Four (and a half) thoughts on hearing from God

What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to?  And if you’re hearing it, how do you know its God (and not just last night’s Mexican food)?

We don’t all hear God with equal accuracy. I’ve had folks tell me they’ve heard God tell them to do things that have no basis in what I know of the Bible. I’ve also learned from my own mistakes a few lessons about how to know when it is God speaking and when it probably isn’t.

1. Test everything by the Word of God. If I can’t find what I’ve heard in the Bible then I ought to be very slow to move forward. The wise men who first sought the Messiah didn’t actually begin with a star. They began with Jewish prophecies written in the scriptures about the Messiah. In Herod’s office, they quoted scripture as their motivator.  Test everything by the word of God. If you can’t find it there, wait.

2. Listen with a heart for obedience.  Because God is usually not just doing it to hear the sound of his voice. He speaks when he is either ready for us to respond or when he is ready for us to prepare for a response down the road. Either way, when God speaks he is doing more than just making small talk. He is bringing in the Kingdom and plans to do so through us. That ought to provide a point of great humility, and also a point of readiness.

3. Be ready for glory (God’s, not yours). God does not usually (or maybe ever) call us to things or places or works that glorify us. He usually calls us to things that glorify him. When we are following well, either the work itself or our testimony of God at work in us will point back to God.

Side note: One of the best lines I’ve ever heard on the subject of hearing from God comes from my friend, Dr. Bob Tuttle, who says he knows it is God’s voice when what he hears is smarter than what he could have thought of himself.

4. Be ready to surrender your reputation. God will often call us to do things that don’t seem logical and may even make us look foolish. If so, we’re in good company. Read Hosea’s story. Imagine what it was like to be Noah — building a huge boat on a sunny day. Consider the change of reputation that happened in Paul’s life the day he accepted Christ as Lord.  This may well be why Paul said (1 Corinthians 3:18), “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.”

How profound it can be when people get up and do things for and in cooperation with the Kingdom of Heaven! And how incredibly important it is to learn the voice of the Father so we don’t end up on the wrong road in our enthusiasm to get there.

So I come back to my opening question: What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to? What friend is he asking you to make of an enemy, what marriage is he asking you to repair, what humility is he asking you to reach for, what job is he calling you to do, what story is he asking you to tell?

In what way is God calling you to be obedient, to point back to him, to proclaim him by taking up a cross and carrying it?  And what if that move ends up wrecking you for this world while it prepares you for Kingdom greatness?

In other words, if God decides to make a spectacle of you, are you ready to provide?

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God is a poet (and other thoughts from my time in Israel)

Our very wise guide told us, “Let the Bible be your tour guide.” With that wisdom, we made our pilgrimage through Israel, marking the sites in a Bible and listening as it told us the backstory of this rich and holy land.

Israel for the pilgrim is not a vacation. It is an education. Tour buses are on the road by 7a, and don’t usually return until dinnertime. Days are filled with stop after stop at site after site where Bible stories actually (or more often, likely) happened. Not everything is certain. I’ve now visited both places where Jesus was buried. Some things, you just have to take with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, other encounters were more moving than I expected. Just driving into Jerusalem had me close to tears. Seeing the replica of the scroll of Isaiah found at Qumran (not the real one, but the cast of it), was a spiritual encounter. Catching a glimpse from the bus window of the cave where the scrolls were found was surprisingly moving. I imagine everyone who goes has their moments.

Along with too many overpriced meals and souvenirs, I bring home a thousand insights, these among them:

God is a poet. Israel reveals just how intricately layered and beautiful the story of God is. He is not a mechanic who simply made a thing that works. Our Father is an artist and a brilliant story-teller. In Israel, things stack up on top of things and make connections I didn’t realize existed. For instance, it is stunning to stand in the place where Joshua and the people of Israel first crossed over the Jordan into their promised land, and to realize that Jesus was likely baptized in that same region (maybe even the same spot?) of the river. Two stories — about fifteen hundred years apart — in which the future of God’s people was decisively changed happened in the same place. It is revelatory to see that while the Jews walked across into the land of Jordan, Jesus came up out of the water and turned back toward the Mount of Temptation, back toward the land the Israelites chose the first time they missed their moment of promise. Seeing the geography, one can only wonder how faithless they had to be to make that choice.

Did you know that on Mt. Zion (God’s “hill of holiness” is a remarkably small piece of property) David’s death is marked in the same area where Jesus hosted the Last Supper? The tourist site has them in the same building. And we can make a case for Pentecost and the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Thomas at the same site. It is all just next to Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was first accused and where he was likely held in an underground cell. The first church council of Jerusalem also happened on Mt. Zion, as did (tradition holds) Mary’s death. The top of one small hill binds together all these stories of birth and death, and the layers aren’t just geographical. The Talmud places David’s birth and death on the same date on the calendar (though a millennium apart) as Pentecost. What poetry.

