About Jason Bandura

Husband, father, pastor, son, // Brother, uncle all in one. // Blessed more richly than I've earned. // Jesus loves me, so I've learned. Seeking the Life-Give and His gifts from the Canadian prairies.

In Search of Identity

Our class schedule at BSSM has a steady diet of Bible and theology. We recently spent time looking at the creation and fall of humanity, and I had opportunity to share with the class some thoughts that have been significant for me. There were enough inquiries and requests for clarification that I determined it was worth the effort to put them in writing.

Here we go…

creationFrom the very beginning, people have been the unique apex of Creation. We alone bear the image of God. The first titles that Scripture would drive us to place upon God are Creator and Ruler. So as one would expect, God designed us to be rulers and creators. From a place of perfect harmony with our Maker, we are set to fill His world with vivid depictions of His qualities through gracious and powerful ways in which we steward life within our lives, families, and world.

However, sin changes all of this. The divine image is fragmented like a shattered mirror. Our hands get bloodied as they attempt to reset the shards of our broken identity, and we find ourselves exposed to a scope of shame, insecurity, and fear far larger than our hiding skills can handle. And when one’s legitimate identity is lost, no other option exists: We will seek an illegitimate replacement.

In the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God pronounces the “curses” that will fall upon them. Check Genesis 3:16-19 below:

16 To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

Adam’s role of producer now faces new challenges. The attention and intensity required for sustenance will spike. He will throw himself into working and weeding, and seldom will he receive the payoff he anticipates.

Eve’s role of procreator now faces new challenges. The pain and struggle involved in bringing forth new life will climb. She will throw herself into nurturing and nourishing, and seldom will she receive the payoff she anticipates.

These are the curses, so we are told. However, grace always shows up in the most surprising places. A slow look at our great ancestors departing God’s garden provides a rich revelation.

Perhaps all human ventures can be found in two words:

  • Tasks
  • People

The timeless temptation to establish our own identities repeatedly drives us to these realms.

Tasks: We will seek to be known by what we can do. We will pursue productivity, chasing greater efficiency and higher levels of competence. Through achievement, we will carve out our place in the world and establish our reputation as a person of value.

People: We will seek to be known by who we know. We will pour ourselves into family or friends. We will nurture connections and construct networks. Through relationships, we will carve out our place in the world and establish our reputation as a person of value.

Except that we won’t.

Hidden in the darkness of sin’s curse is a measure of divine grace: God will never allow us to find satisfaction in false identity.

Adam may toil rigorously and relentlessly, but the thorns and the thistles will never allow him to attain the heights or harvest of which he dreams. His restlessness will find no rest in tasks.

And Eve may relate dotingly and devotedly, but the pains of labour will become the pains of love, and no amount of pouring herself out will result in her feeling filled up. Her restlessness will find no rest in people.

Even the affliction of the Fall displays the affection of the Father.

Said another way: Sometimes our hearts’ homelessness is God’s gift to lead us to Himself.

Saint Augustine knew it well:

“Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

The thorns’ piercing provides shocking protection. The contractions’ strain houses surprising shelter. The Father refuses that we would find rest apart from Him, and in His gracious move of loving redemption, He turns even curses into blessing. We will whine and wander, sweat and swear. But we will remain migrants until we find our way home to the One who makes and re-makes us.

And this is a sign of God’s kindness toward us as the ones He dearly loves.

Braiding the Back Story

I am daring to dream (make that, resolving as fact) that this is my final “BSSM backstory post”. Back on August 28, I began a series attempting to provide a somewhat quality reply to the question, “So how did you guys end up at Bethel?” This post will conclude my attempt at summing up the events of nearly 2500 days into nine blog entries. Nice and tidy, just like it happened. Not! If you missed the first eight, those will be helpful. If you’re all caught up, the end is near. 🙂

Thus far, I’ve tried to follow the timeline, providing dates whenever I could. I hoped this would help folks to have a sense of how very slowly much of this journey unfolded. We often joke that we are “miles from spontaneous”, and for chunks of life that has certainly seemed true. However, friends have pointed out to us that perhaps we are more spontaneous than we let on. Either way, our path to this point has involved many one-degree turns and inches-at-a-time, with the occasional earthquake to shift things faster!

braidLet this post be a change-up. Time blurred somewhat in these final steps toward coming to Bethel, with many thoughts and events overlapping. Rather than a chronological flow, let me highlight a three-strand braid. As my daughters can attest, my hair-styling capacity is limited to ponytails and braids. Today you get a braid. And as they sometimes remind one another, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” 🙂

Three strands: Here we go…

FEARING GAPS

In the years 2000-2003, my wife and I lived in Regina. She worked her first RN job, and I completed a seminary degree. During that span, Glen Elm Church of Christ was our faith community. That decision was a no-brainer due to numerous pre-existing friendships and a notable level of familiarity with that congregation. Our time there was positive and special to the extent that it seemed natural to look into a post-seminary future and wonder if an opportunity for employment in that setting might ever arise. It seemed the fit might be suitable, but I don’t recall obsessing over the idea. Life can take a lot of turns, and I didn’t feel a need to fret over what the future may or may not hold. God had led well to that point; I trusted He’d continue.

After three years of teaching English overseas (2003-2006), however, I confess that it made me smile when our return home coincided perfectly with Glen Elm’s search for staff. Ten years of work there has done nothing but increase our love for this church. It is home in so many ways. We have high appreciation for the leadership of this church, both those who hold “official positions” and those who simply and quietly lead because that is who they are. It’s a place of life, great for our girls, and home to some special friends too. There are plenty of ways in which we still need to develop, and we have as many issues and quirks as any church. But I’m consistently pleased to make my home in this setting. That said, I confess to a time of wondering how our growing hunger for more knowledge and experience of the Holy Spirit would be received by those around us. Let me be clear: One of the things I most appreciate about my church is their level of openness. That’s one of the reasons why even as a student, I imagined this place as a potentially suitable place to work. Much of this openness was cultivated by way-before-me leadership, who laboured hard to focus heavily enough on God’s grace that it might cast cracks into the “false narrow way” of legalism that some of us held quite dearly. Thanks to such faithful work, I have always felt quite free to explore any facet of faith and to question any long-held assumption so long as it was done with careful thought and gracious touch. It’s a pleasure of a place to preach!

Yet now I was feeling shy.

Much of what God was doing in my life was so gut-level. It was hard to know how to share. I pressed myself to keep my Shepherds (our name for “Elders”) in the loop, but I struggled to know how to do so with the “average member” of my congregation. In the meantime, nothing was standing still. As the previous eight posts would affirm, both Shannon and I were in a season where we often marvelled to one another: “God is doing more in us and to us in this couple years than in the 35 years before!” And that pace was yanking up some of our roots: Too many questions, too much recalculating, too much shifting in our minds and hearts.

