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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

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iStock_000004150295XSmallIt was a cookout. And I don’t mean the pretty kind on a gas grill in a backyard by a pool. It was just inside a dense forest outside a major urban center in Eastern Europe. There was fire, smoke, mosquitoes, mud, fallen trees used for seats…. There was no toilet, though there was (smile). No place to wash hands. Those who started the fire, both believers and non, had mud and rust and ash on their hands. Those who prepared the meat–one a believer for years, the other for days–had fat and marinade from the wrists down. All had clothes that smelled of smoke. All had a full sensory experience of the meat cooking, sizzling, and in places burning. All shared from the skewers as the meat was ready to be eaten. Some slightly burned their hands and mouths as they ate the meat that had just come off the coals. All could hear the birds singing and the passing of traffic just a quarter mile away. It was real. It was a wonderful time of being together!

Though our outing was not planned for this reason, I was reminded of Jesus’ time with His disciples at the end of His days on Earth. He cooked for them on a campfire. His clothes had to smell of smoke. Surely there was ash and the strong scent of fish on his hands. The subsitutionary lawn chairs were probably the ground or maybe some stones. For added ambience, it appears fish were probably flopping around on the ground. It was real. (John 21)

This was discipleship. It didn’t happen in a classroom. He didn’t hold conferences. What did He do? He walked with His disciples. They walked with dirty, dusty feet together. He ate with His disciples. They encountered both adoring crowds as well as angry religious leaders together. They lived life together. Jesus didn’t teach them about His heart for the lost until after they had repeatedly seen it lived out by Him. Then He sent them out. Then He returned to the Father. John shared that they had seen, heard, and touched Him. It was real. John challenged that if we are going to say “I know him,” then we must “walk as Jesus did.” (1 John 1-2)

This entry is not a call to roughing it, nor is it a challenge to ban gas grills (though I do prefer the charcoal variety for flavor). I am not calling for the halt of conferences. This is, hopefully, the beginning of a conversation about what discipleship is….

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Exilic Living

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It was my privilege to participate in an international church planting conference in 2007 where Michael Frost was the keynote speaker. Unfortunately his first talk is not recorded here. However, it is important to know that he began the conference with a talk on the post-Christian reality that: had already come about in Australia; was a functioning reality in Europe; and was in the process of becoming reality in North America. (Note: these talks were delivered almost two years ago. During that time, trends have not, in my estimation, slowed or reversed course.)

In this follow-up talk he covers material from a book he coauthored with Hirsch–Exiles. Frost borrows some ideas from Brueggemann about the Hebrews living in Babylon and the resulting exilic literature. This may serve as a roadmap for how we can live a radical faith in our postmodern, post-Christian context.

The content shared here may disturb and disorient some. For others, it may begin or advance a process of reorientation that leads to meaningful change. I would encourage you to invite your spouse, your friend(s), and/or the team with whom you are seeking to share your journey of faith to watch the hour-long video with you. Grab some pastries, doughnuts, bagels, ramen, and/or something else to fit your palate and budget, fix enough coffee or tea to let them know you are serious about this activity as you have prepared in advance in order to honor them. Then view the video and set aside at least another hour to discuss it. Below the video are some possible discussion questions.

BTW – If given serious consideration, this is not easy material. Also, parts of the presentation are NOT APPROPRIATE FOR CHILDREN.

Some questions for discussion. (Don’t wimp out and do these solo!)

  1. In what ways does our context merge with post-Christendom?
  2. If we were to view ourselves as exiles, how would that change our praxis? How might it change our living out the Great Commission?
  3. What aspects that Frost shares do we consider implementing now? What does that look like?
  4. What do we need to revisit in the future? When do we plan to come back to this?
  5. Would the lost community around us agree with our discussion / conclusions to the above questions? How could we verify this? Is that a conversation we are willing to begin?
  6. What other questions should we be asking right now?
  7. How serious about this are we? Honestly?

Pursuing Demonstration

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iStock_000002292914XSmallOne of my kids reminded me recently of a phrase I learned years ago from a previous colleague. Speaking of sales, he would share, “Presentation without demonstration is just conversation.” While I found this to be true in sales, I also believe it to be true when communicating our faith.

