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Prayer as The Way of Silence

“Solitude and silence are the most radical of the spiritual disciplines because they most directly attack the sources of human misery and wrongdoing.” So says Dallas Willard, in his foreword to Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

The monastic movement experienced and taught prayer as the way of solitude and silence. They saw it as a journey into the silent desert of surrendering love.

We follow Jesus in our conversion through the waters of baptism, confirming our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. Then the Spirit leads us, as with Jesus, into the desert of prayer.

If we follow and obey, we enter the inner desert of the heart through solitude and silence with God. That is the sacred space of testing and purification that transforms us for fullness of life with God.

The monastic practice of stillness (hesychia, quiet rest, tranquillity) was the essence of this life of prayer. It was a way of death and dying to live eternal life here and now. That’s why the monks taught prayer as “the remembrance of death”, discussed in my book Doing Spirituality (I cite the sources, p.250/1).

They called it the remembrance of death because the daily practice of being alone with The Alone is a progressive self-stripping from idolatrous attachments, false dependencies, and selfish preoccupations, to be lovingly attentive and responsive to God – as Jesus was.

Such silence is a desert of spiritual warfare. Though we greatly need it, few want to go there. Because it presses our buttons and reveals who we are. Totally naked and utterly dependent on God. We learn, however, to let go, to relax and be still. To release control by surrendering our faculties to God, the Transcendent Reality of Perfect Love.

In fact, the monks went so far as to say that prayer, the way of stillness, was a regular rehearsal for the day of our death. On that day we (will have to) surrender the whole of who we are, all our faculties, to God, in one final act of faith. No one will escape the spectre of death that enfolds us in its shroud of silence.

Evagrios the Solitary (345-399) said, “The way of stillness (of silent prayer) teaches you to remember the day of your death… visualise the dying of your body… and the day of your resurrection”.

This is not a morose religious exercise, but a facing of death. We break denial of death by dying daily through silent prayer, to live eternally in each moment of every day. Because God, in Christ, has defeated death through resurrection.

We participate in Jesus’ silent stripping – naked on the cross alone with the Alone – by which we die to our false self and rise to our true self in Christ, to hear God’s voice in each moment of each new day. We rise to live the Transcendent Reality of Perfect Love. We echo silence, like Jesus.

In summary, solitude and silence with God is a daily dying to the distractions and clamourings that demand our attention, that hook and feed our “uncrucified flesh”, that constitutes our false-self (Paul speaks of “dying daily” in 1 Corinthians 15:31, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:36). And so we learn to die well, to let go and let God be God.

By trusting God in our ‘little deaths’ through prayer-full silence, we will “never die” as Jesus said (“not taste death”, John 11:25). We will seamlessly pass from this world into the next. It will take us some time to realise we have died, due to the quality of God’s abiding companionship in the silence of surrendering love.

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God became human: How does that make you FEEL?

It’s the third day after Christmas and I’m still struck by the absolute wonder of the Creator-God becoming human in (baby) Jesus. I’ve been thinking, essentially, what does it mean? And how does it make us feel?

By becoming one of us, in essence, God accepts and loves us for who we are. The ‘Incarnation’ means God affirms our humanity, blesses our body, dignifies our unique personhood. 

God doesn’t sit in heaven dealing with us in terms of what we do or don’t do. God becomes one of us, dealing with us in terms of who we are… his broken but beautiful image on earth.

THAT loving acceptance, incarnate in Jesus, heals and transforms us. We’re not changed by performance, motivated by rules or guilt or fear of punishment. We see this loving acceptance in the remarkable story of Jesus and the women caught in adultery in John 8:1-11. We see it ultimately in the cross, in the bruised and broken image of God dying in our place.  

THIS reality determines not only our beliefs, but our feelings. How does it make you feel? The more I ponder it, the more it makes me feel truly accepted and deeply loved.

Why this question about feelings

Because emotions are important. They are powerful in our human formation. Feelings can develop into patterns that become fixed in our body, forming thoughts, beliefs, moods… for better or worse. Negative feelings, left unattended, dominate. They paralyse our will and determine our (poor) self-image and self-worth(lessness). They lead to dysfunction, and ultimately, to destruction.

In short, feelings are like unruly children clamouring for our attention. If not disciplined, they become merciless masters. However, if disciplined and trained under God, they are transformed into good servants of God’s truth/reality.

For example, I’ve struggled with dominant feelings of rejection since childhood, due to psycho-emotional hurt. You may struggle with loneliness, or anger, or worthlessness, that darkens and deceives your mind into believing the lie that you’re unloved – even though you have family and friends who love you. Why? Because you still FEEL unloved.  

Such desolate feelings incarnate themselves in our body over time and become our posture, resulting in ‘issues’ of mental health, physical ailment, relational dysfunction. Oscar Wilde said that by the age of 45 or 50 we all have acquired, even developed, the face that we deserve! Faces reveal emotional states, sometimes fixed for life, for better or worse.

How can we change this?

By learning to pray our feelings – as taught in my Praying the Psalms Volume Two, Praying our Challenges & Choices. I don’t have to accept desolate feelings when they arise. I’m NOT a passive victim of my emotions. They’re asking for attention. So, I consciously process and release them to God. I ask God, again and again, to lift them off me, while I wilfully reverse them by asserting the truth that God accepts and loves me for who I am – in all my brokenness and beauty.  

Consciously throw yourself into the loving arms of God, your real Father and Mother, as often as is needed. Picture yourself being held, just as Mary and Joseph adoringly embraced the babe of Bethlehem. Just as Jesus grew into a profound awareness of being loved by Abba (Father) in each moment of every day: “you are my son (or daughter), my Beloved, in whom I delight”. Just as the Father ran and embraced and kissed the returning son.

You are God’s beloved daughter/son, accepted for who you are in Christ.

THIS is how God becoming human makes you feel… if you embrace it.

Practice it.

Live it.

Be and become it. 

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2021 Christmas Meditation: Mary as a Model of Discipleship

Intro & background

I was asked to share a meditation on Christmas in two churches. So I chose this story in Luke 1:26-38. And I decided to publish my notes for any who may be interested.

Luke’s nativity story is from Mary’s perspective, after his “careful investigation from eyewitnesses, to write an orderly account”, so that “you know the certainty of what you have been taught” (1:1-14). This is in contrast to Matthew’s nativity story, which is more from Joseph’s perspective.

We see the wonder of God’s coming into the world in baby Jesus, the Messiah-King, by human-divine agency: Mary and God’s Spirit. It involved not only Mary’s body, but her whole being, and her whole world.

“Christ-mass” is the celebration of Christ (Messiah-King) coming into the world. It involves the mystery of human-divine agency. Thus, there is a long historical Church tradition of Mary as a model of faith and obedience, a model of Christian discipleship.

As God came into this world through Mary, so God comes into our world in and through you and me. We see her example of availability and agency. God comes in us, through us, to the world around us, forever changing it!

Thus we can learn five things from Mary as a model of Christian discipleship in Luke 1:26-38, from “Christ being formed in you”, in the words of Paul (Gal 4:19).

  • Be-Loved: Mary in Hebrew is Miriam (v.27), meaning “beloved”. Gabriel came to Mary, greeting her as one “highly favoured, the Lord is with you” (28). God didn’t choose Israel because she was numerous or obedient, but because he loved Israel, “set his affection on her” (Deut 7:7-9). The same with you. God chooses you, comes to you, not because you’re strong or intelligent or whatever, but because he “so loved” you (John 3:16). Mary was troubled and amazed by this greeting, this affirmation of love (29). Who am I to receive this visitation, this greeting, this message? We too struggle to receive grace and favour… to be loved. We need to learn how to be-loved. And to believe it!
  • Be-lieve: “Don’t be afraid” (30). Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear is the mortal enemy of belief. The explanation of what God would do in her, and through her into the world (30-33), required faith. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by God’s word” to us (Rom 10:17). God’s word, his promise of what he will do, sounds too full of wonder to believe! But Mary believed! Her life story speaks of faith in God, in what God was doing, bringing the King/Kingdom through her into the world. She believed that “nothing is impossible with God” (37). God’s coming into this world requires you to believe God, to believe his word and works to you, in you, and through you.
  • Be-brave: “How will this be?” (34) is not unbelief. It’s a genuine query of faith. Being a virgin, she was unsure how it would happen. How will God do it? What must I do? To believe and keep trusting, when it seems naturally impossible, calls for courage. And to fall pregnant before the wedding was socially scandalous, an ‘illegitimate’ conception (Matthew 1:18-19), that would radically affect her life. Christ being formed in her changed her, and her world, completely – against all controversy and opposition! She was brave in Jesus’ conception, in his birth, in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection… a model of discipleship. God’s coming into this world in/through you calls not only for faith, but real courage. Be brave!
  • Be-intimate: “The Holy Spirit will come on you… overshadow you” (35). Mary was available to God for intimate communion. God’s life and purposes are conceived, nurtured, and birthed in/through you by spiritual union with God. Christ being formed in you shapes and defines you in every way, in all dimensions of your being and becoming. Mary is our model of ongoing intimacy with God by his overshadowing/indwelling Holy Spirit.
  • Be-humble: “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said” (38). Humility is accurate self-knowledge and self-acceptance in true dependence on God. False humility is inferiority – it’s self-humiliation. On the other hand, superiority is presumption and pride – it’s self-exaltation. As you make yourself fully available to God for intimate relationship, you become his servant, humbly doing his will on earth as in heaven. Therefore, God comes into this world through humble servants… who are beloved, who believe, who are brave, who live in and from intimacy with God.