And that raised a fear in me.

It’s one thing to present provocative pulpit pieces. (Overkill on an alliteration: Check.) It’s another to publicly speak of your own evolving theology, one that you have little comfort with even in the moment. Some of this was self-centred and small: I don’t wish to look weird. But now I was claiming that the Lord was touching my life in ways that, not so long before, I’d have stuck the “Weird” label on myself! My childhood faith was impacted by a heritage with strands of skepticism and cynicism toward those who weren’t like us. Of any exploration or curiosity that went “too far”, one might hear:

  • “That sounds a bit Baptist to me.”
  • “We don’t do that because the Catholics do.”
  • “You’re starting to sound like a Calvinist.”
  • “Don’t go getting all Pentecostal on us.”

mind-the-gapHowever, part of this wasn’t entirely self-centred. I don’t have that luxury. None of us do. The things we do and say impact others. In many moments, I was swept up in gratitude that God seemed to be birthing something so new and alive in me. I was being reborn; it felt a lot like John 3. But in other moments, I let fear become quite loud. It was a fear over an imagined scenario. It was a feeling of tension. It wasn’t tension with other people. It was all inside myself. Perhaps it was imagined. Maybe it was real but nobody around me ever stated. Perhaps it was all me. Whatever the case, I recall an image in my mind of two lines running parallel to one another. I imagined these as the steel rails of a train track. One represented the spiritual-journey-trajectory of a church; the other represented the spiritual-journey-trajectory of a pastor. To be wild and crazy, let’s name them “Glen Elm” and “Jason”. 🙂

I imagined that perhaps great harmony must exist within a church where the spiritual trajectory of the congregation runs perfectly parallel to the spiritual trajectory of its pastor. This would seem to result in smooth and friction-free travel, like a railcar cruising down the track. However, what happens if the trajectories aren’t the same, if one of those rails pivots by even one degree? What about greater angles?

angleIn my head, the railway image now morphed. No longer a train track strapped to the ground, it was now a simple angle, with an elastic band wrapped around both arms. Near the vertex, the tension on the stretched band is minimal. It’s not as though I knew the varied spiritual journeys taking place within our church family, but it felt easy-to-imagine that what was happening in our lives might not be par for everybody’s course at the time. This had no tone of superiority or “feeling special”. It was just that those miles of awakening and blessing and growth and confusion and hunger had felt so different from anything we’d ever felt before that it seemed reasonable to imagine that “our beam” might no longer be as parallel to our church family’s as it had been before (if it ever had been). It pleased me that there existed sufficient respect for and rapport with my Shepherds to be able to voice these feelings, but it didn’t stop me from wondering: “Is tension building as this elastic stretches? If so, how are we doing to navigate that, Lord?”

Around this time, we began to discover that a number of others within our circles of friends were also sensing God’s nearness and goodness and power in new ways. People were seeking God with renewed desire, and there was a growing prayer for refreshing and revival. A certain comfort arose as trusted friends pointed out: “To seek Holy Spirit is to seek Jesus and to seek Father. There’s no competition in the Godhead.” This truth addressed a fear that I sense lives in some corners: It’s imagined that greater emphasis on Holy Spirit might somehow draw one astray from “sound teaching”, despite Jesus’ joyful conviction that Holy Spirit would serve as our personalized Guide “into all truth”. My fearful side accepted yet another nudge of encouragement. “More of You please” is a good prayer, and when Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hear it prayed by people, they all respond in perfect partnership. I needed to pray that more boldly. I still do.

But feelings are funny things, and even with those convictions forming in me, my fearful side (it’s persistent, isn’t it?!) fretted. Neither Shannon and I had any desire for our growing-but-hard-to-define hunger for more of Holy Spirit to be troubling or troublesome to others. We don’t enjoy heightening tension. At the same time, we knew full well that “going back” would never be an option. We could not simply re-turn our beam to a previous setting. One cannot un-discover or un-learn or un-experience God’s work in our lives. One way or another, He was beckoning us. Onward, even with blurred eyes, was the only option.

IMMERSION

“Some things are caught, not taught.”

I don’t know where that saying originated or what it was describing. But somewhere along the road of hungering for Holy Spirit, being personally impacted by faithful people exercising His gifts, and having firsthand experiences with healing and dramatically answered prayers, it became impossible to deny: I don’t think books (which I love) can instruct me on all that’s going on.

We know this implicitly about all sorts of things. Want to really learn a language? I’ll bet the word “immersion” gets considered. Our years in China arose largely because we’d been so touched and impacted by short-term international travel that we determined, “More is likely better. Let’s go long enough for an immersion experience.”

immersionEven our imagery of Christian conversion confirms this belief. The baptism act involves being plunged underwater so that every dry surface becomes wet. That’s what immersion does. It touches everything in a way that it moves from state to another. And that phrase we use at baptism, you know the one? “Now I baptize you in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.” It’s not merely the proper pronouncement, as if that line of lingo makes the moment acceptable by God’s rigorous liturgical standards. Rather, it accurately describes what is to take place at conversion. To speak of the names of Father, Son, Holy Spirit is to speak of the realities of the Godhead. The ways of the heavenly Kingdom are foreign and nonsensical to fallen folks. That’s why Paul prays (in Ephesians 3) that those believers might come to know the unknowable love of God. How does one go about knowing the reality that it beyond knowing?! It requires being soaked (let’s say “drowned”) in a beyond-us world about which we had only clues beforehand. At baptism, we position ourselves to be soaked by God. We invite Him to, for the rest of our lives, cover us with this stunning new reality found in the fullness of Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

This is an astounding thought, probably wasted on a blog post! But here’s my point: Baptism is so much more than a point of repentant decision that from this moment forward, we will try to do better. God’s Kingdom is so unlike the ones we try to construct that while it can be taught about (Jesus used a lot of parables in this effort), there is no amount of great instructing that can deliver us to a breakthrough point. That requires supernatural involvement, and it most certainly involves more than ideas passing into a brain.

“Some things are caught, not taught.”

And somewhere in the midst of grabbing every chain-link we could reach, that line felt oh-so-true. God was faithfully stretching us and challenging us and touching us, but we recognized a growing desire to be plunged in more aggressively than any smattering of books and podcasts and conferences were going to provide. And we began to quietly wonder, “What would an immersion experience look like for us?” That question alone was sort of fun but fully hypothetical. The fun part led me to a lot of late-night Googling and inquiring of friends outside my usual circle of thoughts. We determined that any such experience — strictly an imaginary thing at this point — would have to meet three requirements:

  1. It would have to be an environment that took both Word and Spirit seriously.
  2. It would have to be a program or experience that both of us could enrol in together.
  3. It would have to work for a family with small children.

The real question — but not real enough to stop my fun and fascinating Googling — Where/When/How would this ever fit into our lives?

