The Gathering

Have you heard about the time that the forest animals gathered together? “We must have unity!” they declared, and began their meeting. The Head Bear, the Raccoon Patriarch and the King of the Elk stood before the Gathering and called them to attention.

The Patriarch of the Raccoons spoke first. He told stories of how the Prince of the Entire Forest had walked among their trails generations ago, and how He promised to return someday. “The time is approaching!” declared the raccoon. “We must prepare for His return! We must be united together for His sake!”
“But how can we be united? We’re so different!” cried a skunk in the second row, and the convocation burst into excited squabbling. How indeed could a group this diverse become united? “Learn to eat nuts!” the squirrels chattered. “Build dams!” cried the beavers. “You must eat bugs” chirped the swallows, and the objections of the spiders and bees were missed in the clamor. The otters just wanted to go play in the river, and the owls were lobbying that the meeting should be postponed until midnight.
It was clear that it was easier to call for unity than it was to get all the animals to agree on how to become united. The discussion went on late into the afternoon until one of the younger coyotes, who had had very little for breakfast that morning, accidentally ate the Vice-Chairman of Ways and Means for the Mouse Kingdom. He was instantly ashamed, but the damage was done. The rodent species began to leave, the young coyote was barking his apology, and a grey squirrel, not being fluent in the coyote language, misunderstood his intent and chattered an alarm, and then there was pandemonium.
Dozens of animals were left dead on the meadow that night as the moon came up over the trees. There were a number of bloody trails where wounded creatures escaped to the undergrowth.
Hope may not have died that day, but it was seriously wounded. Species didn’t trust each other after that event, and there was bickering within the groups about whose fault it was. The King of the Elk had young bucks lining up to challenge his right to lead the herd that fall. There was no more mention of the Prince of the Entire Forest coming to walk among them anymore.
I have been privileged to know a number of prophets and apostles over my lifetime. When they have gathered, have been seasons when we have acted like these animals: “Be like me!” one would shout at the others. The intent was sincere: “I’ve discovered this truth! You need to know it too!” For decades, probably for generations, prophets have devoured each other, apostles have snapped at those who don’t see as they see, and teachers have tried to make entire congregations into their image. Those gifted with mercy have been angry with those who don’t grieve over the hurts of others, and intercessors have withdrawn to hide in their caves.
Let me give you an example: Do we rest in God, under the shadow of His wings, or are we to pick up the weapons of our warfare which are not carnal and become the violent ones who take the Kingdom by force?
We know that truth, but we overlook it sometimes. We know that the answer is “Both,” and if someone asks us as clearly as I just have, we can see that. But in the busyness of our daily lives, our focus narrows, and we only remember the lessons that we have learned recently. I think that there must be a rule somewhere: if I’m learning one lesson, then some of the people closest to me are learning the opposite lesson at the same time.
Recently, I was at a gathering of a couple hundred apostles and prophets, and I saw some things beginning that I’ve waited decades to see: I saw gifted leaders recognizing each other’s differences, acknowledging them as strengths, rather than considering them as weaknesses.
The call was still for unity, but – unlike the animals in the meadow, and unlike so many previous gatherings that I’ve seen – there was no value placed on uniformity.
In the past, at least in my experience, the call for unity is usually associated with a cry for some common ground: a common theology, a common lifestyle, a common expression of ministry.
I don’t know if those common ground goals have ever worked to produce unity. If they have, I have not heard about it. I was part of a denomination for several years that codified their theological “distinctives” into their confession of faith: you couldn’t receive their credentials if you didn’t agree with every detail of that doctrine. Our quarterly gatherings were morose and divided; our annual gatherings were full of sharp disagreement and biting criticism. The intention was good, but there was no unity.
I would like to propose a change: instead of building unity around uniformity, rather we build our unity around fathers, around relationships rather than doctrines or practices. (Of course, when I speak of “fathers,” I’m not speaking only of men, just as “the Bride of Christ” is not limited to only women.)
I fellowship with other believers regularly. One of the things we have in common is that we look to some of the same people as “fathers” to our own spiritual lives and in the life of our gathered community. We don’t have common theology, these people I fellowship with; in fact, we have some significant differences of opinion, which I find to be invigorating, challenging, encouraging, because I know that they love me regardless of my doctrinal differences with them.
I’m getting used to people encouraging me to be who God has created me to be, rather than to be like themselves. The prophets among us are learning to walk without the limp. Intercessors are coming out of their caves. Apostles are rising up to lead, though many of them are scratching their heads wondering what their gift is supposed to lead them into, but finally beginning to understand that it’s safe to ask those questions.
In our fellowship, we are not gathered around a common doctrine. We are united in our hunger for “more of God,” and we gather around a person, the one who comfortably fits in the role of “father” among us. Though many of those whom he fathers are older than his parents, we recognize his “fatherness” among us. Odd isn’t it?
As individuals, we gather around one father. As a fellowship, we relate to other fathers that we know and relate with. We are proud of the men and women who are “fathers” among us, but we’re not jealous of other fathers. If you gather around a different apostolic leader, then I’m delighted that you have such a man or woman to lead you!
In the natural – the biological realm – the only time someone will be jealous for another person’s father or mother is when their own has failed them. So it is in spiritual relationships, I’m not jealous for your fathers because my father is a good leader and a good friend among my house. It would be weird for me to long to be parented by people who neither birthed me nor know me as a son.
Unity is a wonderful thing, and I’m looking forward to us (at least in my region) growing more in unity as we gather around fathers rather than doctrines or practices, as we learn to celebrate our differences and focus on our own strengths and responsibilities rather than either conforming ourselves to others’ example, or working to bring them into conformity to our own patterns.

