I wrote some blogs about my response to Valentine’s Day that RELEVANT has published. It was a little risky for me to write them for all the world to see, but (gulp) I did it anyway. You can find the articles (and their comments) that I wrote here.
I wrote some blogs about my response to Valentine’s Day that RELEVANT has published. It was a little risky for me to write them for all the world to see, but (gulp) I did it anyway. You can find the articles (and their comments) that I wrote here.
At Southwestern this year, we’ve had a focus on the topic of Hunger. We’ve had service projects, educational opportunities, and even a class dedicated to thinking about the causes of and springing to action in addressing the issue of hunger. This year during Lent, we have distributed some devotion books from the Society of St. Andrew (SoSA), an organization dedicated to: “Food for the body, God’s word for the spirit, community of love for the heart, and opportunity for those who desire action.”
Society of St. Andrew has produced a devotional booklet and issued a challenge: read the devotion and scripture daily, and make a gift to help provide food for the hungry here in America. If we were to give $1/day during Lent ($40 total), we could provide the costs to cover 2000. Yes, that’s TWO THOUSAND! Jesus fed 5,000…I want to see how many thousand we can feed from donations collected by Southwestern College.
Would you consider reading the devotion and praying through this book this season? And would you consider if you would make a financial donation to the ministry of SoSA? We’ll take up a collection on March 27 and see how many people we can feed.
If you’re on campus, you can get a devotional booklet from Ashlee Alley’s office (Mossman 116). If you would like to follow along but you’re not on campus, you can learn more about SoSA’s Lenten opportunities here: http://www.endhunger.org/lent.htm.
We like cats on the campus where I work in campus ministry. The pet kind. Calicos, tabby cats, but especially black cats. Yep…the ones that are supposed to bring you bad luck. For us, they are actually good luck. You see—it has to do with our mascot (stay with me, here…it’s a little confusing). Our nickname at Southwestern is the Moundbuilders, but our mascot is The Jinx—you got it, a black cat! So…while you may have a Wildcat or Panther, or even a Bobcat, we have The Jinx. The Jinx came about through a fun and (mostly true) story about how we beat a rival football team on Halloween one year in the early 1900’s. So says tradition: our players put a tombstone on the goal line with a black cat and the other team’s name on it. After we won, our guys carried it around, only to get it out again the next year. And the next. And the next! After 14 years of victory on our part, the rivals thought that we had really put a jinx on them! And so…The Jinx was born! Anyway, that’s much easier to visually represent than a Moundbuilder, anyway!
So at my campus, no one has the heart to ban the 5 or 6 stray cats that live around us. They roam around outside, of course, being fed by students, maintenance workers or an occasional faculty person. As I walked across campus one day recently, I saw one of the black ones hiding in some high grass. Its sleek coat was sleeker by the prowling it was doing, advancing on some unseen-by-me prey. I laughed, thinking that it certainly thought it was something bigger and stronger than the stray cat that I thought it was. Perhaps it thought itself a panther, or bobcat, about to catch some dinner. But I knew that it certainly couldn’t do much damage to whatever little thing it approached. And then I thought about prayer.
Too often I view prayer like the stray cat. Prayer looks quite a bit like one of the larger cats, and sometimes it even fancies itself powerful, but often it is fairly harmless. However, we as Christians like prayer. The churchy kind. Memorized prayers, meeting wrap-up prayers, but especially the pre-dinner kind. We speak frequently of prayer, so much so, that we tend to tame it. While it is easy to say the “pet cat” types of prayers, the “big cat” prayers often evade us. Let me explain.
I think that we often treat prayer much more like the pet cat than the big predator cat. It is something to which we run to be comforted, it’s really nice to have as a part of our Christian lives, but it doesn’t really affect us too much. When this happens, I think that we are actually thinking too little of prayer. Or actually, thinking too little of the God to whom we are praying.
Prayer is actually an encounter with the Living Spirit of God…when we dare to hear God’s voice…intentionally! Haven’t you read Psalm 29? The voice of the Lord can be pretty destructive: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders…the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon…the voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. And in his temple, all cry, ‘Glory!’” (Ps. 29:3-5, 9). Prayer invites this massive intrusion of God into our lives. When we, or should I say I, pray, I confess that I often think too little of God. I may indeed lift up some hard things to God, but do I really open myself up to the transformative work that will be painful, yet good? I sure hope that I do! And sometimes, I know that I do. Like the little cat who chases her prey despite the bowl of kitten chow provided for her, I also have times when I do believe that God answers big prayers and even wants me to spend time in God’s presence, praying them. I remember that the destruction that I feel when God rips through my life is actually not disfigurement, but transformation! I encounter God, resign my plans and, with the broken pieces of cedar, I cry, “Glory!”