SABBATICAL

Several years ago, a one-word item appeared on one of our Shepherds’ Meeting agendas: Sabbatical. One of our Shepherds had visited with church leaders from other settings and had become curious about this concept, quite unfamiliar to our circle of churches. The conversations he had participated in had described instances where pastors had resigned or burned out or taken extended leaves from their churches. So he came to the meeting with a question: Is this something we should consider down the road? As one might expect, I was grateful for the care these thoughts communicated. But I quickly confirmed that I was currently in a season of “good health”. However, I had just participated in a recent class where Sabbatical practices had been discussed, and I agreed that the topic might have value down the road. We tabled the topic as one of those way-down the-road, if-we-ever-get-to-it items. And life went on.

As 2015 moved along, our private imaginings about an “immersion experience” had ramped up enough that I had researched various programs around and beyond North America. This list quickly crystallized into six main options:

  • Catch the Fire (Toronto,ON)
  • Global Awakening (Mechanicsburg, PA)
  • International House of Prayer (Kansas City,MO)
  • Bethel Church (Redding,CA)
  • Iris Ministries (Bases all over the world)
  • Youth With a Mission (Bases all over the world)

There was still no sense of how/when/if we would ever actually change the label on this pot of possibilities from “dream” to “plan”. But we were increasingly convinced that sometime and somewhere, that might happen. And if we didn’t make that so, we felt confident we’d regret it in our grey and wrinkled years.

sabbaticalSince its first mention and tabling, “Sabbatical” was mentioned here and there, but it always seemed easy to table again. I’m not pointing at others when I say that; I found it easy to table. There wasn’t really anything to talk about. I can be a touch slow in a lot of ways, so while you can likely see where this is going and how the dots connect, I wasn’t seeing it in real-time. Church of Christ preachers don’t go to Bethel Church for Sabbaticals. They don’t apply to schools with the word “Supernatural” woven into their names. And if they do, they don’t do so with backing or blessing from those above them and those beside them.

Unless they do.

By 2015, discussion of Sabbatical possibilities had gained slight traction. I confessed that we had some ideas quietly brewing, and the Shepherds were interested to hear more. By this point, we’d narrowed the list above to two, and we determined to do a scouting trip to BSSM. We’d sit in on classes, visit with some current students (particularly with those who had families here), and get a better feel for this possibility. By August, we were submitting a proposal requested by the Shepherds, outlining how we might wish to use a Sabbatical opportunity and what value we imagined it would have for both us and the church. The following months involved multiple layers of discussion and disclosure, looks at logistics, and conversations followed by concerns followed by more conversations. This may come as a shock to you: Googling Bethel Church gets you a lot of hits! And their tones and takes on this place are all over the board. Some are certain this is some version of “heaven on earth”; others are sure it’s a creepy cult. I knew enough to call it “a well that pretty consistently serves good water”. We were encouraged to seek input from other leaders inside and outside of our fellowship of churches, to invite input. This process was mostly affirming and positive, and that helped up the level of comfort that others around us felt about this once-unthinkable plan. The go-ahead to make plans was given, and the year ahead was spent discussing logistics and making plans on many fronts, by many folks.

And so in August 2016 (now two months ago), our church very lovingly and very graciously sent us on our way south to this place that adequately fits the criteria we’d set out long before:

  1. Both Word and Spirit are taken seriously.
  2. Both Shannon and I are in the one-year program, as classmates. 🙂
  3. This setting is providing a special and formative experience for our three daughters too.

I’ve got to go back a few sentences.

We were actually astounded at the level of care we felt from our church, ahead of our departure. I have no doubt that there are likely some who sent us with reservation. Some perhaps begrudgingly. Some perhaps downright disapprovingly. But if such feelings existed, they were entirely overshadowed by generous expressions of kindness. It’s a real testament to the gracious spirit that lives in this group, and I have a strong conviction that God will pour that back upon them in more ways than they might venture to guess. I don’t even mean: A better version of Jason & Shannon will return home next summer, and the church will benefit from that. I hope that happens too. What I mean is more invisible and harder to flow-chart. I think God is honourable. And He loves to bestow honour on those who sow into others with generosity, and on those who seek Him even when fear or reservation exist, and on those who love deeply and determinedly. And the folks of Glen Elm are doing all those; our family certainly feels it.

And that is where this “back story” is ending.

Has my blog left gaps in this six-plus year journey? Oh yes.

Am I going to keep rolling these posts? Not about the past. There’s new stuff to write about… almost every day some weeks!

Am I open to questions? Sure.

More than anything, I hope these posts have provided some background for those who’ve curiously wondered, “How did they end up there?” Perhaps far beyond two little people named Jason and Shannon, these posts might also have highlighted how amazing it is to be loved and led by God! He has plans for everyone, and they are life-filled and love-filled plans, often quite different from the ones we’d sketch if He gave us the whiteboard.

So He doesn’t.

He just beckons.

He pays for us and prays for us and stays with us. He seeks to heal us so that we might better steward everything He shares with us. And then He just treats us with goodness and kindness and graciousness so pronounced at times that we may feel embarrassed that anyone — let alone Anyone with a capital “A” — might love such a ridiculous someone so ridiculously!

And He loves you that way.

And lo and behold, I’m learning to believe that He loves me that way too.

Much grace and peace to you, friends and guests alike.

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.

Freedom Falling

If you’re game for some praying, I’d appreciate your prayers for my laptop. It’s at the “doctor” for help and may require a “new brain”. Much of what is on it is backed up, but not since we left home over six weeks ago. Some of what is currently out-of-reach and hopefully-not-lost are drafts and details of the recent series of posts that many of you have read here about how we ended up spending this year in Redding, California. So that “back story” will have to wait until my machine returns.

In the meantime, let me share from the past week.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m finding a groove here. Our weekly routine will settle fairly shortly. This next week is unusual as all 1300 first-year students will be cycled through two-day retreats over an eight-day span, so regular classes will break for that. By the following week, we’ll be “normal”. Our girls continue to enjoy their school days almost all of the time, and we are making some new friends as well. We met a BSSM-alumni family right in our complex just today. They have two girls that match our youngest two, and I foresee Karyss’ much-requested playdates in our future. 🙂 They’re a Minnesota family, so they see themselves as “southern Canadians”. We’ll take it. Another friendship that already brings me joy is a Canadian-boy-married-English-girl couple named Stephen & Clare. We met them at a meeting on the first day of school, when Stephen approached because of the maple leaf on our name tags. You ever just get a great feeling from the first moment with a stranger? Yep, that’s how it felt to us. Clare is a classmate with us, while Stephen is working from home, grading papers for the seminary where he’s been a professor for the past several years. So yes, my new friend is a 40-year-old theology professor who grew up with a pastor father who also taught at Prairie Bible College in Three Hills, Alberta. Over coffee, he gave me a copy of his latest book, a biography on Soren Kierkegaard, that includes an endorsement from a friend of his named Richard Beck, the much-loved (by some!) professor from Abilene Christian University. Small world, eh?

scattered-mindThose are life logistics, and it’s nice when they run smoothly. But the groove I alluded to earlier runs deeper. A week ago, I was unsettled. I was happy to be here, but I was not feeling very whole or rooted. My last post shared some of that, but to be honest, that post just captured one theme that I could get a solid grip on. The rest was a jumbled mess of thoughts. Blog posts and sermons, both of which I love creating, can knit illusions that my mind and heart are tidier than in real life. But much of my moment-to-moment processing is fairly messy. Feelings swirl with thoughts, both those I actively choose and those I wish to vote off the island. Biases and assumptions, truth and distortion, faith and fear and fickleness — it’s all mixed in. And a week ago, that blender was running on high speed, mixing a smoothie on which I was gagging.

