in the context of community and seeing people as a blessing. Here is to giving up my unBiblical ideas of the pseudo-Christian life and embracing what it means to be the Body. I know this won’t happen perfectly, but that is precisely the point. I don’t get better at being Jesus in the worst of times unless I get to practice.