Chasing Chain Links

By mid-2013, both Shannon and I had been bowled over by surprising and unnervingly personal touches of God upon our lives. Our hearts felt more alive than they ever had, and His nearness and goodness and real-ness had never been so clear. Those stories have been told in the past several posts in case you need to go back to catch up.

Despite this flood of overwhelming goodness, the sense of “overwhelming” was hard to live with. It felt as though the ground was shifting. And it’s hard to stand up or navigate a path when your roots feel like they’re rattling.

chainlinksSo around that time, a prayer formed in us. I’m not sure it ever possessed specific language, but it was built around an image of chain links. Whenever I prayed it, it came out something like this:

“Lord, we’re so thankful for all You’re doing in us right now. We so want to follow You wherever You’re headed, but we’re a bit unnerved and quite uncertain of how to move forward. What do we do? Where to next? We’ll follow You anywhere, but You need to lead us with gentleness and patience. If You will faithfully feed us one link of chain at a time, we will keep tugging on it to pursue this ‘something’ that You’ve undeniably begun.”

It wasn’t flashy, and it felt quite weak. But we prayed that prayer as openly and receptively as we knew how. What we meant by “chain links” was that we would live as alertly as we could to resources or relationships that God might wish to expose us to.

  • Book to read? We’re in it.
  • Conference to attend? We’re at it.
  • Song or sermon or podcast to hear? We’re on it.
  • New relationship to enter? We’re entering.
  • Old relationship to deepen? We’re going.
  • Dream in our head? Hurt in our heart? Word from a stranger? We’re tuned in.

Sometime after I began weakly praying this prayer, I attended a preaching conference in Texas. There I was introduced to a fellow, now a friend, who had thrown himself into pursuing the person and power of Holy Spirit years earlier. We met, and I shared a thumbnail of my story. When I sought his advice, he simply stated:

“If you want to learn things you’ve never learned before, you’ll need to go places you’ve never gone and try things you’ve never tried and listen to voices you’ve never listened to before. And you should do all those things with no sense of fear.”

That last line stood out to my naturally-cautious self. I’d love to be more of a risk taker, but it is certainly not my default setting. But that line began yet another experience of conviction that might be summed up like this:

Why, Jason, do you allow fear to wield so much power within your pursuit of God? The Holy Spirit is described by Jesus as the Spirit of Truth, given to guide us into all truth. Unwittingly, you revere the powers of darkness far too highly. Sure the devil is a liar who works to deceive and distort. But why would you ever imagine that the devil would be more capable at his job than the Holy Spirit might be at His? In whom are you placing your faith anyway? Stop being led by fear, and push out.

That single sentence — “do this things without fear” — amplified our prayers. My hands were ready. I would grasp on to anything that even remotely resembled a link of chain. I was bound to grab some duds. There was always risk of deception or mis-emphasis or whatever. So be it. This whole trek was build upon God’s grace from the start. Why not lean even more heavily on Him?

So that’s what we tried to do.

And God responded.

In fact, He responded so much that I can’t possibly document all the links we grabbed along the way. But perhaps these four stand out for one reason or another.

Darren Wilson DVDs

In the final months of 2012, another season began for our church hockey team. This is my annual habit to confirm that I’m getting slower and stiffer every single year! In the dressing room one week, a teammate handed me a DVD and said, “Hey Jason. I don’t know for sure, but you might enjoy this. Let me know what you think.”

He handed me a film called “Finger of God”. It didn’t look like much. Little did I know that it was about to provide me with a bucket of chain links that I hadn’t even begun praying for yet. The back read like this:

Hundreds raised from the dead. Manna appearing in the Pentagon. Gemstones falling from the sky. Teenagers healing perfect strangers on the street. This isn’t old time religion. This is a new beginning. A spiritual revolution. This is the Finger of God.

Prepare to go on a dizzying journey around the world – from the streets of Northern California to the mud huts of Africa; from the underground church in China to the Gypsies in Eastern Europe – you will be challenged and encouraged by the extraordinary things God is doing in our world today. Born out of filmmaker Darren Wilson’s personal journey of two years and hundreds of hours of footage, Finger of God will show you a world you never knew existed. A world of hope and courage. A world where God’s fingerprints are found in the unlikeliest of places.

I breathed out a smirk. Sounded interesting. And mostly insane.

Since that time, I have recommended this film (and its follow-up pieces) to numerous folks. Some of my circle and some of my church have even indulged me by watching and discussing them together. But even to this day, I always make the recommendation with this disclaimer:

“When I started this film for the first time, I hated it. In fact, the first 20 minutes made me downright mad, and I seriously questioned why my hockey buddy thought that I would enjoy this in any way whatsoever. But if you can grit your teeth until the 20-minute mark, the film will turn a corner and you may well find something special.”

