Comments on God’s Love, Discipleship and a Crazy Summer

The starting point for living my life, for getting up and confronting each day, is the fact that God loves me. I believe this, although it seems unbelievable sometimes, for I know myself, and God knows me far better, yet He still loves me. He expressed this love on a cross one day, and He continues to demonstrate it every day, in spite of how much I question Him, doubt Him, even deny Him. God’s love is that dynamic force that keeps this world from self-destructing, and keeps my life together as well. It is God’s love that gives me hope that regardless of how difficult life may become, God is still present and He really cares. It is God’s love that can soften even the hardest heart, and turn the prodigal’s face toward home. If God were to suddenly stop loving this world, the earth would disappear in an instance, the whole universe imploding, leaving behind a small puff of smoke.

I observe much in this world that disturbs me. Why does God allow so much sin, so much cruelty and abuse and hopelessness? All the violence and perversion and despair? If I can hear the world groan with my insensitive ears, what must God have to endure? Yet I am convinced that God’s concern and compassion for this world is far greater than my own, and His anger more fierce against those who reject Him than I would even dare to imagine. I know that God loves this world because He went to extreme measures to redeem it, God becoming man and dying crucified. Jesus taking on Himself the weight of mankind’s evil.

This message, the message of the cross, is not a hard story to tell, or a difficult story to understand. It is so simple that a child can believe it. But this message, once received, is powerful. The results are nothing short of amazing. The transformation that occurs in a life can only be described as supernatural.

I can attest to this transforming power first-hand. My week consists of discipling 18 people who have come to believe in this ancient good news message over this past year. I consider it to be an incalculable privilege to be involved with people, walking and talking and laughing and crying with them, as they begin their spiritual journey and enter into the divine reality of being a child of God, and a follower of Jesus. I can attest as an eye witness how the glorious gospel of Jesus transforms lives, as this same Person continues to change me.

A verse in Acts has come to mind frequently over these past weeks, Acts 2:47. The last part of the verse states, “and the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” Perhaps we did not see people trust Christ on a daily basis, but we certainly saw it (and continue to see it) on a weekly basis. Two children trusted in Jesus in a stairway after rain ended our first day of kids club. A woman, Lulu, on dialysis for a failing kidney, put her faith in Christ three days later. Adriana and her 14 year old daughter Andrea came to know the Lord the next week at a brand new Tuesday night Bible study with 10 people in attendance. Alex, 14, who was befriended by one of the interns, Grant, put his faith in Christ the next week. His family invited us to their home to eat tamales, and several weeks later Alex’s mother attended church on Sunday morning and gave testimony that she was grateful how we had helped her son find God. Andres, Adriana’s husband, put his faith in Christ the following week at the Tuesday study, and two weeks later, Miguel and Elizabeth, two adults attending a Saturday study, also trusted in Jesus.

The Christian experience revolves around Jesus’ primary mandate—making disciples. This means I need to be a disciple, a learner, of Jesus and I need to be consistently and intentionally encouraging others to follow Jesus as well. This is not a process that happens individually and independently. We follow Jesus’ example and we follow Jesus’ disciples’ example. As the word “fellowship” lost its true meaning in the past, so has the word “community” become overused and misunderstood in our day, often denoting more superficial happiness than real, biblical unity. Discipleship in community is not easy. It means rubbing up against people who are imperfect and in process. It means actually, physically being with people, talking to them, working through what it means to be sons and daughters of God today, in this world. It means resolving conflict in God-honoring ways.

Biblical discipleship is an intimating proposal. How can one teach others while keenly aware of his or her own weaknesses and doubts? Eugene Peterson in his book Leap Over a Wall, states: “Evidence mounts; most of what I experience and have experienced in the way of help, encouragement, and wisdom in the actual day-to-day believing and praying, loving and hoping, helping and persevering, obeying and sacrificing in the name and for the sake of Jesus comes from people who aren’t considered competent to give it.”

Our best attempts at sharing the life and love of Christ with others will sometimes fail, be misinterpreted and even distorted. Discipleship implies vulnerability, and often means giving permission to have our personal space and private times invaded, scrutinized and yes, even at times criticized. Much of what we invest in others lives will not be reciprocated in an appreciative response. Obviously how we invest our lives in others requires wisdom. But do not we almost always err on the side of safety and personal security? Our culture exalts the values of individualism, yet the Christian life was never meant to be lived in a bubble of comfort and personal space, in the safety of one’s home behind an iridescent computer screen—today’s modern Christian monastery.

