On Eating Small Children

Our desire to eat children is certainly a human oddity. It is commonly discovered in big bosomed aunts who see a baby or toddler and declare, “I could just gobble you up!” Fortunately, such declarations are usually only followed by smothering hugs, cheek pinches, and kisses.

Ari, our seven-year-old grandson, brought us a Valentine’s picture that said, “I love you to pieces.” This too is a frightening phrase if taken literally. But I think the expression flows from the same impulse as “I love you to death.” It is a love so strong that it borders on dangerous.

The desire to eat small children is healthy if rightly understood. It flows from an intoxication with their beauty, innocence, and vitality. Often old folks like me look wistfully at little tikes and wish for their boundless energy. When we see their innocent delight in the world bubble over, we long to drink that elixir.

Famously, Wordsworth declared children coming into the world from God “trailing clouds of glory.” Indeed, there is a fragrance of immortality about small children—something eternal and uncorrupted. Something we lose but hunger for all our lives.

When I see Ari asleep in his grandmother’s lap, his legs now sprawling and dangling nearly to the floor, I see what may be his last days of feeling completely safe. His sleep is undisturbed by fears of the future or mistakes of the past.

The desire to devour the goodness of children may, nonetheless, still seem terrible even if figurative, but consider the Eucharist where we eat the body of Christ and drink His blood. We desire to eat children for the same reason; we long to take into ourselves their vitality, innocence, beauty, and joy.

And like the Lord’s Supper, the impulse to eat children points us both backward and forward. First, it is a desire to recover what we once possessed as a child—innocence and goodness. It is also a longing for the safety and beauty of the garden before evil marred all things and alienated us from nature.

We desire to gobble up children also springs from our longing for the day when we are made new, and our broken bodies put on immortality. We look for a day when all God’s children are safely home—a day when we will play more than we pray.

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A Believing Wife

Teckla caught me writing this and said, “I am not worth writing about.” I will write about her anyway because there was a scene in the video series The Chosen that perfectly expressed why I love her so much and why I am so blessed to be married to her.

The video series The Chosen begins with the stories of each of the 12 apostles being called to follow Jesus. The writers try to imagine all the family and economic dynamics of each apostle saying yes to Jesus’s call. We have been watching the first season of The Chosen Thursday nights at the church.

Last week we watched the story of Peter being called. Peter’s call was accompanied by a miraculous catch of fish and the promise of Jesus that Peter would be made a fisher of men. The back story of Peter shows him facing a financial crisis because of the taxes he owes the Romans. So, the huge catch of fish that nearly sunk the boats was deliverance from an impending disaster of losing his boat and his home.

When Peter came to tell his wife about the miracle and about the call to follow the Messiah, he was both elated and worried. The good news was that all their taxes would be paid for by the huge catch of fish. The bad news was that he was giving up fishing to follow a rabbi called Jesus. He doesn’t know how his wife will respond.

Almost nothing is said about Peter’s wife in the Bible. We do know that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14). And Paul refers to other apostles, including Cephas (Peter), who take believing wives with them in their travels (I Corinthians 9:5). The writers for The Chosen do an excellent job of showing what Peter’s “believing wife” might have been like.

After hearing Peter’s news, his wife is at first speechless. Peter is apologetic. But then it becomes clear that she is over-joyed, and that her tears are tears of joy, not frustration. Peter is surprised but delighted. His wife rejoices that he is finally becoming the man God meant him to be. Peter thought he might be dragging her along behind him, but it turns out that she was ahead of him, leading the way with faith and joy.

This is the kind of wife Teckla has been. Often with trepidation I have said to Teckla that I think God is calling us to move here, go there, adopt these kids. I then ask her to pray and see if I have discerned God’s voice clearly, only to discover God has already spoken to her. In all my fumbling efforts to find and follow God’s leading, she has only responded with joy and faith—never grumbling and criticism.

When we moved to Myrtle Point to care for my mother after my Dad’s death, we left behind the first house we had bought. Teckla moved away from her many friends in Olathe and Kansas City. I was leaving a job without any promise of a job in Oregon. All of this was in response to my desire to honor my parents—the fifth commandment. Teckla and I had only had “our own house” for a year.  It was hard to give up, but Teckla never complained or moped; she embraced the adventure with love and grace.

