Until We Meet Again.

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“Aaron,” my grandfather stopped me as I walked out the door. The seriousness of his tone and the look on his face caught me off guard. Grandpa was a man of few words, his faithful presence spoke volumes. On this day however, he clutched my heart and my soul with the most important words he’d ever said to me.

“Aaron, I pray for you every single day. I just wanted you to know that.”

I was in my mid-twenties and the gravity of grandpa’s words caught me completely off guard. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to respond. And so I simply said, “Thank you.” (In my memory the tone of my response was a bit sheepish, maybe even a bit imperious—as if I deserved such a grace.)

It wasn’t until a few years later that I recalled this conversation and experienced the full weight of grandpa’s words. The past, now nearly 20 years of pastoral life, hasn’t always been the easiest journey—I’ve had a few “outside of the norm” experiences that have shaped and formed my understandings of life, people, the church. And in each one of those moments, the death threats, being fired, watching a dream fall apart (as a church planter), grandpa’s words came roaring into view, washing over my heart, my spirit, and my soul like none other. “Aaron, I pray for you every single day.”

I am not sure I would have made it through those life-altering experiences without the faithful prayers of my grandfather.

For a long-time I’ve feared the day he would no longer be with us, selfishly coveting his daily prayers over my life. I had often wondered, “when he’s gone, who will take up the banner of faithful prayer over my life like he has?” I have stared at this moment for years with trepidation, and yesterday afternoon it came to pass. My grandpa passed away.

My grandpa has been one of the most important spiritual fathers in my life. He has modeled a quiet faithfulness, always quick to step in and serve the community, his church, his family, never asking for recognition or fanfare but faithfully and without complaint accomplishing the task set before him.

Grandpa chose to teach me through example more than through words. He taught me to be observant, to quiet myself and simply sit. Over the past year in the couple of visits that we would have, this was what we’d do. We’d share a few stories and then sit in the silence, grandpa modeling for me a comfortability, an ease with silence, teaching me to wrestle with the uncomfortableness and eventually settle in to this foreign space. This was his final and perhaps greatest lesson for me.

While the silence is still foreign, it is here in this space that I have come to realize that grandpa’s faithful, daily prayers for me were not his alone but rather a part of a larger network, a larger tapestry of prayers by others that spans farther than I could have ever imagined. The faithful banner of prayer over me and my life that grandpa initiated is being carried out by so many others, in different places. I’ll never fully know the full extent of that reach. That is a part of the beauty of prayer, and the legacy of my grandfather in my life. I will miss my grandpa but his memory, his legacy, and his lessons will endure.

I love you, grandpa, and I will miss you… until we meet again.

Ted Talks: My New Single-Serving Friend

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TED-TalksBefore the plane even made it to the tarmac, Ted introduced himself, made some small talk and asked what I did for a living. “What do I tell him?” I thought, “PhD Candidate or Pastor,” because whichever route I went down would determine the rest of my flight. If I’m a PhD Candidate, he’ll want to talk about what I’m studying… if I’m a Pastor, well: conversation over! (At least that’s been my experience in my nearly 20 years of ministry.)

“I’m a pastor.” I said.

Conversation over. I can sit and listen to Radiohead’s new album for the millionth time or James Blake’s brilliant new album, (I Need a Forest Fire anyone?!) catch a quick nap, do a little reading, nice and peaceful… this is a 6 am flight, mind you!

“Really?” Ted said. “That’s interesting!” His eyes lit up.

“What have I done?!,” I thought as my shoulders dropped and the slew of questions began: “Tell me about your congregation! What is a church plant? What is truth? What is your stance on homosexuality or the bathroom issue with transgendered people? How can you trust the Bible? How do you understand the Trinity? What about the apocalypse? What’s your training? Why are there so many denominations if Truth is unified? Isn’t seminary pointless in this day and age?, Isn’t God really a genocidal maniac?, etc, etc, etc.” It was an absolute onslaught of questions each from a completely different direction and in no way connected one to the other, in some ways feeling more like an inquisition.

I hadn’t had enough coffee for this! I was caught off guard, discombobulated and left wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. Why didn’t I say PhD? Why?! We could have talked about racism, lynching, and white privilege, which would’ve lasted for only a few minutes before I could’ve made him uncomfortable enough to retire to the window.

Recognizing that I was completely off balance, Ted began to tell me his story: “I have a lot of Christian friends who don’t consider me to be a Christian… I grew up in an agnostic home before eventually joining the church.” Wait, what? Say that again? Now I’m really confused.

Ted continued his story integrating some of my fragmented responses to solidify the position of his church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For the majority of our flight I was being slowly reeled into an evangelistic conversation with a Mormon; I had no clue. Ted presented himself as a person seeking understanding, looking for answers to some of life’s hardest questions before spinning on a dime and presenting Mormon Doctrine and belief as the ultimate answer to each and every one of these questions. Everything was now starting to make sense.

Ted was bold. But perhaps beyond his boldness was an amazing commitment to his faith, a commitment that even at 6am on a long flight he wanted to share with me, a stranger. Once I moved passed the annoyance, I was honored. I could feel his sincerity, his conviction, the urgency for me to believe in his god.