In working with students, I teach about prayer somewhat frequently. Sometimes the teaching is formal, other times it is more by how we pray in the ministry. But I have decided in recent years that the crucial ingredient in my ministry is found in my prayer life. A mentor of mine once called prayer, the life with God. Period. A life with God equals praying. And so I can no longer be content with times with God, but must experience a life with God. Enough of the pet cat life for me. I can only be content with somewhat unpredictable, powerful, big-cat-like relationship with God. To paraphrase Mr. Beaver’s answer in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Lucy’s question about whether Aslan was a safe lion, “He’s not a safe lion, but he is good.” And such is a life of prayer. Good, really good, in fact. But definitely not safe. And by God’s grace, I’m up for the challenge.
We are doing a series in our Chapel service that is helping us think about “Hard Questions.” Recently, I preached from Luke 14:25-35 addressing the hard question: How do you follow Jesus EVERY DAY? Not just on Wednesdays. Not just on Sundays. Not just on test days, or sick days, or sad days, or happy days. But EVERY SINGLE DAY. (Here is a portion of my sermon. You can listen to the whole sermon here.)
In this passage, Jesus talks about what it means for someone to be his disciple. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
You see, I think that Jesus is mostly describing what is required for him in regards to the loved ones in his life. I don’t think that our understanding of the word “hate” today is exactly helpful in getting at what’s going on here. When we hear hate, it evokes a strong feeling of animosity—even violence—in us. But I don’t think that’s exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said that we would need to hate everything else in our lives in order to follow him. I think that Jesus is saying that we can’t have anything—not even those most dear—above him. That’s idolatry, right? To have something ahead of God. So Jesus says—all those relationship, all those priorities, all those distractions…you must hate them in comparison to how you feel about me. If you want to be my disciple…that’s what you do. You do that because that’s what I’ve done.
Jesus further shows us that he is asking us to follow his example through his next words:
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
You probably know that Jesus carried his own cross, the instrument of his death, on his back until he got the Golgotha, the site of his crucifixion. It seems especially cruel to think that not only is Jesus killed on a cross, but he must carry it, too. And yet, he uses that idea of carrying a cross and following him to demonstrate what full commitment looks like. Twice even, in the gospel of Luke does he repeat this image of carrying a cross. In Luke 9:23, he says, “If anyone wants to become my followers, they must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.” You see, Jesus is looking for disciples, not cheerleaders. He wants followers, not fans. And to be his disciple means to do as Jesus did, and that includes carrying our cross.
So…how do we do it? How do we become a daily disciple of Jesus? Well, fortunately, Jesus tells us how. He tells a story about a builder. He says that any builder that wants to build a tower would first sit down and count the cost. They would estimate how much it time, money, and other resources it will take. They will make sure that they have a crew that can build it before winter, or before the scorching heat, or during daylight hours. They will know what exactly it will require of them and either have it or a have a plan for it before they break ground. And Jesus says that his disciples will be like these Builders.
So if we want to follow Jesus, EVERY DAY, we must count the cost.
I have to be honest. When I first decided to follow Jesus, I didn’t count the cost. I was 7 years old and I knew that if I died then I wanted to know that I would go to heaven. Some may call that “Fire Insurance” (don’t want to burn in hell), but that was my primary motivation for following Jesus. I didn’t have trouble believing in Jesus and I knew that my life (and afterlife) would be better with him. And that’s actually probably fine for a 7 year old. But I grew up. And I came to a point where I had to decide again if I would follow Jesus as a high school student. And then again as a college student. And at that point, I began to realize what Jesus was talking about with this whole “carry their cross” thing. You know, it’s not always easy to be a Christian. It’s worth it, but it’s not always easy.
So, how do we count the cost to be a disciple of Jesus? And how does one begin the work of becoming a disciple?
Jesus talked about counting the cost as a Builder, but I want to talk about it through the example of distance running. Anyone who sets a goal to run one of these races knows a thing or two about counting the cost and being a disciple. I’m running the OKC Half-Marathon in April. I’m not running to break any records, I’m just running to break some bad habits. The habits of laziness, or listening to the desires of my flesh—doing the things that I want to do—instead of living a disciplined life, a life that honors Christ. Running becomes for me a spiritual discipline. The physical discipline is a time to allow God to work in my heart, making me a more faithful disciple. I have learned some things from running that I think make me a better disciple of Jesus, though.
