An Encounter in the Woods

I came to a realization today. I was walking across a wooden bridge, nestled in the rainforest, surrounded by moss and vine maple, when I realized that God doesn’t love me because of Jesus. He doesn’t love me because of the cross. In fact, the cross had no part of Him loving me.

I don’t know if that’s a radical thought for you; it was for me. It caught me off guard, and I stood still on the bridge thinking about it.

Is it true? God doesn’t love me because of the cross? It messes with some of my religious thinking, certainly, to think that God does not love me because of Jesus and what He has done. But is it a biblical thought? Is it true?

As I was standing on the bridge, the thought occurred to me that the cross was not what I thought it was. I had been working from the assumption that the cross had been a rescue mission: that it had allowed God to love me because it put me in Christ (or put Christ in me) and certainly Christ is quite lovable, and so I had merely been caught up in that love-fest between the Father and the Son. I understood that in Christ, I was loved; apart from Christ, I was not so lovely, not so lovable.

Without the cross, I’m just a sinner heading for hell. God didn’t plan hell for me, of course, but when I rebelled (when I chose a way that wasn’t his way – when I sinned) hell was the consequence of my choice. I discovered that, fundamentally, I saw myself as the sinful man, separated from God, thankful for the rescue that the cross provided. I was really quite grateful for the rescue!

And there’s truth in that. But standing among the mosses on the bridge, I realized that the cross did not somehow manipulate God into doing something that wasn’t in His mind already. There in the woods, He took me back to before creation, before He declared “Let us make man in our image.” By the time He made that declaration, He would have already been committed to the process: to the creation of a species in His own image, and the creation of a universe in which to place that man. Standing on that bridge, I was caught off guard by a vision.

In the vision, I saw the omniscient God considering the process of creating man before He took the final step of creation. In that instant, I saw that because He is omniscient, when He considered creation, He also saw all that comes with it; He knew that if He created a species in His image, they would be loving, because He is love. They would be creative, because He is creative.

But in order to create us – you and me – as a loving, creative people, for it is us He is contemplating, He must create free will, for love that comes from a will that is not free is not love at all. And free will – truly free will – will lead to someone among the billions of individuals choosing to sin. In point of fact, it has led to every single one of us sinning, and so our omniscient Father knew that as He considered creation, it required a cross; if He created us, then He must die for us, and He knew that before He made up His mind to create a race of men in His image.

But because He is omniscient, He saw more than just the concept of a species of beings: He saw the members of that species. Standing there obscured by the vine maple, I looked up and it was as if I saw God looking down at his creation from that moment, as He was thinking about the creation He would make.

He saw Adam and Eve eat of the wrong tree, but his eyes didn’t linger. They looked beyond them to their children. All of humanity was in his gaze. I watched his eyes light on different figures in history, some were heroes, some were villains, most were neither one. He saw every one. He took it all in. This is what creating mankind would result in.

And then he saw me! I caught my breath.

Before He made me, He knew me, yes, that’s true. But before He had even made up His omniscient mind about whether to make a creation or not, He grasped that once He said “Let us make man,” that would result in me.

And in this vision, as He saw me from before His decision to create, I watched him as he fell in love with me. (It’s OK: He saw you from that vantage point too, and He fell in love with you, too, but this is my story!) From before He ever decided to create a universe with space and time, and a race of people to inhabit and explore that universe, He had already fallen irrevocably in love with me.

And now, before He had committed Himself to creation, He was already committed to me in love; He was hooked. He had fallen in love with me. Even though I didn’t exist yet, and I would never exist unless He chose to follow through with creation, yet He had fallen in love with me, and now He must follow through with creation, with the cross, in order that He might know me, that He might share his heart with me. His heart had been ravished. He was smitten. With me!

And suddenly, I saw the cross differently. He didn’t send His Son to the cross as a rescue mission, to deliver me from all the crap and slavery I’d gotten myself into. And He didn’t love me because finally I had come Christ and He certainly loves His own Son, so I get included in that love too.

No! The cross was conceived, all of creation was conceived, planned and carried out, because He loved me! God had fallen in love with me, and He was going to do everything He could do to get to me, to find me and wrap His arms around me. He would climb any mountain to get back to me, so to speak; and that’s what He was doing.