I could give example after example of Teckla’s faith. She has given me the freedom to pursue God passionately, and in turn I have tried to free her to do the same. It is hard to explain how much joy such freedom brings. Even when I had led us into a literal wilderness, Teckla never grumbled. (I once got us lost in the Ozark National Forest in the middle of the summer).

Teckla believes in God. And despite all my faults and weaknesses, she has believed in me. Having such a believing wife makes me blessed beyond measure and the richest of men.  

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Grieving with Ari

I dreaded telling Ari that Pharaoh was gone. He knew we had been trying to find someone to adopt Pharaoh, but Ari did not know the lady was coming Tuesday afternoon. Ari had lost so much this last year. His dad had died, his Mom disappeared. And we are getting ready to move back to Kansas—the main reason we had to find a home for Pharaoh. So this summer Ari will lose a house and his friends.

I said, “Ari the lady from Creswell came to get Pharaoh today.” For a second, he was angry and groaned, “Paaa!” He then frowned and said, “I will miss him.”  When we came into the house, Ari went to the back porch to see if his dog was really gone.

The sun was shining, and it was about 56 out, so Ari and I went outside to play basketball. The gentle breeze carried the slight fragrance of early spring. We were playing horse, but Ari paused for moment and just dribbled the ball slowly while looking around. Then he stopped and quietly said, “I am happy, except for Pharaoh.”

The wise and gentle calm on his face and in his voice startled me. With grace and elegance, he showed me how to grieve without letting go of the beauty and goodness of life. Yes, it is true that after my “except” I have a longer list than just losing Pharaoh. Nonetheless, Ari’s approach to grief is right. It is, I am sure, a more profound insight into life than he realizes.

Nothing has healed my heart more than his winsome smile and wise words. And, of course, Ari made his shot.

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Washing the Trailblazer with Ari

Saturday the rain finally let up, and we had enough sun to wash the Trailblazer. Here in Myrtle Point if not washed regularly, your car will begin to grow lichen and moss, especially if parked under a myrtle tree. So we had our work cut out for us. Because I am short and the Trailblazer tall, I use a step ladder to reach the top. I put Ari to work on the lower places where you had to bend over to see the dirt and grime.

Ari was a hard worker, but he kept wanting to scrub the top where I was working. To reach the top, he opened one of the doors and stood on the seat. Of course, this let some water into the car, and he was only able to reach about six inches of the top. No matter how often I urged him to wash the lower sections within easy reach, he would soon drift upward to areas he could barely reach.  I had hoped to spare myself a sore back and the trouble of bending over to clean the stuff Ari could reach easily.

Because Ari kept working on what he could barely reach, he left streaks of grime. He was often trying to clean what he couldn’t see well. None of this bothered me much because the car eventually got clean—or at least cleaner, and I enjoy being with Ari.

However, I realized that I am probably much like Ari when working with God. I prefer to ignore the work right in front of me. I often want to do something higher, more important, exciting, and challenging. The result is, no doubt, is that the work right in front me goes undone and the loftier work is done poorly.

Sometimes I don’t take time to talk to a difficult neighbor but for hours will happily debate strategies for reaching the lost of Coos County. I will spend time reading books on the power of prayer instead of simply praying. I can stretch to grasp the lofty theological theories on the ontology of time but not take time to learn what a child can teach.

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Kansas City Prophets and Global Warming

During my years living in Olathe and Kansas City, I had a bird’s eye view of the prophetic movement in Kansas City. I got to see the good, the bad, and the merely confusing. As one deeply concerned about our stewardship of God’s creation, I have also followed, as much an English teacher can, the science surrounding global warming. My approach to the first has helped me with the second.

It may seem absurd to connect prophets of global warming and the prophets of revival, but there are similarities. Both predict some future events and both call for policy and lifestyle changes in response to those predictions. We could add that both have their doubters and critics and both have acted in ways that fuel that criticism.

First, let me say I believe that God is restoring the ministry of the prophet to churches today. I have seen this ministry greatly bless people, and I have seen the church strengthened by it. However, I have also seen people wounded and disillusioned when prophets have fallen into sin or when it seemed that the prophetic was exploited to build a ministry.

I have now lived 30 years in splendid isolation in Myrtle Point, Oregon, so I have had both the time and distance to evaluate my experience with the prophetic in Kansas City. As I have sorted this all out, I have learned to value and nourish everything imparted to me at Kansas City that should be a permanent part of every Christian’s walk with God.