These connections remind me of our Creator’s immense capacity for design. I’m also more convinced that there are far fewer coincidences in the world and far more poetic nuances than I notice. I hear the Elisha’s prayer for Gehazi: “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”

I’m a faker. On my way to Israel, I had a dozen or more people tell me, “You’ll never read the Bible the same again.” I hoped they were right but had no clue what they meant. I suspect I went there sort of like a parent going to the hospital to have a first child. I thought I knew my Bible pretty well going into our pilgrimage but I had no clue. I may have a grasp of theology, but I am profoundly aware on this side of our trip just how many gaps need filling. I lack the broad historical framework that strings the biblical stories together and provides the real glue between Old and New Testaments. I am also aware of how much richer the story is when one understands the geography. To have in my head the size of the Sea of Galilee, the view from the Mount of Olives, the slope from the pool of Siloam to the temple, the landscape of what the Bible calls wilderness (the opposite of an American wilderness) — those images transform my understanding of the biblical stories. Israel makes me hungry for the bigger picture; I’m also humbled by how much more there is to learn.

Community is essential. This lesson wasn’t learned so much from the biblical sites as from Israel’s — and more specifically Jerusalem’s — current climate. That this nation exists at all is nothing short of a miracle. In the midst of daily tensions and — all too often — life-threatening conflicts, the citizens of Jerusalem manage to make life work in the city, sometimes more tolerant of one another than within their own groups. Note the current conflict among Jews about the Western Wall. Or how Christians manage their holy sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is cohabited by five Christian groups — Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, Coptic and Ethiopian. These groups live under the same roof but hold separate worship services and even separate Easter celebrations on separate days, not as a matter of respect but as a matter of avoidance. Their internal relationships are so fraught with conflict that they can’t trust one another even to hold the key to the building. Two Muslim families keep the key to this holiest of Christian sites, unlocking the door early every morning. While coexistence happens in Jerusalem, community is much more complicated.

And more rare. Jewish tradition holds that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Old City’s Eastern Gates, but to thwart the fulfillment of that prophesy, Muslims long ago bricked up the gates and turned the road just beyond into a cemetery (an “unclean” obstacle) to block the Messiah’s entry. In other words, coexistence is an ideal often mentioned in Jerusalem but coexistence isn’t the same as community. Yet, the biblical ideal is community. It is essential for healing and for the transformation of hearts. It is a recurring theme among the prophets.

Many groups are calling for the building of the third temple in Jerusalem with the hope that this will hasten the next coming of the Messiah. My admittedly uneducated suspicion is that the temple with power to draw the Messiah in is not a building but a people with a peculiar kind of heart. Paul prophesied as much when he wrote to the Ephesians (2:19-22): “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of the household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

This is the trajectory of the biblical story and the hope of this holy land. It is the excavation and renovation of hearts by the Prince of Peace. And so today, I am more committed on this side of our pilgrimage to do as the psalmist instructs:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

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Five Marks of Great Accountability (or, Who is your Nathan?)

David was what we might call a high-functioning sinner. Tons of talent. A mighty warrior. Obviously charismatic (he attracted thousands of people). God’s choice to lead Israel.

And also (by the way) an adulterer and a murderer.

Nathan, David’s priest, got word of his sin. In an act of sheer brilliance and strength, he decided to let David walk gently into guilt by telling him a story. He said, “Once there were two men. One was rich and one was poor. One had flocks and herds of animals. The other one had one little lamb. Just one. Because it was all he had, this man loved his little lamb. He let it live in the house and eat from his table. He held that little lamb in his arms and rocked it like a child. He counted it as a child, one of his own.

“Meanwhile, the rich man sat in his wealth. When a traveler came to visit, the rich man decided that — rather than kill one of his own animals (of which there seemed no end) — he’d have a servant go after the poor man’s precious lamb. To feed his guests and enjoy a meal, he killed another man’s lamb.

“And then devoured it. Without the slightest remorse.”

As Nathan told his story, David began to seethe. How dare this monster? Furious at the injustice, David stormed, “The man who did this deserves to die! And he owes that poor man four lambs for the one he took, because he showed no pity!”

David walked right up to his own sin and somehow missed seeing himself there. Nathan said, “You’re that man, King David. Rich beyond words. King of Israel. Lands, people, power. The Lord has given you everything, and yet you take from a soldier a wife he loved rather than enjoying your own.

“And then, to make matters, worse, you kill him to cover for yourself.”

To be exposed is both horrible and holy. None of us likes to come face to face with our own depravity, to see it for what it is after soaking in our own delusions. The mark of one after God’s heart is the humility — when faced with our sin — to call it what it is. “I have sinned against the Lord,” David admitted. To which Nathan replied, in the very next breath, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You won’t die.”