Happy Christmas!

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The Wounded Healer Story

I am currently just over half way through writing Praying the Psalms Volume Two – Praying our Challenges and Choices. Working on Psalm 41, where David prays his weakness and sickness, made me think of the old rabbinical story of the Wounded Healer. I thought I would share it for those who have never read this insightful little parable-story about the Messiah.

Here it is… with my introductory comments, taken directly from my book Doing Healing, pp.16-18.

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet while he was standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave.
He asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds only one at a time and then binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed to help someone else bind up their wounds, and if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment’. He is the Messiah, the wounded healer.”

This amazing little story comes from the Jewish Talmud, written between 250 and 500 CE. Henri Nouwen has popularised it in Christian circles. He shows how its meaning is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, and also through “the ministers of the Church of Jesus Christ” (Nouwen’s phrase[1]).

The basic message is that Jesus made his broken body the source of healing for the world. And his followers are called to care not only for their own wounds, but for the wounds of others. How? By making their wounds a source of compassion in bringing Christ’s healing to the world. This is distinct from the wrong idea that our wounds — or taking on other people’s suffering — can bring them healing.

Jesus is not only the Jewish Messiah; he’s the Liberator and Saviour of the whole world precisely because he is the Wounded Healer. Jesus “took up our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4). Matthew quoted this Messianic prophecy when he observed Jesus’ compassion as he patiently “healed all the sick” late into the night (Matt 8:14-17 cf. 9:36). Jesus felt their pain and suffering deeply in his own body; therefore he was compelled to reach out and heal them in mercy, through the power of God’s love.

This kind of Messiah saves Israel and the world. Our Western success ethic says the strong and popular, the powerful and prosperous, are the leaders and saviours of the world. The weak and wounded are losers! They suffer because they are failures (so says the dominant mindset). The weak need to be saved — how can they save others?

But Isaiah 53, as fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, turns these values on their head. Jesus had “no beauty or charisma that attracted us to him. In fact, he was despised and rejected, a man marked by weakness and pain — the kind of person others despise. So we turned from him in disgust, believing God was punishing him. But little did we realise he was doing it for us! Our pride blinded us to the fact that he carried our suffering and sickness, our sin and death. He was punished by God for our sin, so that we might be forgiven! Indeed, by his wounds we are healed!
(My RAP, Revised Alexander Paraphrase, on Isaiah 53:2-5).

God uses the weak, the lowly and despised, to “bring to naught” the proud and powerful (1Corinthians 1:18-31). In this passage Paul says the message of Christ’s cross is “the weakness of God” that saves the world — which proves to be God’s wisdom and power!

We must remember, says David Bosch, that the cross is the hallmark of the Church. When the resurrected Messiah appeared to his disciples, it was his scars that were proof of his identity, and because of them the disciples believed (John 20:20). Will it be any different with us, his followers? Will the world believe, and allow us to touch them, unless they can recognise the marks of the cross on us? (Bosch asks)[2].

The followers of Jesus enter into, and continue his ministry as wounded healers; not in the ultimate sense of accomplishing salvation (only he can, and did, do that); nor in the triumphalist sense of wealthy world leaders or high-powered motivational healers; but in the immediate and humble sense of being instruments of his compassion and healing.

By being in touch with our own wounds we learn to receive healing from Jesus. Then we have mercy on others who suffer in their wounds, and sensitively touch them in Jesus’ name. We feel the pain and suffering of the world in our own bodies, for we too are weak and broken by sin. To the degree we deny our own weakness, not being in touch with our own brokenness, we tend to treat others harshly, having little or no compassion on those who suffer and are in need.       

The lesson we learn from the Jewish parable is this: While we attend to our own healing, we must always be ready to help heal others. We must avoid the extremes, either of a preoccupation with our brokenness in a culture of self (“me, myself and I”); or an obsession with healing others as if we are their saviour (in denial of our own brokenness). My own story is about this very parable — my life-journey in becoming a wounded healer. And if I’m honest, due to the waywardness of my own heart, it’s been a slow learning from Jesus, as he repeatedly has come to me in my sin and brokenness, patiently and passionately ravishing my heart again and again with his healing love[3].


[1] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Image Books, 1979). I have added the last sentence as summary of the story.      

[2] A Spirituality of the Road (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1979), p 82. Kosuke Koyama calls this “stigmatised theology”, which is true “Apostolic theology” (i.e. the lives and teachings of the apostles were marked by Christ’s suffering; being sent into the world as Jesus was) in No Handle on the Cross (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1977), p 37. See Philip Yancey and Paul Brand for an insightful discussion on the importance of stigmata (markings on the body), and its outworking in social stigma in helping us to recognise disease or healing, and attitudes of rejection or mercy, in relation to Leprosy and now HIV/AIDS, in The gift of Pain (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1993), pp 313-316.  

[3] Other auto-biographical reflections on my life journey are found in the first chapters of Doing Church (Cape Town, VIP 2000), and Doing Reconciliation (Cape Town, VIP 2004).

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A Christian Pastoral Response to SA Violence

“When the foundations are being destroyed,
What can the righteous do?”

Psalm 11:3

My wife and I are part of Freedom House Church in Salt Rock, South Africa. It’s in the province that was hardest hit by the violence this past week. I drafted the following statement with the church leaders. The purpose is to pastor our people, and whoever wants to listen, by giving perspective and guidance on how to respond to what has happened. It was, clearly, an orchestrated attempt to divide and destabilise the nation in reaction to our previous President Jacob Zuma’s arrest, for the purposes of shifting power to his faction.

The images of wholesale looting by thousands of people, burning buildings and ransacking infrastructure, have been seen internationally on TV and social media. One watches with utter and total dismay, with tears of lament. The death toll stands at 117 (today, 16 July), with damage estimated at 16 billion rands (over $1bn). And it is still not fully under control, though the army has been deployed in the last two days. Deeply traumatic for all South Africans. No need to go further into the details, they can be read in the news media. What do we do?

First, we encourage you to pray David’s words in Psalm 11:1-7, phrase by phrase, to process your feelings and perceptions – to pray our response as the people of God. After 10 years of corrupt rule, our nation seriously weakened by state capture and economic rape under Jacob Zuma’s rule, and with the devastation of Corona and lockdown, and now this week of devastation. What do the righteous do when the foundations of society, of our nation, are being destroyed?

We don’t panic! We do not listen to the inner and outer voices of fear that suggest all sorts of things (“flee to the mountains”, vv.1-2). We look up to Yahweh. God is on his throne, still in charge! God sees everything. He empowers the response of the righteous. He will judge those who love violence (vv.4-7). The alternate Hebrew phrase is, “What is the Righteous One doing?” For those who have eyes of faith, God is working in this to unmask, judge and defeat the evil that uses poor, desperate, hungry, angry communities, as expendable means for their purposes of power. Let us work with God, “who loves justice”, to defeat that evil.

What does this mean? From a Biblical worldview of God’s Kingship, it means

We do not minimise or deny reality (what’s really going on) by escaping into super-spiritual warfare unrelated to reality – a triumphalism over emphasising ‘Kingdom now’.

Nor do we succumb to it in fatal acceptance and fear, or glorify it in reactionary comments, anger, racism, or retaliatory violence – a humanism of over emphasising ‘Kingdom not yet’.

Rather, we face reality honestly with God, humbling ourselves, learning to lament by praying psalms – to lament the pain and injustice of all who suffer. Yet, at the same time, we engage reality in faith and hope of Greater Reality – God’s Kingship – breaking through for human good.

Therefore, we call on you to…

Intercede for leaders, national and local (1 Timothy 2:1-5), for good governance, for “the foundations” of ethical values to build an equitable, just and caring society, that all “may live peaceful and quiet lives”, which is “good and pleases God”. I.e. God’s will is ethical governance for the good of human society. We are not powerless!