The prophecies of an end time revival that will restore the Bride of Christ to power and purity still call me to be a faithful intercessor for the church. The vision of visitations of God that transform cities and nations still brings me to my knees for Myrtle Point. Even more important, the truth that God desires us to co-labor with Him to accomplish his purposes has awakened my heart to listen to God and discern his working in the earth. Because of my time in Kansas City, my walk with God is less about me and my plans and more about God and His work.

I have, however, let go of all timetables for revival and God’s working. I remember in the 80’s when prophets were proclaiming the move of God coming in the 90’s. And indeed there were times of refreshing, but nothing like the nation-changing, stadium-filling outpourings that had been prophesied. And yes, I think those given spiritual oversight of the prophets and the prophets themselves should be held accountable for every prophecy. There was and is work to do here as every detail of every prophecy is evaluated. That, however, is not work I can do from my position. What I can do is value and live out those permanently valuable truths imparted to me by the prophetic ministry.

I have a similar approach to global warming. I know that some of the scientists in England tried to manipulate the data. I know that some of the predictions haven’t come true and there is controversy about some of science. We have mixed phenomena: the Arctic ice-cap is melting, the one in Antarctica growing. And some of the scientists have displayed real arrogance in their proclamations.

Yet, no matter how much fracking we do, oil and natural gas remain non-renewal fuels. When they are gone, they are gone. That reality should impact our policies and our lifestyles. There is absolutely nothing Christian about consuming a finite fuel supply as quickly as possible. There is nothing conservative about making major changes to our atmosphere and thinking that somehow human genius will help us escape the consequences.

At the risk of stating the obvious, conservatives should conserve. Christian conservatives should be humble and cautious about making changes in the complex ecosystem God has created. The arrogant assumption that human genius will deliver us from consequences of every assault on our environment is neither Christian nor conservative.

I do not know if all the predictions of global warming will come true or fall into the dustbin of bad science like the predictions of global cooling popular in the 70’s, but I do know it makes sense to pursue alternative sources of energy. It also makes sense for us to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases. We should always live a simple lifestyles driven less by mindless consumption of fossil fuels.

If I never see a mighty move of God that revives the church and sweeps many into the kingdom of God, I will never regret the time spent praying for one. I believe those hours are precious in God’s sight and that such intercession is simple obedience to Scripture. If no climatic catastrophe attached to global warming ever occurs, I think we will never regret polluting less, consuming less, and conserving more.

There are those called to sort out the prophecies and the science. All of that is important. No matter the timetable, Christ is coming back for a bride that is spotless and without wrinkle, so the church needs help from heaven. And no matter the timetable, pollution has consequences, and finite resources will be exhausted. Specific predictions may be inaccurate. But we are foolish if we fail to recognize the larger inescapable truths. God calls us to be faithful stewards of the planet and faithful intercessors for the Church

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Mowing with Ari

Ari and I mowed the lawn yesterday. We have had weeks of rain and high humidity. The grass here near the coast of Oregon grows even in the winter. Our grass was tall and tangled, and even though it had not rained for a day, it was covered with dew. The wet grass quickly made the bag heavy and the mower hard to push.

Our grandson, Ari, age seven, asked if he could help. My first answer was “No”, but he kept asking so I relented despite the difficulties. His first assignment was to move the toys, chairs, and soccer net off the grass so I could mow. Soon, however, he was asking to push the mower. The bag was nearly full, so he was unable to move the mower no matter how hard he pushed. I reached around from behind with one hand and gave him a little help. With three hands, we mowed a crooked swath through the lawn. When it came time to mow the front, I invited him to mow the slightly sloping lawn where the grass was shorter. He worked hard, even pushing the mower back up the incline, but he was soon tired and went off to ride his bike.

To be honest, I could have finished sooner if Ari had not helped. He struggled to mow in straight lines, so I had to go back over some of the places he missed. And in the growing dusk, it was hard to see every missed strip, so today the lawn looks a little ragged. But Ari was delighted that he and grandpa had mowed the lawn together.

I think this story explains a lot of the raggedness of the church. God has invited all of us to work with him, but we are much like Ari—not quite strong enough, not quite steady enough.  We often need a third hand on the mower. Sometimes the lines are crooked no matter how hard we try to go straight. And certainly, God could do much of His work better and faster without us.

The real job yesterday was not about the lawn. It was about Ari and I spending time together. It was about Ari learning and growing. It was sweat on my wrinkles and sweat on his freckles. It was about love.