That’s what the cross was: It wasn’t the goal. It was the means to an end, and the end was me. Standing there in the woods, leaning on the railing of an old wooden bridge, I looked up into eyes that were seeing me from before “Let there be light,” from before “Let us make man.” And those eyes were falling in love with me – had already fallen in love with me. And He would do anything, absolutely anything, in order that He could be with me.

Later that week, I got up the nerve to share this experience with my bride as we headed out on our date night. That was difficult because it was so personal. And as I shared it, I realized that it sounded strange. The immediacy of it began to fade as I spoke of it, and I began to question my experience, maybe even my sanity.

We got to the restaurant, but because it was so full, we ended up seated at the bar. And at that moment, the bartender changed the station of the music to an oldies station. They’ve never played oldies there.

Suddenly, Diana Ross started singing, “Ain’t no mountain high enough, Ain’t no valley low enough, Ain’t no river wild enough, To keep me from you!” and I recognized the voice of the One who had spoken to me in the woods.

I literally cried in my beer. Yeah. You love me that much.

And yeah. He loves you that much. That much.

The Lord’s Flock

The Lord’s Flock

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about God’s stray sheep for a while. It seems that there are a whole lot of Christians who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years: for one reason or another, they’ve lost faith in the church. It was in that context that I found myself drawn to this passage recently:

“But I [the Lord] will gather the remnant of My flock out of all countries where I have driven them, and bring them back to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase. I will set up shepherds over them who will feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, nor shall they be lacking,” says the LORD. –Jeremiah 23:3,4

As I meditated on the passage, I felt something of God’s heart for His people, particularly His lost sheep. I’m convinced that He is very tender towards His lost sheep, His children that have long since quit coming to church meetings. I’m beginning to understand something of what He feels for them, and that helps me understand why He’s so protective of them.

As you read the context for this verse, It’s clear that God is quite upset with the shepherds to whom He had entrusted His sheep, because they served their own needs and not the sheep’s needs. I recommend not making God mad at us. Personally, that does not appeal to me.

I’m beginning to hear some of His heartbeat for the sheep – the believers – who are separated from the gathered church. And because this is what I do, I experienced it in bullet points. Here are some key points from the verse above:

• God is going to gather the remnant of His flock from all the different places that they have gone; places like “hidden from church,” or “withdrawn into hopelessness,” “given up,” or “just filling the back pew.” The gathering will be His work; we don’t need to advertise for gathering; gathering is not our work, though we probably need to make room for the gathered sheep. [Note that these sheep are coming from wild places, so they’re likely to be unfamiliar to us, both by name and in their mannerisms.]

• The place He’s bringing them back to is their folds. I know too many churches that functionally belong to the pastor, and may others that belong to a board of directors. By contrast, the place God is bringing his sheep is to a place where they belong, a place they can call their own, a place where they have ownership and influence, where they fit in as full-fledged participants, not just as observers, not just as “nickels and numbers.” If we make room for them to sit down and for them to give their tithe but don’t make room for their vision, their passion, their calling, then we’ve completely missed the point of what God’s doing. Note: by definition, this will significantly change the nature of the gatherings.

• When they are gathered in, these “missing sheep” will become fruitful. They will increase. (It does not say that “we” will be fruitful; they will.) In other words, we must make room not just for our missing brothers and sisters, but for their gifts, for the people in their circle of influence, for their ministries. It’s almost a given that we won’t understand where they’re coming from – they’ve spent the last few years / decades in places you and I have probably never been; they ain’t gonna be as shiny and well-dressed as life-long churchgoers, and we’ll be tempted to think that we’re better than they. That would be stupid. We’ll be tempted to make them wait for a season, for us to decide if we approve of them and their ways of doing things, before we release them to minister. That would be a mistake.

• God will set up shepherds over them. In this, I hear a couple of warnings: I can imagine some men and women in pastoral positions setting themselves as “over” the returning sheep. That would be a mistake any time of course (pastors, like all 5-fold ministers, are to serve), but especially so with these sheep who have learned to survive in the wild. God promises to set up His own shepherds over them and I can’t imagine that He needs help with that. We can look to identify those He’s raising up, rather than installing our own people. Perhaps you and I will be among those set by God into those positions, but not unless we’re already shepherding the sheep He’s given us; not unless we’re doing it according to the goals and values that He has described in this passage and others like it.

