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Archive for Discipleship


Finding Shade

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We have a German Shepherd. Without a doubt, she is the smartest dog we’ve had, possessing an extensive vocabulary of English words (yes, that’s a thing). She’s active and athletic, and provides a lot of joy for our family. One of the things I’ve noticed about her is that she doesn’t care to be outside in the heat of day. Summers in Iowa are not renown for intense heat and humidity, but we have had several days of 100 degree heat indexes. On those days she immediately seeks shade when outdoors.

Shade is something that makes summer what it is. It is a place where we find rest from the heat of the noonday sun. There are times when we have to be in the sun, but its nice to have some shade available.

There isn’t really much about shade in the Bible, but recently I’ve been thinking of the story of the Exodus. When God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he provided his presence and guidance through the form of a cloud. The fleeing children simply had to keep an eye on the cloud to know the path to the land of promise. Interestingly enough, the same thing that provide them with guidance also provided them comfort, for those who followed the cloud walked in its shade.

The same thing is true today. Following God provides some marvelous benefits, including his comfort. The more closely we walk with God, the more we sense his comfort. The Psalmist understood this principle far before I did. Psalm 121:5-8 says, “The Lord watches over you–the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm–he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forever more.”

So next time you see a park bench under a shade tree, remember that the Lord is your spiritual shade, provide rest and refreshment from the noonday sun.

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Measuring Spiritual Authenticity

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One of the most subjective things we can evaluate is our own spiritual authenticity. Am I becoming more mature in my faith? Am I growing in my discipleship? Is there progress in my walk with Christ? Questions like these can create a struggle, leaving us to either listening to our “gut,” or, finding some prior point of reference to do an informal comparison study.

Matthew 23 records Jesus’ evaluation and condemnation of the hypocrisy of “the teachers of the religious law and the Pharisees (who were) the official interpreters of the law of Moses.” (23:1) From this chapter we can glean six questions that can help us determine our own progress and growth. I won’t cite the entire passage, but if you’re interested you’ll find it helpful to read the chapter in its entirety in light of the exploratory questions.

  1. Is spiritual growth a burden? (Matthew 23:1-4) “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (23:4)
  2. Am I judgmental, exclusive or proud? (Matthew 23:5-6) “Everything they do is for show…they love to sit at the head table…” (23:5-6)
  3. Am I becoming more approachable, or less? (Matthew 23:7-12) “They love to receive respectful greetings…” (23:7)
  4. Are my priorities self centered? (Matthew 23:13-22) “For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are! (23:15)
  5. Am I measuring spirituality in a superficial way? (Matthew 23:23-24) “You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! (23:24)
  6. Are there evidences of spiritual integrity? (Matthew 23:25-28) “For you are like whitewashed tombs–beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” (23:27)

Again, reviewing these questions in the full context of the chapter will prove to be beneficial. My hope is that we will frequently use the words of Jesus as we evaluate our progress, leaving nothing to chance.

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Who’s the G.O.A.T.?

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Sports has brought us an interesting new acronymn: G.O.A.T., which stands for Greatest Of All Time. As Americans, we’re interested in such debate.

For instance, what is the greatest television show of all time? Certainly we have our prejudices, but if you base the question on the longest running broadcast, the answer would be The Simpsons, which has aired for 28 seasons. If you base it on the most episodes ever, then the answer would be Gunsmoke, which aired 635 separate shows.

What is the greatest movie of all time? Again, we have our favorites. But if you look to the box office, the movie Avatar would be number one, grossing $2.7 billion including international ticket sales. If you don’t like that metric, you can choose one of three movies, each of which earned eleven Academy Awards: Ben Hur, Titanic, and the Lord of the Rings.

Can you guess the greatest Rock band of all time? Total record sales would indicate the Beatles are the G.O.A.T., amassing sales topping 271 million records. But if you base the question on Grammy Awards, you would have to tip your hat to the band U2’s 22 trophies.

We tend to measure greatness in terms of longest, biggest, best or most. But Jesus defined it in other terms. When asked about what constitutes greatness, Jesus picked up a child from the listener’s midst and began to teach. (Matthew 18:1-14)

Jesus used a child to illustrate greatness in the kingdom. It wasn’t because children are pure or innocent. Its because children in Jesus’ day had no status or significance. They were completely dependent upon adults. While the text contains certain applications to children and children’s ministry, children in this instance are a metaphor for the values of discipleship. Faithful disciples of Jesus are, by nature, vulnerable, powerless and dependent. Our path to Kingdom greatness is paved with such genuine humility.

In light of this truth, we need to be careful with how we estimate our spiritual progress and the progress of our fellow disciples. Are we self reliant or God reliant? Are we powerful or powerless? Do we walk in pride or in humility? Are we great by human standards or by the standard that God has set forth?

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The Patience of Jesus

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Many people I know most readily identify with Peter more than any other apostle. For me, Peter represents the ongoing struggles I have with my personal discipleship. One day I’m “up,” and the next day, well, not so much.