It’s Not About Faith.

OK, that’s going to unsettle some folks. I’m among them. But that’s what he said.
I was walking in the woods in the wee hours of the morning, and Papa whispered to me, “It’s not about faith.”
I stopped walking. Right there in the middle of the trail. And as he unfolded it, I understood a little more of what he was saying.
It’s not about faith. It’s about relationship.
Specifically, It’s not about what I call faith, what we call faith.
Faith is fundamentally an exercise of the spirit. It has nothing at all to do with what I believe. It’s certainly not about whether I believe or not. It’s about whom I believe in.
If I understand and agree with all the appropriate doctrines, that’s not an exercise of my spirit; it’s an exercise of my mind, part of my soul. Therefore, it’s not an act of my spirit, it’s an act of my soul.
It’s good to believe the right theology. It’s good to have a mind that is disciplined in the things of God, but it’s a different good thing than faith.
Instead of being about what I believe, faith is about whom I believe in. Again, it’s not intellectual agreement: “Yes, Jesus is the Son of God!” Heck, even the demons believe that, and they certainly don’t walk in faith. Faith is about whom I believe in, and it’s about whether I put my trust in him.
Whether I can pass the theology tests has nothing to do with whether I put my trust, my confidence in Jesus or not. In fact, people with no competent theology whatsoever can legitimately put their faith in Jesus.
I know a woman who had the gospel preached to her by a fellow drug addict: “Saved? Yeah, I know how you can get saved!” declared the druggie, and she went on to outline how to trust in Christ, and her partner prayed as instructed, received Christ, turned away from her sin and is still serving God decades later.
I know a man who was by his own admission so strung out on drugs that he could hardly talk. He was passed out on the beach next to his surfboard when some guys woke him up to tell him about Jesus. It was the first he’d ever heard the name, but he trusted, was healed and delivered, and has since led tens of thousands of others to faith, and has memorized most of the New Testament.
These two had no theology whatsoever. It was not possible for them to believe the right things. And until they had put their faith in the person of Christ, the rest of it would have been impossible, and it may have been a hindrance.
If I understand the right doctrine and agree with it, that’s not an act of my spirit; it’s an act of my mind, so it is not faith. In fact, it’s knowledge, and the Bible teaches us that “knowledge puffs up.” Even knowledge that is good and right and true puffs one up.
If I know what I should do or believe and I force myself to do that, this also is not an act of my spirit; it’s an act of my will, so it is also not faith.
If I feel emboldened and ready for any challenge, I may call that feeling faith, but it is not an act of my spirit; it’s an expression of my emotions, so it is not faith.
Correct knowledge is good. Right choices are good. Stirred emotions are good. In fact, I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to walk with Jesus over time without them. Each can serve as a tool to allow me to build relationship with God, or they can be used as a weapon against me, enticing me to trust in myself, in my soul, rather than in him.
But as far as the kind of faith that is described as “Without faith it is impossible to please God,” they’re pretty much useless.
But the goal isn’t that would have the perfect faith. It’s not about faith. It’s about the relationship I cultivate by faith between the Creator of the Universe and myself. Faith – even correct and right faith – is not the goal; it’s the means to the goal. The goal is him.
Paul talks about it in Philippians. He uses statements like “I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” He describes the things that he’s willing to lose “that I might know him.”
That’s the goal: He is my goal, our goal. That we would know him. That we would be known by him. That our fellowship would be with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ.
That’s what it’s about.


