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The Call for Pure-Hearted Disciples
I must have shifted the materials on the conference table in front of me a dozen times. What I was about to do tied me in knots. It was worse than facing a surface-to-air missile or anti-aircraft fire, or finding myself in the middle of the kind of in-flight emergency that would have had me nearly swallowing my oxygen mask.
What could hit me like this? My very first attempt at speaking publicly for Christ.
I had deliberately chosen the squadron briefing room. After all, I was in my element there. During the previous years, I had given numerous safety briefs and lectures to groups of flight students and instructors in this very room. Churches felt strange and troubling to me, so I didn't want to risk speaking in a "religious" setting. Here I felt as comfortable and in control as possible, given the daunting task before me. Being in control was still critical for me, since Christ had just begun His healing work in my life. Even though I had sense enough to realize that Jesus was the only One really in control, I still felt a rumbling tension within my soul.
The session was nothing more than a simple Bible study that I had decided to have at the squadron. I wanted to grow in my faith, but I couldn't make sense out of church. The church members didn't speak my language, and they also didn't struggle with the same stuff I dealt with on a daily basis. I decided to take the bull by the horns and conduct my own Bible study.
One by one the men sauntered into the room-some in flight suits, some in uniforms and some even in civvies. Most of them were flight students, so I looked forward to sharing with them without the usual instructor-student formality. I glanced down at my outline. I had prepared it from the few sermons I had heard and what little I had learned from my own Bible reading, which ironically made me a biblical scholar compared to the pilots in front of me.
Then Buckaroo entered the room! I know my jaw must have dropped. He swaggered to the far end of the table and flopped in a chair, his flight suit unzipped down to his belly button as usual.
If anyone's call sign fit perfectly, it was Buckaroo's. He was challenging and navy to the core. He took great delight in harassing me for my Marine Corps spit and polish. Nothing was off-limits to him. He had a caustic vocabulary that fed off some of the wickedest humor known to man. Yet I respected the man because once he climbed into the cockpit, he was incredible. He could fly the plane to the absolute edge of the envelope and even toy with it there despite its violent and bucking protest; thus, the name Buckaroo. We had gone head-to-head in several mock dogfights, and the results were never conclusive but always interesting. We had pushed each other to the razor's edge of our abilities and I think in the process gained a mutual respect for one another.
I tried to ignore Buckaroo's piercing stare as I began to walk through the preliminaries of our time together. But just as I launched into my much-rehearsed presentation of the book of Romans, Buckaroo interrupted me midsentence: "Hey, I've got a question," he shot.
Every eye turned toward him as he grabbed the spotlight as usual, but this time there was an honest quest in his words:
Let me tell you about something that happened to me just before I finished my last tour of duty in 'Nam. It was a night carrier launch, and I had a max load for a heavy mission up north. They fired me off the starboard catapult, but about halfway down the deck something went wrong. I found myself going sideway in a violent yaw, and I knew I wasn't about to get airborne flying sideway. I initiated the ejection sequence and blasted out of the plane just before it tumbled into the sea. Everything worked as advertised. I had a good chute that slowed me down enough so my impact with the water didn't break anything, but it still rung my bell. Somehow I managed to fight my way to the surface, get clear of the chute and inflate one side of my flotation gear. I was feeling pretty good about being alive and in such great shape when I realized I had a really big problem. The carrier was steaming straight at me doing 30 knots! There was no way they could get the carrier turned away when I was directly in its path. I waved my hands frantically as it roared toward me, which is kind of hilarious now that I think about it. It ran right over the top of me! I felt myself bouncing along the side of the hull like a Ping-Pong ball.
by now everyone in the room leaned forward in their chair, hanging on every word. I thought to myself, There is no way this guy could have lived through that. He has got to be pulling our leg.
Then he got my total attention.
"At some point," he continued, "I passed out of my body; it was like I was watching myself rolling, twisting and tumbling along the length of the carrier. I thought about my wife and a lot of other things.
"Then I passed back into my body as I was gyrating through the screws at the stern of the ship and popped to the surface. The compression of passing near the propellers had broken one of my eardrums and the pain was intense. Fortunately, after a short time in the water, one of the escorting destroyers picked me up."
Buckaroo paused for a moment, fixed his gaze on me and said, "I know there is a God; otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here tonight. But, Ted, tell me who this Jesus Christ is and why I should be interested in Him."
I can't remember exactly what I said to Buckaroo that evening. I am sure it wasn't very profound, but it apparently made sense to him because he eventually said yes to Christ. More important, he gave me a great gift that night. His question birthed something in my heart-something of the kingdom of God that I have never forgotten. I heard the honest cry of the human heart. After 20-plus years of ministry, I have come to realize everyone has a Buckaroo story of some sort. Most likely it isn't as dramatic as being keelhauled by an aircraft carrier, but every person has received a love note from the Father at some point in their life prior to saying yes to Christ.
In years of counseling, pastoring and caring for hurting folks, I have never known anyone whom God isn't reaching out to and touching with His grace-not one whom God the Father isn't passionately pursuing.
What Is the Role of the Church in Pure-Hearted Discipleship?
Unfortunately, in our day and age, a staggering number of folks don't understand who Christ truly is or His deep passion for them. Recently after one of our midweek services, which we direct toward individuals who have already decided to follow Christ, a young lady spoke to me.
"Pastor Ted," she said, "I just love the services here at East Hill. I enjoy hearing you speak, but who is Jesus Christ, and why is He so important to you?"
