The Ministry of Availability

Availability.  It’s not often mentioned in the list of important qualities of disciples of Jesus but in our strung out western world, it may well be the most important gift followers of Jesus have to offer a broken and hurting world.

Availability.  It is what Moses had when God called him to lead the people of Israel out of captivity.  He was not a gifted speaker.  He made bad decisions.  He wasn’t very brave.  But he was available and in his going back to Egypt he allowed God to work through him to rescue slaves unto freedom and to move God’s redemptive story forward.

Availability is what Gideon had when God called him to lead an army.  Granted, Gideon was hiding in a winepress when God found him, and he wasn’t exactly excited to jump on God’s bandwagon.  Once Gideon’s fleece was wet however, he obeyed even as God reduced his regiment to a hilariously small number that gave all the glory to God in victory.

And Rahab was available too.  She was a woman of ill repute, a foreigner and a prostitute who at the time we can assume knew nothing of the God of the Israelites except what she has overheard; that He had been victorious in recent skirmishes and miraculously parted the Red Sea.  She steps into God’s redemptive story when two of Israel’s spies step into her room and she risks her life to hide them.

If we survey the prominent characters of the Biblical narrative, few are chosen because they are highly qualified leaders.  A few were of course – King Saul, Judas, Saul of Tarsus, but most of these didn’t work out so well.  It seems the highly qualified often lean a little to deeply into self reliance and self reliance usually leads to trusting in man rather than trusting in God.

Relying on his own gifts and abilities and education, Saul of Tarsus was hunting down followers of Jesus to have them arrested and thrown in prison.  It was only when he left his highly qualified self behind that Saul became available to become Paul and the man whom God could use to build his church.

When we look through the hall of fame that is Hebrews eleven, the number one thing each of the faithful had to give to God was themselves.

They said yes.  They were available.

And while Jesus is highly qualified in every way, he models the radical availability that allowed him to say, “the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.”

And that is why Jesus’ ministry looks so vastly different than the successful ministries of today.  His is the ministry of availability, of responding to the interruptions of the masses, of walking miles out of his way to heal a leader’s son, of inviting the children to come to him.

Jesus’ model is not that of the best leadership style but of availability.

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First and foremost, He models an availability to abide.   Despite an incredibly full ministry, Jesus routinely makes time to be with the Father.    He is part of the triune forever relationship of God and Son and Holy Spirit and this carries on into His 33 years on earth.

He is a master of scripture, a mastery that most certainly came from years of immersion in those same scriptures.  He is a master as well of prayer, of interceding on behalf of the sick and the demon possessed and the lost.  There is authority in his prayers.  And Jesus is the master at communing with God, of walking in a living relationship with the Father.  He is the master at abiding and he invites us first and foremost to do the same.  And so while the immediate needs of the masses continually pressed in around him during his ministry on earth, we see the clear model that, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

When Peter and John were before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, the characteristic recorded for all posterity is not that of highly qualified leadership skills or a refined speaking ability.  It was that they had been with Jesus.  The Sanhedrin note that while they were “ordinary unschooled men”, they had been with Jesus.  Peter and John had become masters of abiding with God because it is the model that Jesus gave them.

And so at the forefront of the discipleship journey, we as followers of Jesus must learn to be available to abide with him.  Despite the chaos of our frenzied western existence, we must learn to set aside time to be with Jesus.   It is our first act of availability.

It was from this first lifestyle of abiding availability that Jesus’ ministry flowed.  And in his three years of ministry as recorded in the Gospel, He models again and again the servant heart that makes him available to engage hurting, lost people – even when they interrupt him.

It seems an almost regular occurrence that Jesus responds to a pleading father, a frightened and sick woman or a shouting blind man.  He is regularly going one way and then – in response to a need – heads another way.  It seems at times haphazard and yet it’s not.  His ministry is focused. He went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  There was purpose in his journeys.  He trained up twelve men who would go on to launch His movement.  He gave his followers what they needed – himself – to spread the good news of His kingdom.