The same is true of God’s work with us. Certainly, the work of the kingdom is important, but even more important is working together with our heavenly Father. Jesus said that He did whatever he saw His father doing (John 5:19). In the life Jesus, we see His disciples mow a crooked line, get rebuked for unbelief, and get confronted about their pride. Yet again and again Jesus invites them to help.

We must be patient with the raggedness of the church. Like good parents, pastors must resist the temptation to do everything themselves. And when we see that growing in relationship and maturity is the real point, we should be quick to ask God, “Can I help?” We can trust that when things won’t move, a third hand on the mower will get things going.

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The Wounded Healer: Limping into 2024

How do we help others heal when we are deeply wounded? Where do we find the strength and the heart to help others when our own wounds still cry out? I think the longer one has lived the more likely it is that they are called to be wounded healers. Answering the call isn’t easy or inevitable. Even if we avoid the temptation to become bitter or quit and withdraw, even if we draw close to God and open our hearts, our wounds can easily sideline us.

Perhaps the cruelest taunt that stops us is like the one Jesus faced on the cross: “You saved others, but you can’t save yourself.” For me the accusation is “You failed to help your son, Peter, what makes you think you can help anyone else?” As with many pastors whose children wander from or rebel against God, my failure to persuade all my kids to love Jesus feels like a disqualification. How can God use me to proclaim the good news if I have failed with my own family? I feel this keenly when I stand behind the pulpit.

Preaching on the story of Jacob this last Sunday has helped me. After twenty years away from home and working for his uncle, Laban, Jacob is told by God to head home. Awaiting him, however, is his brother Esau, who years ago swore to kill Jacob for stealing his blessing from Isaac. Although God had enriched Jacob during his years serving Laban, he must now face Esau and his four-hundred armed men. The night before meeting Esau Jacob wrestles with an angel.

The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel cannot be hammered into any of neat theological box. Some see this wrestling as Jacob resisting God. But Genesis says the result of his wrestling is the angel blessing him. It is hard to understand why or how resisting God would result in a blessing. Perhaps the greatest blessing comes when Jacob realizes the angel is God and he “has seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:30).

Even after the angel touches him and dislocates his hip, Jacob refuses to let go. Peter, in the weeks before he died, had become so frail that his hip popped out of the socket. The pain was excruciating. Jacob was holding onto the angel—to God—even through terrible pain. The angel blesses Jacob and declares, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). I suspect the angel dislocated his hip to let him know that the blessing flowed from God’s grace, not Jacob’s strength or skill as a wrestler.

Jacob limps toward his dreaded meeting with his brother Esau. Before him, Jacob had sent extravagant gifts of hundreds of goats, sheep, and cows. Jacob had worked an extra six years for Laban to acquire all this wealth and herds, so it had to be hard to give them to Esau. He then sends his wives and their children before him—making himself completely vulnerable to Esau. Before standing face to face with Esau, Jacob bowed to the ground seven times. Then “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.”

We are not told what changed Esau’s heart, but it is clear Jacob did all he knew to do heal the relationship he had broken. Jacob gave all he could, made himself completely vulnerable, and had the courage to face Esau even though limping.It is perhaps likely that God went before Jacob and softened the heart of Esau.

So what does it mean for us, like Jacob, to be wounded healers? First, through all our pain and dislocated hearts, we hold onto God and His promises. We cling to God until we are changed, until we are blessed. We hold onto God when we think we can’t go on and see no way forward. We wrestle until dawn.

Second, we become humble enough to heal all our relationships. Our hearts are made tender, and we begin to value relationships more than our own rights. We become those peacemakers Jesus called blessed. We see others differently. Even though Esau tells Jacob that he doesn’t need the gifts he has given, Jacob asks him to keep them “for I see your face one sees the face of God.” After having wrestled with God and seen Him “face to face,” Jacob sees Esau differently—sees him with the same joy he saw God.

Last, wounded healers refuse to be disqualified by their wounds. Jacob doesn’t just limp to meet Esau. He limps into the covenant promises given to Abraham and Isaac.  We know God blesses and uses the wounded. We know, as Paul was told, that God’s power is perfected in weakness. We trust in God, not our own strength or wisdom. Without pride or ambition, we bow before our brothers.

Like Jacob limping into the promised land, we limp toward Jesus by whose wounds we are finally healed.