So I breathed, slowly and steadily.

And I prayed, poorly but purely.

And I fasted, hungrily but not for food.

And I worshiped, wanting-ly.

And I listened to those around me and the One who is everywhere.

And I breathed again.

And some space opened up inside.

What did that feel like?

  • It felt like greater ability to engage in the 60-90 minutes of focused prayer and wonderful worship that kicks off every school day.
  • It felt like a gaze that started seeing those around me more as my vision was released from a stigmatism of self-consciousness.
  • It felt like a grip that softened as I granted myself yet another round of permission to simply receive all that God wishes to do here without obsessing over intense filtering or analysis every single moment.
  • It felt like a gentle affirmation that I dared to believe for the thousandth time that the Father of Love loves me, as a son.

On Wednesday, I felt that space open up, freeing me to engage with people and program in better ways than I had on Tuesday. The One who freed His people in Egypt still has a heart for liberating slaves apparently, even when it’s one little guy in one little place.

And that positioned me for Thursday.

kris-v-speaking-3Kris Vallatton is one of the leaders of both Bethel Church and their Ministry School. On Thursday, he was sharing portions of his story. One part involved a time when he received an outrageous gift from a friend. In the days that followed, he proceeded to avoid this man, and finally in a moment of epiphany, he felt God revealing to him a lifelong tendency: Whenever someone looked to love him more than he loved himself, he’d sabotage the relationship. He proceeded to unpack this dynamic as he has seen it play out over decades of ministry now. Dating relationships, marriages and divorces, friendships or families or workplaces — it’s everywhere, and it undermines healthy relationships, while reinforcing patterns that rob lives of the connection and love they crave. And we’re talking about Christians.

Basic point: Too many folks have believed in a God who loves them, but not really. I mean, He has to because He’s God. But surely He just barely tolerates us, as we do. We find ourselves feeling as though we should almost apologize for existing or at least for existing as such weak human beings. We imagine that this state of “humility” might somehow be a spiritual place where we should remain. At least it guards us against arrogance, right? So we carry ourselves doubting that we’re lovable or valuable or special. And it cuts our feet from under us, preventing us from living lives of joy or peace of love. We remain miles away from becoming “new creations” because our fearful and self-centred voices are so loud that they drown out any whispered truths that God wishes to utilize in our rebirth.

As the lesson proceeded, Kris paused and expressed his conviction that it was time to pray. This is hardly uncommon at BSSM. Class turns from teaching to prayer several times each day, typically in moments of focused prayer for needs that might relate to the subject at hand. Folks who feel they are in need of such prayers are asked to stand with open hands (receiving posture), and those around are often asked to lay hands on them and participate in praying for them. I tell you that just so you recognize that this is normal here. It’s a powerful practice.

But Thursday was particularly meaningful to me.

He invited those to stand who saw their own struggles with living as the Beloved of the Father. And lots stood! Open disclosure: I didn’t stand on Thursday. I’ve got plenty of issues related to living rooted in the love of God, but on that particular day, it didn’t feel like “my time”. I didn’t feel resistant or stubborn; it just was my turn to lift up others.

A classmate was recording a portion of the lesson, and I’ve edited it down to 15 minutes, in case you wish to hear some of this prayer time. If parts of it are “for you”, then enter those prayers and stand in the truths you hear declared. You won’t need to have been present to gauge when the tone in the room changed. Crying, groaning, full-out weeping: All of these were taking place as believers across the age spectrum and the atlas placed themselves very vulnerably before God for healing touches. Some might be write it off as little more than emotionalism.

Yeah. But no.

For my part, it was a real privilege to hold up hands and drop down tears in prayer for a crowd that I hardly know but for whom my compassion was very stirred. These were moments of people holding one another up in prayer and literally holding one another up. I found it quite overwhelming. As Kris prayed toward the breaking of Satan’s lies and the freeing by God’s truth, there was no doubt: “The One who freed His people in Egypt still has a heart for liberating slaves.” I used that sentence earlier in reference to God touching one little guy in one little place. But it’s oh-so-true, friends. And it’s true for you and for those you love.

Christ is the Freedom-Bringer. He’s paid a thorough price for that privilege, and there is no prison in which we’ve spent time from which he is incapable of breaking us free. He holds all the keys and possesses all the authority in heaven and on earth. And best of all, he seeks us where we’re stuck and then stubbornly loves us toward a life of spaciousness.

If you care to listen in, here’s the short version of Thursday’s prayer time. Love to you all.

Class Is In

Several posts back, I started a series designed to answer the question, “How did you guys end up at Bethel?” As you’ve already figured out, it’s not a short answer. It was my goal to write out the entire “back story” prior to the first day of class.

failWe started class last Tuesday. I have failed.

The struggle I now face is to somehow complete a description of our journey here, while leaving room for new posts that describe life here and now. The past is great, but I’m in the present, with more to share as we go forward. Compounding matters is the fact that our days here have become very full very quickly. The past week had this as an average day:

6:15 AM: Wake-up
7:30 AM: Deliver three girls to two schools
10:00 AM: Head to class
5:45 PM: Leave class
5:46 PM: Race to pick up kids from two different after-school daycares, before they close at 6:00.
6:15 PM: Supper / Baths / Homework / Stories / Bedtime for kids
8:45 PM: Adults’ homework time
11:59 PM: Sleep till it rolls around again

This opening week of class has featured unusually long days, so that schedule shouldn’t always be quite so nutty. But additional activities will take up most of the slack that might form, as various versions of small groups and ministry experiences begin in the weeks ahead. I think we’ve also discovered that both of us will be spending a couple hours reading and writing most evenings for the year. Our course is set.

Don’t these people know I have a blog to maintain?!

