Go and Make Disciples . . . Really?

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I’ve been thinking a whole lot about discipleship since returning from Turkey.

As I read through the scriptures and read the biographies of those heroes of the faith who we esteem I am haunted by the suspicion that perhaps we are missing something.

I’ve read again and again that passage we call the Great Commission and will share it here:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

A few observations:

First, I am always stunned by the admission that some doubted.

Some Doubted!

Jesus is alive and some doubted.  Out of the very men who walked with Jesus for three years and watched his crucifixion and then got to witness the resurrection – some doubted.

It seems pretty clear that God can handle a little doubt.

Second, Jesus gives them the command to go and make disciples and then a second part to that command – teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Okay.  So going and making disciples is no longer optional.  Jesus commanded it.

Third, Jesus didn’t say, “Go and make converts.”  “Go and get people to say the sinners prayer.” “Go and invite people to your church.”

He said, “Go and make disciples.”

So now I am left to wrestle with that.  Am I making disciples?  And what does that mean?

I am still working through what exactly that means, reading the scriptures and praying and trying not to rationalize my way out of hard answers.

But it is not optional.

Defining Rural Church

One hundred years ago, America was largely a rural nation.  In fact, by some estimates, 90% of the population of the country would have been involved in one way or another with agriculture and with the growing and harvesting of our food.  Today that number has dropped to somewhere between 2% and 5%.

Our country has changed significantly in the last 100 years, not the least of which is our move away from the agrarian ideal.  So too has the church changed, and in particular has the rural church changed.  Kent R. Hunter in his book The Lord’s of the Harvest and the Rural Church published in 1993 defined the rural church this way:

A rural church is a congregation of Christian people who live an agriculturally oriented life-style.  It is a church made up of a people group who belong to the agriculture community.

By Hunter’s definition, I am no longer sure if there is such a thing as a rural church.  When I look at my own congregation I see a changing demographic that can perhaps be categorized into three groups.

  1. Those currently involved in agriculture.
  2. Those who grew up in families involved in agriculture but who are no longer involved in agriculture themselves.
  3. Those who have never been involved in agriculture.

Fifty years ago, group one would have been the majority of the congregation.  Today, group two is the majority and I suspect that in another 20 – 30 years, group three will be the majority.

And so as this shift continues, I wonder if perhaps Hunter’s definition is no longer helpful.  Churches in small, rural locations after all still exist and have far different needs, challenges and opportunities than their urban counterparts.

Is a new definition needed?

I am not one to worry about definitions but I am concerned that we have not fully realized and understood the change that is taking place.  I’d like to continue to explore the topic and will continue to reflect on Hunter’s book as I read.

What I would really like is to see a conversation taking place.

Please feel free to leave your comment and to pass this article on to your rural friends.

You can find The Lord’s of the Harvest and the Rural Church at Amazon. [affiliate link]

Book Review: The Lazarus Life

A good story offers a window to peer through in order to see something we could never come up with our own.  A great story ignites something within us that can’t be ignored and will never be forgotten.  A good story informs us.  A great story changes us.

Author, pastor and spiritual director  Stephen Smith outlines the journey of spiritual transformation through the story of Lazarus in his devotional book, The Lazarus Life.  Using Lazarus as his plumb line, Smith draws parallels to our own life, a life he believes should be marked by transformation.

Smith says, “The life offered by Jesus, taught to us by Paul, and experienced by the early church, is a life of transformation.  It is deep-down change at the DNA level of our souls.  It is a life that comes only from Jesus, who identifies Himself as the only life we need.

Lazarus of course is the brother of Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus who hosted he and his disciples at their home, who listened to his teachings and watched his miraculous acts of healing and power.

In the story Lazarus falls ill, so ill that Mary and Martha believe the only way to save him is to send for Jesus, who they know from personal experience as a healer.  As their friend, surely he will come.  But Jesus doesn’t come right away.  He lingers on where he is at and Lazarus dies.

Days later and after Lazarus has been in the grave four days, Jesus finally comes.  Reading the story from our perch in history, we know what comes next.

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.  “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Through Lazarus’ journey from death to life, Smith introduces the reader to the idea of spiritual transformation.  By leading us into the drama of this particular Biblical narrative, The Lazarus Life acts as a guide that will help readers like me to understand what spiritual transformation might look like and what we might need to do in order to enter into it.