Some months ago some long-time friends joined us for a celebration. After everyone else had left, they remained to talk about parenting. They wanted to know how they could get their children to obey and show respect like our children. We were honored by the question which gave us an open door to share with the self-proclaimed atheist husband that what we have learned about how to rear children is all from the Bible. He continued to express interest in learning how to be a better parent and was willing to participate knowing that the information would be from the Bible. We have met together weekly for several months now and discussed at length both marriage and parenting. This week they proudly shared with us about a recent trip to visit family. They received praise from grandparents, parents, and siblings for their children’s behavior. They also enjoyed a peace in their relationship that they had not experienced on a vacation trip in some time. They have begun to see the tranformational power of the gospel even though he has yet to embrace the One who transforms.

Paul writes that we are to “be imitators of God.” This is consistent with his letters where we derive much of our theology and praxis. Usually in his letters he will devote a significant amount of space to understanding who God is and the supremacy of Christ. Then the second portion of each letter deals with how we are to practically live our lives because of our proper thinking about God. Understanding our Lord is key to being transformed as we set our “hearts on things above…and set our minds on things above.” The demonstration of the truth of God’s Word is that we are different from the world internally, in how we react to others, in our relationship with our spouse, with our children, and in our work relationships. Paul even ups the stakes stating more than once that others should, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” While this does seem daunting, the reality is that if we are followers of Christ we should look more and more like Him. His transformation of our lives should allow the world to see a radical difference in us. We are to be walking demonstrations of the transformational power of Christ that is consistent with the presentation we are anxious to share. If people do not see a changed life, then our presentation is just conversation–theory rather than practice.  (Eph 5:1; Col 3:1-2; 1 Cor. 11:1, Phil. 3:17; Rom. 12:1-2)

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Confidently Un-oriented (part 3)

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Disorientation -> Reorientation -> Meaningful change


The intensity of a disorientating experience may vary significantly. Some may be confronted with a near-death encounter, others may be captured anew by a sunset. The intensity of the disorientation is not the determining factor to dictate the extent or lack of the change. Reorientation is the process that will determine change.

A contrast in disorientation intensity may be found when considering Lydia and the Philippian jailer. Lydia believes while hearing Paul the first time. We read that “the Lord opened her heart.” On the other side of the spectrum, the jailer is ready to take his own life thinking that the prisoners had escaped following the earthquake. Upon learning that all are still present he runs in and falls to the ground shaking. His next response is then the same as Lydia’s. He believes. (Acts 16)

For both characters mentioned above, their reorientation was a complete paradigm shift. A radical worldview adjustment. They would never see things the same again. Not long after that we see Paul writing one of his most encouraging letters to the church that had been planted in the city of Philippi by most likely Lydia and/or the jailer. Here the reorientation was radical, the change was substantive and lasting, but the disorientation experiences could not have been more different.

When Paul addresses the sages in Athens, the responses are multiple. There is change for all: some sneer; some believe; some want to hear more. Paul offers a message that is completely unfamiliar to them. The disorientation is equal for all in the story, but the reorientation and the resulting change has eternity as the variance. (Acts 17)

These three posts on disorientation have strong correlations to someone’s understanding of  and response to the gospel. And church. And mission. And missiology. And life. And…?

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Confidently Un-oriented (part 2)

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Lost and Confused SignpostIronically, shortly after I posted part 1 to this piece, a person in my Facebook network posted: “Today during language I realized how much I don’t know a little bit more than I usually do. It freaked me out.” This is disorientation. It can be a little scary, but it can also be very rewarding. The question for people, like Timothy, when they enter this state, is “how will I respond?” “Now that my wrong assumption has been obliterated, what do I do with my newfound insight?”