Are you a Cowboy or a Shepherd?

In Photoshop, there’s a filter that you can apply to a photo that converts it from a nice color photograph to a black and white drawing. I’m using that filter in this article. I know I’m unnaturally separating an issue with thousands of gradients into extremes, but I’m trying to make a point.
I have friends from New Zealand. They don’t understand our Westerns: the movies that are built around the Old West mean nothing to them. New Zealand doesn’t have cowboys; they have shepherds. And shepherds have as much in common with cowboys as sheep have with cattle: not much.
Nowadays, neither sheep nor cattle have much say in the matter: they’re both mechanically guided through the process of feeding, caring, milking or shearing: it’s all automated.
Back in the day when human beings were the shepherds or the cowboys, not robotic fences, and milking machines, in that day, you learned a lot from watching how the two related to their animals.
A shepherd, in the pre-automation world, knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. I’ve heard stories about how in early agrarian societies, when the shepherds would come to town, they’d put all the sheep in the same pen. When it came time to leave, the shepherd would come to the pen and call his sheep; they’d recognize his voice and distinguish it from the other shepherds’ voices, and follow the shepherd out of the mass of other shepherds’ sheep to follow him.
More than that, when the shepherd had called his sheep to himself, the shepherd directed his sheep by leading them, not driving them. He would go before them, and they would follow. It might be too much anthropomorphism to say that they followed out of love, but certainly they had enough experience with him to trust that when they’re with the shepherd, they’re safer and better fed than when they’re not with him.
When it comes time to bed down for the night, the sheep all lay down together, and the shepherd lays down among the sheep, in the midst of them. They keep him warm; if he has wounds, the lanolin in the sheep’s wool worked to protect and heal him. And there’s no question of knowing about what happens during the night, or about discerning when an enemy shows up to stalk the sheep: the shepherd is already there among the flock, and his presence there comforts his sheep and deters the enemies. It’s almost like he’s one of the sheep himself.
The cowboy accomplishes similar function – moving a group of animals from one place to another – but by an entirely different method. Think of the what we see in the cattle drive. There are a thousand misconceptions, but ultimately, the cowboy gets behind the cattle and drives them. He may crack the whip, or shout at them, or whatever, but the cowboy is behind the cattle, driving them away from himself, toward the goal. It’s helpful for the cowboy to know something of the ways that cows work, and he should have some understanding of the trail ahead, but ultimately it’s still a process of “Get behind and push.”
When they settle down for the night, the cowboys gather together by the chuck wagon, tell stories by the fire, and generally make their own community, apart from the animals they are caring for. They’re over here by the fire; the cattle are over there. If something happens during the night, they find out about it in the morning. If there’s enough trouble, they’ll get up, go to the herd, deal with the problem or the interloper, then return to their place by the fire.
American corporate business leadership is very often built on the metaphor of the cowboy. The corporate leader sits in his corner office and directs his managers who cause the people to do the work at hand. He studies his spreadsheet and trend reports, and issues orders to the cattle that do the actual work. When night comes, the managers gather in one place, and the blue-collar workers return home to another neighborhood. When was the last time that you saw the company owner having lunch with the junior mechanic? If it ever does happen, it’s either time for the mechanic’s review, or it’s such an uncommon occurrence that everyone talks about it.