Like Jesus we must live strategic lives of engagement with a clear goal in mind.  But the way to do that – as modeled by Jesus – is first and foremost to be with God.  To make knowing God our first priority.  We must set aside regular time to go away and sit at the feet of the Father.  We must practice listening prayer. Immersion in the scriptures needs to be a central part of our daily routines.

 

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Repeating The Past

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The original Red Dawn, circa 1984.

It was the mid 1980s when I first saw the American movie classic, Red Dawn.  Set in a small Colorado foothills town, the movie is a classic good guys verses bad guys movie pitting the blood thirsty red army of the Soviet Union against an all American, self-relient cast of characters fighting a guerrilla war of a second independence.

I had grown up on a steady litany of stories of the propaganda machine that was the Soviet Union, of their brainwashed populace; of their inability to know the truth.

We had Hollywood.  And I wonder if Hollywood didn’t do a better job of brainwashing our populace than the Russian KGB did theirs.

They certainly had me.

I spent many a day throughout my elementary years planning the defense of my town from the inevitable invasion of those ‘red devils’, those commies who had plans to blow us off the face of the earth.  I had an active imagination but it had plenty of source material.

Ask anyone over 40 and they’ll tell you that there was deep distrust of the Soviet empire.

And no one knew a single Russian person.

We lived off of myth.  

And then the myth fell down.  It was the Berlin Wall actually, but it is hard to imagine now the fear that so gripped the west for so many years.

So afraid of the communist threat was our nation that we entered bloody wars, we propped up cruel and tyrannical dictators over those who were democratically elected, we pumped millions of dollars in support to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan and we allowed our daily rhetoric to be that of vitriol, hostility, culture assassination, exaggeration and hysteria.

This is not to say that there was not actually a threat.  I’m quite certain there was – competing ideologies by the world’s standards most always lead to confrontation.  And when the two groups holding the ideologies also have a lot of nuclear bombs, then the threats escalate.

I was sitting in a book store under an Istanbul mosque several years ago talking with my friend Serdar about politics and faith and we began talking about the tension between the east and the west.  I was trying to see a way forward, to see a way to better relations, to see some hope but Serdar stopped me.

“People always need an enemy.  If one goes away, they find another.  They need an enemy.”

He said it so matter a factly, as if it were true; gospel fact.

Is it true?  Do we need an enemy?  Do we look for a bad guy in order to make ourselves feel better?

I am not sure that we “need” an enemy but I am sure that we do have one.

Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”  So yes, we do have an enemy.

But too often we mistake him for someone else.  Depending on your persuasion it could be the communist or the catholic, the Muslim or the Jew or the evangelical Christian, the right wing conservative or the left wing liberal.

We end up creating gross over generalizations of entire groups based on their very worst examples.  We vilify them as the enemy and neglect any real conversations that could lead to understanding and honoring relationships.

And we keep doing it over and over again.  We keep repeating the past.

 

Understanding Well: Reading From A Broad Range Of Perspectives

I have been reading Mustafa Aykol’s book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty and it has been enlightening to hear the scope of Islamic history told from the point of view of a Turkish, Muslim scholar and journalist.  Aykol’s perspective serves to reinforce the value and importance of reading widely and from a broad range of perspectives, of reading patiently while waiting for a more nuanced, deeper understanding to emerge before casting judgment.

By way of example, Aykol’s handling of what we in the west call the Armenian genocide – for indeed it was a genocide – is framed in the historic backdrop of the rising tide of nationalism which was sweeping through Europe at that time.  What happened in Germany to the Jews because of this rabid nationalism had happened in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Crimea twenty years prior as countries there waged wars of independence from the Ottoman Empire and in a victorious wave of nationalism, drove out or slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Turkish Muslims and Jews.  These atrocities fueled the Ottoman people’s own nationalistic impulses which led to the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the second decade of the 20th century.  What happened in the Balkans in no way justifies their actions toward Armenians in Anatolia, but it does frame these terrible events in the complex context of the tension of those times.