I have now seen five films produced by Darren Wilson (Wanderlust Productions) and of read one of his books as well. Perhaps one of the big reasons his work resonates with me is that he and I seem similarly wired. Within his films, he frequently poses the question that’s in my head, and he seems sincerely intent on maintaining both a healthy skepticism and an appropriate openness. The back story on these films go something like this.

darren-wilsonSomewhere around 2005, Darren Wilson was teaching film in a small college. His real desire was to write screenplays, but by his mid-30s, he was experiencing such a serious battle with writer’s block that he feared his creativity had already run out. During this time, his wife and her family were occasionally traveling to what Darren described as “psycho Christian conferences” in weird places like Redding and Kansas City and Toronto. They always came back pumped and excited about the Kingdom of God, but he had no interest at all to accompany them. He describes his faith at the time as “generally apathetic”. Griping to his wife one day about his lack of film ideas, she unintentionally grated on him by gently suggesting that he should pray about it: “Ask God for an idea.”. The advice made him angry, and he proceeded to stay up late to see if he couldn’t grind some ideas out of his weary mind. Hours later, more frustrated than ever, he went to bed. Lying restlessly beside his sleeping wife, he offered what he describes as an absolutely awful and faithless prayer. From a place of cynicism and anger, he tossed out these words: “Well, if You’ve got something, I guess I’d take it.”

Within minutes, Darren’s mind exploded with enough ideas to drive him back to the kitchen table to get them recorded. The first of those ideas was to create something of a documentary about the weirdest and wackiest claims he was hearing from these psycho-Christian gatherings. Nothing in his heart had changed. He entered this project with a heavy dose of unbelief and a strong desire to shatter some of the myths being perpetuated by “weak-minded people”. That really describes the first 20 minutes of his film. But the corner that viewers feel as they watch “Finger of God” signifies a monumental turn that Darren must have felt as his network of conversations and experiences developed in surprising ways.

The greatest value that I received from these films was the way they became living bibliographies for me. Remember that I was in a season of prayer and had promised God that I would grab anything that looked like a link of chain. So I watched these interview-filled documentaries with pen and paper in hand. Anyone who sounded remotely trustworthy went on one list. Anyone who sounded wackier than I could handle went on a different list. That first list became quite precious to me, and countless evenings were spent online reading biographies or studying articles or watching footage featuring these seemingly trustworthy strangers. This is where Bethel Church first came up on our horizon. Until then, we (like many) had only known them for their worship music. Now several members of their staff were named on my list, including Bill Johnson (mentioned in THIS POST). To a list that had already included folks like Jack Deere and Gordon Fee and Chad Norris, I was now adding names like Randy Clark, Rolland & Heidi Baker, Robbie Dawkins, Greg Boyd, Will Hart, and more.

The Spirit of Truth was undeniably up to more than I had been aware of, and through many of His people — both long-time friends and now new acquaintances, He was leading the way.

Listening Prayer

can-you-hear-meSome portion of me had always believed that prayer had to be more than tossing request-heavy lists heavenward. Intuitively, I had long sensed that prayer was intended to be two-way communication. Even still, I don’t remember giving much consideration to the listening dimension of prayer. Along that line, the spiritual directors I mentioned in an EARLIER POST both placed emphasis on “centring prayer”, at practice of tuning in to the God that around and inside His children. A friend directed us to a book by Brad Jersak, titled “Can You Hear Me”?  The book was so engaging and so well-crafted to meet us where we were, that our church actually hosted Brad for a weekend to teach on that very subject. How exciting it was to see so many people from “our crowd” also hungering for dynamic connection with the Father! (Recordings from those sessions may still be posted on our church website if you wish to tune in.)

For what it’s worth, I still struggle greatly with this practice. I believe in it. I try to do it, though not with nearly the consistency it deserves. But when I do, I wage some common battles in my head.

  • If I “get something”, is that me? Is that Him?
  • If I “get nothing”, is that my fault? Is that His?

These questions, and others like them, can quickly deliver me to a place of pressure to perform, when listening is an act of a completely different nature. It’s receptive. It’s attentive. But it is not coercive, and it doesn’t involve forcing anything. The portions of me which love completing tasks by exerting effort and which clamour for control struggle with listening prayer. It requires more quiet than quickness, more patience than pushing.

It’s a gentle time of relating and waiting.
If that’s grating, my heart is stating,
That it needs to do this more.

And mine does.