Many might find such questions rather hard to believe given all the radio, television and other media ministries directed toward evangelism. It is unthinkable that someone wouldn't know who Jesus Christ is! However, if you look at the objective statistics, the vast majority of people who watch, listen or are affected by such ministries are Christians, not unbelievers. It is speaking to the already convinced.
Unchurched folks in America don't feel they need God very much. They tend to be individuals who have made some headway in life. Their driven lifestyle has left them frazzled and over-extended but not necessarily hungry for Christ. The number of unchurched people has grown steadily in the last 50 years in America, and the main reasons they give for not attending church usually revolve around two issues. First, they don't think it is worth the time. Despite the fact that they may be overextended and struggling with relationships, they do not automatically think that Jesus, the Bible or Christianity will help them overcome their difficulties. We live in a post-Christian society.
Second, an increasing number of people choose to live disconnected from any church because they find churches irrelevant to their world and needs.
Clarity in the Midst of Confusion
The Church must begin to grasp Christ's strategy for America, because frankly, things are getting desperate in our land. The unchurched in our land have now become the largest mission field in the English-speaking world. The Western world is also the only major segment of the world's population in which Christianity is not growing.
The problem goes much deeper than just a decline in the number of individuals attending church. There is a severe problem with the faith of many who do attend church. Presently, fewer than half (44 percent) of all born-again adults are convinced there is such a thing as absolute moral truth. This belief partially explains why atheists are less likely to become divorced than Christians in America today.
To complete the grim picture, the United States now leads the industrialized world in the percentage of single-parent families, abortion rates, sexually transmitted diseases and the size of the prison population per capita.
All of these sad statistics do not mean that there isn't a spiritual hunger in our land. Between 1989 and 1998, the Muslim population in the United States grew by 25 percent so that no major American city, including those in the Bible Belt states, is without an Islamic teaching center. Islam has become the second-largest religious group, superseding Judaism. Buddhism is growing nearly three times as fast as Christianity in America. The second fastest-growing religion in North America is Hinduism. These statistics are not just numbers; they represent people who truly matter to God. The present-day Church is deeply confused about its calling; as a result, our nation is in a gut-wrenching state of spiritual confusion.
Confused in Its Calling
This isn't the first time the Church has been confused about God's priorities in its calling. One of the most significant turning points in the book of Acts, outside the Day of Pentecost, was the conflict that erupted over the question of whether the gospel should be spread outside the confines of Judaism. That discussion seems ridiculous to us today, because we enjoy the benefits of the gift of wisdom God gave James, the pastor of the church in Jerusalem:
When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. It is my judgment, therefore, that we would not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:13-14,19).
Once you read through the full discussion found in Acts 15, you realize those who were opposed to the Gentiles hearing the good news didn't like how the Gentiles acted and saw themselves as spiritually superior. They probably said something like, "We can't let the Gentiles in because they don't look and act like us. Their hair is different and they wear strange clothes. Besides, they are not very godly." Sadly, similar behaviors and attitudes are prevalent in today's Church.
Realization of Its Godly Calling
We don't have many outside speakers at East Hill because of the rather unique way we do things. It is not that we are closed to outside influences, but it can be rather hard on the speakers. During the review session following the first service, I faced a dilemma. This very distinguished speaker had made an off-hand joke about homosexuals. I was waiting for an opportunity to bring up the subject to suggest he avoid such comments in the remaining services. Before I could address the issue, a staff member turned to the speaker and with a great deal of grace and gentleness in his voice said, "Sir, the joke you made about homosexuals doesn't fit with our calling. Those folks are important to us. They need Christ just like we do. God is bringing them to East Hill, and we need to honor that. It doesn't matter if our attendees are homosexuals, prostitutes or powerful people in the community. If they are seeking God, there is a place of honor for them here." Tears came to my eyes. That staff member wasn't confused at all about God's strategy and plan for our land-to reveal to every tongue, tribe and nation God's priority and outrageous love for each and every individual.
One of the most prized gifts I have ever received is proudly displayed in my office-a teddy bear wearing a little flight jacket and goggles. It came with an incredible note written by a former prostitute who walked into East Hill one weekend, met Christ and totally turned her life around. She is married now with two kids and follows Christ with all her heart. Previously, she had been into everything from New Age practices to Buddhism. She has now become a powerful spokesperson for Christ. She is not the only one. Recently, we started a new-believers group for exotic dancers because so many of them started showing up to our services and responding to Christ. We started the group so that they would have a great place to celebrate their new life. I don't mean to be presumptuous, but I suspect that in many congregations they would have told this former prostitute, "You have to clean up your life, you know! You have to develop into a certain kind of person."
But that is not what the father did with his prodigal son in Luke 15. Right up front he threw a party. True repentance follows grace. And forgiveness precedes repentance. Heartfelt repentance and conversion occurred for the son only after the party. I would have loved to have been sitting around the breakfast table the next morning. I think the son would have said something like this to his father: "Dad, I want to go back to the far country. I told everyone you were a terrible father. I need to go back and correct that. I need to let those I left behind know what a great and gracious father you really are." The son would not have been confused in the slightest about his father's priorities-about his father's outrageous love for him. The prodigal son would have known exactly what to say to Buckaroo, because he had been keelhauled by his own foolish choices in life. At some point everyone will be foolish apart from Christ. And if they do not discover God's amazing love and redemption in this process, they will miss the greatest adventure available to any man or woman living-life with a determined intimacy with their Savior-a pure-hearted discipleship.
WHAT IS THE CONTINUING CHALLENGE?
Once we stop to think about it, we shouldn't be puzzled by the confusion in American churches today.
Excerpted from LIVING LIFE BOLDLY by TED ROBERTS Copyright © 2004 by Ted Roberts. Excerpted by permission.
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