Prayer is our primary weapon because principalities and powers work in and through leaders. The powers behind the happenings in South Africa must be defeated, both spiritually and politically – the reign of corruption and state capture. Our nation will NOT be offered up as a sacrifice on the altar of the politics of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). Our nation is NOT at the mercy of a life and death battle within the ANC, but at the mercy of God. God is King! Pray God’s Government intervenes through courageous, wise, decisive leadership in President Cyril Ramaphosa and his team.

Not only pray, but presence yourself in community action to intercede and intervene for the good of society. God wills good society. Your prayers have authority by your presence on the ground, in the street, in self-sacrificial service to your neighbour, “doing good works”, that your “light shines before people” (Matthew 5:16). An amazing outcome of this week’s evil work is the community mobilisation, sacrifice and care, we are witnessing. The response of communities is inspiring and hopeful. Followers of Jesus should be involved as examples of such activism, especially in protecting the vulnerable, feeding the hungry, working for justice, job creation, empowering the poor, and loving the ‘enemy’.

By your presence, proclaim the good news of God’s government that does not fail. Your presence in service gives you authority to speak about the reason for your faith in God. It’s interesting volunteering with the guys doing roadblocks, listening to the talk, their anger, cursing, even racism. Guard your heart and mind, and mouth, in terms of what you think and say. You can further fill the air with fear and anger, or you can gently share your response to the situation in South Africa from the hope of God’s Kingdom, from the viewpoint of faith, reconciliation, healing, truth, justice.

Go beyond proclaiming to pastor people, by following up those who respond, who are open to God’s government in King Jesus. People are desperate for hope, disillusioned with human government, which will always fail us, one way or another. God’s government will never fail. We pastor by walking with people through what’s happening in their lives, in their families, in the nation – in their fear, confusion, insecurity, etc – by patiently answering questions, teaching them to live in and from God’s Rule and Reign. We pastor people by giving godly perspective through prayer, presence, proclamation and provision of God’s love and care.

As we did during lockdown, we encourage you to pastor one another in the Freedom House family via regular contact and connect groups. We encourage you to break bread and share the blood of Jesus with each other. Especially with the vulnerable, the elderly and lonely. We encourage parents to sit regularly with their children and pray with them. And explain – at age-appropriate levels – what is going on, giving the perspective of God’s Kingship and our security in him: “In the LORD I take refuge… for the LORD is righteous, he loves justice, the upright will see his face ” (Psalm 11:1,7).

May God have mercy on South Africa

May God defeat the evil powers bent on destruction

May God intervene for truth and justice

For the poor and suffering

May God heal our nation

Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika!Woza Moya, woza!

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CELEBRATING FATHER’S DAY AND YOUTH DAY

You can listen to the talk/watch the video of the teaching based on these notes.

In South Africa we celebrated Youth Day on Wednesday 16 June. Today, Sunday 20 June, we celebrate, internationally, Father’s Day. It is appropriate that they are a few days apart because it speaks to us of fathers and sons, of the older and younger generation.

We remember the brave youth of 1976, who marched from Orlando West High School on the streets of Soweto against the proposed imposition of Afrikaans by the Apartheid regime as the language of education in black schools. Hector Peterson was the first student killed by the police on that day, with another 500 killed in the following weeks, in the protests and riots that followed. What happened to that generation? Were their wounds ever healed?

Many (or most?) have become fathers and mothers. So, what of their children? What of the youth today? We live with so much pain and tragedy in our nation, in the youth, but also of broken fathers and mothers. Stats South Africa recently reported that since the corona pandemic the unemployment rate has risen to 43%, with youth unemployment at 74%, in a country where the median wage is R3 600 a month (275 USD), and poverty is above 55% across all groups and 84.2% among indigenous Africans, with the Gini coefficient at 0.63. What an enormous challenge. The frustration, anger and pain of the youth is a ticking time-bomb. We talk of the fatherless generation. Of father-failure. With it comes broken and toxic masculinity expressed in destructive ways, as in gender based violence. God help us.   

Samuel Osherson said, in Finding our Fathers: The Unfinished Business of Manhood, “The psychological or physical absence of fathers from their families is one of the great underestimated tragedies of our time”.

And Edward Stein said, “Psychological fathering is what the world is in need of more than ever in its history. There is a considerable body of scholarly evidence that civilisation will stand or fall with whether such fathering is available in sufficient quantity”.     

So, today we honour our fathers, for better or for worse, and we seek their well-being. We honour our youth and seek their highest good, by being the best fathers/parents to them.

Paul says in Ephesians 6:1-2, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  ‘Honour your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise— ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’” Not all of us are privileged to be fathers or mothers, but all of us have a father, were born of his sperm. No matter what your experience of your father has been, you can seek to forgive and honour him – with God’s help – for in so doing you honour God your (real) Father.

Turning the hearts of the fathers to the children & children to the fathers

God said via the prophet Malachi (4:5) in 430 BC, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers (parents) to their sons and daughters (children), and the hearts of the children to their fathers (parents); or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” Broken and toxic fathering and mothering, and lost sons and daughters, with the deconstruction and disintegration of marriage and family in our day, is the “total destruction” of society.

The prophecy is fulfilled, at least in principle, in the birth of John the baptiser and Messiah’s coming. It is quoted, and interpreted, in the New Testament by Gabriel regarding the birth of Zachariah’s son, John: “He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just (righteous)—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). Arguably, the greatest need in our world today, for redemption and restoration, is to turn the hearts of the fathers and mothers to the sons and daughters, and vice versa, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord for the good of society, for the renewal of the world.

Note, a) in both texts it is first the hearts of the fathers (parents) that turn to the children – the older we grow the more we need our children, and need to turn to them in forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and harmony… in order to die well and to bless them. And b) the “turning of the children to the fathers (parents)” is rephrased as “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just/righteous” – role of fathers/mothers is to impart “the wisdom of the righteous”, the right way of being, right way of living, of thinking, speaking, behaving.    

What “wisdom” do we fathers impart? That of “the just”, from God, from heaven? Or the “wisdom” that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic”, as James 3:13-18 says. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil. You carry out your father’s desires, a murderer from the beginning. Lies are his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Do we lie to our children? Or tell the tough truth in love? Whose ‘fathering nature‘ do we represent and live? God’s character/wisdom? Or the devil’s nature/“wisdom”?

Therefore, from these texts, and from men’s studies, mature (godly) fatherhood is marked by three essential characteristics:  truth, wisdom and compassion.

Defining fatherhood/fathering

Paul says in Ephesians 3:14,  “I kneel before the Father (Pater) from whom every family (patria, fatherhood) in heaven and on earth derives its name (its nature and character)”.
God’s fatherhood is the source and definition of all fathering and family in all created reality. Our fathering (and mothering) ought to express God’s fathering/parenting. Parents represent and communicate God to their children, for better or for worse.  

Note: this does not mean God is father as in male. We, men, have done a great disservice by using male-dominated language without discernment or disclaimers, in effect conveying the idea that God is a man. God is (S)spirit and does not have a body (John 4:24). The inclusivity of gender in regard to God in the Hebrew Bible goes unnoticed: God is father, but is also portrayed in mother/feminine imagery. It’s a theological concept, not a biological reality. In fact, the Spirit (Ruach) of God is consistently a feminine noun in Hebrew (e.g. Genesis 1:2).

How does God father us? What are the characteristics of God’s fathering/mothering?

There is much to say about the many features of (God’s) fathering/mothering, but here are a few key ones taken from Mark 1:10-11, “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven (from God): ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’

Fatherhood is the Source of Life:  God gives life. We’re born-again by God’s ‘seed’, sperma, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16). Parents make/give life… fathering is generative to all around.  

Fatherhood identifies us in being:  “You are my son, my daughter, my BELOVED daughter/ son”. Biblically, we do not self-identify – God identifies us in creation and in new creation.
“He brought me into his banqueting hall and his banner over me is LOVE” (Song of Sol 2:4). Fathering/mothering identifies (gives identity to) those around them – as LOVE – as truly and uniquely loved… by God… through the gift of both biological and spiritual parenting.

Fatherhood affirms us in person:  “In whom I am well pleased, on whom my favour rests, in whom I delight”. These three phrases are all correct possible translations from the text. This is the power of pronouncing blessing. Fathers & mothers truly delight in those around them, as say it! They affirm others as “well pleased”, conferring favour on them, as God does.

Fatherhood empowers us in doing:  “Heaven was torn open and the Spirit descended on him like a dove”. Parenting is empowering… or is meant to be… to empower young people, and all those around us, to do the good works that God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Fathering & mothering is an impartation of spirit, of God’s Spirit. It is an equipping with what is needed to facilitate and enable people’s full potential in God.

Concluding recommendations

Turn your heart to your father (& mother) by “go & find” them. Reconcile with them. Heal your ‘father/mother wound’. Sort out whatever needs to be sorted out.