Jesus spoke of both the man who became disoriented and the man who remained confidently un-oriented. The Teacher tells a story of two sons. The younger crashes and burns and then says to himself, “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” He was desperate for change because things had not turned out half as well as he had first envisioned. This was the beginning of his disorientation. Phase two kicked in when he gets close to his childhood home and is greeted and embraced by his father. Dad drives the point home for him: “Quick! Bring the best….he was lost and is found.” Then the party began. (As an aside, I think it is great that Jesus was in favor of a good party at the right times.) The older brother does not seem to rethink things. He is confident in his own goodness: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” He continues to be resolute in the shortcomings or the lack of wisdom of the father: “Yet you never gave me….” (Lk 15:11-32)

A profound example of disorientation is in the story of Habakkuk. In the first part of the story Habakkuk tells God that he, Habakkuk, is getting tired of waiting for God to fix things so that the Israelites would not continue in severe persecution. He says: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save.” Once again, here is a man starting a discourse while confident in his ignorant wisdom. God responds in a way Habakkuk never would have guessed: “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians…to seize dwelling places not their own.” Habakkuk replies with a highfalutin version of ‘God are you crazy?’ He says: “O Lord, are you not from everlasting? …Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.” But then Habakkuk gets smart. He seems to prepare himself for disorientation. He says, “I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” God then lays out a plan of destruction because of the sin of Israel. Through all of this, God reveals the truth of the gospel: “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous will live by faith….You will be filled with shame instead of glory. Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed! The cup from the Lord’s right hand is coming around to you, and disgrace will cover your glory.” Disoriented and changed, Habakkuk replies: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy….Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” At this point Habakkuk understands the sinful behavior of his people. This now makes sense to him through the span of history as he has a new, deeper understanding of the holiness and majesty of God. (Hab 1-3)

The rich young ruler, a final example for this post, came to Jesus seeking affirmation of his own goodness and right standing. Confidently un-oriented he replied to Jesus instruction about keeping the last 6 commandments: “All these I have kept….What do I still lack?” When told that his wealth kept him from obeying the first four commandments, the man was profoundly disoriented. This was not at all the way he expected this encounter to unfold. He left sad with his riches having a little less luster than before, but eternal life not being opulent enough to pursue change. (Mt 19:16-30)

Disorientation does not automatically equal meaningful change. It is a prerequisite, but not a guarantee. The wayward son and Habakkuk changed through their disorientation process. The older brother and rich young ruler did not.

Confidently Un-oriented (part 3)

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Confidently Un-oriented (part 1)

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iStock_000004097028XSmallYears ago I was headed to the airport with a colleague to meet a couple of new team members. While waiting for their arrival, we began discussing training and orientation. My friend shared with me some stuff he had been reading about the need for unlearning prior to effective learning. We laughed for some time as we created and shared ideas for programs of disorientation.

Over the first weeks I provided a standard orientation for our new team member. We covered a range of topics including: getting around the city, history, culture, strategy, missiology, ecclesiology, etc. After weeks for some issues and months for others, we would revisit issues at the team member’s prompting. Often we would cover the same points or have a conversation almost identical to our previous discussion—but this time it obviously clicked. In looking back I see that this happened repeatedly with personnel that I have worked with in various roles—both religious and secular. In some instances people have come back more than a year later and shared that they now understood some topic we had discussed. Also, on numerous occasions, I personally experienced the need to review or almost to go through reorientation.

How do you explain to someone how different it really is in the place where you landed compared with the place you left? How do you do orientation? How do you communicate or lead? When people look the same, but the paradigms they maintain are radically different, how do you explain the invisible interpretation process they go through? Today I spoke with a friend talking about the cultural differences he experienced when moving from South Carolina to Mississippi. I have seen volunteers that just didn’t grasp key concepts in their short period of time in a new context, culture, country, etc. I have heard the comment in various formats, “people everywhere are the same, they just speak with different accents.”  Really? Is this true or the perspective of the confidently un-oriented?

My experiences have often caused me to go back to our comical banter on programs of disorientation. They are still funny, but not so unrealistic now. You can reorient people only after they realize they are disoriented. The man who is confidently walking north as he is looking for something on the far south side of town does not need assistance…yet. He will get input in the future or he will continue to walk in the wrong direction. First, he must realize he doesn’t have a clue how to arrive at the mark—he is genuinely disoriented.

My desired model for communicating or teaching looks like this: Disorientation –> Reorientation –> Meaningful change. When the sequence is in this order, significant learning and change can happen in short periods of time. However, at times I try to convince the confidently un-oriented person to embrace my position. Sometimes, I is him.

Confidently Un-oriented (part 2)

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