The first thing is that I need a plan. If I were to just go out and run on the days that I felt like it, I would run 1 day out of 7. And then probably not at all. And then, on race day, I would be foolish to try to run 13.1 miles without training. But my schedule sets smaller goals. It tells me that in the first week of training, I should run 2 miles 4 times a week and do cross training once. It tells me to gradually add distance and increase the intensity of my running. And it gives me a standard to meet. More than likely I will miss a day at some point in my 12 weeks of training—I may be sick at some point, but I have a plan to help me meet my goal.
There’s a spiritual parallel. Do you have a plan for your spiritual life? Do you set aside time each day to pray, or read your bible, or connect with God? Do you cultivate an awareness of God’s presence each day, so that you might be able to go the distance in your relationship with God? Do you think it will just magically happen one day? Well, maybe. But more likely, you’ll be able to experience the payoff of a close relationship with God when you engage in spiritual practices on a regular basis. In order to grow as a DISCIPLE, you need a PLAN.
Another thing that I’ve learned from running that makes me a better disciple is that I need a community. When I ran my first half-marathon, I did my training entirely by myself. I was mostly motivated by my pride—I had told so many people that I was going to do it that I absolutely HAD to do it! But when the race was over and I successfully finished it, I completely stopped running. Last summer I started running with a group of friends here in town. We share our successes and our failures, our aches and pains, and even our running fashion, er, equipment. We share our secrets for running in the cold and how we stay hydrated. The community has already helped me stay encouraged and pushed me harder.
There are many similarities in my life as a Christian as well. It is hard, maybe even impossible, to be a solitary Christian. There is a certain focus that comes with being the only one doing something, but it is hard to sustain it for a long time. But when I share my struggles and my joys with others who are pursuing the same things that I’m pursuing as a follower of Jesus, we all experience a little more of heaven on earth. In order to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus. You need a community.
I’ve learned a third thing about running that has implications for my spiritual life. In order to accomplish my goal, I need to make sacrifices. I remember coaches telling me when I was young, “no pain, no gain.” I’m sure that they said that when we were running lines and digging deep to keep moving up and down the basketball court. And as much as it sounds trite, it is very true. Great things are not accomplished without great sacrifice. I can’t run the half-marathon without running shorter distances on days that I don’t feel like it. I must sacrifice the food or drink that I want in order to feel better on my runs. I must sacrifice sleep, and time, and a whole lot of effort.
The idea of sacrifice is integral with the Christian faith, right? So why are we so reluctant to talk about it? We talk about the pay-off of the Christian life—blessings, direction from God, maybe even eternal assurance—but we don’t like to talk about the fact that we can’t have anything—loves, hopes, dreams, people, jobs, anything—in front of God.
What does that kind of sacrifice look like to you? I’ll tell you what it looks like to me, it means that I trust Jesus with my life…not just the parts of life that are hard (like sickness, confusion, pain) that I don’t want, but the parts that I would actually prefer to be in charge of myself (like my path in life, my relationships, and my opportunities).
Learning to live a life of sacrifice also means that I continue to choose every day to make a sacrifice. In running, just because I ran once race “that one time” doesn’t mean that I’m still a runner unless I get out there every day. And as a Christian, I choose to follow Jesus once, but I keep choosing him every day after. To think like him, to love like him, to act like him, to honor the Father like he did. And to give my life for others as he did. And there’s no shortcut.
Jesus offered hard words to us if we wanted to be followers of his. And yet, even as I want to run that half-marathon in April, I want even more to follow the Savior of the World. When you’ve encountered the loving, redeeming, convincing, powerful, person of Jesus Christ, you can’t just walk away. When you want more for your life, more for your dreams, more for your future, you can’t not make the sacrifice.
To grow as a disciple…it requires a plan. It requires a community, and it requires a sacrifice. Jesus gave it all. What are you willing to give?
I remember hearing the adage when I was in college, “If Satan doesn’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy.” Well, I don’t know that I continue to have quite the same perspective of the demonic nature of busyness, but as I enter my second decade of ministry with college students, I sure do feel the insidious creep of responsibilities taking over what is otherwise known as my life. I feel it slip up on me when friends ask me how I am and my first inclination is to say, “Busy!” I am sure that I am not alone in the pace that I keep in campus ministry: late night events, weekend retreats, early morning meetings, attending conferences out-of-town… and often all of these one after another. While others may look at my schedule and say that I’m terribly productive because of all that I’m able to “accomplish,” I look at it with a little embarrassment and guilt about my inability to be balanced. Not to mention the healthy dose of frustration that I have with the pace of my life.
