Fleeing Sinners, Flying Tigers

You may have come across that little bit of greeting card-style wisdom that runs something like this: “If you’re feeling like God is far from you, you’re probably the one that moved.” Well, as cogent and poignant as this sounds, to my mind it’s a little misleading. Here’s a story; stick with me.

When my daughter Lexi was in grade school, she made a papier-mâché animal figure for an art project. It was roughly cat-shaped and painted with orange and black stripes, and it had wings painted in rainbow colors. Lexi called it her flying tiger. When the art project was over, she brought her flying tiger home and suspended it by a string from the ceiling in her room. She was very attached to her flying tiger, and it became emblematic for her in a way I’ve never quite understood; she became a tiger-person, a tiger-girl.

When Lexi went off to college at a school five hours away, she left the flying tiger in our care. Time passed. Lexi and her older sister Stephanie both got engaged. Lexi graduated and came home to live until her wedding. This, I think, is when she discovered that her flying tiger was missing. Well, there was a hubbub. At length Stephanie broke down. While she was in school at a college across town from us, Stephanie was home much more often than Lexi, and one weekend there had been a mishap, she said; the tiger had been irreparably damaged, and she had thrown it away. She was very sorry, she said.

Lexi was quick to forgive Stephanie but was clearly upset for awhile at the loss of something that, for reasons perhaps known only to her, was special to her.

More time passed. Stephanie, now the maid of honor at Lexi’s wedding, stood holding a microphone at Lexi’s reception, preparing to make her maid of honor speech. She talked about their relationship, everything they shared, the good times, the rough times, the time that she confessed to destroying Lexi’s flying tiger and the fact that even this traumatic experience had not damaged their friendship and the love they had for each other. Then she handed Lexi a gift bag. Lexi pulled out her flying tiger, in pristine condition. Pranked by her older sister!

Lexi was of course delighted. Married to a great guy. Surrounded by her family and friends. Her flying tiger restored. Best day ever.

Image-bearers: more precious than … anything

Now, if the creator of a bit of elementary school artwork can become as attached as my daughter Lexi was to her oddball papier-mâché flying tiger, and if losing it was so painful to its creator, and if its restoration brought its creator so much joy … how much more is our Creator, who made us in His image, attached to us humans, and how painful is the thought of losing us, and how satisfying is our restoration to Him?

In this light, the idea that we could possibly succeed in moving away from God is really inadequate. When I attempt to take a step away from God (and I often do), I don’t think He stays where He always is or has always been. I believe He just takes a step in my direction. If I run away (and I sometimes do), He runs too—in my direction. He made me; He wants to delight in me and in restoring me to Himself again. The idea that God could be farther from us at any one time is an illusion—a lie we tell ourselves in our self-pity.

King David’s got it right in Psalm 139:

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is [w] too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where [y] shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall [b] lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than [m] the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

Even if you and I want to move away from God, no matter how far or how fast we go, He will pursue, He will be right there, holding out His hand—or better still, opening His arms to welcome us back and restore us.

It’s because of this indescribable love that God wants to restore us … why He sent Jesus, the only bearer of the true, pure image of God … why He sends His Holy Spirit to teach us about that love—to call us to respond, follow as disciples, and join Him in His project to restore all of His creation.

Do you need a better reason to consider whole-life discipleship?

 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unleash the Stealth Benefit of Prayer

When you spend a lot of time talking to someone, are you likely to get to know that person better? Are you likely to building a stronger, deeper relationship with that person?

I’m sure you won’t be surprised at my answers to these rhetorical questions: Yes. And Yes. Unless you’re carrying on a one-way communication with someone, you will probably discover yourself getting to know the person better and building an ever-stronger, ever-deeper relationship.

So what?

So this. Could we say the same thing about prayer? If prayer is talking with God (and it is), is it possible to get to know Him better and discover your relationship with Him growing stronger and deeper? Well … why wouldn’t you? So … my opinion: yes, the same thing is true about prayer.

There are a couple of directions I can go with this, but I’m feeling a little rant-ish today, so that’s the direction I’m headed. It might be a good idea to plan in advance to forgive me.

I want to extend the idea I’ve just set up; here’s how. If one thing that happens whenever I pray is that I grow closer to God, and you ask me to pray for you, then one of the things that happens when I pray for your specific need is that I … wait for it … grow closer to God. By inviting me to pray for you, you have ministered to me.

Perhaps this is something you have learned and just take for granted—but even though I’m a preacher’s kid and grew up in the church, I thought about it for the first time only a few years ago when somebody didn’t invite me to pray for him.

Tom was the husband of one of my wife Deb’s best friends. When he lost his job, he kept this concern, and his devastation over it, to himself, and he forbade his wife to talk about it. But she confided in Deb; when Tom found out, he was piqued at both his wife and Deb.

I don’t mean to be hard on Tom. It was a tough, gut-wrenching, brutal situation. I get it. I really do. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of guys are deeply and emotionally invested in the vocation of breadwinner and are terrified at the thought of not being able to fulfill it. In fact, several years later, I found out how invested I was when I lost a job. A little more on this below.