Gaining a deeper understanding of the complexity of the historical and cultural context  helps us to have more meaningful and respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree.  Remaining outside of this place of deeper understanding leads to intolerant and insular positions bound up in the darkness of falsehood, slander, hypocrisy and injustice.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout that, “You never really understand a person until you consider his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  He might well have added historical events, people groups and even religions to his statement for unless we are willing to climb into the complexity of the historical and cultural context of those, we will never truly understand them.

Click here to find Islam Without Extremes at Amazon.

Strong Encores Always Impress

A few nights past, I was able to head into Wichita State’s Cessna Stadium for a Drum Corp International competition with my mom, uncle and sister-in-law. It has become a bit of a family tradition since my cousin Dieter marched with a corp called the Troopers for seven years.

For those not familiar with drum corp – I wasn’t until my cousin got involved – it’s a bit like marching band – on steroids, and it’s pretty amazing.  You can watch the video at the end of this post to get the full experience and if ever there is a competition near you, I’d heartily encourage you to go.  You won’t regret it.

Dieter is no longer marching but is traveling with a corp called the Cadets this year as their videographer.  It’s a great gig as he is an up and coming media guy, taking great photos and shooting some fantastic videos.  You can check out more of his stuff out at Dieter Wiselogel.

As a rookie to drum corp, I can tell the difference between the bad, the good and the great performances and you could too.  The sound, the storytelling and the shows are just different and the top corps will take your breath away.

The show we attended was no different.  The first two shows had fewer members and put forth okay performances.  There were flashes of brilliance, but nothing sustained and nothing to take your breath away.  The last four corps were great though.  The sound they produce is at times crushing in its immensity and at other times like a gentle breeze to sooth the soul.  The story they tell with the music and with the dancers is mesmerizing.  Their shows were amazing.

Dieter had the night off from shooting film and so was able to sit in the stands with us to enjoy the show.  It was interesting to sit with a professional, someone for whom drum corp is a passion and whose expertise can recognize what my eyes cannot.  He added that extra bit of insight that took my appreciation for what I was seeing up one notch.

There were a lot of takeaways from my night at the drum corp event.

The passion with which these kids pour into their summers, night after night, show after show is fun to see.  They’ll practice all day in 100 degree weather, put on a show and be out practicing again after the show in the parking lot before their bus takes them – overnight – to their next destination.  There, they’ll disembark and crawl into sleeping bags thrown down an a gym floor for a few hours of sleep before they wake up and do it all over again.

The passion of these kids is something I hope everyone can find in life, find and then ride.

But the thing that most impressed me about night was the encore.

After the last show, the Cadets, had left the field, one of the earlier acts marched back on to the field to give the audience an encore performance while the judges tabulated the scores.  I leaned over to Dieter and asked if the corps enjoyed giving the encore.  They had been practicing all day in 100 degree weather. They had slept on a high school gym floor the night before.  They were tired, stinky and had already given a truly amazing performance.  Dieter confirmed what I would expect – most corps dread their turn for the encore.

And so as the Madison Scouts marched back out and took their places in front of the grandstand for what would be our last memory of the evening, my expectations were low.  The drum and bugle corp formed a half circle behind the larger, stationary percussion instruments and their drum major took his place in the stands so his musicians could see him.

But then it happened.

Magic.

The drum major raised his hands and they began.  They poured everything out.  They had fun.  They put forth big, amazing brass sounds that blew the crowd away.  For ten minutes they put on a musical spectacle that was a gift to us all. 

They didn’t need to do it. They could have packed it in. The night was already a success. The crowd had been given more than their money’s worth already, and yet the Madison Scouts gave more.

I suspect it’s the same with all the great corps.  It’s why they are great.  It’s what separates the men from the boys.

It’s the ability to dig deep and give the gift even when it’s not needed, even when it’s not expected.

And it’s what we all should aspire to as fathers and mothers, as employees and employers, as leaders and entrepreneurs and people.

It challenged me to think about how I could be like the Madison Scouts and give my best even when I am tired and want to pack it in, even when it wouldn’t be expected, even when there is no real reward in return.

It’s something I want to work on.

How have you given the gift of your best even when it wasn’t expected or needed in this last week?

image: Dieter Wiselogel