We could make a message out of any one of those words in that brief exchange. There is David’s humility and the mark of healthy repentance. There is Nathan’s courageous, prophetic voice. There is the demonstration of God’s grace, poured out instantaneously in response to repentance. David’s admission and Nathan’s response bring to mind the scene in the parable of the prodigal son, when the son returns in contrition and the father runs to meet him. Something of God’s character is revealed. God is for us, not against us. God’s heart is always ready to run in our direction.

Nathan is a sign of God’s grace. Without someone with guts enough to show David his sin, he might have remained in it until his dying day. A life steeped in unrepentant sin turns sour over time. Without Nathan, David may well have ruined his place as the ancestor of God’s Messiah. Nathan’s truth-telling had a history-altering ripple effect.

Nathan is the real hero in this story, which prompts me to want a Nathan for all of us who lead. Who is your Nathan? Who in your life is wise enough, gentle enough, courageous enough to speak truth to you? Who is holding you accountable for spiritual growth? “Nathans” don’t usually just show up, uninvited, to invest in your life. Nathans are prayed for, sought after, developed.

If you’re looking for a Nathan to hold you accountable, look for:

  1. Someone who will be consistent: They can’t help if they aren’t there. Look for someone who tends to follow through, whose yes is yes.
  2. Someone whose only agenda is spiritual growth: The worst kind of accountability is someone who feels the need to “fix” you. Look for someone who genuinely respects you as a leader, and who is invested in your life and ministry. Someone who is leaning in, not leaning out.
  3. Someone who wants a relationship: The best kind of accountability is a two-way street. Look for someone who is both teachable and a teacher, who is open to both give and take in the discipline of accountability.
  4. Someone whose life and walk you respect: In order for someone to speak into my life, I need to know they are living out a disciplined faith in theirs. Look for someone who walks the walk, whose life is bearing fruit.
  5. Someone who considers this a sacred trust: What is said in any accountability conversation ought to stay with the two of you, and that ought to be an automatic assumption that never needs to be repeated. In my own community, there is nothing I wouldn’t share with my whole church, but my whole church doesn’t need to hear it all. And when it is told, it ought to be me telling it. Anyone who shares prayer and accountability with a leader needs to respect both the leader and those s/he leads.

As a leader, here’s what I need most. I need people in my life who love me enough to tell me the truth. I need straight-shooters who can cut to the point and trust me to handle it. I need adults in my life who are more devoted to Jesus and his Kingdom than to the kinds of southern politeness that leave me stuck in a bad place.

The Kingdom starves for prophetic voices like that.

And so do I.

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Has the Church lost its prophetic voice?

Sandra Richter, Craig Keener and others teach about the triad of leadership found in the Old Testament. Three distinct voices spoke into the Israelite community. The king was a civic leader who shaped society by establishing civil order. The priest kept the temple and represented the people to God. The prophet represented God to the people. Keener says the prophet was the one person who could step into the court of the King and call him out and not get killed.

Being a prophet wasn’t all fun and games (read Hosea for proof) but it had its perks.

Where the Church has lost its voice in the world, I suspect it is because the Church has handed its prophetic voice over to the “king.” We have placed too much power and expectation at the feet of elected leaders and secular voices. We want them to be king, priest and prophet, all rolled into one. In that bargain, we strip the priest and prophet of their role in building up the community.

Who today is speaking prophetically into our culture? Not just pontificating or opinionating, but representing with authority the Kingdom of God? Where we are expecting that voice to come from a political source, we disconnect the voice of the Church from its proper role within culture.

Have we lost our prophetic edge? Are we still willing to bear the cost of confronting culture in redemptive ways, not by standing on soapboxes but by confronting sin face to face in loving and redemptive ways?

The real value of a prophetic voice is that it exposes the stark contrast between the Kingdom of God and the culture of a world that wants its laws to fix all its problems. Can the Church recover this voice? To do so, it will first need to recover a biblical definition for the gift of prophecy.

Prophecy connects us to the heart of God. Prophecy is the word of God for the people of God. Deuteronomy 18:18 says, “I will raise up a prophet and I will put my words in his mouth.” Prophecy reveals God’s heart and connects us with biblical truth. The prophetic voice isn’t a sin-o-meter; to the contrary, it begins with a broken heart. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14 that when an unbeliever enters that atmosphere, he is laid bare. The secrets of his heart are disclosed and falling on his face, he worships.

Prophecy is an encouragement. Paul says that prophets speak to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. That doesn’t mean it will always sound like a fortune cookie (“You will make a change and your life will improve”), but it does mean that the prophetic word has the best of others in mind, knowing that sometimes upbuilding and encouragement means stopping someone before they walk off a cliff.

