A couple weeks ago we had our annual celebration of Christ during Brazil’s Carnival. We went with about 150 people out to our camp site an hour from the city to worship, pray, play, and learn together. This was our family’s 7th Cristoval (6th in Porto de Moz) and it was a nice opportunity to reflect on the changes that we’ve seen.
To me, the biggest change in this small river church is the obvious maturity in the leaders and in the group, as a whole. This group of believers has grown up from a fun, energetic youth group to adults intent on following Jesus and making a difference in their city for the Kingdom. Brasilians know how to have fun and celebrate and this Cristoval was a lot of fun for everyone. But the sober worship, the attentiveness to the messages, and the personal responses to the Holy Spirit was a contrast to years gone by. This group is not afraid or insecure any longer to soberly speak and learn about the Kingdom. How I admire Richie and Christie, who have persevered through ten-plus years of challenges (working with young people!) to see this kind of maturity. They would say that they haven’t done much and have experienced much frustration, but they have loved and lead these young people. It has been such a pleasure to be here over the past few years to see the Vine bring some of His fruit, that has been growing slowly for some time, to Kingdom maturity. Over the years, our Father has used many North Americans and Brazilians to scatter seeds here that would germinate in His time.
I spoke twice and centered on the theme of contrasting a Kingdom church and a religious church. I challenged all of us that like so many churches around the world, and beginning in Galatia many years ago, becoming religious is the “natural” course for any church and must be resisted with much sober effort in continuing to live and emphasize a passionate pursuit of relationship with our Father and with each other. The message was interactive and received well. Following this post are some of the highlights that I shared about the contrasts between the two.
At the end of the three days, the whole group held a surprise celebration in honor of our family full of dancing, song and speeches. It went on for about 45 minutes and was one of the most beautiful things ever done for us. So many took the microphone and spoke sincere words of gratitude and appreciation in such an honoring and special way. The character traits that they emphasized that they would remember about us were humility and wisdom. While meditating on the week, I had some thoughts (imagine that!)…
We have come to be loved here in this little river town in the middle of the Amazon Basin and we have grown to hold these people very dear. I’m thinking of heaven after this celebration and how sweet it will be to not have time and space constraints in our relationships. That we are leaving another special group of people is difficult but knowing that one day we WILL be united again and be able to build relationship with each other and with our Father without the earthly limits that we now know, makes it tolerable to say good-bye again.
It is fascinating also to me that as one lives his/her life, he/she can find tremendous favor in the eyes of some and little or no favor in the eyes of others. How some see wisdom and others do not; some see humility and others see arrogance… Another of the countless things that I don’t understand about this life that I had all figured out when I was twenty (before I had begun)!
We’d have never thought three years ago when God called us to Porto de Moz that we would be used to encourage and edify as we have been and/or that we’d be received so well. We were still wondering if He could use such flawed people in the Amazon! Our decision to come here was in response to what we thought God was calling us to do and some people told us that it wasn’t of God because it didn’t make reasonable sense to them for us to move here. And yet… our mentoring gifts (we’re not evangelists) seem to have been placed here in perfect timing for local Brasilian leadership development. We have been used to encourage the PdM missionaries, and our service gifts in medicine were especially helpful on the rivers and during a city crisis in 2009 and 2010 when the city lost all of their clinic docs. We saw none of this clearly when we responded to God’s call and moved our family to this little town in 2008. It didn’t make reasonable sense and yet it now appears to have been the perfect timing of God. And beyond this, though one would never look at Porto de Moz as an “attractive” place to live, the people have made it a good, simple place for our family during this season of our lives.
There is much talk these days of hearing God, finding God’s will, and the more subjective side of relationship with Him. After much personal failure and some success over thirty years in this regard, I believe the keys to knowing God’s leading are surrender and certainty (of calling, not results). We often seek “knowing” His will and forget that our Father’s promises are virtually always conditional. He shows us how to get there! We often seek certainty without surrender and completely miss our Father’s leading. So many run hard in pursuit of serving/pleasing God but, without surrender, completely miss how and where they would bear the best fruit. We put the proverbial cart before the horse in desiring primarily to know His will when our Father desires rather our surrender and our delight in Him. Peaceful certainty follows surrender and only with surrender can He then freely direct our decisions.
