Saturday, May 26, 2018

Listening For God In All The Wrong Places

We were traveling, and on a rainy Sunday morning found ourselves in a small New Zealand town. We were told there was only one church with a service that day, a tiny Anglican congregation where we were mere children in comparison to the few others gathered there.

I was restless. We had left our previous camp position months before and were still bruised and wondering what God had next for us, if anything at all. I kept coming across this trite little phrase (I hate trite little phrases), “The best is yet to come.” I wasn’t buying it. Not unless I heard it from the mouth of God himself.

When a small and elderly lady slowly took her seat in the narrow pew directly in front of us, I have to admit I was a little annoyed. There were plenty of seats—why couldn't she sit someplace else? And then the service began. It was High Anglican, very dry, with much standing and sitting and no warning. I found myself thinking about the mountain I wanted to climb the next day, wondering if today church was just a waste of time.

You have been there. The woman who has the seat next to you on a long flight and is glad to discover you can't sleep either. The guest speaker who is as boring as a stack of gardening magazines. The philosophy book assigned to you that puts you to sleep again every second page.

The small elderly lady sat there with all eyes on her, oblivious to the unspoken fact it was the time in the service when she was to read a prayer from the book. "Gladys," the minister intoned with her face all condescension, "time to..." Gladys stood up from the pew in front of us and began to read. I am sure there were some in the room who were embarrassed with her prayer. She read slowly, with strong enunciation and melodrama—or so many people might take it. To me, she read with passion and devotion; it was like listening to Jesus pray.

Then it was time for everyone to get up and say, “Peace be with you." Gladys stood, turned around, looked me straight in the eye and said, “The best is yet to come!”

We talked with her for a while—87 years old, a widow for 12, and very much looking forward to heaven. “It is so good to be a believer, isn’t it?” she said. She took us across the street to the hall where everyone had gathered for tea. Several people wanted to talk with us. I heard stories about the mountain I wanted to climb, stories I would not have heard anywhere else.

Have you ever stopped at a garage sale on a whim and found the very thing you have wanted for years, and for a song? Have you sighed as you clicked on yet another link your friend posted for you, and it turned out to change your whole day?

I think God likes to work like that.

"The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper" (1 Kings 19:11, 12 NIV).

Nothing. And then suddenly there was God.

Someone asked me the other day how to listen for the voice of God. I thought for a moment, and then told him I am learning to listen for God in the unlikely places. The voice of the guy who is subbing in for the great preacher I was hoping to hear. Random conversations that don't interest me at all. The places I would rather not be, with people I find hard to like. That is where God shows up.

If I am listening for him. Otherwise I might miss him altogether. In fact, these days when my boredom meter is reading, "This sucks!" I find myself watching for God like a camp leader who gave his kids all the leftover water balloons.

You just know it's coming.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Step Out of the Boat!

A number of years ago, I was a youth pastor in a church surrounded by the homes of many disadvantaged families. The children used our church parking lot as a playground and we spent time with them playing games and telling them about Jesus. I noticed their parents never took them anywhere—they spent every day playing on our parking lot—so I planned a daycamp adventure for them. MacDonald’s restaurant lent us a bus and driver, and Whistler Mountain ski hill, venue of the 2010 Winter Olympics, agreed to let us ride up the mountain on their cable car for free.

On the day of the trip, about 40 children climbed onto the bus with a number of our leaders, and away we went. The kids were so excited, the bus ride alone was enough for them. We arrived at the mountain and got into the cable car, seven or eight children with a leader in each car, and their eyes became big as we left the ground and traveled up the mountain, forty to sixty meters in the air.

When we reached the top, we hiked everywhere and threw snowballs from the snow left over from the winter. As we turned back toward the cable car, I saw big dark clouds coming, so I hurried the children back to the building at the top. We got back into the cars and started down the mountain again as the wind began to blow and lightning flashed.

I was in the first car with eight children, and just as we reached the place highest above the ground, the cable car suddenly stopped. Rain and hail were falling heavily, thunder and lightning were all around us, and the wind was making the car sway back and forth violently, sixty meters in the air.

The children were terrified and screaming. I had them all sit down, and I told them we were safe, because the door was closed and wouldn’t open. This was the wrong thing to say. Just as I said it, the wind came violently under the door—and it opened! I remember holding on and looking at the ground far below me. Everyone screamed, and finally the door closed again.

I said, “Okay everyone, we’re going to pray.” Their screams were suddenly silent as I asked God to get the car moving again and keep us safe. The very moment I said, “Amen,” we heard a click and the car started moving again! Everyone cheered.

But it wasn’t over yet. We traveled only a hundred meters along the cable and the car stopped again. This time the wind was furious, and I could see it tugging at the door again as I tried to hold it closed. Through the screams I heard one little voice yell to me, “Pray!”

So I did. I prayed and once again, to my amazement, the minute I said “Amen” the car started again. The children looked at me with wide eyes. This time the car carried us almost to the bottom of the mountain—and stopped again. The wind had died down, the clouds passed and the sun came out, and the children chattered excitedly about what had just happened. 