Paul wrote of his struggles candidly in Romans 7:14-25, stating that he could not do the things he wanted to do and sometimes did the very things he didn’t want to do. Peter didn’t write about this paradox, he lived it publicly.

Recently I spoke from Matthew 16 and was struck by something I hadn’t given much attention. In Matthew 16:16, Peter offered what is arguably one of the most foundational confessions of the New Testament. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Because of this confession Jesus “blessed” him and proclaimed that his confession would be the foundation of the emerging church.

From that point, Jesus made his first, clear prediction regarding his passion and resurrection. Peter, according to Scripture, pulled Jesus aside and reprimanded him for “saying such things” (Matthew 16:22). Jesus response? “Get away from me Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

Wow! Within a span of six verses Peter went from “blessed” to being (basically) called Satan. I don’t know about you, but I can identify with that.

But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus was patient with Peter. Six days later he is invited to participate in an incredible experience we call the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1ff).

I’m thankful that the Bible portrays its characters complete with their flaws and character defects. More than that, I’m grateful that alongside their transparency and vulnerability comes the patience of God. Jesus was patient with Peter, and he’s still patient with Peters today.

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I can’t think of anyone who has had more influence on my views of spiritual formation than the late Dallas Willard. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I recommend that you spend some time researching his work. Dr. Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of South California until his death last year. This book was published posthumously and contains the transcripts of a spiritual formation conference he did with John Ortberg. The book is filled with rich wisdom regarding discipleship and requires slow, deliberate reading. It was released with a companion DVD which may prove beneficial to those of you who are new to Willard’s works.

Here are some of the top take aways from this meaningful publication.

“(Spiritual formation) is the process of transforming the person into Christlikeness through transforming the essential parts of the person. Spiritual transformation is not about behavior modification. It is about changing the sources of behavior so the behavior will take care of itself.”

“When you find problems in the church…it is always a lack of discipleship that led to it.”

“We need to tell our young people, ‘Follow Jesus, and if you can find a better way than him, he would be the first one to tell you to take it’.”

“Often in churches, we try to get people to affirm right beliefs, the right point of view. The real test of what I actually believe is ‘Does it guide what I do?'”

“There are many people who believe in Christ, but they don’t believe Christ. Further, they don’t believe what he believed. But the progression into the kingdom is coming to believe what he believes, coming to trust it, to live on it, to act on it, to make it count. We do that by fixing our minds on him.”

“Wanting other churches to succeed is one of the most important things we can do.”

“Spiritual disciplines are not a gauge of my spiritual maturity. The disciplined person is not someone who does a lot of disciplines. The disciplined person, the disciple, is someone who is able to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. The whole purpose of disciplines is to enable you to do the right thing at the right time in the right spirit, so if something doesn’t help you do that, then don’t do it.”

Barna Research has published a new report that reveals some interesting new trends that are the result of our consumption of the internet and social media. Many of their observations will feel obvious to you, but the one that is alarming is our culture’s exchange of depth for surface. In my opinion, this trend began with cable news and the continuous tickering of headlines. We became consumers of headlines versus thoughtful evaluators of stories. Headline news has been exaggerated by Twitter, for example, which instantaneously provides the latest news and information in 140 characters or less, making the full story discretionary.

What does this mean for our faith and discipleship? Trends are trends, and usually what touches culture touches our approach to faith. Our weakened discipleship has resulted in “headline” principles and keys that are more like 5 hour energy shots than good nutrition, exercise and sleep. Jesus spent three entire years with the apostles who in turn changed the world. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can get the same results with nuggets, slogans, and mottos. If you’d like to read the whole article from Barna Research, click HERE.

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Last Wednesday night I was invited to speak at the weekly gathering of InterVarsity on the campus of Drake University. Whenever I do that, I am usually assigned a teaching topic, and my assignment for that evening was to talk about how to build your spiritual life. As I thought and prayed about this, I was led to Jesus closing words in the Sermon on the Mount. “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat agains the house, it will collapse with a mighty crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, NLT). Here are the three observations I made about Jesus’ words.

First, the depth of your foundation will determine the size of your structure. The Petronis Towers in Malaysia stand some 1,483 feet high in the air. At the same time, the foundation of the Petronis Towers plummet 394 feet beneath the surface. Foundations are largely unseen to the eye. Jesus point here is that sand is shallow, but bedrock is deep. You have to go deeper in order to go higher. If you’ll take care of the depth of your life, God will take care of the height and breadth of your life.

Second, building your life on Jesus involves building your life with Jesus. Jesus’ invitation includes listening and following. Those are the words of relationship, not the words of indifferent, rote obedience. Following Jesus means being with him in order to become like him.

Finally, building your life with Jesus does not make you exempt from adversity. The similarity between Jesus’ two examples is striking. Whether the person chooses to listen and follow or chooses to hear and reject is immaterial to the fact that storms will come. If you build your life with Jesus, you’re not exempt from storms. You’re empowered to remain standing regardless of what life throws at you.