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Mere Church

I believe in mere church. I have sojourned in denominational and nondenominational churches. I now attend a Church of the Nazarene but am not a member. Once a month I preach at the Presbyterian church. God’s people of every kind are precious to me and have profoundly blessed me. I have come to love what I call, with a nod to C. S. Lewis, mere church.  

Mere church is simply people loving God and one another together. That love can be expressed in a variety of ways. I can dance in the aisles with the Pentecostals or worship with the solemn hymns of the Presbyterians, but I am always looking for people who love Jesus and each other.

Mere church is the First Church of the Whole Enchilada. It is a full-service church that refuses to specialize. Mere church seeks to be what Scripture says the church is—not more, and never less. It refuses to choose between the social gospel of helping the poor and spiritual gospel of saving the sinner. It says both/and to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It says both/and to the Word of God and leading of the Holy Spirit. It seeks social justice and the justification of the sinner through faith in Jesus. It welcomes every spiritual crisis experience while helping believers grow daily through spiritual disciplines.

Mere church defines itself in relationship to Jesus. It takes courage for a denomination not to define itself according to some special revelation or experience. Before the Church of the Nazarene was a denomination, most future members were part of the Holiness Movement of the 19th century. The hymn “Called unto Holiness” was the denomination’s anthem. The denomination’s distinctive appeal was the doctrine of sanctification—sometimes called the second blessing or perfect love. Because the denomination saw itself as preserving the holiness teaching and experience of John Wesley, it was sometimes slow to embrace all the other biblical truths about being church.

Today, however, even many denominational churches, like the Church of the Nazarene, are becoming mere church. Without forsaking the experience of heart holiness, Nazarene congregations are becoming full-service: helping the poor, disciplining believers, and making more room for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.Most denominations are weaving distinctive core values into the whole tapestry that Scripture calls all churches to be.

Even Charismatic and Pentecostal fellowships are becoming mere church. Many, some after tragic scandals, are embracing an emphasis on holiness and accountability. Like the holiness folks, Pentecostals often defined themselves by a spiritual experience, variously called the baptism of the Holy Spirit or the fullness of the Spirit. Pentecostals, and to a lesser degree, charismatics, saw this as accompanied by speaking in tongues. But Pentecostals have realized, as the old saw goes, “What matters is not how high you jump when the Spirit moves you, but how straight you walk when you come back down.”

Some social gospel groups are becoming mere church. A friend of mine who is a leader in the Quaker denomination (Friends) told me that he enjoyed introducing young Quakers to Jesus—something that would have puzzled my Quaker grandmother. Some Quakers have become so dedicated to social justice and a social gospel that the idea of a personal conversion experience or a relationship with Jesus seems foreign. As Quakers seek to be true their roots in social justice, they are discovering it is the Holy Spirit that first made them quake.  

Mere church must be Berean. The Bereans tested everything Paul declared against Scripture. This means not formulating an exegesis to support pet doctrines or to reject an emphasis of another group. If one reads Phineas Bresee’s criticism and rejection of the Azusa Street revival that gave birth to the Pentecostal movement, it is clear that his position was not based on a careful exegesis of Scripture. His disapproval was primarily aesthetic and social. Azusa Street seemed unruly and disordered. He concluded, wrongly it turns out, that it would never amount to anything.

Mere church must be open to movements restoring a neglected truth to the church. In England, the Anglican Church sometimes locked the doors on John Wesley and refused to let him into their pulpits. A century later some Methodist churches locked out holiness preachers—including my great-grandfather, a circuit rider in Kentucky. Sometimes congregations are pushed too far in one direction or another by their culture. A hunger for intellectual or social respectability can tempt the Church to jettison biblical truths—truths that God may use revivals and movements to restore. Too often the church has become a spiritual shadow of the culture and refused to be counter-cultural where faithfulness to Scripture demands it. Mere church always welcomes the restoration of biblical truth and values.

Mere church demands humility. It means Presbyterians must admit they are not the only ones helping the poor. It means the Nazarenes must admit that they are not the only Christians who care about holiness. It means the Pentecostals and Charismatics must admit they are not the only ones who are filled with the Holy Spirit. It means Baptists are not the only ones who seek to honor God’s Word. There is no biblical justification for denominational pride.