However, this post is not dedicated to daytimers or demands. Everyone has those. I’d best be guided by a statement my wife might make when the sharing of life’s details is simply too little: “But I want to know what’s happening inside of you.”

text-messageThat’s tricky to describe, as a friend back home discovered on my third day of class. He texted me this, “How are things in your adventure with God there?” His question landed in a moment when I was feeling fairly rattled. My reply: “Oh boy… The easy answer would be to say that it’s ‘really good’ so far. Another answer would be to say that I’m wondering if this experience is going to kill me in some way. But that would require more explaining than I feel capable of. :-)” He mercifully left me alone with a gentle reply that he hoped I didn’t really die and a nervous-but-caring emoticon.

Let me attempt to describe a bit of this by first talking about somebody else.

bill-johnsonThe senior pastor of Bethel Church is a man named Bill Johnson. I unashamedly admire and appreciate him a great deal. If you listen to his messages for any length of time, you’ll hear him allude to a very profound God-encounter that he had many years ago, an experience that generated a significant shift in his life. For many months, Bill felt his life wrapped around a single sentence of prayer: “God, I must have more of You at any cost!” One night, he was awakened at exactly 3 AM. He was immediately wide awake and experiencing in his body a sensation just shy of electrocution. The more he tried to stop it, the worse it got. He neither heard a voice nor saw a vision, but he sensed no doubt in his soul that this was God responding to his prayer. This sensation lasted nearly four hours, at which point he got out of bed completely refreshed. The same thing happened for two more nights.

When Bill recounts the story in person or in print, he shares those details just sufficiently to describe the scene, but he doesn’t linger long there. The outer experience mattered because it got his full attention, but his full attention was quickly directed to deeper places than his nervous system. He felt aware of a significant exchange taking place in his spirit. The Father was challenging him on whether he meant what he had prayed.

“At any cost?”

Jacob encountered the Lord, and he limped for the rest of his life. Mary was chosen to serve the Lord in a glorious role, and she bore the stigma of birthing an illegitimate child from that day forward. What cost was Bill willing to bear? He felt as though God was setting sights upon his regard for his reputation. Who doesn’t want to be respected and esteemed by others? Would he continue to pray this prayer if God offered a life with “more of Him” in exchange for his own dignity?

The Bible describes the Holy Spirit as the Counselor and the Word of God as a sword so sharp that it divides our deepest layers one from the other. Whichever image you prefer, the point is that God knows how to get to the heart of the matter in a hurry. Bill was laid bare, and in that moment, his prayer of response was, “More, God, more! I must have more of You at any cost. If I lose respectability and get You in the exchange, I’ll gladly make that trade. Just give me more of You!”

Feel free to make that prayer as much your own as you wish.

One of BSSM’s key terms is the word “revivalist”. The mission statement of their school revolves around developing the revivalist in every student. “How do they define that term?” you ask? Great question. Here’s the official answer:

  • Revivalist: a believer who is focused and passionate, willing to pay any price to live in community, purity, and power because they are loved by God, whose manifest presence transforms lives and cultures

For the record, I don’t wear that word comfortably today. I don’t even claim to be that. Part of the issue is that the term skews in my grey matter into images of televangelists that I don’t trust or wish to emulate. But the more personal issue is that I haven’t often felt like “revivalist material”. I’m aware of my shortcomings, at least enough of them to fear that that list doesn’t often describe the person I am.

But it describes the person I wish to be.

I think I do.

I think I have wished to be that for many years.

Can there be a believer anywhere who doesn’t at least want to want to be what is described above?

bibleOn our first day of class, we were assigned to read two chapters of Scripture everyday for the rest of the school year. The first two months feature assigned passages, an Old Testament flow through selections that carry the “big story” of the Bible, followed by heavy New Testament immersion featuring every chapter of the Gospels and Acts. In the quiet of this afternoon, I sat with famous, read-it-a-million-times passages from the lives of Abraham and Moses. Let me share what landed during those readings.

Genesis 22 features Abraham being tested by God’s request to sacrifice his son Isaac. It opens like this:

1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey.

People love to be their own masters. We intuitively buck against anyone’s attempts to tell us where to go or what to do or with whom to do it or what it will cost us. Yet, God lays out all these details for Abraham, in an un-imaginable scenario. And the response of our “faith father”?

“Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey.”

No hesitation. No bartering. No dragging of feet or digging of heels. God directs. Abraham obeys. And I am convicted just in time to read verse 12.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

My highlighter targeted the phrase “you have not withheld from me”. In the margin, my pen recorded, “Your obedience is marked by what you don’t withhold.” Just as Bill was awakened for some 3 AM soul-wrestling, I am sensing, albeit current-free at this point, the Lord leaning upon me with some questions:

  • What do you withhold from me, Jason?
  • What drives you to do that?
  • What do you imagine would happen if you stopped protecting that which is so precious to you, and instead offered it to me in obedience?

Good questions, Father.

Sigh.

I’m going to keep reading…

Back in Genesis 22, God responds to Abraham’s daring obedience. Notice verses 12-14.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

I’m especially intrigued by verse 14.

Abraham named the place in accordance with his experience there. But the rest of the verse suggests that a soon-to-be-old saying was birthed on that day. We get the impression that for ages to come, this sentence became part of regular dialog. It was widely known, in the vocabulary vault of everyone from a young age: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

And I find myself musing. In what types of conversations did that line arise?

I imagine two people conversing about matters of faith or trust or obedience. One is describing the work that Yahweh is doing in his life, and in an effort to provide counsel, the other says, “Well, you know what they say: ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’” This cliché was likely offered as encouragement that the God who provided for Abraham would also provide for him. But that message alone would be a watered-down “Chicken Soup” version of the truth. The saying that rooted itself in the language of the day was explicit with a location: “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

The provision of the Lord occurs on the mountain of the Lord. One doesn’t receive the living water in the living room. God’s gift is indeed merciful and miraculous, but it is only received after cost has been counted and mileage has been logged. Said another way:

Abraham
Don’t get no ram
At home with the fam.

Ahead of filling in the blank of what “you have not withheld from me”, there is no promise of tasting firsthand the provision of the Lord. The provision is heaped after the mountain has been hiked. Or as the margin of my Bible now notes, “As you follow where He leads and offer what He asks, He will provide.”

The word “as” is far larger than its two measly letters might suggest.

Later, I was directed to read Exodus 12. Verses 1-13 provide the instructions that were to guide the Hebrews on their final night of Egyptian slavery. There are details about late-night lamb chops shared with families and friends. They can expect bloodied door frames and battered firstborns. Tucked in those instructions is verse 11:

11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

These funny fashion tidbits are hardly funny. And they’re hardly tidbits. They describe the vital tone of this meal.

This is not to be a leisurely lunch.

No lounging afterwards. We are not watching college football.

The body-garments point to the heart-questions. As your mouth ate, your soul was to ask:

  • “Now what?
  • What are we doing?
  • Where are we going?
  • What is next?”