But…

First, Tom did nothing except hurt himself and his family by avoiding the encouragement and compassion available from their closest circle of friends. A little more below on this idea too.

And second, by concealing his family’s situation, Tom’s efforts, whether he meant them to or not, kept his friends from praying for them. Which, like it or not, also deprived all of us of an opportunity to grow closer to God.

Well, um, the effort wasn’t a hundred percent effective. Since I did know their situation, I prayed. A lot. (I think this was true of others in the circle too.) And I’m convinced that my experience praying for Tom and his family was indeed instrumental in helping move me into a closer walk with God.

As I mentioned, I went through my own job-loss situation a few years ago. Also, my family recently endured excruciating emotional and spiritual stress during Deb’s 15-month battle with cancer. And now we are all involved in the struggle of my daughter’s family against the type 1 diabetes my grandson was recently diagnosed with.

In every instance, I have unashamedly invited family, church, co-workers, friends, and friends of friends to pray for us.

If you have never experienced the feeling of being lifted up in prayer … if you have never felt the body of Christ link arms around you, link arms with you, to support you in a crisis, well—circumstances notwithstanding—you have missed something prodigious. There are few things that compare with it. There are few things, you will discover, that you need more than this when the cares of life have brought you low.

And I confess I’m biased—but I have sensed how God is moving not just in my life but also in the life of each person who’s praying for me. Once I asked my Facebook family and friends if praying for my family had blessed them. I suspect the question took a lot of them by surprise—probably because many of us tend not to think about prayer in these terms—but responses included blessings such as peace, comfort, sharpened spiritual focus, and feeling the Holy Spirit at work.

Well, yeah.

Have you ever been in the midst of a struggle and not wanted to burden friends or family members with your problem—not wanted to seem selfish; not wanted to impose on them by asking them to pray for you? Think again. Invite them; you are ministering to their need to know God better, their need to enjoy a stronger relationship with Him. It’s one way that we grow, one way we get to sense God moving in close and working His power in our lives.

Invite them to pray. Not only will you be blessed; you will also bless them.

Discipleship: Is It a Thing?

I’m a preacher’s kid, but I didn’t grow up hearing the word “discipleship” around the house. “Disciple,” yes (though always as a noun); and “make disciples,” of course. I began hearing the word off and on as a young adult, but not in every congregation I was a part of. It had the feel of a pop term that hip churches had decided to adopt for one of their programs.

I don’t hear it that often now, either, in our church settings. In fact, not long ago I heard a couple of church work professionals talking about how it seems that more and more people are deciding not to use “discipleship” because it’s so hard to figure out what it is.  So is the term “discipleship” a thing, really? Or something that comes and goes like a fad? (This would have been good to know before I published a book with “discipleship” in its title.)

Well, as it turns out, the word has a robust history. The earliest recorded English usage of “discipeship” to describe living as a disciple—follower, imitator—of Jesus (that’s what it is; really) is from 1612—when the Reformation movement was still in full swing across Europe. The Oxford English Dictionary cites uses in every century afterward.

It was actually a Lutheran who presented the term to what is arguably one of its widest historical audiences. In 1937, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published a work he titled Nachfolge. After Bonhoeffer was persecuted and martyred by the Nazis, an English translation was published in 1948 under the title The Cost of Discipleship. It was in The Cost of Discipleship that Bonhoeffer identified the now widely-known concept of “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Would it be safe to assert that to Bonhoeffer, discipleship was a heavy-duty component in the life of a believer?

Jesus’ command in Matthew 28 is to disciple people, baptizing them and teaching them. If we feel as if we don’t understand what the 400-year-old term discipleship means … well … that doesn’t change anything, does it? Discipling is something we’re called to. Period. Like the terms stewardship, leadership, even churchmanship, discipleship does a pretty good job of pointing to a focus of Christian living. Do we get hung up on the word itself? Well, consider some alternatives: disciple-ness; disciple-hood; disciple-ocity, disciple-icity; disciple-ism; disciple-ment; which one is better than discipleship?

Discipleship is a thing. We just need to define it and bring it into focus. This is what fueled my project to develop D360. At the Lutheran Campus Mission Association, our mission statement—Equipping leaders to make disciples who make disciples on campus—is our commitment to helping train new generations in … wait for it … discipleship. Yeah, it’s a thing.

There’s more of this conversation to come; stay tuned.

Spoiler Alert

What’s D360: Nine Conversations About Whole-life Discipleship about? I’ll help you out and let you skip to the end if you want. Here’s the Summary from the final conversation, “What It All Could Look Like”:

Whole-life disciples will live what they believe, and the church will practice what it preaches. Much good will result. People outside the church will want to know what the deal is. Evangelism will result. The Spirit will do His work. God will be glorified.

There! Now you don’t have to read the book.

…or do you?

Just click to find D360 on Amazon.

Or click to download a free sample chapter of D360.