Prophecy builds up the Church. Paul tells us this is the real gift of prophecy. It builds the Church. That’s why I believe the best leaders aren’t just talented people who want to be fed or do things they enjoy. The best leaders are prophetic because prophetic voices build the Church. This was the heart of Solomon, who sought the gift of wisdom so he could govern the people better. Prophetic leadership is the great need of Christ’s Church.

Practicing the gift of prophecy matures our thinking. A prophetic word is not on the same playing field with scripture. Scripture is the ultimate benchmark by which all other words are tested. But as we practice the prophetic voice and test it against scripture, we discover that our thinking matures. This is the whole point. The practice of prophecy sanctifies us. It reveals things we can’t know by ourselves.

Prophecy makes worshippers. Sanctified people are attractive to unsanctified people. People are drawn to wise, faithful, truthful, mature, encouraging people but much more than that, when someone comes into contact with the prophetic voice they are drawn, not to a particular political party or ideology, but to God.

Scot McKnight says, “If Jesus was prophetic then the church that follows him is prophetic. If Jesus was a prophet, then the followers of Jesus are to embody a prophetic message in how they live.”

If we who follow Jesus are going to recover our right to speak into this culture with authority and in redemptive ways, we will need to find, not a stronger opinion, but our prophetic voice.

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How I almost quit (and why you shouldn’t)

Today, I quit being a Christian.

That was the leading line in a Miami Herald article by Annie Rice, author of The Vampire Chronicles. Annie was a self-proclaimed atheist who eventually returned to the Church.* Now she has decided Jesus is okay but the Church is not. In the article, Annie says, “I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I assume there are a world of people like out there like Annie. You may be among them — one of those people who likes Jesus but the church … not so much. If you are attached to my denomination that may be compounded by a sense of frustration that borders on hopeless.

Maybe you’ve decided you have no room in your life for that kind of hassle. It is easier to stay home and be angry than to contend with a broken system. I get that. If Jesus weren’t real, I’d find easier ways to spend my Sunday mornings and my work life. But let me share why I think the Church — and your church — is worth the hassle and your allegiance.

It is simple, really: Jesus is head of the Church. He is the founding pastor. He cast a vision for it after his resurrection, then set it in motion at his ascension. In fact, a lot of the New Testament is Paul working out his theology of Church in the context of first-generation churches. They are, he concludes, in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

Let me say that again: We who follow Jesus are in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

How do you quit that, exactly?  I’m not sure you can, and still call yourself a follower of Jesus. This isn’t about a particular tribe or flavor. What I’m talking about here is the life of Christ on earth, signified by the community he has called together.

What do we do, if we don’t like what we’ve got, but don’t have permission to quit?

1. Repent for your own short-sightedness. This is where God has had me in the time since our United Methodist General Conference in 2016. For years, I’d been in an internal “quit” mode where the UMC is concerned. A long time ago, I lost my patience for what we have and was looking for an exit door.

I wanted to quit.

I expected to find a “door out” at last year’s General Conference but then something happened, something no one expected. It seems as if God had decided to do a new thing. And I didn’t see it coming.

More explicitly, I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination … or that he cared. I write that now with such heavy contrition. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert, to cut streams through the wasteland. God moved in a surprising, redemptive way last year in our denomination and I almost missed him. That is cause for repentance, for course correction, for humility in the face of all I may not have eyes to see. I don’t know where God is taking us, but He has given me a new heart for the 11 million people called Methodist, and I want to be respond to that gift faithfully.

2. Pray and live prophetically for the future of the Church. Prophets learn to hear the voice of God, to see where he is working. Then they put that into language that edifies the body of Christ and instructs the surrounding culture. The Church in the U.S. is starving for people willing to pray and speak boldly into both church and culture. We starve for prophets unafraid of being a peculiar people — holy, chosen, strange in the sense of being … well …

Strange. Different. A light in the darkness.

I’m talking about people with faith enough to say, “I see something beyond the obvious here, something that ought to change your sense of reality.” We need prophets who keep us focused on the big picture. We need folks who understand the ramifications of our leadership choices.

3. Actively practice your gifts. Whatever your gift, practice it (note: complaining is not a valid spiritual gift). Become a valuable contributor to God’s work on earth. This is how the Kingdom comes. Besides, if you don’t lead, who will?

4. Don’t quit. As we cultivate the gift of prophecy, we begin to see with clarity that God is indeed working. It may not be obvious to the naked eye but He has not given up on this world, nor has he given up on the Church.

Jesus has not quit. Not you. Not the Church. Not the world.

Which is to say that the world is not the problem. The world is the prize.

 

*Church with a capital “C” refers to the Church in general, wherever it exists around the world. “Church” with a small “c” refers to a particular church, like your Baptist church or my Methodist one.

 

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