At the same time, take responsibility for your own wounds, your unresolved ‘stuff’, and get help and healing to grow through it, so that “it” becomes a source of healing to others.

Then honour your father and mother in whichever spiritual and tangible ways you can.

Seek to humbly father/mother others in a psycho-emotional-spiritual sense, as God gives you this kind of ‘ministry’ opportunity to those willing to receive it. Seek to be, under God, a living example of God’s fathering/mothering to all who want to draw on it by virtue of them seeing and experiencing it’s reality flowing in and through you.

Mature spiritual fathering and mothering is not so much a doing of things as it is a being of person, a way of living, a spirit of loving… in truth, wisdom and compassion.

God bless you!

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CALLING – Its Sevenfold Nature and Life-Cycle

I did these teaching notes for the video presentation to the South African Vineyard pastors and leaders retreat, March 2021.

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle…”  Paul to the Ephesians 4:1

What is a biblical overview of the nature of calling? Especially in regard to pastors and leaders? Do we live a life worthy of our calling? The one call we all receive to follow Jesus in his Kingdom (Ephesians 4:4)… but also the specific callings (“graces”, Ephesians 4:7,11-16) related to gifts and functions, roles and places of service in Christ’s Body and in God’s world. This paper is what I have come to understand, over the years, as the nature and life-cycle of biblical calling, drawn primarily from Jesus’ life, leadership and ministry. And also from my own experience, as per the invitation to teach on calling. 

The pattern and points below apply to all, though each person’s experience is unique and different. We can learn from the many inspiring examples of calling in scripture (and church history). But don’t be like David trying on Saul’s armour to pursue your calling. Each person must find and do what works for them. In my case, God has worked with specific dates, times and messages. Maybe not the case for you. Either way, we all need the clear conviction of calling.  

General Call:  Salvation and mission.

Jesus’ generic call to everyone: “Come, follow me and I will form you into fishers of people” (Mark 1:17). We follow Jesus in his Kingdom community for the sake of the world. Being born from above with eternal life, we are discipled (spiritually formed) in God’s family to do God’s mission in the earth. I heard Jesus’ call and gave my life to him on Friday evening, 7 June 1968, at First Baptist Church, East London. That is where and when I began to follow and be formed to fish people for Jesus! The rest (below) followed on from that.

Specific Call:  Vocation and service.

The general call informs our specific call in the sense that our worldly occupation (fishing, teaching, doctoring, trading, managing, etc) becomes our Kingdom vocation – where we live God’s reign, doing his will on that piece of earth as it is in heaven. By the age of twelve, Jesus’ consciousness had developed to a deep sense of specific calling: “I must be about my Abba’s business” (Luke 2:46-50). His prayerful study of the Hebrew scriptures and the voice of God’s Spirit in his heart, led him to believe that he was ‘the one’ to proclaim and teach, enact and inaugurate God’s Kingdom. My specific calling was in the early morning of Wednesday 11 November 1970, during my quiet time, while reading a chapter in Isaiah. It was overwhelming. I wept and wept. I knew God had spoken to me! Dare I believe what I heard?   

Confirming the Call:  Affirmation and empowering.

In various ways and at different times God confirms and empowers his specific call, his destiny for us in our role and place of service in the Kingdom. What Jesus dared to believe about his call and destiny in God was confirmed by power encounter at his water baptism: That God was Jesus’ Abba, affirming his identity as his beloved son, empowering his call to lead a new Exodus into God’s Kingdom (Mark 1:9-11). There were also confirmations of the call during his ministry (e.g. Luke 9:28-36). I’ve needed many confirmations, most of which I wrote down, to refer to when needed (as Paul instructed in 1 Timothy 1:18-19). However, the big confirmation (public recognition and release) came on 20 January 1975 when the elders at the Bellville Assembly of God in Cape Town, laid hands on me and sent me as a youth pastor to Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The call ‘unfolded’ a year later with an open door, a further call, to plant a church in the next town. And so began my journey of planting and pastoring.

Contesting the Call:  Testing and warfare.

The devil immediately contested Jesus’ specific call, including the confirmation of identity as ‘Beloved Son’ and empowering for ministry (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus overcame the attack by God’s Word. His calling was contested again and again “at opportune times” throughout his ministry. Satan tried to dissuade and disqualify Jesus from pursuing his destiny – even trying to kill Jesus (Luke 4:28-30, 8:22-25) – culminating in the ultimate test in Gethsemane. Our biggest battles are often toward the end of our lives. The longer we lead and the more we fulfill our call in God, the more Satan attacks. I’ve been through deep dark valleys of the shadow of death – spiritually, psycho-emotionally and physically – that nearly defeated me in God’s call on my life. We can all testify to this. God brought me through as I learnt, like Jesus, to “offer up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the One who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. (Thus) he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8-9). It’s a real life and death battle, but each test/trial is overcome by deeper levels of surrender in trust of the Father: “Father, not my will, but yours be done”.

Unfolding the Call:  Discernment and obedience.

The nature of vocation is that it unfolds with further calls within the overall calling. If we follow by the obedience of faith in deeper surrender to God’s will, it brings us through to completion in God’s call on our lives. With each step of the unfolding call we contend for our destiny in God, to reach our full potential and maturity in the Kingdom. The gospels show Jesus’ discernment of his unfolding call in different events and places around Palestine, that eventually led to the cross – vindicated in resurrection. I could share many developments and turning points in the unfolding call of God in my life. Some changed me forever, e.g. 12 years working for Kingdom justice and reconciliation, by planting a multiracial church, in Soweto under Apartheid. To know how to discern, and obey, each next step in the unfolding call is really important.

Completing the Call:  Perseverance and finishing well.

Pastors and leaders, the journey of vocation is a long obedience in the same direction. My general call (1968) led to a specific call (1970), resulting in public confirmation and sending (1975). Now, 46 years later – what a journey! I’m currently ‘re-firing’ in the fullness of calling, to end well. I’ve taken Jesus and Paul’s words as companions, often in earnest prayer to persevere and finish well: “Father, the hour has come… I have brought you glory by finishing the work you gave me to do… I am coming to you now” (John 17:1,4,13). Oh that I may complete the work the Father has given me to do! In Paul’s words to Timothy, “Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship… discharge all the duties of your ministry. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” (2 Timothy 4:5-8). 

The Legacy of the Call:  Reward and rule.

Do not allow evil, or uncrucified flesh, or unhealed brokenness, disqualify you. Run in such a way to get the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Throw away anything that entangles you, looking at Jesus and the cloud of faithful witnesses who have run the race before us (Hebrews 11 & 12:1-2). We live in their godly legacy. Our calling in this age is training for reigning in the age to come. Fellow leaders, will you run a good race and complete your call? Will you leave a good legacy for future generations, for God’s glory, by the grace Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15:10?

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RAISING UP NEW LEADERS

Watch my video presentation of these teaching notes.

Paul to Timothy, lead-pastor in the church at Ephesus, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

“One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve from among them (to be with him), whom he designated apostles” (Luke 6:12-13).

Jesus to Father, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:6-9).

Defining Leaders who Raise up Leaders

In the words of the invitation to me:  “How do we raise up leaders to their full potential, which means laying down your own ego, ambition and personal success.”  That is character leadership.

My definition: Leadership is – and is measured by – not how many people and leaders follow you, but how many leaders of character you raise up to lead with/alongside you, who go even further than you in Kingdom leadership. Good leaders develop new leaders to lead in team with them, and to send them out to exercise leadership in the authority of character integrity.

The leader who lays down her/his own ego, ambition and personal success, in selfless service of other leaders to develop them to their full potential, will raise up leaders who lay down their own ego, ambition and success. This is leading by love, in the Spirit of Jesus. To love is to see and honour people as the very image of God, freeing and coaching them to be true followers of Jesusnot of yourself, of your personality and charisma.

If you don’t lay down your ego, ambition and pursuit of success, you will raise up leaders who serve your ego, ambition, success. Those leaders, in turn, will lead by their own ego, ambition and pursuit of success – you impart who you are, not who you say you are. This is leading by lust, in the spirit of the world. To lust is to see and relate to others as objects of use (even abuse) for your purposes and ego-needs, to achieve your vision and success.  

This is the spirituality of leadership as opposed to the technology of leadership.

Spirituality of Leadership versus Technology of Leadership

The spirituality of leadership is about the formation of love. It is about the “who?” and “why?” questions. Who do we follow? Who leads us? Who forms me as a leader? The truth is: we all lead as we are led in our thinking, believing and behaving, whether we know it or not. We are all formed, for better or worse, by following someone or something. Hopefully, it is godly mentoring of character leadership in our lives. Or who/what leads/mentors you in your life? Tell me to whom or what you consistently give yourself – your attention – and I will tell you the kind of person and leader you are.