June 3 through July 16, 2006 is a time that my wife Mayra and I will remember for a long time. During this span of 6 weeks we were responsible for between 10-22 people. At various times during the summer people stayed in 11 different homes in two different neighborhoods. We hosted 2-4 interns in our house for all but six days during that time span. Every day, people filled our house, both visitors from the U.S. and church people from here. People eating, using the Internet, playing, praying, singing, preparing for ministry, watching videos. For the mid-day meal that we ate together as a group we grilled chicken, sausage, chorizo, hot dogs, bratwurst, chicken patties, hamburgers, steak and even some shrimp. We ran out of meats to grill. People slept (or napped) on our two fold-out sofas, the bunk beds and in our daughter’s bedroom. Every time we went to the store we spent $200. Every time I withdrew money from an ATM I withdrew $500. Every time we drove anywhere there were (at least) 12 people in our 8 passenger van. During those six weeks we did 4 weeks of English class, 1 week of children’s club, 1 week of basketball outreach and one week of soccer outreach. We passed out around 14,000 World Cup evangelistic tracts. On weekends we visited pretty much every significant cultural and tourist site in and around Mexico City. Several unplanned but memorable activities included a climb up an extinct volcano and a kick-boxing aerobic session.

These six weeks were an extended experiment in Christian community…the real, tough kind. Normally missions trips last 7-10 days. By the time the other team members start wearing on you, start driving you crazy…you go home. What a beautiful solution! But for us, this summer, many of the students committed to a 6 week internship. Conflict cannot be simply ignored. It has to be dealt with, worked through, and resolved. Forgiveness has to happen. Such a process can result in serious frustration…or significant spiritual growth. Usually both aspects are involved. I know that during several different times during the summer I came to the end of myself…and had to say to God, “please deal with this, I can’t handle this anymore!” This, I suspect, is the attitude I should have had all along. It would be dishonest to imply that all conflict was resolved perfectly this past summer. It wasn’t. But then, this is real life, not a weekend seminar where all the answers are airtight. We all live with issues and hurts and quirks. We came into the summer with them, and we end the summer with them.

Obviously this pace of life, especially when a family with three small kids is involved, should not be the norm. Maybe not even recommended. But do we really need so much private time and personal space? Any trip outside the borders of the affluent first world would be a wake-up call to those who clamor to defend their disposable time and disposable income. The fact remains that if we are to disciple anyone, at any level, we have to spend time with them. Jesus calls us to give everything, and if necessary to give up everything, in pursuit of a higher calling and a greater goal…the advance of His agenda on this earth and the fulfillment of His command to make disciples of all nations.

I have looked at the life of Jesus differently after this summer. Imagine Jesus living with 12 men not for a summer, but for 3 ½ years? There was Peter, the sincere but impetuous and often misinformed disciple, who must have been a constant embarrassment to his Rabbi. Then Philip, the disciple with a calculator, who knew how much money bread and fish would cost, plus tolls and gas. Philip viewed life through an economic grid, reducing ministry to a spreadsheet. How this must have prompted more than one “oh you of little faith” from the Lord. Then there was Thomas, who never seemed to get it. But Lord, we don’t know where you are going; neither do we know the way!” I’m sure Jesus was tempted to despair, to lose His patience. “How many times, guys, do I have to tell you these things!!” Then there was Simon the Zealot, always challenging authority, always operating on the very edge of rebellion. It seems like every group has at least one Simon, creating conflict and challenging leadership.

And what did the disciples learn about God’s love in how Jesus dealt with Judas for all of that time…Judas, whose blatant hypocrisy was revealed at the end. Judas, the murmurer. Why wasn’t this perfume sold and given to the poor? Jesus, who not only heard the comments, but also could read minds. How potentially emotionally paralyzing that would be! It so easy to “get stuck” relationally…to have aspects of another individual so thoroughly frustrate you as to be consumed by a critical and disparaging spirit. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies. He did just that, compassionately relating to Judas to the very end, calling Judas a friend, even in the garden of betrayal. How impacting that must have been to the rest of the disciples.

Oh, and one closing comment. Jesus was perfect. He was the perfect leader, the perfect discipler. I’m not. No human leader is. Even the mature Christian who takes seriously Jesus’ mandate to disciple people will find ample area for continued spiritual growth. This summer was a wake-up call for me in several important areas of my life. The shepherd or pastor (the actually word for shepherd in Spanish), does not cease to be a sheep. Discipleship is a humbling process always. That is good for the soul.

The disciples went on to turn the world upside. They learned. What a divine wager…the future of the church depended on 12 less than ideal followers. God still continues to wager the future of the church on every new generation. We are learning too, and by God’s grace we will change our world also.

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