Mere church means trusting God. If we don’t proclaim the distinctives of our movements, how are we going to market ourselves? I was once part of a movement focused on intercessory prayer for revival. Out of the movement grew a church, but many drifted away from the church because of its lack of community, discipleship, and shepherding. As I look back, I see that it would have taken a lot of faith for the congregation to be mere church. Could it, or would it, have even existed without its emphasis on intercession and the prophesy of revival? If intercession and the gift of prophecy were integrated into a biblical understanding of mere church, would the leaders have gotten the same following? Can we trust God enough to merely be the church?

Mere church calls for leaders with integrity and no personal ambition. It is hard not to turn a neglected biblical truth into a congregation-building scheme. People will rally to a call to be a praying church, a holy church, or a church that helps the poor. Yes, it is hard to get people excited about balancing good works with good worship, prayer with service, evangelism with discipleship. Embracing mere church means be content simply to pastor those God has entrusted to you. It means a radical faith that the Church is the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Mere church is enough.

One danger of being mere church is that we may lose are reason for not fellow-shipping with other Christians. If Charismatics make the gifts of the Spirit just one truth among many, they might have no reason not to work with others. If holiness denominations admit many other Christians also care about holiness, we might have no reason for not meeting with Baptists or Presbyterians. I live in a small town with many small churches—many that struggle to keep the doors open. Few have enough young people to have a youth group where Christian teens can encourage each other. Having multiple small churches makes little sense. Mere church humbly admits we all need each other.   

If not by emphasizing our distinctive callings and doctrines, how then do we market ourselves? First, we stop marketing our congregations to people who are already Christians. Too often church growth is simply the re-arrangement of the believers who get attracted to one congregation then another. Second, we grow by being salt and light in our communities. The light is turned on when we genuinely and sacrificially love one another. By living lives of integrity and kindness in our communities, we draw people to Jesus. Being light and salt is enough.

Mere church is diverse. It has been good for me, a college professor, to fellowship with ranchers, loggers, and mill-workers.  It has been good to call ex-addicts and the homeless my brothers in Christ. Mere church refuses to let us just hang out with people like us.

Mere Church is organic; there is no formula for mere church. As we love Christ, we begin to love others. When we love, the fruit of the Holy Spirit grows in us. As we love others, we seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit to help and encourage our brothers and sisters. As we love our community, we seek to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. Love never fails to result in mere church.

Mere church is real. My pastor likes to describe our congregation as “Real people doing real church.” It describes us. There is no pretense. We all know we are a mess being made into something beautiful by God’s grace. We are all in recovery from our addiction to sin and selfishness. We know the love and grace of God is bigger than all our differences. We are merely the church.

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Just Following Jesus

In the midst of church scandal, encounters with mean Christians, and political divisions in the church, we are often encouraged to “Just follow Jesus.” It has also become popular for many believers to escape the political associations of the label “Christian” by identifying themselves as mere “followers of Jesus”. I like the label “follower of Jesus” because most unbelievers like Jesus, and I want to be liked too. It makes it harder for unbelievers to dismiss me or dump me into a box of stereotypes.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that despite many good sentiments behind the phrase, the exhortation to “just follow Jesus” is unhelpful. It may have the virtue of being in true in a general sense, and it is an utterly safe thing to say, but it is almost completely without specific content. Because it is so vague, we are allowed to fill it with almost anything—or nothing at all.

The first reason the phrase is unhelpful is so obvious we miss it. Jesus is invisible. We cannot simply follow Jesus because He is at the right hand of the Father interceding for us. He has ascended. He is now invisibly present with us through the Holy Spirit. Simply following Jesus is therefore more complicated than going where He goes and doing what He does. There is nothing simple about following someone who is invisible.

Someone might object, “Don’t be a smart aleck, Wilson! We don’t mean literally follow Jesus! We mean follow His example!” Since we know little about the first thirty years of Jesus life, this can only mean we should follow the example Jesus set during his three years of extraordinary ministry in Israel. We are probably, however, right to ask whether the years before his ministry are a better example since few of us are going to become itinerant rabbis performing signs and wonders.   

Even if we accept the life of Jesus during his ministry as the model we should follow, we run into problems. To truly follow the example of Jesus, we need to do what Jesus did and commanded his disciples to do. In Matthew 10: 7—8 Jesus says, “And as you go, preach saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, freely you have received, freely give.” Jesus is telling them to go and do what they have seen Him doing. But how, exactly, do we “just follow Jesus”?

Most of us are not healing the sick and casting out evil spirits, yet this was huge part of Jesus’ ministry. And although evangelicals are quick to apply the great commission (at the end of Matthew) to all believers and not just the apostles, they are less keen to apply the commissioning of his disciples to heal sick, raise the dead, and cast out evil spirits. Few seminaries, if any, prepare graduates to cast out demons like Jesus did.