Why do we do what we do? Lead the way we lead? Why do we watch this video, read that book, learn from this “leadership expert”, that particular theology? Yes, we make those choices, no one else. Spirituality is about the reasons and motivations of the heart. Who is it all for? Me? For my ego, my success? Or for God’s glory and the genuine empowering good of others? The human heart is deceitful above all things, who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). We avoid doing the hard heart work of examining our mission, core values, mixed motives and unthought-through reasons for doing what we routinely do. So we default to leading by other dynamics: do what works, what is popular, copy others, cut & paste… we resort to personality, pragmatism, programs, techniques, gimmicks.  

The last sentence is the technology of leadership. It’s about the “what?” and “how to?”. What is leadership? How must I do it? Just tell me what to do and how to do it. Give me the secret: “The 5 Easy Steps to Leadership Success”, “The 4 Keys to Raise up Leaders”. It is ‘push & pull’ to achieve an outcome. Make it happen! Multiply leaders and grow the church! Get the show on the road!

Technology is ‘pragmatic technique’, the functional use of means to an end in ever more efficient ways. It is ‘outcomes-based’ production to achieve and have the ‘things’ we love: personal/church success, respect/admiration, the best ‘product’, the ‘latest thing’, the good life. We end up loving things and using people to get those things. The way of Jesus is to love people and use things. To love others as God’s image and use things God has created (including technology), to serve and empower people for their own good, for God’s purpose for them, not for our purposes.

The (post)modern mind says we can and will resolve all problems through technological innovation and progress to achieve human utopia. Beware, technology is not neutral. It forms us in its own image to the extent we do not critically engage and use it wisely in loving service of others.

Philosophy of Leadership: Raising up Leaders  

The spirituality of leadership is our character formation in Christ’s love and his Kingdom vision and values – and the leadership that flows from that. It determines not only the who and why, but also the what and how. Who do we identify as leaders and potential leaders? Why do we want to mentor them to their full potential? What do we see God doing in them? What kind and style of leadership are we coaching them into? How do we raise them up into leadership with integrity of character? How do we develop their full potential in Christ’s love and his Kingdom vision and values?

By prayerfully answering these questions before God, with the help of other senior leaders, we develop a Kingdom ‘philosophy of leadership’ to build leaders from the bottom up.    

This brings me back to my opening texts. First Paul’s strategic instruction to Timothy with five levels of leadership development: Paul > Timothy > other witnesses > reliable leaders > qualified to teach others. And then Jesus’ leadership process: gathering disciples, prayerfully recruiting leaders from among them to be with him, training them in the word and ways of the Father, and then deploying them in leadership and ministry.  

To conclude. In drawing all this together I make the following observations, based on 46 years of experience in full-time leadership and ministry, planting and pastoring churches.

We need an ever clearer vision of Jesus and his Kingdoman ‘updated’ correct understanding of Kingdom theology. My pursuit of the historical Jesus and his Kingdom mission makes me fall in love with him ever more deeply, fuelling my passion to follow him ever more closely. This is our “first love” as Vineyard, to which we must return (Revelation 2:4-5). Our first love is The Love that was there at first: God’s Love in Jesus, by which we live, love and lead (1 John 4:19).

We need a clear (Kingdom) philosophy of leadership and ministry. What John Wimber called a five-year plan to build from the bottom up. Few pastors (I mean that) take the time to do the heart work of defining their mission and vision, values and priorities, practices, personnel and programs – then implement and keep to it for integrity with God, themselves and the people. Most pastors, therefore, live from hand to mouth, lead from month to month, even week to week without a visionary plan. They change things as “the Lord told me” and chase after the next best thing, “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14).

The focus, and the means, of the above two points must be discipleship (apprenticeship). Our Great Co-Mission from/with the Risen King is: “go make disciples” in “all his authority” (Matthew 28:18-19). We can only make apprentices of Jesus and his Kingdom – not of ourselves and our kingdom – to the degree we ourselves are disciples who passionately pursue Christlikeness. And, therefore, we can only raise up leaders of character who reach their full potential to the degree we ourselves are leaders of character, growing into our full potential.

How do we make leaders by making disciples of Jesus? By following Jesus’ model mentioned earlier. What Wimber called the ‘Vineyard mantra’ of IRTDM (below). Leaders commonly fail to do IRTDM. It explains the lack of new leaders, the lack of the next generation of credible leaders of character, and therefore, the lack of genuine church growth.

(I have discussed at length IRTDM and how to develop a Kingdom philosophy of ministry in my book Doing Church. Though it seems widely read, it is not widely implemented. A regular mistruth I find among leaders is, “I’ve read this [or that] book”. Well, if they have, then they haven’t understood it, or they haven’t implemented it. Rather read less, slower and repeatedly, and implement more. Read fewer books by truly godly authors and do what they teach).

Identify:  Prayerfully ask Jesus, Head of the Church, to show you who – which potential (younger) leaders – he is giving you to raise up and develop. Note, they are already disciples who hang around and learn, who function and minister with you.

Recruit:  Go and meet with them individually, present the vision of Jesus to them, inviting and calling them into a relational process of formation and development.

Train:  Teach and equip them into leadership by modelling and “on the job” coaching as they practice ministry and leadership in whatever you give them to do. And also, by more formal learning/training times in course work and other programmatic ways.

Deploy:  At the appropriate time, when “reliable and qualified” (as Paul says), they can be released with the laying on of hands into whatever level of responsibility, in leading whatever ministry for which their calling and gifts are suited.

Monitor:  We watch over them, ‘checking in’ regularly to see how they are doing, to keep coaching and further develop them to their full potential. And then we get them to repeat the process with other potential leaders. So, we ‘grow’ leaders who raise up other leaders.

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SOUL CARE – Especially for Leaders

Watch my video presentation based on these notes.

“They made me keeper of the vineyards, BUT my own vineyard I have not kept…
Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyard which is trying to bloom”  
(Song of Songs 1:6, 2:15)

WHAT  is “Soul Care”?

A modern term with various meanings, mainly describing personal wellbeing and spiritual formation. We define it in Hebrew ‘wholism’, not Greek ‘compartmentalism’. In the Hebrew Bible, soul (nephesh) means YOU, not only your ‘inner self’ compared to your ‘outer body’ and relationships. Nephesh and ruach (spirit) and levav (heart) can be used interchangeably, meaning both the core AND the whole of who you are. ‘Heart’ is more commonly used (and sometimes ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’) for the seat of the mind, the emotions and the will, from which we live; in other words, one’s spiritual formation (moral character) from which all of life flows (Proverbs 4:23). 

Thus, the Shema Israel says God is One, so we must love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; i.e. with our whole being (Mark 12:29-30). Paul teaches the same wholism – using Greek language and categories – in 1 Thessalonians 5:23: The God of Shalom (wholeness, order, harmony, abundance) sanctify you wholly, in your entire spirit, soul and body. Hence, “soul care” is biblical “self-care”, not in selfishness, in self-serving of our desires and appetites. But in prioritising our ‘shalom’ of healing and growth into wholeness, to love God and neighbour as you love yourself.

As I understand it, biblical godly self-care has three aspects/dimensions that interweave in one journey of life for the glory of God: personal healing, personal growth, spiritual formation.

Healing:  Take responsibility for your unresolved “issues”, wounds, brokenness – to work with them, get help and healing, for your own sake and all those around you.

Growth:  Take responsibility for your personal development in knowledge, in theological training, leadership equipping and life skills.

Spiritual Formation:  Take responsibility for your spirituality – your (trans)formation of moral character to become more Christlike.

The more we prioritize and take time for self-care (in the above sense), the more aware we become of what needs healing and growth and development within us… and therefore, how much we need to become more and more like Jesus. 

WHY  do self-care?

For God’s sake. For your own sake. For the sake of those around you. For the sake of your calling and ministry in God’s Kingdom, among God’s people, for God’s world. If you do well, those around you (tend to) do well. Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:15-16).

Therefore, “Above all else guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life(Proverbs 4:23).Your highest priority is to guard your heart. The Hebrew “guard” has two meanings. Negatively, to keep and protect your heart (soul/spirit) from what forms you the wrong way. And positively, to cultivate and nurture it in God and his Word, which forms you the right way – in God’s character. The reason is: your “heart” is the source of your life, physically and metaphorically. We all live from our heart, whether we know it or not. We are all formed one way or another, for better or worse. That is the root character that determines and is seen in the fruit of our attitudes, words and behaviour. This is clearly Jesus’ root–fruit and heart–mouth theology that describes, and helps us to discern and identify essentially good or bad persons (Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33-37, 15:17-20).