Travels

The summer of 2013 marked our 15th wedding anniversary. Shannon had always wanted to visit the giant redwood trees, so I crafted a week-long, child-free getaway to northern California. We did all the things one might expect of us: Flew into San Francisco, visited Alcatraz, caught a Jays’ game in Oakland, then drove north to enjoy the majesty of the redwood forests. Staying within hours of Redding, we determined to loop through just long enough to catch some of the weekend happenings at Bethel Church. That was our first visual on this place, though any thoughts of someday living here were less than wisps of smoke at the time. It was a just a vacation, and a fun one at that.

heidi-bakerBy January 2014, we were headed the other direction. A biographical documentary was streaming online, about an American missionary named Heidi Baker. Google her. She’s an astounding woman, and you may struggle to believe some of what you read. That’s okay. I hold her highly, and I still struggle to know exactly how to take her. Well, the film that evening (titled “Compelled by Love”) was so engaging that it started me wondering where one would ever hear this woman speak. An online search confirmed that she almost never came to North America. But she’d be in Toronto in two weeks! Part of me loves surprising Shannon with outings or trips. And I knew that this trip would blow her away! But I also knew it was impossible. Our life at that point had no space for spontaneity: We had three small children and four mental health patients that depended upon us. Throw in costs and logistics, and there was no way.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. What would it hurt to put out some feelers?

Text messages to friends and family offered childcare and respite possibilities. Air miles sitting unused reduced costs significantly. Tickets were still available for the event itself. Long story short: Two folks lacking spontaneity did surprisingly well!

And we got surprised too.

It turns out that Heidi Baker was just one of many speakers at a large multi-day conference, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Toronto Blessing. You know, just the type of place you’d expect a small-town Church of Christ boy to take his sweetheart for a date. 🙂

In case the term “Toronto Blessing” is unfamiliar, here’s a quick catch-up:

Leading up to 1994, a small church of around 120 people, near the Toronto Airport, had been in an extended period of prayer for renewal and revival. They wanted God to “do something”. In January of that year, they invited a guest speaker named Randy Clark to lead some services for them. And God “did something”. People started being healed. Powerful conversions began taking place. Hearts were being awakened, relationships were being restored, addictions were being broken. It was stunning and amazing. And strange.

Meetings continued nightly for many months, with crowds gathering hours before and lingering hours after. Word spread, and visitors soon began showing up from all over the globe. To many, it was as if God was “touching down” blocks away from the Toronto Airport, and His landing was bringing abundant life. To many others, it was not so clear.

I first heard of the “Toronto Blessing” during Bible College (1995-98). One teacher would present it as a case study of sorts whenever we discussed the Holy Spirit. In those years, the Christian community was in heated debate over how to interpret (and respond to) the stories coming out of Toronto. Of course, people loved the tales of redemption and restoration. But those weren’t the stories getting the headlines. The limelight was being taken by weirder accounts: Wild laughter, people falling, noises of barking and roaring and more. And the debates raged: Can this be of God? Why would He do such a thing? If it’s not of God, then how does one explain some very undeniable fruit that are coming forth from this place?

I never had such answers. I was just intrigued. What WAS one to make of this? It was so far out of my range of experience that it never dawned on me that two decades later, I’d plot out a secret trip to take my now-girlfriend-then-wife to the hub of all these stories.

The event featured speakers and worship leaders from all over the world, all of whom had been profoundly impacted by visiting Toronto earlier in their lives. That list included, among others, Randy Clark, Bill Johnson, Che Ahn, David Ruis, and Heidi Baker. In a sentence, the place was charged. The worship times were intense and lively. Part of that was just physical energy: Bodies swaying, feet dancing, flags waving, vigorous singing. Another part was spiritual energy: Expectation, hopefulness, deep desire that the touch of God being celebrated from years gone by might be felt just as surely again today. In another sentence, some things were odd. Many of the manifestations that made the Toronto Blessing a target for criticism in the 1990’s were on display again.

I didn’t enjoy that. I actually quite disliked parts of it. It was distracting. It was unfamiliar. It was unnerving. I debated with God:

What am I to make of this?

Is this You?

Is this people?

Is this good?

Is this harmful?

The worship times were moving. The lessons were inspiring. I had no regrets about coming. But it was these unusual responses of some people around me that sent me for a loop.

And you know what?

God replied to my questions.

By the third day, I sensed a very clear thought, so crystallized and counter to the thought that preceded it by two seconds, that I interpreted it as a possible God-reply that I should weigh. It was a single question:

“Jason, do you need to understand everything that’s happening in this room?”

It was asked gently enough to be heard but forcefully enough that the right answer was implied.

“No, I don’t.”

It was followed up:

“Is it possible that in a room of thousands of people with thousands of stories and personalities and backgrounds and make-ups that I might deal with some folks in vastly different ways than I’ve dealt with you?”

Again, gentle but forcefully suggestive.