• Note that the only responsibility mentioned for the shepherds is to tend the sheep. We (assuming that we’ll be involved) are not assigned to direct the sheep, to rush their development or their healing, nor to hinder their advancement. Our job is to feed them. Yes, there are some other responsibilities associated with being a shepherd, but the one that God points out is feeding. We tend to add other responsibilities that are more appropriate for cowboys than shepherds; God is not adding those. Maybe we shouldn’t either, eh?

• God gives a specific goal: “…and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, nor shall they be lacking.” Whatever it is that we do with these old-timer newcomers, we need to make it so that they are not afraid, not discouraged, not re-evaluate their decision to re-join the gathered body of the Church. We’re going to need to get rid of those religious spirits we have gotten so used to.

• Let me add this personal note: As God brings many of these people back into the church, we will be tempted to see them as “lost sheep” and want to baby them, clean them up, dress them up and minister to their obvious bumps and scrapes. I believe that if we take that approach, then the best we can hope for is that they don’t kick us in the teeth as they run from us and our “help” for them.

A better image may be to look at ourselves as an army training for battle (an appropriate image for the church any day), and these returning believers as battle-tested warriors, returning from the front lines. We may know more about the theory of battle and the reasons why our weapons are better than the enemy’s. But these warriors have spent the last few decades practicing what we talk about.

Many of them will be like the stereotypical Platoon Sergeant who chews on the stub end of a cigar as he hunts the enemy in the jungle. If you’ve read Tom Clancy, think of the character John Clark. If you’re a comics fan, think of Nick Fury. If you like superheroes, think Wolverine: not so polished as we may like, but the right guy to have at your back in a dark alley full of bad guys.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to vacate our leadership positions in favor of these returning warriors. We must not blindly follow them any more than we would blindly follow anyone else. In this generation, ministry – including the ministry of leadership – flows from relationship. It’s unreasonable and irresponsible to place complete strangers into leadership and then instruct our people to follow them. We need to welcome them into friendship, into relationship. Some of them, like some of us, are more suited for leadership than others, and we discover that through relationship.

Legitimate Ministry

A friend of mine says that “We need to be extremely narrow in our focus of ministry, but extremely broad in our definition of what is legitimate ministry.”
I think he’s on to something.
I was meditating on this recently, and two stories – connected stories – spoke to me on the subject.
The first is the apostles’ answer to the Sanhedran when the were questioned about their work: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
I see this as a standard for how we define our own ministry: we obey God. It’s pretty simple actually. Whatever God tells us to do, we do that.
More specifically, we don’t look to religious leaders (or other people, for that matter) to approve of the thing that God is telling us to do. We have one judge, and it’s not you or me, or the guy down the street leading a lot of people.
I think I might go further: you don’t need their approval, and you don’t need their permission to obey God. If God is calling you to do something, to start something, to take a risk, do it!
(I need to insert the obligatory warnings here: “Don’t be stupid!” “Don’t do it in rebellion.” “Don’t build your own empire.” OK? Let’s move on.)
The second story is in the next paragraph. Let me quote it for you:
34 Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. 37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. 38 And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; 39 but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.” Acts 5:34-39
This story addresses how we define the ministry of others. The short version: we don’t. As Gamaliel points out: we can’t always tell if someone is moving in the power of God or in the power of man: wisdom is to step back and Let God sort it out.
But what if we get people going off and starting their own thing in rebellion? Then we have people going off and starting their own thing in rebellion. It’s OK. God is not thrown off by that. As Gamaliel points out, those eventually “will come to nothing.”
God will take care of it. He promised to build His church, and I think He means it.
The danger of course, is that if we take on the responsibility of preventing people from starting illegitimate ministry, then we – who are not omniscient – are in danger of preventing legitimate ministry.
Some said – back in the day – that young upstart Loren Cunningham should not leave the Assemblies of God church where he was youth pastor to start Youth With a Mission (YWAM). In the 50 or so years since then, YWAM has become the largest and arguably most effective missions agency in history of Christianity. Millions of people have come to faith through the men and women of that ministry.
Would you want to stand before God and say “Oops…” for having prevented Loren
from starting YWAM? Would you want responsibility for preventing millions of salvations because you thought Loren was missing God? Me neither.
So my recommendation is that we put our efforts into obeying God. Don’t worry about what others think. Don’t worry about what others do.
Like Nike says: Just Do It.™