The wind one brilliant day called to my soul,
With an odour of jasmine – 
And the wind said, in return for the odour of my jasmine
I’d like all the odour of your roses.
But I said I have no roses –
All the flowers of my garden are dead.
And then the wind said,
Well, I’ll take the withered petals
And the yellow leaves.
And the wind left.
And I wept.
And I said to myself,
“What have you done with the garden
that was entrusted to you?”

(Poem by Antonio Machado)

What have YOU done with the garden of your heart that God entrusted to you? 

Rabbis say that the Garden of Eden (‘Delight’ in Hebrew) is an outward picture of the Garden Temple of the human heart, which God gives to each person. God will hold us accountable for what we have done with it. We are responsible to cultivate God’s garden of our heart. To plant and grow… and yes, to pull up the weeds… as a sacred place of God’s delight. Where God not only meets and walks with us, but actually dwells. And takes pleasure in all its brilliant colours, evocative fragrances, rich textures and soft sounds – the beauty of who we are in his image and likeness.

HOW  do we self-care?

The most important answer I have learnt from my life experience with Jesus, in leadership and ministry, is this: Arrange your life, your months, weeks and days, to live in the unforced rhythms of grace in the easy yoke of Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30). How do you do this? 

Jesus’s easy yoke is to take on and live in his life practices. Then you learn to live in/from rest, not from urgency, demand, deadline, ambition, pressure to perform, to succeed. Live the unhurried life by arranging your life – and keep rearranging it whenever intrusions overwhelm – to live in the rhythm of regular withdrawal and engagement. This is the easy yoke of Jesus, seen in his self-care with Father. This conditions us to live in and from God’s rest (Shalom) as Jesus did. He constantly engaged with people and ministry and then withdrew, then re-engaged, and withdrew. At times he even withdrew from doing ministry and healing: “crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:15-16). 

Consider this poem (unknown author):

If you fill your calendar with important appointments
You will have no time for God.
If you fill your spare time with essential reading
You will starve your soul.
If you fill your mind with worry about budgets and offerings
The pains in your chest and ache in your shoulders will betray you.
If you try to conform to the expectations of those around you
You will forever be their slave.
Work a modest day
Then step back and rest.
This will keep you close to God
And well in your soul.

The daily planner reveals volumes about the leader’s character formation, about your spiritual condition, values, priorities, fears, ambitions. It tells you who your bosses are, who your lover is, and how much value and care you place on your soul. Take a long prayerful look at your (daily) calendar. Who are you trying to impress? God? The church? Other leaders? Yourself? As C.S. Lewis observed, if you are overly busy, you are actually lazy! Because you allow others to determine and demand your time, rather than doing your own planned appointments as per your values and priorities. 

Plan and take time for God and yourself, for family and friends, for rest and meditation, for walks to enjoy God’s creation. Then you will be more sensitive to God’s presence and ways, and you will be healthy in your soul. There is much to say about the “how to” of good self-care, but let me simply highlight these five, as part of the unforced rhythms of grace:

Daily devotions:  a planned intentional daily time to be alone with God, in prayer and scripture mediation, listening to God in the silence of your heart (Matthew 6:6, Psalm 1:2-3).

Making margins in your day:  plan gaps between appointments to check where you are at, to refocus on God, to pace yourself… to be present to each moment as a sacrament of grace.

Keeping Sabbath rest:  not in the legalistic Orthodox Jewish way, but taking a day off for yourself and God, for family and friends, for rest and recreation.

Periodic retreats:  planning a whole morning, or a day, once a month, to be out in nature or at a Retreat Centre, alone in solitude with God. And plan to go on a led retreat for a weekend or longer, once or twice a year. Formal led retreats are truly enriching.

Spiritual companionship and guidance:  I recommend two kinds of regular meetings, at least once a month, for accountability and healthy self-care. First, a spiritual companion for mutual disclosure, care and prayer. Second, an older spiritual guide/director, one who is wise in the ways of God and the human soul, for discernment and guidance in your self-care.

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Deeper Reflection: Why Leaders Develop a Double Life as in Ravi Zacharias

INTRODUCTION

Let me clear some things right up front.

This paper is because of the responses to my FaceBook post about the painful revelations of Ravi Zacharias’ double life. And requests for a fuller treatment. Some said, “I’m so devastated and disillusioned by all of this, how do I even begin to think about it?”

This is not to throw stones, condemn, or judge as ‘holier than thou’. Rather to grapple as honestly as we can with what happened. To confess and lament. Listen and learn. Discern and weigh matters. To help us to think through this kind of failure in leadership.   

This is not to explain all that happened. Read the 12 page official investigative report by Miller & Martin PLLC and the open letter response from the International Board of Directors of RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministry). They begin: “It is with shattered hearts that we issue this statement…”, and continue in a contrite spirit, “We are shocked and grieved by Ravi’s actions.. we feel a deep need for corporate repentance.” However, this is only after RZIM’s denial from 2017 to 2020, and even alleged concealment and enabling of Ravi’s abuse as David French has laid out.

This is not to go into the details of sexual and spiritual abuse. We have to choose who and what we believe. The corroborating testimony of the victims, with evidence as stated in the report – now accepted, believed and published by RZIM? Or that Ravi was the victim of malicious false accusations and did nothing wrong, as RZIM argued till his death? There is no reasonable doubt why we shouldn’t believe the report and RZIM letter.

Either way, we must ask: how do we respond to (high profile) Christian leaders who are found out – either in their life-time, or after death – to have lived a double life of secret sin? Of predatory abuse that damages people, Christian witness, leadership integrity and public trust. And God’s credibility: we represent God. We live, teach and lead in God’s name. “Let your name be sanctified in the earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).

Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about ‘a fall’, a ‘one night stand’, ‘David’s adultery’, or ‘we all sin, no one’s perfect’. We’re talking about years of sexual and spiritual abuse of women, including a credible accusation of rape. Therefore, what do we say? How do we account for it? Why did it go so wrong? What can we learn from it? What can be done?

MY PERSONAL RESPONSE

I’m shattered, to say the least, along with many, many others. It’s time for sackcloth and ashes. I held Ravi in such high regard. When he died on 19 May 2020, I wrote a tribute on my Facebook page. Steve Baughman, an atheist blogger-lawyer, responded by saying he had researched claims against Ravi of lies and sexual impropriety, which he published in a book in December 2018. Then, on 29 September 2020 Christianity Today reported that the RZIM directors initiated an official investigation into the claims. The findings were released on 10 February 2021. The realisation that it is true is very devastating.

So, my first response is a mix of disbelief and grief. I fall on my face before God in lament and mourning, to confess Ravi’s sins, my sins, leader’s sins, our sins as Christians – as Daniel did in Daniel 9. I cry out for all those who were abused. I cry out for the Zacharias family. Because we are shamed – all of us – by what happened.

My second response is: be clear on the nature of the sin and call it for what it is. The report shows a hidden double life of sexual and spiritual abusive behaviour from 2014 to 2020. And it possibly started years earlier. This is no small thing – it’s huge – with widespread fallout.

Ravi’s international profile, great respect, believed integrity, brilliant mind… then this. I was equally devastated – if not more so due to his life of selfless service – by what we learnt after Jean Vanier’s death. The 11 page summary report by L’Arche International, of Vanier’s predatory sexual and spiritual abuse of six women over decades, is really sickening. There is, equally, no reason to doubt the investigation and findings.

There are other Christian leaders, local and international, that one can name. Again and again high profile leaders are shamefully exposed. That’s on the back of decades of widespread sexual abuse come to light in the Catholic priesthood. Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and their leaders are no better.

We dare not deny, excuse, rationalise or justify it. Nor can we disassociate ourselves from it. What happened is a shame on all who bear the name of Jesus.  We must humbly face and account for it. Learn from it. But first the underlying question…

ARE WE ANY DIFFERENT TO THE WORLD?

Is there any significant moral behavioural difference between atheists and religious people – especially Christians?  Research by psychologist, Will Gervais and team, say the answer is no. They find “the religious congruence fallacy”: there is regular evidential discrepancy between beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. “Studies conducted among American Christians… have found that participants donated more money to charity and even watched less porn on Sundays. However, they compensated on both accounts during the rest of the week.”

It’s like the little girl who replied to her Sunday School teacher’s question, “What is a lie?”, with, “An abomination to God and an ever-present help in times of trouble.” We may laugh, but it is tragically true. Our post-truth world of lying pastors and prophets, politicians and presidents, business and civic leaders, is witness to this reality. Truth and trust are twins. In the global pandemic of misinformation and lies, we do not know (the) truth, so we turn to people, especially leaders, we trust. If public trust in leaders is broken, then we are at the mercy of all sorts of (evil) forces, as Edleman Trust Barometer shows in a recent study.

The Church of Jesus Christ supposed to be a transforming model of God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth, yet we are a conforming copy, if not a mirror image, of broken sinful society. Is there no real difference between Christians and people in general – in life, in marriage, in attitudes, morality and behaviour?