“Yes, it’s very possible.”

Finally a recommendation:

“So how about you stop spending your brain cells and your time here on playing judge, and instead you just tune into what I’m trying to do in your heart these days?”

Less gentle but beyond suggestive.

“Yes Lord. I’ll do that.”

I didn’t leave Toronto with charted assessments on how God moves and how He doesn’t. I also didn’t have any wild experiences of my own. But I did come home very moved by the testimonies we heard of lives radically transformed from brokenness into Gospel-fruit-bearing beauty. And often these stories featured mind-boggling, nobody-but-God-could-do-that events, the type that I’d tasted myself not so long before.

“Jason, do you need to understand everything that I do?”

“No Lord.”

“Then just walk with Me. You’ve already been surprised by Me. It’s hardly done yet!”

So I kept walking.

Relationships

Nobody journeys alone.

All the way along, I shared quite openly with the Shepherds (Elders) of my church. This openness was important so that they could feel well-aware of the currents that were stirring under my surface. It also invited them to be part of the ongoing discovery and discernment that felt quite intense at the time. Pockets of close friends were also precious during this time. However, I was aware that God may well wish to broaden my swath of relationships. I just didn’t know how He might go about it. The lesson learned? Don’t worry about that; He is quite capable of providing what you need whether you can see its source or not.

At least three events quickly pop to mind when I look back.

1) Fischer Family
Our church occasionally receives posters in the mail for city-wide gatherings called Aglow. It’s some sort of interdenominational effort to seek God together, and I confess that I’ve paid it nearly no attention at all over the years. I don’t know who these people are, and who wants to sacrifice an evening to check out something that may well be a waste of time? Yes, those are honest thoughts. But in the summer of 2013, as the “chain link prayer” rumbled through our hearts, a way-too-late poster arrived for an Aglow event happening the next evening! Two words: Recycle bin. But before I got it there, I noticed that the special guests were set to be a young Regina couple who were just fresh back from a year at Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry. Are you joking? Real people from my city have done this? I made plans to attend. Days later, I made contact with them online to request a further visit. That first coffee has led to several more visits, and the start of a friendship that began as an answer to prayer.

2) Praying Pastors
I started working full-time in Regina in 2006. Seven years later, I couldn’t claim to be meaningfully connected with any other pastors in my city. I have enjoyed deep and rich relationships with other Church of Christ leaders throughout Saskatchewan for all of those years, but locally, I was quite isolated. Through little more than a barely-know-you connection, I was invited to a small group prayer meeting for local pastors. A few were desiring deeper connection and a place to support one another. I sheepishly-but-excitedly accepted. By the second visit, enough trust was established that the sharing was quite personal. And from that point, two members of that group — both from charismatic churches that I had grown to appreciate — became friends I feel blessed to call my own. They are godly men with servants’ hearts, loves of Jesus and people. Both have welcomed us into their circles to the extent that we (as a couple and family) have attended conferences and events and camps that we would never have known about otherwise. (On an aside, Shannon would prefer that the LifeLinks Family Camp that we’ve twice attended should get an entire post of its own. When she takes over the blog, you’ll get that and more!) These friends are encouragers and examples to me, and it amazes me how God wove together — almost from thin air — friendships that were so timely for me. He’s skilled at this “link game”. 🙂

3) Mentoring Groups
I completed the Arrow Leadership Program in March 2013 with a real conviction that the next season of my life had to involve some better focused efforts toward investing in other men, particularly those my age or younger. However, I felt like all I had was a desire without a plan. Some months later, the internet led me to an organization called Radical Mentoring. Their pitch was basically: “If you have a desire to mentor other men but need a plan, we can help.” And the angels sang! Or at least I did. This was perfect! So by August 2013, I’d recruited some brave young men to travel uncharted paths with me toward deeper community, greater vulnerability, and stronger growth through a focused routine of reading, prayer, and conversation. Results were favourable enough that I ran two more groups in the following years. Now in my absence from Regina, previous group members have started two more groups, and a women’s group has begun as well. Mentoring in small groups is a powerful form of ministry — likely the most valuable (by a mile) that I have participated in. That could be a post of its own. For this space, I mention these groups simply because those men were a real gift to me during those days. Most were familiar to me before we began, but all were dear to me when we finished. Those relationships needed initiating and investment, but they were yet more answers to a “link prayer”.

In short — using that phrase at the end of this post is an awful attempt at humour — this piece is just an attempt to say:

  • God is faithful.
  • He loves to meet us right where we are.
  • He is not put off by what we believe to be our own slowness or hardness.
  • He hears and He responds and He leads.
  • And He does these things with perfect appropriation to each of His dearly loved children.

He did this for us.

He does this for you too.

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