This meal was to be eaten in a spirit of readiness. In the lamb, one was receiving the sustenance of the Lord – salvation. And it appears unthinkable that one would consume such a feast while imagining that he could simply stay put afterward. That option is not on the table.

This menu demands movement.

This feast bestows freedom.

One cannot fill up and head home, for home is not back there. Home is beckoning us onward. There are rivers to cross and deserts to traverse.

Anything formerly withheld can be left here. Whatever value it once held and whatever role it once played, the Lord will provide abundantly more as you bear the cost of following Him wherever He leads.

My supportive friend ended our text-talk with a hope that I don’t really die. I appreciated the sentiment. I felt the same. Nobody likes the feeling of death. But perhaps since then, my trembling insides have stilled just enough to discern a hunch that is somehow and simultaneously unsettling and silencing. God would send a different text.

Some things are supposed to die.

And I will lovingly hunt them down in you.

Fresh Breaths

In the year that followed the events described in THIS POST, I slowly arrived at some of the points described in THIS OTHER POST. If you’re not caught up, check the links. If you are, onward.

arrow logoIn March 2013, the Arrow Program, which I have described in earlier posts, was reaching its end. One unique feature of our final residential was that spouses were invited to join for the final couple days of learning and celebration. Our youngest daughter was still nursing at the time, but we succeeded in making arrangements for she and my wife, Shannon to join me on the Canadian West Coast.

Today’s post involves much of Shannon’s story, as seen through my eyes. If anything here fascinates you, you should follow up with her. We have discussed these events together over several years and have told these stories together several times to a smattering of close friends. In the name of marital health, you can be sure she will proofread this post before it goes live! 🙂

The blunt truth is that my final Arrow residential, intended to be a magical finale to a two-year journey, wasn’t at all magical, at least not in the ways we might have expected. For starters, Shannon was in a pretty unhealthy spot at the time, weary in her spirit and beaten down in her heart and exhausted in her body, and feeling quite alone in all of those places. I was aware of this general reality, but frightfully unaware of its extent. Naturally woven into this was the fact that we were in a stretch of poor connection with one another. And once again, I was aware of this general reality but frightfully unaware of its extent. (If other marriages out there have ever had such recurring themes, I’d love to read about it in a blog post sometime. 😉 )

Looking back, some of the factors that contributed to Shannon’s sense of burden were circumstantial: She was feeling the pressure of being a relatively new preacher’s wife, she was raising three children under the age of 5, all while working a 24-7-ish job as a mental health home operator. (If you’re not familiar with our lives, this involved 4 other adults living in our space, needing help to function in healthy ways. All were diagnosed with various levels of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.) That job blessed our family in some very tangible ways, but I think we are both still discovering some of the intangible ways in which it exacted its toll on Shannon.

Back on the West Coast, Shannon arrived with a load of other spouses, though she was the only one carting a baby along. From the get-go, we recognized that this would compromise her level of participation, but we trusted that something would be better than nothing. As we visited in bed that first night, I recounted to Shannon stories about my classmates and facilitators. Some of these were simply to help her match descriptions she’d previously heard with faces she was now seeing. But some of it was deeper.

This group had done some gut-level sharing with one another, and on that particular evening, I was recalling a number of dramatic stories that I’d heard from this collection of special friends. These were testimonies of shocking answers to prayer, vivid encounters with God, equally vivid encounters with evil, and powerful displays of obedience and sacrifice to follow Jesus. Our conversation wound down, and I rolled over to sleep. Shannon did no such thing. (Is there a married couple out there that might wish to tackle this trend in their blog post? 🙂 )

But Shannon wasn’t just struggling to get comfortable on a new mattress. The secondhand stories that I had shared with her had stirred something. (There is an unusual power wrapped into testimony, but that’s another topic.) These tales of God’s closeness had pressed directly on the dryness in the despair that she felt. And she proceeded to pray a most desperate prayer, pleading with God that if He really responded to people, she needed Him to respond to her in a bad way. And somewhere after “amen”, she fell asleep too.

The next day centred on some teaching times specifically designed for couples in ministry. Our youngest child nominated herself for “least favourite” by striking naps from her itinerary and forcing Shannon to miss much of this opportunity. Baby played and mother stewed several doors down the hallway from where I sat with the rest of the adults. Shannon had left the door open so that she might hear at least the murmurs from the classroom. There was a knock on her open door. One of my facilitators was Joanne, a high-ranking leader in the Salvation Army. Joanne and I had almost no interaction with one another during those two years, as she simply wasn’t in my closest circle of leaders. But on that day, she stepped into our lives briefly yet forcefully. She asked Shannon if she could come in. Then she sat with my wife and my daughter and gently asked if she might pray with Shannon. Shannon accepted. Then Joanne started a sentence that neither of us had ever personally heard before: “I think I have a word for you.”

And then Joanne, a complete stranger to Shannon, went on to describe, with beyond-dismissible accuracy, the place in which Shannon found herself. A cynic might argue that Joanne was a wise woman who could read body posture and facial expression. That might be true, but that cynic would be easy to dismiss. There was much more going on in those moments. That encounter, the first of its kind that either of us had ever experienced, breathed life into Shannon. I’m not talking about miraculous, now-I-can-take-on-the-world vigour. I’m talking about just-enough-oxygen-to-make-it-to-the-next-corner life. In that saving, Shannon was shattered. Could it be real that in her moment of need when it felt as though nobody saw her, that a stranger was sent to confirm a loving message from the Father, “Oh, I see you, My dear daughter. I hear you, and I wish you to know that I am for you and near you.”

deep-breathOne of the amazing things about this event is how unamazing the follow-up was. Nothing in our lives changed. Circumstances stayed exactly the same. An identical list of stresses existed the day after as had existed the day before. Shannon doesn’t even look back on the following weeks and perceive that she even functioned with any noticeable increase in vibrancy or hopefulness. As I said, it was a breath when she was almost dead, a wisp to keep her afloat.

But another breath was coming.

At that final Arrow Residential, one of the special guests was Jason Hildebrand, a professional actor from Toronto. Jason and his family have gone on to become very special friends to us, but my initial introduction to him might not have hinted at that. Jason’s most obvious role at our Residential was to perform various productions that he had created through the years. These included scenes from the “Life of David” and a much-loved piece titled “The Prodigal Trilogy”, based on the parable already alluded to in THIS POST. But perhaps what will stick with me for longer was a prayer exercise in which Jason led a number of our class members. Full disclaimer: Some of my classmates recount this experience as one of frustration or worse. I confess to being somewhat bipolar myself in this regard: I was unnerved enough to feel myself stepping backward from Jason, yet fascinated enough to set up a private meeting with him afterward. In short, what I witnessed Jason facilitate with people in one-on-one interactions (observed one-on-one interactions, something of an oxymoron, I realize) were times of listening prayer merged with imagination, mixed with Scripture, mashed with role-playing, matched with counselling, mingled with spiritual direction. Surely a poor illustration, I can’t help but recall that I felt a touch like Steve Carell’s character in the awful movie “Dinner for Schmucks”.  In one of that flick’s most usable lines, he is spying through a window at some bizarre scene and then speaks into his phone nervously, “I’m having trouble describing what I’m looking at.” (Jason, you know we love you and your family a great deal, but that is about where I found myself on the day we met! You already know this story; just making sure we’re good!)