However, we can still make a strategic retreat and say, “What we really mean by ‘Just Follow Jesus’ is to become like Jesus in our character. But there will always be wiseacres who instead of saying “Amen” will ask, “How?” We will tell them to spend time in God’s Word, pray daily, and hang out with some mature believers who are genuinely Christ-like. We will urge them to be filled with the Holy Spirit and remove from their lives things that make it harder to hear and obey the voice of the Spirit. However, some will ask, “When and how do I become filled with the Holy Spirit? Is it automatic at salvation? Should I expect anything supernatural or just claim it by faith? At this point, if we are honest, we are long way from anything like “just following Jesus.”

It is interesting to note that Paul seldom exhorts believers to follow Jesus. Believers are encouraged to put on Christ, lay aside the old man, walk by faith, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. It is probably the exhortation (Romans 8:14) to be led by the Spirit and walk according to the Spirit that comes closest to just following Jesus. This is true because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to impart to us the character (fruit), ministry (gifts), and wisdom (revelation) of Jesus.

More common than calls to follow Jesus are Paul’s exhortations to follow his own example. Paul urges believers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (I Corinthians 4:16). Paul asks the church In Philippi to follow his example and to follow others who also walk according to the example he set (Philippians 3:17). Although we often want to protect believers by urging them to “just follow Jesus” and “keep their eyes on Jesus,” Paul acknowledges that we still need flesh and blood Christ-like examples to follow. “Just following Jesus” is hard without such models.

So even if we say, rightly I think, that following Jesus always takes us to Pentecost and living a life led by God’s Spirit, we are far from proclaiming anything simple. Learning to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit takes time and practice. Walking in the Holy Spirit is helped by the spiritual disciplines that make room for the Spirit to speak and work in our lives. Even holiness and Pentecostal traditions that emphasize crisis experiences now recognize that learning to walk in the Spirit is a process, not just a trip to an altar or a prayer line.

Urging someone to “just follow Jesus” may be harmless if it is the beginning, not the end, of our counsel. Because we mean this metaphorically, we must always follow this with an explanation of how we follow Jesus, how we become filled with the Holy Spirit, and how we learn to hear the voice of the Spirit, how we allow God to speak to us through Scripture. The metaphor must be filled with concrete examples of what following Jesus includes.

At the heart of this discussion lies one of the great paradoxes the gospel. It is simple enough for a child and yet deep enough that after years of study, we have only one toe in the ocean of His wisdom and love. Often when we tell someone they should “just follow Jesus” we probably mean they just need to love Him with all their heart—the way children do when they cling to a mother, father, or grand-parent. I have often not known exactly what following Jesus meant or where Jesus was going, but like a child I have clung to Jesus and spoken His name into the darkness. He is the bright and shining morning star.  

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Ari’s Gift

Few gifts have been as precious as the one our grandson, Ari, gave us this Christmas. Teckla and I approached this Christmas with sadness. It is our first Christmas since Peter died, Ari’s first Christmas without a father or mother around. We are planning on moving to Kansas in July, so it is our last Christmas at this house with all its memories. And there are also the worries about Teckla’s memory loss, doctor’s appointments, and tests.

But in all these melancholic gray days of Oregon winter, Ari as been as bright as new penny. He has overflowed with Christmas spirit. He delighted in our small-town Christmas parade with fire engines and ambulances. He sat on Santa’s knee at the feed-store. He asked to go to church on Christmas Eve for the candlelight service. Leading up to Christmas, he excitedly counted all the days on the advent calendar. Ari made certain we left milk and cookies for Santa.  And on Christmas day, Ari did a happy dance as he looked at the presents under the tree.

But even better was the genuine gratitude that spilled out after he opened each gift. He quickly put down the present and gave Teckla and I a hug and kiss. He had an amazing ability to be equally grateful for small and large gifts. His joy over each gift made us want to give even more. His smile has been our Christmas star, his laughter our Christmas carol. Looking at how much joy Ari has given us, I can’t help but think about how much our heavenly Father delights in our gratitude and our full-hearted enjoyment of His gifts, both great and small. My New Year’s resolution is to be more like Ari, grateful for every good gift from God, hugging God close with praise and love and offering up an old man’s happy dance to a baby in a manager

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