I don’t buy all that the research says – the reality is more nuanced. My experience tells me it’s “yes” and “no”. However, it does call us to face the moral bankruptcy of Christianity. Ruthless honesty is required to find and live the reversal of Gervais’ phrase and findings, “the Christian congruence truth”: that there is, and can be, consistent integrity between true Christian beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. That the biblical gospel of Jesus and his Kingdom, rightly taught, believed and lived, really does have the power to transform people in their moral character, with growing integrity in Christlikeness.

It raises the question, what is the gospel we preach and believe? Is it “a different gospel” about “another Jesus” that imparts “a different spirit” that does not have the power to transform (2 Corinthians 11:4)? The kind of gospel we preach is the kind of Jesus we really believe, which is the kind of (S)spirit we receive and impart. Does it transform us?

Also, it’s not what we say we believe, it’s what we live that reveals what we actually believe. Otherwise, we are what Jesus called “hypocrites”: play-actors with masks, who believe and say one thing and do the opposite. The “religious congruence fallacy”. Jesus publicly rebuked such hypocrites, especially leaders, saying they were blind leaders of the blind, white-washed on the outside but rotten on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28).

This raises another question beyond the gospel: do we make converts-believers or disciples-apprentices of Jesus? It’s what I call the salvation/sanctification gap: we get people ‘saved’ by faith and baptism in Christ, but we do not “teach (train) them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Little or no spiritual formation in the character of Christ. Also called the authority/power gap: by believing in Jesus we claim God’s authority as his children (John 1:12), but evidence of its transforming power is lacking, or absent.

The result is the integrity/credibility gap: who we really are before God (who God knows us to be) and how others see and believe we are, grows further and further apart. Till the chasm of guilt and shame swallows us, eventually exposing us publicly. Both the ‘ordinary Christian’ and the ‘greatest leader’ can have these gaps, and suffer the consequences.

MORAL CHARACTER IN LEADERS, CHRISTIANS, AND PEOPLE IN GENERAL

The scandal of flawed moral character in spiritual leaders and believers. Biblically, leaders represent – are representative of – their people. They are meant to be an embodied example of who their people are to be and become – as Jesus was/is for his followers.

For example, the rabbis teach that God created the priesthood to be a living representation of what God intended all Israel to be and become. God’s purpose for Israel was to be “a holy nation of royal priests” (Exodus 19:5-6), ministering to God on behalf of the nations, and ministering to the nations on behalf of God. The idolatrous nations exiled/scattered at Babel (Genesis 11), in contrast to God’s holy nation, called and chosen to bless, redeem and reconcile the nations (Genesis 12:1-3).

Therefore, the way of the priests = the way of Israel = the way of the nations. Hopefully for the better! But the way of the nations, became the way of Israel (“we want a king like the other nations”), became the way of the priesthood (corrupt and immoral). So, God brought the nations to Israel in judgement: they destroyed the Temple and priesthood, and exiled Israel into the nations, to be ruled by their gods. God’s ultimate discipline is to hand us over to our lusts, our sinful desires, to our demons, the gods we secretly worship.

Similarly in the new covenant:  the way of Christian leaders = the way of Christians/church = the way of society. We’re God’s salt of the earth and light to the nations (Matthew 5:13-16). We lead in the Name of Jesus. Spiritual leaders are to be living examples of Christ’s character, which our people follow and become. As Paul says, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

To the degree that moral character is qualitatively different, people who don’t know Jesus see and believe, and want to follow Jesus. Then there’s no integrity/credibility gap. There is, rather, “the Christian congruence truth” of authentic consistency in belief, attitude and behaviour – the fruit of ongoing formation in Christ’s character.

Then “even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity” (Ephesians 5:3) will be distasteful because of the kind of person we will have become. The titillation of lust and sexual fantasy, let alone pornography, will have lost its appeal. And the idea of acting it out in secret ways, even if we can get away with it, will be naturally repulsive to our sexual character. Not to even mention acts of sexual and spiritual abuse.

Then we will have and exercise, in real terms, the same spiritual authority that Jesus had, evidenced by God backing us up in power: the Holy Spirit in and through us making the difference in our world that Jesus made in his world.

What do the repeated shameful revelations of our leaders tell us about ourselves? At times I think it’s so bad that, if Christianity is really going to enter and live the Kingdom of God, it needs to be born again, again. Is God giving us over to our lusts? To the secret gods we worship? “It is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).

Because of all the above, leaders and teachers are always held to a higher standard of judgement and character accountability (James 3:1). More so for international leaders.

WHY AND HOW DID THIS HAPPEN WITH RAVI ZACHARIAS?

Having laid the foundation, let me try to account for what happened. There are always multiple factors, never only one or two.

The first factor, personal responsibility, is primary, especially in this case. Let me explain the root of what happened and why it went so wrong, as I understand it.

We must start with ourselves and not blame others for our actions and behaviour. We are never victims if we do no wrong. If others unjustly victimize us for doing wrong when we have not, we answer in the gentle Spirit of Jesus and trust God to vindicate us – as in 1 Peter 3:9-17; 4:12-19. Peter prefaces it by saying, “abstain from sinful desires which wage war against you” (2:11-12), “get rid of” them (2:1). In other words, do not live in unresolved wrongdoing, living out sinful desires and corrupted appetites.Then we are vulnerable to accusation – evil gains leverage and has “a hold over” us (John 14:30).

When we do wrong, the Holy Spirit graciously comes in various ways to convict us of sin. We confess, repent and receive forgiveness (1 John 1:8-10). If we don’t respond to the Spirit’s conviction and harden our hearts, continuing in the same way, it becomes a “besetting sin” (KJV) that “entangles us” (NIV) in our Christian journey (Hebrews 12:1). If not decisively dealt with, “put to death with Christ” (Colossians 3:5-10), it will eventually “disqualify us for the prize”. After having preached and led others in what we believe but do not live, we ourselves will be “cast-away” (1 Corinthians 9:27).   

I’ve seen this often with leaders. God takes the wraps off us sooner or later. In our life-time, a merciful discipline for our repentance. Or after death, a revealed judgement of our legacy. Either way, be sure your (unresolved) sin will find you out. That’s what Paul means in 1 Timothy 5:24-25. “The sins of some” leaders “are obvious” and can be judged – the leader can repent. But “the sins of others trail behind”, are hidden, only revealed later – even after death. But definitely at Christ’s judgement seat (2 Corinthians 5:10). Paul’s point is: do not lay hands on leaders (publicly recognising them) prematurely, thereby sharing in their sins (1 Timothy 5:22). Carefully test their character first. Else we later have to lay hands off leaders – remove them from leadership – always a painful process!

Existing long-term credible leaders can develop a double life of secret sin if they are not vigilant to “catch the little foxes that spoil the vine”. We must guard our heart and watch and pray till our last breath. Demons don’t give up. The longer we lead, the higher our profile, the greater our effectiveness in God’s Kingdom, the more they oppose us and work our case. That’s why, among other reasons, Paul instructs us to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3). C.S. Lewis’ Screw Tape Letters shows how demons study us to find our weak spot, our uncrucified flesh, to gain a hold and ready us to sin, given the opportunity.  

What happened to Ravi Zacharias was not overnight. It’s a slow character malformation over years by one or more of the vices (‘seven deadly sins’), that we don’t decisively put to death in Christ – by getting help, prayer and counsel. We begin accommodating it. And separate it from the whole of us. We rationalise and justify our guilt and shame, eventually searing our conscience. Then that separated ‘part’ increasingly drives us to act out its sinful desire(s), which has to be covered up, ever more cleverly hidden. So, other evil spirits enter: more lies, more deceit, more secrets, more manipulation and control, and so on.

The devil binds us to silence with the threat of utter shame, personal disqualification, if we are found out. Let alone if we’re willing to break its power by bringing it to the light of confession – getting help. We use the same demonic tactic over those we damage and abuse: “if you tell anyone, then…” Spiritual abuse. The truth is: we are as sick as the darkest secret we keep, both the perpetrator and, tragically, the victim.

In short, this progressive spiritual malformation prepares and conditions us to sin, to do evil when the opportunity presents. We are willing to do good but ready to do evil. Eventually, we are not only sin-filled opportunists, but scheming evil-doers. Until we are caught, found out and unmasked, which is a judgement from God called severe mercy.

God gave Ravi opportunity to repent when Lori Anne Thompson began accusing him from 2016 onwards (see here). He denied all accusations, saying the victim was the perpetrator. The common tactic of abusers. Then he settled out of court, but insisted on a non-disclosure agreement. Why do that if he genuinely did nothing wrong? Where there is smoke there is fire. The report, sadly, confirms that there was a serious fire.