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The God of Another Chance:: 3

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Peter’s interaction with Jesus on the shore of the lake brings to mind three take-aways about failure and the God of another chance. The first observation is that your failures are not final. Whatever it is you have done, its not the end, because God is not the God of a second chance, he’s the God of another chance.

The second observation is that God never wastes our failure. God is in the business of redeeming our failures and using them to become platforms upon which his grace can be displayed. Failure, when redeemed by God, can become a powerful tool to help others through their dark nights of the soul.

Finally, the 21st chapter of John’s gospel reminds me of Jesus’ fundamental assumption about humanity, and that is that people are more broken than bad. Many times we view people who have failed and are tempted to write them off because they are “bad people.” But Jesus doesn’t write us off as “bad.” He understands that we are broken, and our of that brokenness can make poor decisions, exercise bad judgment, and just plain commit sin. Because he views us through grace colored glasses he understands this about us. Even though Peter did the unthinkable and unspeakable, Jesus didn’t write him off. He gave him another chance. And that’s how He treats each of us when (not if) we fail.

Categories : Discipleship, Failure
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The God of Another Chance:: 2

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After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.” “Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him. Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.” “Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said. A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17, NLT)

Following breakfast on the beach, Jesus pulled Peter aside for a private conversation. During that exchange, Jesus asked Peter three direct questions. “Peter, do you love me more than these?”

…These boats and nets?
…These other disciples?
…More than these disciples love me?

Peter is understandably troubled that the Lord asked him the same basic question three times. I’m sure that the three questions would have pricked Peter’s conscience because that’s how many times he had denied Christ. All he could muster was, “Lord, you know…”

After Peter got the point, Jesus gave Peter a quick glance into his future. “I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” Peter turned around and saw behind them the disciple Jesus loved—the one who had leaned over to Jesus during supper and asked, “Lord, who will betray you?” Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?” Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” So the rumor spread among the community of believersg that this disciple wouldn’t die. But that isn’t what Jesus said at all. He only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (John 21:18-22, NLT)

In so many words Jesus told Peter two important things. First, Jesus is basically challenging Peter by saying, “Follow me…this time follow through.” Second, “Follow me, as though you’re the only one.” These are important things that Peter needed to hear and they’re not bad things for us to remember when we come to the realization that we need to begin again. Tomorrow I’ll finish this series with three take-aways that will guide us when we need another chance.

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The God of Another Chance

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Have you ever blown it? Peter had. He was a big talker who promised to lay down his life in defense of the Lord. But when it came down to crunch time he choked. He denied Christ not once but three times. And he didn’t stutter when he did it, either. Have you ever blown it so big that you thought you were beyond a second chance? If so, the sixth post resurrection saying of Christ is for you. First, let me set the stage from John 21:1-3:

Later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. This is how it happened. Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples. Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” “We’ll come, too,” they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.

Peter returned to fishing, but not as a recreational get away. The Greek construction of the sentence indicates that Peter was returning to fishing as his vocation. He went back to his roots and his comfort zone. Even though he had seen the risen Lord on two occasions, he (perhaps) assumed that the entire discipleship experience was over. How could the Lord ever use him? But check out what happened next.

At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was. He called out, “Fellows, have you caught any fish?” “No,” they replied. Then he said, “Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!” So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it. Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yardsd from shore. When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread. “Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,” Jesus said. So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn. “Now come and have some breakfast!” Jesus said. None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish. This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead (John 21:4-14, NLT).

I think its important to note that Jesus pursued Peter. That’s where the Lord had found him to begin with. Just a few years earlier, Jesus called to Peter and invited him to leave his career and his capital assets for the opportunity to serve as one of his apprentices (cf. Luke 5:1-11). Peter had given up on himself, but Jesus had not. He was (and continues to be) in relentless pursuit of quitters and giver uppers.

When Peter identified the Lord on the shore, the story reports that he put on his coat and jumped in the water. That’s a strange and often unmentioned part of the plot. Why did Peter put his coat on? Even mediocre swimmers know that you don’t put more clothes on before you jump into the middle of a lake! What is that all about? I wonder if rather than trying to swim to Jesus Peter thought he could walk on water to Jesus. I wonder if Peter was trying to prove his worth and worthiness to Christ, as if he could to some degree atone for his denial. To be honest, there’s no way of knowing if this is what happened, although it is strange that an experienced man of the water would put on a coat before jumping into the lake.

The point I would suggest is that sometimes when we fail and fail miserably we feel the need to prove ourselves, as though we are able to establish our own worthiness or even make up for our miscues. It doesn’t work that way. Jesus pursued Peter, but not to make him jump through hoops as if he were pledging a fraternity. He simply went to Peter because he loved him, and was willing to accept him as he was, denials included.

Tomorrow I’ll post a couple of more thoughts about The God of Another Chance. Thanks for visiting today!

Categories : Discipleship, Failure
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