Smith breaks Lazarus’ story up into different stages of the journey.  These of course are not hard and fast stages, but rather a way to talk about the sometimes messy work of transformation.  It made it possible for me to read a chapter a day and to pull from each chapter helpful ideas and insights to think about and meditate on.

It also allowed me to sink into the Lazarus story, to slow down and watch the plot unfold and put myself in the place of the on lookers, of Mary and Martha and of Lazarus.

This proved incredibly helpful as I have always read the story knowing the ending.  This robs the story of much of it’s power.

  • Mary and Martha must have faced severe disillusionment, discouragement and fear.
  • Lazarus died.  His body had begun to rot and as he stepped out of the grave, the stench of death must of stepped out with him.
  • After Lazarus had been raised, the Jews began plotting his death.

Transformation isn’t always pretty and it doesn’t always lead to a life of ease and tranquility.  Smith reminds us that “authentic transformation is always messier than we expect it to be.”

Transformation is rarely easy, but in the end, it is always good and it is always best for us and leads to the life of abundance that Jesus promises.  Stephen Smith makes that fact abundantly clear and offers a helpful guide on the journey in The Lazarus Life.

A Few Quotes From The Book

Waiting on Jesus is not a passive act.  Waiting on Jesus is soul work.  As we wait, we relinquish control, surrender our wills, give up our false hopes, and realize that if anything is going to happen at all, it will have to be  God’s doing.

Here’s a simple truth: God can use any circumstance, any tragedy, any wronged heart as an instrument for our transformation.  No tomb is dark enough, no situation hard enough, no life broken enough that God cannot use it as fodder for the fire of transformation.

The rhythm of Jesus’ life is the rhythm of a transformed life:  a time of activity followed by a time of reflection.  Both are vitally needed.

We get one life but many opportunities in this one life to get it right.  To live a transformed life is a life-long privilege.

Hey, those links to the book above are affiliate links.  They don’t change the price for you if you’d like to pick up a copy, but I’ll make about 7% from Amazon.  If you are in the Freeman, South Dakota area of course you can borrow my copy.  Buy The Lazarus Life.

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The Fogs of Life

My morning respite.

Sunday morning I awoke to the train rolling through the small town of Dolton just a half mile south of the farm with persistent warning blasts from its horn.  It was 4: 30 am and I drifted out of a dream and into the living room to peer into the darkness in search of understanding.  The engineer kept blasting the horn, again and again as if the cows had gotten out and wandered onto the tracks.  But it was not cows he was worried about, it was fog, a thick, wet fog that clung to the earth and shrouded vision in its grasp.

A few hours later and after a bit more sleep, I worked my way into my morning routine.

  • Start the coffee to brewing.
  • Drink a class of water.
  • Make a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for first breakfast.
  • Grab my satchel with my books and journal and head to the Adirondack chair in the flower garden.

As I stumbled out the back door, coffee in hand, I was met by the soaking blanket of fog that had earlier slowed the train.  I was glad I’d thought to bring a towel for the chair was soaked with beads of fog formed moisture.

I settled into the morning, pulled my book and journal from my bag and set back to take in the view with a sip of hot coffee.  I stared into the cloud of white around me, discerning naught but the outline of the machine shed on the far side of the yard.  It sat a ghostly apparition in the distance beyond which nothing could be seen.

The land was hung in white darkness.

Life has seemed shrouded in fog as of late.  Many decisions yet to be made remain unclear, remain unanswered.  I see shapes of what the future might hold, but nothing is clear.  Our future is a shadowy outline yet to be defined completely.

The farm wrapped in fog.

The fog of life leaves me at times worrying if I’ll find my way.  I can move forward, one gingerly step at a time, always checking to see if I’ll recognize landmarks that will lead me further, or I can wait.  I can sit and wait and be still until the fog lifts because, fog always lifts.

One gift of the waiting is the seeing of new things, things unseen when moving quickly through life.  The yard Sunday morning was pockmarked with white spider webs coated in a sheen of fog induced dew.  They were there the day before and perhaps I’d crushed more than a few traipsing back and forth across the burned up lawn, but I’d never noticed them.  The fog, both by stopping me in my tracks and by accentuating their presence, unveiled them.

One of many such spider webs.

How About You?