I reference this to say that, in my view, what I have described above was the lonely, dark, tormented, secret journey of Ravi Zacharias. Similarly, with all such leaders of broken character who live a double life, to a lessor or greater degree, whether pastors or politicians, Christian apologists or self-identifying atheists.  

OTHER CONTRIBUTORY FACTORS

In a helpful article, Mike Bird says, “This happened – this keeps happening – because of
(1) Evangelical celebrity culture; (2) Big platforms with big donors and a fear of it all disappearing; (3) A lack of oversight and accountability; and (4) A refusal to take women’s accusations seriously.” I will pick up on these and others, with brief comments.

1. Lonely leaders with no real personal friends:

Men are the perpetrators of almost all sexual and spiritual abuse in leadership. Men, generally, do not have real male friends, safe places to be ourself and off-load. “Faithful is a friend who wounds you” in love with truth and trust (Proverbs 27:6). That’s limited by our so-called ‘male inability’ to be emotionally vulnerable and disclose. Our tendency to perform and compete means we find identity in what we do. Thus, we commonly relate via a ‘ministry persona’, not the real me; a role-play with little or no transparency. Consequently, we can be drawn, unchecked, into wrong ways.

Who is responsible for this? You! The leader. We can’t blame anyone else for not having genuine mutual male friends. We either make those safe places or avoid them.

2. The deeper issue of broken, even toxic, masculinity in leadership:

Do we have enough godly sexual character and healthy masculine formation to lead from a critical mass of wholeness? Have we faced our deep conditioning as men? The toxic stereotypes and models of broken masculinity that have formed us from birth – unconsciously and consciously – by our fathers, brothers and men in society. That is part of the way we lead. Ingrained sexist attitudes towards women… to sex, money, power, success. The spirit and structures of systemic sexism continue to advantage men at the expense of women. How aware are we of this? How free are we from it? This is a core contributory cause to developing a double life of abusive leadership.

Who is responsible to address this? You. The leader. We need to get help.

3. Underlying evangelical theology of male sexuality and headship:

This goes to the heart of male sexuality and masculine spirituality. Where they meet and unite in the core of who we are, that’s who we become: healthy masculine men. Are our sexuality and spirituality friends or foes? Separated by guilt? Even shame-full enemies at war with each other? If so, lust-driven sexuality becomes and abusively uses broken toxic masculinity. AND vice versa. Popular evangelical theology on sexuality and leadership (male headship in the home and church) does not address this. Instead, many marriage books further male cultural stereotypes of leadership and sexuality, as in “men are simply sexually driven”, “God made them that way”, “they can’t help it”, “wives, give it to them or they’ll look elsewhere”. This feeds male entitlement and contributes to sexual AND spiritual abuse of women. We need women voices and theologians who are free from sexist stereotypes and cultural male-conditioned theology and praxis.  

4. Refusal to take women’s accusations seriously:

A natural follow-on from the above three. Why? Because the vast majority of Christian leaders are (still) men. Let’s be honest, men, we just don’t take women’s accusations seriously, because most of them are personal. This includes organisational boards. They close ranks. What happened at RZIM happened at Willow Creek: the accusations against Bill Hybels by women victims were dismissed. They were cast as trouble-makers and ‘gaslighted’. Further abuse. The minority of false accusations is no reason to not listen empathetically; instead, to listen with prejudice: “emotional”, “broken”, “manipulative”, “needy”, “temptress”, “Jezebel spirit”. As a man I know what men think even if they don’t say it. History has been so lopsided in favour of male ego and dominance, that if we err we should do so on the side of women dignity, and take them seriously.

Who’s responsible for this? We are. Leaders. We must own this and change it.   

5. Organisational culture and celebrity status:

For decades we’ve imported business models of organisational leadership into church, at great cost. Pastors are CEOs and elders are a board of directors. However, both church and corporates have a culture that we develop for better or worse. Either a healthy or dysfunctional ethos, to the degree 1) our values, policies and practices determine, or do not, how 2) we lead and 3) relate to our staff and people. Too many cultures prioritise charismatic over character leadership, allowing, and even enabling celebrity status. And more so as we excuse violations of core godly values.

Unresolved ego-needs also contribute. Vulnerable to admiration, we believe our own publicity. From good to great! The narcissistic ego on display of many (charismatic) leaders is nauseating! We feel invincible, then think we can get away with things. This leads to abuse. So, we overcoming our conscience to groom our victims.

Who is responsible? The leader. We cannot blame people, or our team, for putting us on a pedestal. That is “subtle victim-blaming of both the secondary victims and direct victims” of abuse, as Tanya Marlow says in her insightful article on five things we must stop saying about sexual and spiritual abusers.

Leadership teams/boards are equally culpable – often as enablers. Some teach a ‘culture of honour’ that gives, among other things, loud standing ovations to speakers, with long intros of Apostle this and Prophet that. I’ve been in two such conferences. I cringed. It’s far from Spirit of Jesus in his humble servanthood. I had the privilege of introducing Dallas Willard at some conferences in South Africa. Each time he would gently bind me to a short intro like, “This is my friend Dallas Willard”! It was his spiritual discipline for God’s glory. We should always and only receive any praise as a pane of glass receives light: the brighter the lighter the more invisible the glass.

6. Lack of oversight and accountability

Follows on from point 5. Leaders are never ‘lone ranger’ heroes of God! Biblically, leadership is in, with, and through team. We lead by being led. The leader who doesn’t submit to being led should not be followed. God requires proper spiritual formation and radical life accountability to other leaders who hold us to The Light without fear or favour. If we walk in the light as God is Light, any shadow that appears in us, or between any leaders, no matter how spiritual, senior or powerful they may be, we confront the shadow. Then we save ourselves and our people. Leaders hold themselves accountable, we don’t wait to be held accountable. We live a disclosed life. When a leader is called to account and they react defensively/emotionally, something is up. Diligent oversight saves us from our ‘unsanctified parts’, our deceitful hearts. The need for consistent ethical oversight of leaders and corporate governance is greater than ever because of character-less leadership in a post-truth world.

7. Big platforms with big donor money and fear of it all disappearing:

With growing celebrity status, the platforms get bigger and the donor money flows more freely. We build churches and ministry organisations dependent on donor money, based on the founder-leader’s charisma and reputation. There’s a point where, no matter what happens, we need to keep the show on the road. If the money doesn’t come in, we go down. So, keep things under wraps to keep the donors happy and giving. The bigger the platforms, the more the money, the greater pressure to perform. The stress and loneliness can lead to erosion of integrity. And we ‘escape’ into a double life.

CONCLUDING RESPONSES AND LESSONS FROM THIS STORY

‘It’s terrible, but… there but for the grace of God go I’. No! We all sin, we all do wrong. But, we’re not all sexually tempted to abuse women, to rape, to damage people for life. This response, Tanya says, “minimises and normalises crimes that should fill us with horror”.

‘God uses broken people, even sexual abusers. It’s not all bad, he did lots of good’. King David is cited. But what Ravi did is of a different order of abuse to what David did. And David repented, Ravi did not. This also minimises the crimes and retraumatises the victims, making God, by implication, the abuser. For the victim, it’s a further spiritual abuse.

‘Jesus forgave the adulterous woman: “I don’t condemn you. Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” Don’t condemn Ravi’. This is complete ignorance of the story. She was a victim, not a perpetrator. This is not comparable with what Ravi did. Jesus said, “go and sin no more”. Ravi refused every opportunity to repent, continuing in abusive sin.     

Should we no longer read Ravi’s books or listen to him on YouTube? In one sense, truth is truth and it stands, no matter who said it. So, if I read Ravi’s works, or refer to him, I will do so with discernment and disclaimers because of what I now know. However, we can learn all that Ravi taught from other authors and apologists who have not been sexual and spiritual abusers, who have not brought God’s name and Christian faith into such disrepute.

This story is a sober warning and wake-up call for us. Especially for leaders. It should put the fear of God into us, in a healthy way! Let me close with some personal words. 

In regard to victims, as Tanya says, we must learn “to listen carefully to their story and echo the horror of it truthfully, without seeking to paper over any cracks… to honour them and apologise to them and lament with them and ask for their forgiveness… to earn back the trust in order to be a place of healing… to ask what they need and learn from them.”

In regard to leaders, as Solomon says, above all things, guard your heart, because all of your life flows from it (Proverbs 4:23). Live and lead from the easy yoke of Jesus, from rest, by keeping to your daily, weekly and monthly rhythms of spiritual disciplines, for the protection and health of your heart. Those who think they stand, take heed lest you fall.

And if you have any hidden history of unresolved sin, if you’re living a double life in any way, GET HELP RIGHT NOW… for God’s sake, for your people’s sake, for your own sake… in that order. Save your people from yourself, and go get help!

God have mercy on us leaders.
God have mercy on the people we lead.