All posts by Bob Ewell

Focus with Pacing

June and I both turn 70 in 2016, and we are entering what will most likely be our last decade of ministry. (Although Navigator Jim Downing is still going strong at age 102!) Anyway, I sometimes look back on our early days around The Navigators in the late 1960s, and we thought that by now spiritual multiplication would have “worked” and we’d be “done” by now! What will motivate us to keep going for the next 10 years and beyond? And how will we pace ourselves?

For example, we want to create a life rhythm that rules out overbooking and builds in periods of rest. One pastor told me a while back, “Fatigue is the price you pay for trying to change the world.” That sounded good at the time, but upon reflection, our working ourselves to death is not what God requires to change the world.

With respect to our early belief that the mission should have been accomplished by now, I read recently in Joshua that while a lot of land had been claimed (Joshua 21.43 – 45), there were still more enemies to defeat (Joshua 23.4 – 13). There will always be work. There will always be needs. Another pastor told me in response to these observations from Joshua, “We don’t change the world. Jesus does that. We are just ants in the colony.” I like that.

It’s OK to create a life rhythm with built-in rest periods. We want to finish strong, not burn out before the finish line! So we will pace ourselves while still focusing on the work that God has given all of us to do. I’ll be writing about that over the next days.

“All we have is…”

I was in the Rocky Mountain National Park Visitor Center looking for the 100th anniversary poster that my wife had seen at a friend’s house. Not seeing it, I asked the check-out clerk, and she responded, “All we have is that picture there,” pointing to a large framed 100th anniversary picture. “Ours are smaller, and they are right on that shelf.” Of course, it was exactly what I was looking for.

I’m just trying to figure out why she said, “All we have is that picture there,” instead of saying, “Yes! We have exactly what you want! It’s a reproduction of that picture there. Isn’t it fabulous?” I experienced the same type of response visiting a church one Sunday. It was a downtown church which shared a two-level parking garage with another organization. When I pulled in, the parking usher said, “All we have is parking on the second level.” Not, “Good morning! Welcome to our church! There’s plenty of parking up on the second level!”

Is it that some folks just have a negative mindset? Or a “nothing is ever enough” mindset? Or, and maybe this is it, a habit of focusing on what we don’t have rather than on what we do have? “Yes, we have the kind of poster you want, but it’s only one style and comes in only one size.” “Yes, we have parking on the second level, but, if you’re like me, you’d rather park on the ground level, and we don’t have any spaces there.”

Or maybe I’m the problem. I have a negative mindset, a “nothing is ever enough” mindset, and the habit of focusing on what we don’t have rather than on what we do have. The Visitor Center had the poster I wanted. Why am I critiquing the verbiage of the person who showed me where it was? The church had parking and a person to direct me to it. What’s the issue?

The disciples were a bit negative in the feeding of the 5,000. “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” they said. (Matthew 14:17, MSG) But Jesus ignored their commentary, “What are they for so many?” (John 6.9, ESV) He didn’t stop to critique the disciples. He just put them to work as ushers (“have them sit down in groups”), food servers, and bus boys (“clean up the fragments”).

Maybe I should focus more on doing what I’m supposed to do and less on critiquing. Or, to put it another way, especially since I’m on sabbatical right now, maybe instead of always “weighing in” on issues, real or perceived, I should practice “weighing out.”

What do you want me to do for you?

What was the problem with the young man in Mark 10, the one often referred to as “The Rich Young Ruler”, the one who asked, “What good thing must I do?” There’s certainly a lesson on wealth since Jesus asked him to get rid of his stuff, and the point is made that he was wealthy. But there may be something even simpler than that going on, especially if we contrast this event with two others in Mark 10.

First, Jesus tells us we need to be like children: “When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, ‘Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.'” (Mark 10.14, 15)

Children don’t ask, “What good thing must I do to get dinner tonight?”

Second, we have the story of the blind man who shouted, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” He wasn’t quiet and polite like the young man. And to him, Jesus said simply, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10.51)

The contrast is in the questions. Am I wanting to do something for Jesus? Or am I allowing Jesus to ask, “What can I do for you?” I don’t think it would have mattered who asked Jesus the question, “What good thing must I do?” It could have been Ghandi. Jesus would have put his finger on something other than wealth that was preventing his receiving from Jesus. Who thought that there was something he could do to help Jesus.

This is important as June and I enter a sabbatical. It will be less of what we can do for Jesus and more of what he wants to do in us. Our sabbatical advisor, Dr. Mike Oldham, told us, “Remember your theology. You need God. God doesn’t need you.”

What part of “all” do we not understand?

Acts 2:1
On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place.

That’s something right there. Those 120 were it. “All the believers.” After three years of work, Jesus was gone, and there were 120 believers. But in about 300 years, those 120 had spread until half the people in the Roman Empire were following Jesus. For an excellent report of how this happened, please see Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity. Among the things you will see is that in one way or another all the believers were engaged in following Jesus and spreading the message.