In the last year, I’ve gotten to a place where the hamster wheel that I feel like I’m on is spinning out of control. Because I’ve been on the hamster wheel for, oh, about 25 years (I perfected managing a schedule, balancing responsibilities, and not lying around at a very early age), I actually know better how to live busy than I do to live balanced. I’ve explained to friends and family for years… okay, decades, that “things are going to slow down soon,” or “I’m just hustling now and I will get a break in a couple of weeks.”
Lest you think this is an article to whine and complain about having too many things to do, let me hasten to the point: in the midst of the busyness of ministry, I’ve learned that perhaps busyness is masking a dirty little secret. In the last year as I’ve examined both the cause and the cost of my busyness, I’ve begun to wonder if sometimes my busyness is actually a cleverly disguised laziness.
When you’re busy, you don’t have to do the things that you really don’t want to do… you just simply don’t have enough hours in the day. When you’re busy, no one would dream of calling you lazy, a word that is an affront to American productivity and efficiency. But what if being busy is actually a form of slothfulness? Lazy thinking—taking shortcuts to make the point that I really wanted to make without all of that pesky critical thinking. Lazy planning—I’ll just explain that I had too much on my plate to catch every detail. Lazy actions—eh… who will notice if I don’t do this when I already do so much of that. Yep… let’s call it what it is… sometimes me being busy, is just me being lazy.
I had this realization at the beginning of last summer when I began to examine some of my practices in the previous year. Because of how unbalanced I felt in the previous months, I intentionally made some choices that have helped me take steps toward addressing my “busyness” and have helped me be honest with myself about what is really behind it.
Even when (and maybe especially when) I am busy I have learned that in order to combat the craziness of my schedule, I need to commit to a regular exercise plan. While I’ve begun and quit more exercise plans that I care to admit, last summer, in what I can only understand as a divine grace, I got an opportunity to run with a group of friends who were training for a half marathon. One member of our group put together a training plan that involved running at hours of the morning in which I was usually asleep. And let’s not even talk about how early we ran once school started! Let’s just say that we have a couple of hours on the sun some mornings! But I’ve remembered a lesson that I learned before: despite how busy I am, I can always find time to do the things that I really want to do. You may question why I think running long distances before the crack of dawn in something that I really want to do, but the benefits of regular exercise start with the body, invade the mind, and even creep into the spirit. I realized that despite the “pain” associated with putting one running shoe-clad foot after another, I’m cultivating practices of discipline that bleed over into other areas of my life. While I didn’t shoot for a half-marathon last fall, I established the habits that will help me push the boundaries this spring when I do run a half-marathon. Being faithful in small things allows us to be faithful in many. Perhaps, an antidote to laziness is a lofty goal, a plan and a community of people with whom to work out the plan.
Last winter, when I was perhaps at the depths of my frustration over my busyness, I picked up Ruth Haley Barton’s book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. I didn’t slow down long enough to read it until the summer, but when I did, it reminded me why I was so tired. My former rhythms of life that included solitude, prayer, fasting, and other life-giving spiritual practices had slowly been eroded by the life-draining nature of leadership not firmly grounded in the Spirit of God. That hamster wheel of busyness for God on which I had been operating had become an unforgiving and harsh master. It demands great amounts of energy and doesn’t grant the fruits of progress. Barton’s book caused me to take a step back from my activity to focus on the truth of cultivating my own relationship with God. It was a lesson that I had already learned a million times, but her book was a fresh grace from God to help me deal with some of the casualties of my busyness and my laziness.
As I continue into my second decade of ministry, I’m hopeful that I can be neither bad nor busy. Or at least, if I’m busy, that it is a busyness that is being about God’s work, not avoiding the things that I don’t really want to do anyway. If laziness is the dirty little secret of busyness, then the disciplines of life, both physical and spiritual, are able to bring that into the light. And while that hamster wheel still tries to catch my eye from time to time, I’ve been reminded that being busy it isn’t a very good hiding place. Rather, my hiding place should be in God alone.
P.S. The photo is used with permission by Michal Marcol on www.freedigitalphotos.net
I recently returned from an area wide denominational high school leadership camp. Besides the actual contact with students that I have, one of the things that I love the most is connecting with colleagues who are in youth ministry. One night as we were wrapping up our “debriefing” time after students had lights out, one of my youth ministry friends asked a question I had never considered before, “What do you think are some of the most important things that I can do as a youth minister to prepare a student for college ministry?” Honestly, I’m never very short on thoughts, but I wanted to answer this question thoughtfully. For several days, I pondered this question and came up with this answer to his question.