Sometimes in the fogs of life we must set out as best we can and work our way toward an ethereal destination that only becomes clear as we move forward.  At other times, we need only to rest in the cloak of darkness, looking and listening for the beauty that can only be found in the waiting.  And sometimes it seems we do a bit of both.

That is where I find myself now.

How about you?  What has life surprised you with when you’ve set out into the fog or when you have waited for the fog to lift?

Lemons to Lemon-ade

If you haven’t heard already, much of the Midwest is in a severe drought.  Two summers ago, our county in southeast South Dakota received nearly 30 inches of rain in the months of June, July and August.  This year, we’ve felt the cooling touch of just under two inches.

2010 was abnormal in the greatest sense of the word.  Nothing like that has ever happened before and no one really expects anything quite like that to happen again.  But droughts are part and parcel for the course of a South Dakota farmer’s life.

The last big drought was in the 80’s.  Farm Aid took off then though many lost their farms.  I am no farmer, nor did I grow up on a farm.  Raised in rural Kansas though, many of my friends were farm kids and now I’ve married into a farm family and so I’ve grown to understand at least a bit of the life of a farmer.

One thing I have learned for sure is that farmers, for the most part, are long on faith.  They plant a crop with no real guarantee that anything will come up, or if it does, whether or not it will produce a crop.

This year is a the type that puts that faith to the test.  The corn came up but then the skies locked up, withholding the rain needed to fill out the cobs, which now resemble mutated dwarves of the corn they should be.  There will be no bumper crop this year.

And so with the bald news of a ruined crop, the farmers in the area do what farmers do best.  They move forward, make some hard choices and begin to cut their corn into silage.

Silage is ground up corn – the whole plant – which is covered and left to ferment and which makes a nutritious feed for cattle.   Cattle prices are up, there’s not much grass left in the pastures and the price of corn is going up too.  So silage makes a lot of sense.

When bad things happen those who can make the most of it and move forward will often come out ahead.  

We can’t make it rain, so there is not much else to do.  We just got to take the lemons life hands out and do our best to make lemon-ade

Life’s like that.  

Fellowship

One of my larger concerns in returning to South Dakota was and has continued to be finding fellowship – for me and for my family.

In Turkey we had good friends – both Turks and other expats – and were continually amazed by the quality of those people, the depth of their faith and the generosity of spirit that we received from the time and again.

So when we visited a small home church last Thursday night in Sioux Falls, we didn’t know what to expect.  Some friends of ours were visiting and so we decided to tag along.

It started well when we found out that they share a meal together before meeting each week.  Food is often a prime ingredient to fellowship and as a bonus there was an amazing artichoke dish of which I was fortunate enough to be able to indulge in three helpings.

The service was great, but we were blown away with love when they began to ask about our time in Turkey and how we were doing,  how they could help us transition back and if they could pray for us.

And they listened – really listened.  

Afterward I was reminded of a Bonhoeffer quote:

The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love of God begins in listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.

Listening – really listening to others is a powerful action.  We felt how important it was as we shared bits of our story, of our desires for the future and as they responded in generous love and prayer.

I was challenged to do a better job of listening myself.

Things I Love

I was going back through some old writing from my first year in Turkey and came across this.  Enjoy.

Reflecting last evening in the full moon brightness of our small balcony, I began to recount in my mind the things that I love. Not like ice cream or apple pie, but the moments in this journey called life that bring fully laden joy to the everyday, those things that make you shudder with delight, make you catch your breath, make you wish like crazy that someone would invent a camera that would capture the emotion along with the action. I thought of a few and perhaps will add more later.

1

I was putting the kids to bed last night, a raucous event on our house because we have no set routine or schedule other than brushing teeth and putting on pajamas. It sometimes goes quickly, sometimes drags on for over an hour, but is nothing like our baby wise friends whose kids kiss them goodnight and lay quietly in the stillness until sleep overtakes them. No. We get water, we get toys, we read books, we play bank, turn off the light and slow down and try something new. Last night Malachi was the sleepy one and quickly faded into his deep, undisturbable slumber. Sonora, her usual self was a bundle of energy and like most nights, I tried a lot of different approaches before giving up in frustration and pulling in beside her on her twin bed. As she continued her endless babble with her dolls I lay there in the dark pleading with God to make her fall asleep.

God replied, “Don’t you like the daughter I gave you?”

“Well, yes, of course I do. It’s just. . . Well, I have a lot to do.”