This commitment to evangelism is one of the marks of Mormonism, something ingrained early in their faith journey and not culminated but formulated deeply in a 2-year missionary experience. With a commitment like this, it’s not hard to see why it is one of the fastest growing religions.

It made me wonder, “Why aren’t Christians like this?”

I read an article in The Atlantic a few years back where those who don’t believe in Christianity said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.” Which makes me wonder pessimistically, “Have we really been transformed by the Gospel?” Do we really believe what Jesus said about the Good News of the incarnation, his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension–you know the Gospel that Peter preached in Acts 2… or that Paul preached in 1 Corinthians 15? Do we really believe that the Gospel changes everything, that it brings wholeness, peace shalom? Or are we, as Americans specifically, continuing to allow Christianity to devolve into an American civil religion, a political platform or voting bloc?

According to Lifeway research, while we believe that sharing our faith is important, we really only pay it lip service. The reality is the vast majority of Christians never actually act on that belief. They never share their faith or do so once or twice in their lifetime.

Penn Jillette famously said a few years back:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

We could have a conversation all day about the proper tactics and strategies for sharing your faith, the right way, the wrong way, the insensitive way, the judgmental way, the sales pitch way, etc, etc, etc. And maybe that’s part of the problem. We have turned evangelism into nothing more than a bevy of criticized strategies, castigating each other for how they have chosen to share their faith (missional, evangelism explosion, relational evangelism, Romans Road, etc, etc, etc). The reality of the matter is that evangelism stems not only out of our transformation, but out of our transformed love for others. It is in our ability to see others as human beings, to see the Imago Dei in one another, and to love our neighbor as ourself.

As we parted ways in the airport, he put his hand on my shoulder and implored me to pray to his god… to feel the warmth in my heart of the truth of his gospel message. I was honored by his commitment to me. I was honored by the value he saw in me. How is it that the Mormons are better at showing this form of love and commitment than we are?

Missing the Point 01: Discipleship

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discipleshipThis post has been republished by the Exponential Network
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Over the past couple of years discipleship has become all the rage within the Christian, pastoral realm. Everywhere you look pastors are talking about exciting new programs being released, books being published, conferences are being themed around discipleship as a new initiative that will enliven the body of Christ, and pastors are reintroducing the importance of discipleship through sermons and series. Have we really rediscovered the missing piece of the Great Commission? (“Therefore, go and make disciples…”) Are we finally beginning to understand that “evangelism” is really about making disciples?

Not to burst your bubble, but no.
At least not yet.

This emphasis around discipleship and disciple-making still has one fatal flaw: It is still about dispensing information as the means of transformation.

Over the years we have done a really good job of perfecting discipleship as a streamlined, packaged content system. We have retread old systems of discipleship into shiny new packages with slick new logos. But this slick delivery system still doesn’t speak to the whole of human existence. It focuses solely on the intellect, about dispensing information as a means of transformation. You see, we have continually bought into the Enlightenment principle that if you can change someone’s mind you can change someone’s life. Time and again this has proven to be a faulty principle that misses the point.

Is it any wonder we’re not seeing more radical transformation occurring in the lives of people?

Discipleship cannot discipleship unless the whole of the human self is involved, unless it takes into account the mind, the heart, the soul, and the body: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Now, I’m sure some would say, “Well this is an unfair argument. You’re simplifying what we do with discipleship.” And sure, there is an argument to be made there because there are all sorts of ways outside the Sunday expression that contribute to discipleship. But are they “creating” the types of disciples you expect? Are your programs focused in on changing people’s minds leading to a high success rate of transformation?

I’m going to guess “no” based upon nation-wide church statistics.

So what’s the answer?
In my experiences and through many conversations, the common consensus is no greater transformation of the disciple occurs than in those who return home from a short-term missions trip. Now, while it is completely impractical and perhaps not very beneficial to send hundreds of people each year from your congregation on short-term missions trips, it does say something about the total immersion into discipleship that occurs. It is an active engagement of the mind, the heart, the body, the soul. Sure, some of the transformation wears off once the person returns home and some time has elapsed, but is there not something important to take away from this experience?

The core of a short-term missions experience from a discipleship standpoint is that of the active-reflective environment in which the person is immersed. We have become really good at creating environments where one or the other are present–action without reflection or reflection without action. Active-reflective discipleship is the key to unlocking not only discipleship, but the true heart of missional discipleship: a discipleship that takes an active role in the Missio Dei (Mission of God).

Active-reflective discipleship resides outside the confines of what we already know about “how to do church”. It will require a great deal of imagination and creativity that will push us outside of our contexts and beyond the limits of our comfortability. However, it will create the types of disciples we long for, the types of disciples the church needs, and the types of disciples Jesus expected.

The question is how do we create these active-reflective environments?
It all depends on your context. Not your church context, but your city context. What are ways in which you can engage with your city, with the place you live, with your neighbors, co-workers, or strangers? Again, this requires creativity and imagination, not a retread of old systems packaged in shiny new boxes. I wonder, if you had a “Research and Development” wing in your church, what kinds of active-reflective discipleship environments would you experiment with creating?