Acts 2:3-4
Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.

But the Holy Spirit came “on each of them.” “Everyone present” was filled with the Holy Spirit…

Acts 2:7-8
They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages!

All are speaking, and all are participating in the miracle.

Acts 2:17-18
‘In the last days,’ God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on my servants—men and women alike—
and they will prophesy.

How clear can God be? It was prophesied that the Spirit would come upon all people. That sons and daughters would prophesy that young men would see visions and old men will dream dreams. It’s for all. Men and women, old and young, servants, too.

Somehow in our day, we’re replaced “all” with professional clergy or commissioned missionaries. But for those of us in “Christian work”—I think everyone is in Christian work, but that’s another subject—our job is equipping everyone else. Ephesians 4.11 – 13:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,…

Prayer: God knows what we want and what we need

I’ve always been fascinated with the conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 18 concerning the impending destruction of Sodom. You remember the story, where Abraham says, “You wouldn’t destroy the city if 50 righteous people were found there, would you?” And he works it from 50 all the way down to 10.

There are a couple of immediate lessons there:

– God is pleased for us to make a case in our prayers. “Won’t the judge of all the earth do right?” Moses does the same in asking God not to destroy the Israelites for the sake of his promises to the patriarchs (see Exodus 32.7 – 14).

– God gave Abraham information about his plans: “Should I hide my plan from Abraham?…I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah…” Abraham uses the information God gave him about the destruction of Sodom not as “nice-to-know” but as fuel for prayer. We could do the same even when we listen to the news. Is it entertainment only or should events in the world inform our prayers?

But there’s another lesson. Abraham prays that the city of Sodom would be spared, but it’s not. However, the Lord sent two angels to get Lot and his family and drag them out of the city. The commentary on that action is in Genesis 19.29, “But God had listened to Abraham’s request and kept Lot safe, removing him from the disaster that engulfed the cities on the plain.”

But Abraham never asked for Lot’s safety. His words had to do with the Lord not destroying Sodom. But the text says, “But God listened to Abraham’s request and kept Lot safe.” So Abraham’s real request was not for Sodom, it was that his nephew Lot would be delivered. God worked past the words to the heart and granted the real request.

That’s a real comfort, isn’t it? That when I pray, God knows what I really want (and what I really need) and works in that direction, regardless of the specific thing I’m asking for.

Marines Know What They’re About

It’s fun being around people who know that they’re trying to do….

On July 11, my grandson, Taylor, graduated from Marine Boot Camp in San Diego, continuing the military tradition of both his grandfathers. I was there (in uniform!), but his maternal grandfather was not. Stay tuned, and I’ll tell you why.

Taylor Salute

According to the program they gave us at the graduation parade, Marines “make Marines and win battles.” And making Marines is all about transformation–transformation that begins in Boot Camp and continues throughout a Marine’s career. However long the Marine serves, he will return to civilian life eventually, and The Marines feel that they have made a better country by sending “men and women of strong character back to society.”

And the Marines don’t wait to make that contribution to society. Taylor’s other grandfather, Mac, Viet Nam veteran and retired Army helicopter pilot, waited at home during Boot Camp, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mac passed away on July 24, less than two weeks after Taylor’s graduation, having seen his grandson become a Marine. In the Air Force, death of a grandfather might get you a couple days’ leave for the funeral. Taylor, having already returned to California for more training, got 10 days, and he wasn’t even on leave–he reported to a local recruiter. The Marine philosophy is that families need a Marine at a time like this.

I’m proud of my grandson. I’m proud of the Marine Corps. And I sometimes wish churches were as serious about real transformation as the Marines are.

That’s Not Church

A friend of mine who pastors a small church in a rural area came up with a great format for Sunday morning: one which will build a feeling of family, be comfortable and attractive to visitors, and encourage retention and real-life application of the morning’s teaching. He proposed that they meet at 9a, sit at round tables in groups of 8 – 10 and have breakfast together. They would remain at the tables for the morning. After a few songs, led simply by one person with a guitar, he would present one story of Jesus from the gospels, maybe 15 minutes. Then folks would process the story at tables for another 15 minutes. Then they would pray for each other.

When I read it, I thought it was a great idea on so many levels, not the least of which is that the average sermon, which the pastor may have labored 10 – 30 hours on, is gone from most people’s minds before they even get outside the building. Also, it’s difficult for a small church to have a competent “worship band”—something which takes talent and time to put together well. And of course, not much real fellowship takes place in a typical Sunday service environment. Having people sit and eat together is a no-brainer.

But the first reaction by members of my friend’s leadership team was, “That’s not church.”

Really? What makes it not church?

We like to hold up Acts 2.42 as a model: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Which of those four elements would not be in my friend’s Sunday morning?