There are a thousand allegorical issues we could look at, but ultimately a cowboy drives his herd and a shepherd leads his flock. A cowboy gets behind and pushes the animals; a shepherd is in front calling for his animals to follow him.
God likes shepherds. The agrarian society had both cattle and sheep; God could have drawn His analogy from either. But He didn’t. He portrays Himself as shepherd. (I can hear it now: “The Lord is my cowboy, I shall not be bored.”) He portrays the leaders of His people as shepherds, and calls His apostles to the shepherd model. It was to shepherds that He announced the birth of His Son. In fact, in the scriptures, the concept of shepherds is used more as a metaphor than it is literally. There isn’t even a word for cowboy in the Bible.
As leaders in the church, we are called to be shepherds. Using that metaphor, we are called to go ahead of the sheep, to know the sheep by name and to call them to ourselves, to devote live in their midst – not separated from them over by the campfire and cook trailer. We are called to draw our warmth from the sheep in the night, and discomfit ourselves for their wellbeing.
OK. That’s the theory. Now how are we doing as leaders of the Lord’s flock? Are we shepherds, or are we cowboys?
When I look at the church in America, I see an awful lot of corporate managers. I see senior cowboys who direct the associate cowboys who do the work of organizing the cattle into their stalls. They declare their vision, and drive the cattle to reach that goal. Then they gather in their staff meetings and cluster around the chuck wagon until the next service. When was the last time that you actually saw the senior pastor being warmed and comforted by the young sheep?
I’m becoming aware of a movement among the church in my nation that is resisting the cowboy mentality, and I see several expressions of it. I see a blossoming house-church movement. I am learning of a revolution growing, as if it were sheep rebelling against cowboys.
I am hearing of believers by the hundreds beginning to question “the way we’ve always done it” and looking for new and more meaningful ways to connect themselves to God. It almost looks as if the sheep were beginning to reject the cowboy leadership of God’s church and, if they can’t find a shepherd who knows their name, then they’ll shepherd themselves, thank you very much.
I hear cowboys bemoaning the sheep that leave them to seek a shepherd. Having been a pastor, and being a cowboy by nature, I feel for them, the frustration, the confusion. But I wonder if it’s really a problem?
Maybe the problem is that we have shepherds living as cowboys, that we have lost track of the gospel of the Kingdom. We have men and women who should be shepherds picking up their spurs and saddles and whips, becoming cowboys, and the church is dying. How then shall we speak life into this revolution? How shall we change the model within our sphere of influence?
I propose that we start by living as shepherds ourselves. We lead by example. We give ourselves for the sheep that know our voice. We live among the sheep, in relationship with them, comforting them, protecting them, and training them that good shepherds lead by example.


Reciprocity With God

The other day, I went for a walk in the woods, in “our place”: a set of trails that God & I used to spend a lot of time on together. What with the price of gas to get there, and the business of life, I haven’t been to those trails much recently; we’ve been meeting in coffee shops and back rooms instead.

When I got to the trailhead, my first words were according to tradition, “Hi Papa,” and then He broke our tradition. Instead of waiting for me to quiet my mind over the next mile, He immediately began speaking to me of reciprocity in relationships, particularly His relationship with individuals. He seemed very excited about it. I’m afraid I loved that part best: His enthusiasm is very contagious.

“My relationship with you,” He began, and I could hear Him smiling, “is reciprocal.” And He let me think on that for a bit.