First of all, I told my friend, you can focus on teaching spiritual practices to sustain them individually to Christian maturity. So many students enter campus ministry having had some incredible group experiences—mission trips, service projects, group bible studies—but few students have individual spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, personal bible study, or other spiritual disciplines. The group experiences are so crucial to how we live out our Christian lives, but so are the individual practices. And ministry cannot be sustained unless the personal relationship with God is developed.
Each fall, I require my student leaders to read an article by Henri Nouwen, “Moving From Solitude, to Community, to Ministry.” I also read it myself. The premise of the article is that Jesus’ model for how he went about ministry started from his intimacy with God alone, then spilled out into his closest friends, who couldn’t help but replicate the love from God in ministry to others. The contrast is that we tend to “do” ministry first, get desperate and ask our closest friends to help, and then, when all else fails, we pray. I challenged my friend, even as I am reminded, that the ministry in which I participate must be happening in the right order. Only if I am operating out of the overflow of an intimate and spiritually alive relationship with God can ministry be fruitful. Sure, we can run some great educational programs and even make people feel more connected to one another, but true ministry only takes place out of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Our daily spiritual practices allow us to connect with God in ways that only happens in the silence of solitude.
Secondly, you can give students a vocabulary for their own personal faith, as well as their understanding of community. Several years ago I read Christian Smith’s study on the religious lives of 13-17 year olds that was sponsored by the National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR).[i] One of their findings was that young people of all faiths are inarticulate about their faith. While they may claim that they have a solid faith, when questioned about some of the more basic and significant tenets of theology, most are unable to come up with an answer. I think that students should be able to answer the questions of why Jesus Christ is central to their Christian faith, not just give a textbook answer (if they can even muster that). Since I read the NSYR study, I’ve paid attention to how students talk about Christianity in general and their faith in particular, and I’ve noticed that Smith was right…many who arrive in my ministry are fairly inarticulate about their faith.
One of the aspects of the ministry which I direct at my campus is a program called Discipleship Southwestern. Each student in the first year of the program, students are asked to write and then share their testimony. Part of it is for them to get to know one another in the program, but part of it is to give them a vocabulary for how they are maturing in their faith. I encouraged my friend to teach a vocabulary of faith to his youth. They will learn something about their own lives in the midst of learning how to converse with others.
Thirdly, you can pray for them. Though this may sound like the most simplistic, I actually think that it is the most difficult to implement and also the very most important. Early in my life and especially since I began in ministry with a paycheck, I’ve always been a pray-er. However, it has only been in recent years that I’ve actually recognized the hard work associated with prayer. My own prayer life has developed from a structured list of things to pray for each day (which I actually still do), to an understanding that prayer can sometimes be a challenging labor of love. I have come to block off more and more time in my day for prayer (and at various points in my day), sometimes inviting others into my prayer time, sometimes not. I recognize that prayer is something that re-orients my thoughts, my plans, and my perspective and gives me the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). I also recognize through the teachings through scripture that I must be persistent in prayer, like the widow (Luke 18), and that God hears our prayers and gives eggs to his children who ask, not scorpions (Luke 11). When I pray for the students entrusted to me, I learn to love them, as God loves them. This is the most important thing that I can do as a campus minister.
When I was in seminary, my preaching professor gave us some advice. “Fall in love with scripture and then fall in love with your congregation. If that happens, then your sermons are bound to be filled with conviction and passion.” I think that the parallel is that when I spend time in prayer for my students, I can’t help but love them more, be more sensitive to how God would have me minister to them, and learn to see them as God sees them. It is in this area that I think my youth minister friend can teach his youth in the most effective way.
The question from my perceptive youth ministry friend was an important one. We only have students for a time and we must be faithful to represent Christ well during the years in which they are entrusted to us. The goal for the Christian life is maturity. We probably won’t see that happen in our span of time in ministry together with our students, but we can be intentional to establish and support some of the most crucial elements as God works in their lives. The youth minister may plant a seed, I may water it, but it is God who makes it grow. Recognizing our own partnership in the gospel allows us to be willing to do our part to build on a firm foundation of Christ. And that is the only thing that is important, after all.
I originally wrote this blog for the Campus Ministry blog, Faith on Campus.
[i] The study was published as a book called, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Incidentally, he has a follow-up study based on 18-23 years olds entitled Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adultsand does a longitudinal study on the same population. It is a significant piece of work for those of us in collegiate ministry.