As mentioned earlier, I went on to set up a truly one-on-one time of prayer with Jason. I confess that exercises like this are very difficult for me. I have trouble “letting myself go”. My emotions are typically reined in by logic, and my imagination struggles to break free of my analysis. Yet, even with those deep-seated tendencies, the experience still delivered me to an epiphany of sorts. But that’s not for this post.

In the days following that final Residential, I was in touch with Jason about the possibility of him being a guest in our church someday. As it turned out, he was coming our direction in the very near future. He had enough flexibility to linger for a week and tag on additional performances. There was a very obvious satisfaction in this arrangement: My church was about to be blessed by a powerful piece of drama. A less obvious anticipation: Jason would be in our city for several days. Here was a fellow who appeared to be functioning in his spiritual life in ways completely foreign to ours. Couple that with our recent list of “God is nearer than you think” experiences, and we  noted here a unique opportunity to learn. So we formed a plot: We would invite him over for supper. After 60 seconds of chit chat, we would pump him with every question we could come up with and glean anything of value that we could find! And the unsuspecting fellow, he accepted the invite. 🙂

In an effort to maximize the evening’s value, we invited a couple friends who we discerned might also enjoy this conversation. In an effort to limit people’s questions about our curious curiosity, we only invited that couple. 🙂  Once the food was served, I recounted my introduction to Jason, much as I have done above. He was happy to entertain questions and share some of his own journey. As our children’s bedtimes neared, Shannon headed upstairs to make that happen. Jason proceeded to engage in prayer with both of our friends individually. I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that they were deeply impacted, both in their lives and their marriage.

It likely only happens in our household, but on that evening a phenomenon revealed itself: When one REALLY wants children to go to sleep as quickly as possible, every disruption imaginable (and several entirely new ones) all converge at once. As the chaos settled, Shannon descended to the main floor. In her loaded words, “I was just mad.” She had eyed this evening for weeks in advance, hopeful to discover more of the breathing space that she still so badly needed. And here we were, at the end of the evening. Prayers had been prayed, folks had been blessed, and all that awaited her were farewells and dirty dishes. She willed herself to pray a prayer of gratitude for our friends and the strength which they had received that evening. “Who knows? I prayed that this evening would be one of significance, and it has been significant for them.  Maybe that was the point of the whole gathering, I will try to be ok with that” she thought. And if so, then she was grateful on their behalf. But she could not simply swallow her sense of disappointment of missing out. Again. So we chatted a bit about children and bedtimes and frustrations, and Jason invited Shannon to pray with him also, despite the fact that it was already getting late. If he had been there, I’m not entirely sure how Steve Carell would have described what happened next.

But I don’t mean it was strange. It involved all of those ingredients I mentioned earlier, combined into a time of Shannon prayerfully directing her heart toward Jesus, to consider his feelings toward her and his plans for her. To the physical eye, it looked like two people on the floor, having quiet conversation with their eyes closed, one of them making occasional movements with her hands or arms. But physical eyes would have been insufficient that evening. After 90 minutes of prayer and Scripture and conversation, my wife arose as a new woman, with a brand new heart and a brand new identity.

I’m not given to hyperbole, so you will just have to deal with that sentence as it stands.

a_plant-new_lifeOn May 16, 2013, Shannon went to bed freed from burdens and weights and fears and insecurities and hurts that she had carried for so long that she couldn’t remember where she picked most of them up. And in a matter of 90 minutes, praying with a Christian brother and placing herself before Jesus, she reached a point of deliverance that I would challenge any counsellor over many years to have reached.  That’s no slight against counsellors; just a simple declaration that there is one Counsellor who can get things done in power!

Let me close with news that will shock you.

People are stupid. At least the one I know best is.

Between March 2012 and May 2013, I had instances where I actually imagined that perhaps these off-the-charts experiences were being granted to me because I was oh-so-special. “Wow, God must really have great plans for me, that He’s giving such gifts. Thanks for loving me so much.” But on the heels of hosting Jason for an evening and witnessing my wife’s rebirth from that day forward, I began to get a new thought: “Oh! God didn’t do those things because He thought I was special. He did those things when He did them because He knew I was slow. Because now my wife is out of the gates, and I’m going to need every inch of that head-start in order to keep up!”

Dust Settling, Truths Rising

If you didn’t read my LAST POST, this post will prove tricky. This will be the commentary on that, and commentaries aren’t that valuable if one hasn’t read the original.

The end of last post left here: I returned home with my head spinning wildly on its axis, after having God serve up a half-dozen unnervingly personalized points of encounter within the span of a week. To pull out a favourite high school word, I moved forward from March 2012 in a state of severe discombobulation.

Did all of that really happen?

There was no denying it had.

Did I imagine any of that?

There was no chance I had.

So where to, from here?

What follows are just a few points of conclusion at which I arrived in the subsequent months. But you must remember the obvious: The journey toward the following bullet points wasn’t nearly so tidy as it now appears. It involved a steady stream of reflection and prayer and journaling and questioning and mentally replaying and carefully conversing over a span of many months. If anything of value lies here, gratefully plant it into your own life and see what springs forth.

What Was Needed
Looking back, the specific spiritual gift mentioned by Gretchen – the gift of discernment – wasn’t the point of that encounter. What I mean is: I haven’t given it much more thought about whether or not I possess that particular gift. I’ll aim to faithfully use what I have for the rest of my days, and folks can label me however they wish. (On an aside: It seems that “discernment” would be a gift no wise person would claim as their own. Likely best to have it affirmed by others. There, that statement is my word of discernment for the day. :-))

The_Oracle_and_Neo_ThirdSaid another way, that conversation now looks to me like something from “The Matrix”.  Remember when Neo was wrestling with whether or not he was really “the one”. He was sent to a mysterious woman known as the Oracle, with the expectation that she would give him a message to make everything clear. But she didn’t. She did give him a message, but we later learn that it wasn’t even true — certainly not as we would define “true”. So why did she say it? My guess: She said exactly what would move him one step down the path. It didn’t need to provide full clarity. It just needed to reveal one inch to that now called forth his next inch of response. That’s no coded attempt to liken myself to Neo (I don’t know Kung Fu) or Gretchen to the Oracle. That’s just my take on what was accomplished through that particular conversation at that particular point in time. It set me off on a path that I may never have been so open to, as I was right then — far greater consideration of the Holy Spirit and the ways that He works in the world and the church. I call that God’s timing, and His sights are well-calibrated.

