Several weeks after 9/11 I went with a team of leaders gathered by the American Association of Christian Counselors to New York City to minister to pastors, their spouses, their fellow church leaders and various ministry leaders who’d served their city and congregations after a tidal wave of terror hit their shore. I can still picture their faces. Some of them had not yet wept. Others had not ceased to weep. We’ve come to speak often, with appropriate awe and appreciation, of the first responders among civil servants in outbreaks of violence or tragedy. The leaders who’d gathered in that sanctuary to be served and comforted after 9/11 were first responders among church servants.
Many of the pastors who met with us that day had done what their seminary training could hardly have prepared them for. They’d conducted a mind-numbing succession of memorial services for members of their churches. “With no bodies,” one pastor murmured, his face almost as pale as death, his eyes hollow. We do not normally think of a casket as a tangible mercy in our grief but we realized that day with horror that cold metal can be warm comfort in terrible times. There was a pause, a giving way to the silence, a pleading for the Holy Spirit to plunge to the depths where no man can go, to intercede and bring a comfort not of this world to His very own servants. That day was a day for speaking the unspeakable. They could say anything they wanted or needed. They could voice feelings they were fighting that could not responsibly be uttered in such raw form to their congregations. Those of us serving them did our best to speak when speaking was appropriate. We held in our arms the ones who wanted holding. We sat near those who did not want to be touched.
As we search for words for what has befallen us, maybe 9/11 is the closest we can come to marking the birth of a different era, one distinguished by, of all horrific things, terror. Birth by stillbirth. Life in what we called a civilized world with a fire-breathing dragon of death coming out of hibernation. Terror from without and within. Global. Domestic. Evil. Environmental. We are not nearly as scared of death as we are of being scared in death. These things are unthinkable yet we must think of them. They are unspeakable and yet we must speak.
Wise, responsive action must be taken in coming days. There are outcries for legislation that need to be heard and reasonable measures to be taken for church security but this is an outcry for the fortification of the souls of our people. This is a plea for an awakening to the demands for responsible discipleship in the generation that has been entrusted to us, for training up and equipping strong, able Jesus-followers, sturdy living stones, tenderized by the love of Jesus, strengthened by His divine power.
I’ve thought over and over in the last five years, “we’re unprepared for what has befallen us.” Our discipleship, generally speaking, is not matching the demand of our violent, unstable days. We who follow Jesus were timed for this exact era on earth. God thought we were capable of serving it or He would not have planted us in this bloody soil at this moment in history. He’s a strategist. We leaders and teachers and mentors and communicators can either embrace what has been entrusted to us or answer for it when we see Him. We have churches doing no discipleship at all which would have completely flummoxed first century church planters and begged the question “Why bother?” Few of us have the patience or time to address for the millionth time all the ways we’ve flung our church doors open to the pandemic narcissism of our culture. Show them a good time. Do not dare call out sin or call for service or sacrifice or, God forbid, actual commitment.
Those are tired discussions and I’m not in the mood to have them this morning. The discussion I’m in the mood to have is about revisiting the paradigm for discipleship in the early church where Jesus-followers were equipped to both suffer and rejoice. Not one or the other. Both. Take a look back at Matthew 10 and Luke 10 where Jesus sent out His followers and warned them what kinds of conditions they’d encounter. Look back at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. They were taught to serve one another in extreme hardship and that it would not finish them. Rather, it would flourish them. If it killed them, well, they’d be in the presence of the Lord. They were equipped for the inevitability of affliction and not just how to survive it but how to abound in it. This is the heritage of the saints. New Testament believers were trained – not just told but trained – to weep together and laugh together. To remember Christ’s death together. To live out authentic resurrection life that could not be explained in natural terms. They were taught to battle demonic powers and principalities. They were taught how to grieve with hope. They were taught how to repent and be restored. How to turn from the sin that was hemorrhaging their witness and their tenacity in Christ. They were trained in prayer and taught how to keep the faith. They were taught to anticipate with great joy the vivid life awaiting them in Christ on the other side of death and that these are mere shadows compared to the substance to come.
The church in America is dying for this kind of discipleship, for the real, live fly-in-your-face thing that results in lives that matter greatly in their communities. I’m not pounding on something that I’m unwilling to put to practice. I have a long way to go and a lot to learn but I’ve made increasingly strong adjustments in Bible study curriculum in recent years. I hope the call to steadfastness, sacrifice, strength, love, faith and defiant joy in times of extreme duress and distress is blatant in the studies on James, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, 2 Timothy and, most recently, The Quest. I want to be like Paul described Epaphras who was “always struggling” on behalf of those he served, that they might “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” (Col.4:12)
There is so much good news. Such a fresh embodiment of the increasingly disembodied Body of Christ. I’ve watched a slack-jawing awakening of service and sacrifice in churches in my own city in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. I have no doubt Floridians would say the same. I marveled yesterday as our pastor told us what our next phases of ministry would be. It included things like dropping off new mattresses in homes where beds were destroyed and families were sleeping on floors, hanging sheet rock, helping people fill out insurance claims. Serving in Houston has looked more like rebuilding a community after a war than the church of my young adulthood. What is this world we’ve awakened to???
It is our world. The only one we have for now. I’m the furthest thing from a pessimist but I don’t think it’s going to get better. I think we may get reprieves of mercy but I fear we have entered a travail we will not soon escape and that it will intensify. Here’s where my optimism comes in handy: I may not think our conditions are going to get better but I think the church is. Jesus-followers have what it takes to serve this world. We have the Holy Spirit. Now we need the training on how to allow Him to work effectively and fruitfully among us. We need discipleship fit for our days. We need the Scriptures. We need to be taught in our churches not only how to deal with our personal suffering but how to deal with our community suffering as a people. We need to be taught our right to joy and how it flourishes most beautifully and colorfully in a landscape of difficulty.
I’ve run out of writing time and I’m sure you’ve more than run out of reading time. I’ve got no great ending to this post. Just earnestness. We wish things were different. They’re not. But we can be different. We can be disciples. Real ones. Trained ones. Tenderhearted ones. Fortified ones. Effective ones. Strong ones. Joyful ones. Courageous ones. Compassionate ones. And the world will be the better for it.
Read more at Waking and Responding to an Unwanted Era.