After about twenty minutes of waiting, one of them looked up and me and said, “Hey, you didn’t pray!” So I did, and right on cue the car started again, and this time took us all the way to the bottom. When the kids got back to the church parking lot, I saw them run as fast as they could to their waiting parents to tell them about their amazing adventure—and the power of prayer.

If your camp offers adventure activities, your instructors know the difference between “perceived risk”—for example as a camper is belayed up a climbing wall—and “real risk,” which we work hard to keep to a minimum. I want to ask you: was the experience in the cable car “real risk,” or only “perceived risk”? Humanly speaking, when a cable car opens its doors at 60 meters in a thunderstorm, it is a real risk. But the answers to prayer we witnessed suggest there was no real risk. I imagine we were surrounded by angels who held on tight, and opened the door just to be funny. To ask to have this experience again would be to tempt God, but he proved there was no real risk on the trip down the mountain.

Think about Peter when Jesus invited him to get out of the boat and walk on the water with him. “Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” What was it like, riding up and down on the waves? Perhaps from the boat it looked fun, but I am sure once Peter stepped out of the boat, it was pretty frightening.

To step out of the boat into the storm—was it real risk, or only perceived risk? Did it only feel dangerous, or was it really dangerous? Humanly speaking, it was a foolish and risky thing to do. But because it was Jesus who called Peter out of the boat, and Jesus who was waiting for him to respond, there was no real risk at all. Peter was perfectly safe in a very dangerous place.

When God calls you into a risky place, he is responsible and faithful to guard you in all your ways. When trouble comes he will need to give you grace to handle it. When there are obstacles, we will pray and God will overcome. Even if we stumble, as Peter did, he will be there to lift us up. We serve a faithful God.

Following Jesus is not a safe thing to do, as you have likely already discovered, but it is good and worth the risk. When we are truly following Jesus, it is only a perceived risk, like in the high ropes course, because Jesus is holding the rope and he will not let us fall.

Is there some action you believe God wants you to take but it seems to carry too much risk? We hesitate because we don’t know will happen if we step out of the boat. We are afraid, perhaps even more afraid than Peter.

If Jesus is truly calling you to do this thing, if he is the one who has put this idea in your heart, then it is only a perceived risk, not a real risk. Step out of the boat! Obey his call! Jesus is there, holding out his hand. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Disciples Make Disciples

A backpack always feels a bit heavier on those last few kilometres before reaching the parking lot at the end of the trail. You trudge your way out of the bush into civilization—sweaty, dirty and beat. Then you see all those newbies beside their cars, just getting ready to set out. Their expensive gear is clean; their bags are packed to perfection. Suddenly your weariness and body odour take on new meaning. Exhaustion is actually a badge of honour, strenuously and bravely achieved. You try not to strut past the newbies, but you have been there and back again. And seen a thing or two.

That is how a summer camp worker feels at the end of their time at camp. Whether it is a week or a whole summer, on that last day there is a deep satisfaction that something timeless and significant was accomplished. Tired and entirely out of clean t-shirts? Yes. But so very worth every late night, every homesick camper, every pot washed. A week at camp is a glimpse of heaven, and no one knows it better than the one who came here to serve and made it to the end.

Perhaps the thought has never come to your mind – to serve for a week or more at a summer camp. Don’t you have to be a particular kind of person to do that, maybe even a peculiar kind of person? In my experience, the people who love camp and arrive year after year are simply those who were brave enough to give it one shot—and got hooked. However, you are right to think that serving at a Christian camp requires a certain kind of person.

Let’s imagine that, instead of going to camp, you decided to go work at a shoe factory for a week. What would that take? It would be important to have an understanding of your end product. You would need to know what a shoe is and the process for making one. So what is the end product of a Christian camp? Jesus told us: As you go, make disciples (Mat 28:19). At the Christian camp, disciples are what we do.

In the original language the words “make disciples” are actually one verb, so perhaps a closer translation might be, “Go and disciplize all nations.” If that is too technical for you, try this: Disciples produce disciples. This is no shoe factory; it is more like a sci-fi flick where robots replicate themselves. Wherever there are disciples, you should expect more to appear over time.

So if you want to “make disciples” at camp as Jesus commanded us, you need to first be one yourself. The essence of discipleship is to say to someone, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

This is the kind of person a Christian summer camp needs. Are you someone who is willing to simply do life with a bunch of kids, confident that as they follow you they will learn to follow Jesus? Then we want you at our camp. Your identity as a disciple of Christ is more important to camp leaders than your ability as a chef, your lifeguard certification or any level of youthful energy.

By the end of the week, something timeless and significant will be achieved. Your weariness will be an eternal badge to wear alongside your fellow camp saints. You will have seen God do a thing or two in the lives of kids. You will re-enter the everyday world trying hard not to strut. And I am pretty certain that we will see you back here again next year.

(Published in Light Magazine, April 2017)