The gifts of the Spirit, whatever you think of them, are given for the building of Christ’s Body. To speak of them at all is to speak of God’s commitment to equip His people to be what one another needs. The stunning sequence of experiences that week seemed to clarify as I came to imagine God’s explanation:

“Jason, I am delighted that you are delighted by the new sense of power and purity into which you are walking. I’ve always wanted this for you. You are right to thank Me and to celebrate, for it is a wondrous gift. But your chart is skewed. You imagined that these events were creating a climax within your spiritual life. You’d never imagined experiencing a greater touch. Well, here we are, and I needed to catch you in that moment, to stun you when you already stunned, with this truth: What is happening in your life right now is merely the preface of the book I’m writing. You thought you were arriving at ‘happily ever after.’ This is ‘once upon a time,’ My friend.  You’ve never even dreamed up the pages that I really want to write. Shall we begin?”

Bigger Than You

“God never works in your life just for your life.”

That is a sentence that slowly formed and then cemented itself into my mind, through the middle months of 2012. I mean, imagine this scenario: God responds to the most personal prayers you’ve ever prayed. He touches the core of your being and addresses the needs or fears or wounds that are there. If that occurred, what do you imagine would be the result? For many of us, the answer is fairly self-centred.

  • Perhaps our heart would discover a new sense of peace.
  • Perhaps our conscience would be put at ease.
  • Perhaps we’d feel a lightness in our spirit and a happiness in our heart.
  • Perhaps we’d sleep better or smile broader.

In some way or other, life would just be better.

In short, many of us imagine that God’s touch upon our deepest parts would bring about an effect primarily felt by us. I certainly imagined it that way.

But God has a wide gaze. His perspective is panoramic and His context is cosmic. “He never works in your life just for your life.” That felt like a huge discovery at the time, and it hasn’t stopped feeling huge yet.

Redeeming Requires Wreckage
In an earlier post, I alluded to many months of a “wrecking ball” experience. Hindsight prompts me to look back on that terribly-uncomfortable stretch of time as a vitally necessary step. That year-plus brought me far nearer to the end of myself than I had ever been before. That rattled my confidence and shook my sense of certainty. It loosened my grip and increased my openness. In short, it positioned me perfectly for what was coming up.

I have always trusted my mind a great deal. I consider myself a careful thinker who values that which is solid and sound. I came to imagine the Father developing his “March 2012” plan for me something like this:

“Jason, you highly value your ability to process. You are measured and cautious, and these are good qualities. But you trust your processor too much. In fact, you trust it more than you trust Me. I’ve allowed you to live like that for a time, but that time is up. I know that you will not eagerly relinquish this version of control, so I will lovingly rip it from your hands. How will I do that? I will take your cherished processor, and I will fry it by subjecting it to a flow of thoughts and feelings and experiences that you will be unable to dismiss and incapable of handling. When you smell the smoke of your precious processor and feel the unnerving burn inside yourself, then I will pull it out and we will begin constructing a new one from the ground up. I need you to walk with Me in some new ways, and this will require a renewed mind. You didn’t ask for this, and I didn’t ask permission. Let’s get at it.”

Shortening Your Arms
Closely connected to the previous point, I began to realize something about myself. My primary method of interacting with my world is to hold things at arm’s length. If we were sitting at a coffee shop, I would enact this by picking up an item from the table and holding it out in front of me, at the end of my fully extended limb. Then I would turn the item with my hand, rotating it so that my eyes could perceive all its angles. I think God has designed me this way, and some of the things I’m good at are linked to this tendency. One example: Someone will occasionally remark after a sermon that they can’t figure out how I ever discovered some insight from Scripture that was just shared. They felt like that passage was so familiar, yet it had just come alive to them in a profound new way. Much of that is God’s revelation or great resources. But often, there is another answer: I sat with that for a long time rolling it around in my hand and looking at its angles over and again until the time and the thought, the prayer and the poking seemed to lead me somewhere I’d never been before. In a sentence, I’m grateful to be designed this way. I hardly had a choice in the matter anyway, so I’d best strive to use it well.

The problem is: The most important things in life are not to be handled at arm’s length. It doesn’t make marriage thrive. And it’s not a good approach to parenting. And good luck if you think God will allow you to maintain a “safe distance” while you probe and examine Him like some form of science experiment about which to record observations and draw conclusions. After He fries your processor, He will then break your arm so that you have no option but to get up close and personal. For a good chunk of my life, I have treated God as a subject. To be sure, He was a most glorious subject, one with endless depths and complexity. But He was now eager to put my arm in a sling and just come on in. I’ve tried to let Him.

In short, the months that followed March 2012 were a period of unsettling sweetness. I lived out of a rootedness I had never known before, as if my spiritual feet had found new ground upon which to stand. Sometimes I smile and confess: It felt like a conversion experience. To many folks’ chagrin, it wouldn’t summarize neatly onto a pamphlet that one might be baptized at age 15, then spend the next 15 years either studying for ministry or working in ministry roles, before stumbling into a more real conversion experience that I never felt before.

But that was how it felt.

Let me close by revisiting my last post. Thanks to those who cared enough to read all 3000-plus words. You deserve a reward! A further word of thanks to all who took time to send a response. I’ve loved hearing from you — such treasured sharing!

I’ve known for years that someday I would type up that post, but it caused me stress last week as the time was actually drawing near. The night before I composed it, I awoke at 3:30 AM in a state of uneasiness:

  • How am I to tell this story?
  • What needs to be said?
  • How does it need to be said?

A couple lines of reply seemed to come. I credit them to God.

“Testimonies should not be mumbled. If your goal is to glorify Me, then speak it out. You can do this blandly and safely if you choose, but that will only minimize the glory I receive and the power that your story might wield.”

For sixty minutes, I laid in bed, trying to be prayerful. As my spirit settled into a place of peace, I planted my feet on this prayer: “I’ll meet you wherever You want.” Somehow that felt like my prayer, in that night-time moment. Somehow it still does.

I express that sentiment to people all the time.

A friend wants to meet for lunch.

“I’ll meet you wherever you want.”

A colleague calls to visit over coffee.

“I’ll meet you wherever you want.”

Most of the time, my meaning is mundane: “I’m not that picky. You choose the venue, and I will be there.”

But as a prayer, the line carries weight, and I’ve already found myself repeating it several times this week. Lots of meaning fits in those few words:

“I’m not so courageous as a wish to be, Father. I don’t love risk, and I value my reputation more than I should. I can be over-governed by self-consciousness, and I don’t often leave enough room for mystery. But with all these issues and many more unmentioned, I still want You enough to say: I will meet you wherever you want.”

If you need new prayer line, feel free to borrow that one.

Perhaps we’ll meet up in the same place!