God replied, “More important than being with your daughter?”

“Well . . . , no. Not really, but she needs the sleep and, um, um,”

I gave up. I watched her play. I listened to the ways she talked differently to each of her dolls as she practiced mothering them, the way she covered them up and gave them bottles.Then suddenly she was done. She put her dolls down. She picked up her blanky and crawled down to the end of the bed where my head was, plopped her blanky on my shoulder, her head on her blanky and threw her arm across my chest. She snuggled in, drew closer, gave a deep sigh and fell asleep. Just like that. I listened to her breathing for some time, felt her, even in sleep drawing close to me. I sighed, wrapped my arms around her and whispered into the dark of the night, “Thank You.”

2

Malachi learned to pray from a worm. Its name is Hermie and he is the creation of Max Luccado, but Malachi learned to pray from him. They are frank prayers; clear, direct, open-eyed and said to a God who might be sitting on the edge of the bed next to him listening intently. I hope he always prays like this, especially in church in front of people because it will make everyone uncomfortable. Last fall, we were returning to the farm on a cold star filled November night. Malachi was in his car seat looking out the window. I am not sure what was going on in his head, but he had then recently been asking a lot of questions about God and where he was and such. Anyway, the car was quiet except for the sound of the tires on frozen pavement when Malachi’s voice broke into the silence. He sounded urgent and a little frustrated.

“Hey God. Could you come down a little closer so I can hear you. I can’t hear you way up there.”

That was it. His prayer to God to come near. Now we are in Turkey and Malachi still prays in his frank, Hermie way. Last week his gold fish ‘Fishy’ was sick and had not been doing much besides floating in his coffee cup fish house. I was pretty sure the fish was a goner. Malachi was distraught. So we suggested he pray for the fish. Malachi stepped up to the table and looked into the tank.

“God. Fishy is sick. Can you heal him so he won’t die. Thanks.”

The next morning, Fishy was swimming around his tank looking much healthier than the day before.

3

Soccer is big here. It is big everywhere in the world outside of the U.S. of course, but last month I came to a new understanding, appreciation and love for the game and what I am learning it represents. Euro Cup 2008 was in June. Turkey competed and put on a strong showing. Fielding a team depleted by injuries, they lost in the semi finals to Germany. We watched every game even though they started at 9:45 pm. It was a great run and amazingly fun to see a nation come alive to cheer for their team. It is a phenomenon we can’t understand in the states. It highlights the collective consciousness that seems to mark this culture in stark contrast to the individualistic culture of the states. During the Euro Cup, 70 million Turks sat together in front of the television, a monolithic mass of frenzied fans all pulling in the same direction on the cosmic gods of soccer. The first goal we scored brought the neighborhood to its feet in shrill delight and loud screaming that carried out their open windows, mixed with their neighbors cheers out in the streets and came in through our open windows. It was loud and startled us and sent us giddily running for the camera, rushing out on our balcony, hoping to video a bit of what no one back home would believe. Every goal for two weeks was like this and sometimes if the goal was near the end of the game and if the victory was imminent, fireworks would burst into the night sky as well. We cheered our team on together. This open windowed sharing of mirth and enthusiasm for the team is reflective of the corporate nature of the culture. I had read about this idea, corporate versus individual, but had never quite grasped its depth. Not that I grasp it now, but I am beginning to understand. When our man Nihat scored in the last-minute to cap a three goal rally in the final fifteen minutes of our game against Czechoslovakia, I jumped to my feet with 70 million Turks, ran to our open window and leaning out, hollered my ecstasy into the streets of our great, corporate, victorious night.

The Far Country

“God is at home. We are in the far country.”
-Meister Eckhart

A favorite singer songwriter of mine, Andrew Peterson, has an album called “The Far Country.” He writes of finding the above quote in an Annie Dillard book. Coming across the quote tonight sparked in me a notion that the far country is indeed where we are all living.

It seems common for people to ask us how it was living away from “home?”

We spent the last four and a half years living in Turkey and it was indeed different from the place we grew up, from the quiet streets of Freeman and known sounds and meanings of English.

But we are no more at home here than we were there.

Indeed, none of us are.

We are all passing through. We are all on the way. We are strangers in a strange land and we would do well not to forget it lest we grow accustomed, comfortable and some how in that comfort, lose sight of the true home for which we were created.

The journey is not easy, but it does lead us home.

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