We like to encourage people to “attend church” by quoting Hebrews 10.24, 25: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” I have not found the average Sunday service conducive to “stirring up one another” or “encouraging one another.” We’re expected to file into a room, sing when told to, and listen to a lecture. On the other hand, my friend’s proposal would allow time precisely for implementing the “one anothers” of Hebrews 10.

So what makes such a gathering “not church”? Or is our understanding of church very faulty? Basing our Sunday gatherings on a centuries-old form doesn’t make it either right or optimal. David Platt, former pastor of Brook Hills Church in Birmingham, AL, has decried the fact that church is “A Performance at a Place with Programs run by Professionals.” Yet that is exactly what most people expect from church to the point that when presented with an alternative, one that might be more conducive to what gatherings of God’s people should look like, they can only respond, “That’s not church.”

8/5/2014 What’s on the inside?

My Navigator teammate John Purvis has developed a picture of disciples and the process of making disciples using the anatomy of a tree. I don’t remember all the fine points, but I do remember that the core of a tree is called the “heartwood”–it’s the most beautiful part for woodworkers, he told us. Being the oldest and densest part of the trunk, it provides the tree’s stability…unless it’s not there.

My brother-in-law posted this story and picture on Facebook:

Saturday, at 2:30 in the morning, wind driven rain followed by a loud explosion and a tremendous thud that shook the entire house, then dead silence and utter darkness, no lights, no hum of air conditioners, no nothing. Turns out that a neighbor’s massive oak fell across the road and took down the power lines, snapped off the pole they were attached to, causing the transformer to blow, and damaged a house on the other side of the street. As the photo shows, the tree was diseased and the core was gone.

Tree with no core

I’m sure the tree looked great from the outside right until the time it fell.

This could be a picture of someone’s life…or a church. If we don’t attend to the basics (Paul wrote, “Train yourself for godliness,” in 1 Timothy 4.7), we can rot from the inside. And, to change the metaphor, it will be like the house with no foundation in Jesus’ story of the wise and foolish builder in Matthew 7.24 – 27: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

The difference? “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them…” We have churches filled with people who come, and even if they listen to the sermon, if they don’t put it into practice, they are like the house with no foundation, the tree with no core.

7/7/2014 “Take heart” or “Take cover!”

“Take heart!” or “Take cover!” This is my takeaway from two excellent sermons I heard recently.

Jim DeJarnette, music minister at First Presbyterian Church, Colorado Springs, preached on David and Goliath and noted a key verse:

1 Samuel 17.32
David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

He compared this to John 16.33:
“…in this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.”

What’s our message to the world? How are we encouraging those around us? Do we bring the “Take heart” message? Or are we constantly wringing our hands over the economy, the government, or the culture?

Ed Rowell, lead pastor at The Ascent Church, Monument, CO, preaching on 1 Peter 2.9-12 challenged, “Should we change our tactics with respect to the culture wars? Nothing in history has ever worked the way we do it today. Why don’t we take Peter’s words seriously? We want to ‘stand up and fight.’ I believe that response won’t work.” Peter’s counsel was to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you…abstain from passions of the flesh…and live honorably.”

He went on to say, “Living honorably is not easy. We live in a world that’s increasingly confusing. We can respond to the culture’s moving away from God’s values with anger. Social media and cable news are not doing us any favors. Nothing has been gained by walling ourselves off and throwing rocks at the world.”

He continued, citing Rodney Stark’s excellent book The Rise of Christianity, that Christians changed the world between AD 33 and AD 300 by caring for the sick, the poor, and the marginalized, by honoring women, in general, by serving. And at the same time bringing a message of hope.

My thought during Jim’s message and later confirmed by Ed was that instead of a hopeful “take heart” message, more often than not, Christians today are yelling, “Take cover!”

One of the folks who sends forwarded emails, often about President Obama, and many false, seems to have taken me off his list after I challenged him with what I wrote on May 30, 2014. Christians seem to be in the forefront of forwarding rumors and declaring calamity.

Where is our “take heart” message? Do we not hear the words of Jesus to us? “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Can we share Jesus’ words with others?

I want to be more “take heart” than “take cover.” Will you join me?

6/15/2014 Helping Others Make an Impact

A recent on-line issue of Clemson World told about a garden on the Clemson campus that provided an opportunity for handicapped kids and adults to practice gardening skills. The man in charge of it said, “The garden is less about me having an impact and more about giving the campers a place where they can have an impact.”

This is a nearly perfect description of disciple-making. It’s not about me making an impact as much as it is about helping the one I’m discipling have an impact. Isn’t this what Jesus did? “And he selected twelve that they might be with him, and that he might send them out to preach.” (Mark 3.12, 13)

And Jesus served in such a way that his followers were prepared to follow in his footsteps.