I sometimes teach a model of relationships that uses a bridge as an illustration of our relationship: the stronger the bridge (the relationship) between us, the more weight that can be carried across the bridge from you to me, or from me to you, but we both have to build the bridge.

I thought of this illustration now, as He was teaching me. “That’s actually not how I relate to you.” I was getting excited with Him by now.

So He began to describe to me how He limits Himself in His relationship with me – or anyone else – based on how I approach Him. While He is always attentive towards me, if I give Him my time and attention, then He gives me His time & attention: the degree to which I experience Him is pretty much determined by how much I’m willing to invest myself in Him, in our relationship.

I wish I could capture the joy, the immediacy, the clarity that came on those trails.

He pointed out that He’s “pretty much omnipotent” and if He relates to me in His omnipotence, I’ll pop, or my brain will fry, or I’ll burn up in a puff of smoke. “No one can see My face and live,” He said to Moses, and suddenly I understand better. If He brought the infinite force of His personality to our relationship, I would crumble to dust when He showed up. That’s hard on the relationship.

It’s mercy that keeps Him at a distance from me.

And so He must limit Himself, His glory that is in His person, His personality. I pray, “Show me your glory” like Moses, and He must answer, “I cannot.”

But the limit that He puts on Himself is the limit that I set. Or to put it the other way, the more I open myself to Him, the more He opens Himself to me.

I long for His presence. I appreciate His mercy.

Prophets Today? Are They Real?

I had an interesting conversation online recently: we have many people in the church today who claim to be “prophets” but who are clearly motivated by greed or by a need for acceptance or respect. How can we trust that there are any real prophets today?

There are evangelists in the church and some of those seem to be motivated by, um... something less than God's heart. Yet we never question whether the office of the evangelist is now vacant. I know some evangelists who are very skilled in their gift, and others who have a legitimate gift, but have no training, no discipline and inferior motives; who have too few skills supporting their gift.

So too the prophet: some few indeed are motivated by personal gain, whether financial, social or emotional. Their failure does not invalidate the reality of others. NT prophets have a different role than OT ones: the Spirit is now on "all flesh" where in the OT, it was very rare, yet in these "all flesh" days, the ministry of the prophet is still needed. Agabus was one; Paul and Barnabas were too (AC 13). The instruction about prophets (eg 1 CO 12-14) and warnings about false prophets (eg 1 JN 4) indicate their presence in the NT community of faith.

I've known scores of legitimate prophets over the years, a very few who claimed to be prophets and were not, and quite a few folks who were legitimately called to prophetic ministry, but lack the discipline, the skills, the training to use the gift properly. Too many people with real & legitimate gifts prophesy not out of God's heart of love, but out of their own hurts, out of their religious culture, out of "the second heaven" (in contrast to 2 Corinthians 12) as if it were from God.

And of course, when a man or woman of God whom we know and trust says, "God said thus to me", then whether we understand or not, we much discern: either they are deceived, or they are intentionally deceiving you, or they are telling you the truth, though it may be outside of your own experience. I have had prophets tell me what I had prayed in my hidden place the night before: either they are hearing from God, or there's something demonic going on, but it absolutely cannot be explained away. The first man who did it to me, I knew to be a man of God, which eliminated the option of my blaming the devil.

If I am called to be a pastor, I must also acquire training and develop character. Likewise if I am called to be a teacher or an evangelist: I must acquire (and learn from!) training and develop character. In the same way, if I am called to be a prophet or apostle, I must acquire training and character, and personally, I believe these latter gifts require more of both training and character than the former ones simply because we have so many fewer examples of what a godly prophet or godly apostle is. We can always look to Billy Graham as an illustration of evangelist, Jack Hayford as a pastor, John Maxwell as a teacher. It’s harder to point to as visible, as clear an example of a prophet or apostle.

Lack of training or character does not invalidate the office, nor my call to it. It merely invalidates the results of my ministry.