“Hearing” Him (knowing His leading) is not the most difficult part about doing God’s will, it is rather the surrendering of our comforts, our desires, our goals, our strategies, our perspective, our desire to be liked/admired/understood, our security, our opinions, etc. It does NOT come naturally and takes much consistent effort to remain in a place of surrender before our Father. But godly certainty follows godly surrender. Jesus indicated (Jn 7) that if we wanted to do His will (surrender), we would know if what we are hearing is of man or of God. And then… when we are surrendered and certain, like sheep hearing the call of their shepherd (Jn 10), we must follow God’s leading, regardless of opposition or support.
Surrender is not sacrificial drudgery, but rather a pursuit prioritized in such a way that anything that would hinder that pursuit must go. It is always a process and it is always imperfect and mixed with selfish motives. And yet, we can’t be led until we surrender to the yoke of our Master. Each new circumstance finds us carrying new attitudes, ambitions, and desires that must be surrendered in order to be freely led. I am often the proverbial ox trying to yield to a yoke but refusing to release the many ropes pulling him in other directions. Godly surrender is freely choosing to release all of the “pulls” other than the yoke of the Master.
Others often will not understand your certainty of God’s call for you because they don’t see or appreciate those hours before God, laboring to bring your heart to a place of surrender, after which comes clarity and direction. They are offended by certainty because they have been manipulated by people using the “God card” for personal gain, they have yet to experience a similar calling, or they simply don’t believe that God would do something that is contrary to their shortsighted “reason”.
We must remember to exercise great care when we tell someone that they are either not following God’s direction or they are hearing errantly. To speak thusly, we must be surrendered and certain of God’s heart regarding the matter at hand or we will encourage the seeking of OUR will over that of our Father.
This life is such a learning experience, at any age. We face hardship, criticism, misunderstanding, and disagreement, and our own hindsight which tempt discouragement and questioning whether we are where our Father wants us to be. Then we have a week like this one where our Father embraces us and communicates His pleasure in us and our choices. How grateful I am, and yet how humbled again, realizing that I have so much yet to learn…
I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me, and I in him, bears much fruit. I am reminded this morning that the natural mind is focused on fruit, success, achievement, etc. The pursuit, however, of a renewed Kingdom mind is the pursuit of a humble branch – to remain connected and surrendered. The timing and the amount of fruit that follows is at the discretion of the Vine. If we are primarily out to accomplish something (produce fruit), we will surely burn out and/or be cut away in preference for those branches connected and surrendered.
When a branch bears fruit, who benefits? How often we hear “I know I made the right choice (or, “I know it was God”) because it has turned out well for me.” God’s leading was confirmed because circumstances turned out well for the branch? This would be completely misunderstanding the Kingdom of God. The Vine chooses and grows the branch, produces fruit using the branch, and others benefit. The branch is blessed to be spent and used, nothing more.
Religion: God loves us because of who we are and what we do
Kingdom: God loves us because of who He is and what He does
Religion: Organization, leaders, accountability
Kingdom: Body, Living Organism, ONE head,parts serving Head/one another
Religion: Desire – my happiness/growth/success
Kingdom: Desire – pleasure/benefit/growth/success of God, others
Religion: “God, bless what I’m doing.”
Kingdom: “Father, what would you have me do?”
Kingdom: Humble Dependence on God
Religion: Self confidence
Kingdom: Poor in spirit, insecure, meek
Religion: Self-righteous, “Look at me”
Kingdom: Sinners, “Look at Jesus”
Kingdom: “Care not…”
Religion: “I’m glad I’m not like them”
Kingdom: “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Religion: Response when someone errs/falls – critical
Kingdom: Response when someone errs/falls – compassion
Religion: Commandments, exclusive
Kingdom: Grace, inclusive
Religion: Rules, order, organized
Kingdom: Freedom, messy
Religion: People pleasing, little secret life with God
Kingdom: God-pleasing, rich secret life with God
Religion: Church services, “big”, polish
Kingdom: Intimate, small groups, genuine
Religion: Hair combed, dressed nicely
Kingdom: Bed-head, clothes one wears at home
Religion: Act like, imitate Jesus/Bible
Kingdom: INNER fruit of the Spirit
Religion: $ to operate, maintain
Kingdom: $ given away
Religion: Some better than others, “Good Christian”
Kingdom: All equal (servants), loved