Rolling on in the series, “STUFF I’VE PICKED UP ALONG THE WAY.” This one also came from Ron Pinkston, by way of a few dozen conversations with people on the topic of “making disciples of Christ.”
STUFF #4 – When it comes to making disciples, influencing others towards good, encouraging people: FEED THE HUNGRY BIRD.
When I started volunteering with Jr & Sr High students, I knew that one of my responsibilities was to make disciples (aka ‘fully devoted followers of Christ.’) However, I didn’t have any idea just HOW I was supposed to do that. So, pre-the Google machine’s invention, I asked around. Called friends (on a touch tone land-line phone, even,) for recommendations. Some suggested a curriculum, studied in a classroom type setting, for a set number of weeks; others offered up a ‘y’all come’ approach, where any & everyone who showed up to class &/or youth group would be discipled (though I wasn’t exactly sure how that was supposed to happen. Still.)
I fumbled & stumbled through it, feeling overwhelmed, ill-equipped, & frustrated. Felt like I was failing at what I was trying to do. And then…
“If you want to make disciples & don’t know where to start, just FEED THE HUNGRY BIRD. Look for the student that wants to learn, wants to grow, & wants to spend time doing it. And then spend time with them.”
Don’t exactly remember the context for when/where I heard this saying, but I know when I did, a light bulb went on in my head. I could do that! And so I decided to experiment: one night at youth group, I told the handful of students, “Anyone who wants to grow in their relationship with Jesus & hang out with me before school, & drink coffee/eat a muffin at the City Cafe bakery, we’re meeting on Tuesdays @ 6 a.m. I’ll get you a ride to school as well.”
The next Tuesday, I showed up at the City Cafe as the doors were opening to the public… it was me & a few morning stragglers grabbing their coffee & a quick bite on their way to work. No one was sitting in the Cafe, so I got my cup (free refills For The Win #FTW) & parked at a table in the middle aisle of the restaurant. (It was a converted, barely remodeled Swensen’s Ice-Cream parlor. If you’ve been in one, you get the picture.) I was alone.
Every time one of the doors opened, I’d peek around to see if any brave souls were joining me in at the Crack O’Doom. For coffee & Jesus. For the longest time, (at least 10 minutes,) no students came… just early risers on their way to work. And then…
I’d heard the door, but had gotten tired of turning around to the disappointment of Yet Another not-student walking in the door. I focused on drinking my bottomless cup of joe, nibbling on a cobblestone muffin, & reading my Psalms.
Next thing I knew, I sensed someone’s presence nearby. It was Vic, a 7th grader from our youth group, standing there looking as awkward as I felt, & but as welcome as any Christmas morning I’d ever experienced. Somebody came! And now what to do.
Vic figured out the transactional part of the morning (coffee & a muffin for here in the cool green basket,) & came over & sat across from me. Drinking his coffee, slowly. Taking large bites of his muffin.
What to do next? He was here now, invited to come “grow in his relationship with Jesus.”
So we talked. Laughed. I listened to him, & prayed that I’d have something to say. His questions didn’t start on Jesus, the Bible or other spiritual topics, but somehow, they seemed to end up there.
Before I knew it, an hour had passed & it was time to take him to school – when I dropped him off, I can remember him saying, “So, we gonna do this again next week?”
I hadn’t thought of next week. But I said, “Yes. Of course. Same time, same place.” And he got a big smile on his face & said something like, “Cool. it was fun.” And he bailed.
Over that school year (& for the next several years that I lived in Carson City,) Tuesdays at the City Cafe became a ‘thing,’ at one point taking over most of the tables & booths in the restaurant. All Jr & Sr High students. All ordering coffee. All eating a muffin. All talking at their tables with friends, Youth sponsors (people there to help me with supervision & discipleship) & having a blast.
Being discipled. Encouraged towards Jesus. It was beautiful, & is still one of my favorite memories from my time in Carson.
Over the years, FEED THE HUNGRY BIRD came to mean – share time, space, & experiences with the people who WANT to gather, WANT to hang out, WANT to learn. Though it could sound trite, it really was true: the Holy Spirit set the agenda for what got addressed, & we never really needed a curriculum as He & life’s circumstances & challenges provided more materials than I could ever have wanted to have.
There’s no substitute for time together. For good conversation. For making time to listen. For saying, “I don’t know,” when you don’t know, & for heading to prayer for answers, comfort, & encouragement in those times.
It gives me great joy to know that many, many of those students are still walking with Jesus, now with spouses & their own kids (& some even have grandkids) more than 30 years later.
And it all started with Vic, the brave soul who took me up on my invite to grow in his relationship with Jesus. Over coffee. With a muffin. Before Jr High.
Thank you to my friend & fellow pastor Matt Messner for the encouragement to resume blogging. I encourage you to check out his writings – he’s a man worth listening to & he lives an example worth following.
As the oldest of 4 boys – each of us 4 years apart – I always felt a lot of responsibility to set a good example for my 3 younger brothers. Early on, a bit part of the responsibility came via encouragements & instructions from my parents to “make sure to make good decisions, because the boys will do what they see you doing.” And that they did. It was often like an impromptu game of “follow the leader,” as I’d be going about my daily business only to find one (or more) of the brothers mimicking my actions, attempting to DO what they saw me doing. Sometimes, I know they did it just to get under my skin (or was it to get me to pay attention to them & interact with them?) Sometimes they did it because it looked like what I was doing was fun (or was something they didn’t know quite how to do, so they chose the ‘monkey see, monkey do” approach to learning.)
There were people I looked up to as well; people whose actions, words, people & God-interactions, etc. helped to shape what I thought to be normal & prescriptive for what Louie should be & do, both with people & in pursuing relationship with Christ. I rarely gave any thought or intention to the process – it was more like, “I look up to these people, I respect them, & they’re older/wiser than me, so maybe I can learn from them & kinda walk in their footsteps.” But I never had an official mentor.
First time I remember hearing the word “mentor,” was watching the ’70’s TV show “Shazam!” (We watched it because the star of the show grew up across the street from my mom. But I digress.) The Shazam character had an older, trusted friend named “Mentor.” (so much for subtlety.) Mentor’s role seemed to be advising Shazam & his alter-ego in the “why’s” behind choices, values, & practices – he didn’t tell him what to do, but guided him down a path that would help him to develop his own metrics, decision making processes, & rule-of-life. Later on, Star Wars’ Jedi/Padawan learner model emerged as my very favorite picture of what a mentor is/could be. But I never had an official mentor.
In January 2000 I became the pastor of Hillside & in short order, found myself in a huge mess of confusion, loneliness (the kind that comes from not being KNOWN, being new in a new place,) unpaid bills, unclear processes & procedures on WHAT, WHY, & HOW I was to do my nebulous, barely defined job of local pastor. I can remember thinking “I have GOT to find someone or a couple of someones that will SHOW me how I’m supposed to do get out from under this mess, do this job, & care for these people.” You know, a MENTOR. I needed, desperately WANTED a mentor. And yet I had no idea where one could go to acquire one, esp. in such a real/perceived desperate point of need.
And so it happened by accident. Looking for something to fill the silence of my long Mondays of ‘doing the books, paying bills, sorting through & organizing an administrative challenge,’ based on the recommendation of a friend, I sought out the Sunday morning STREAMING ONLINE teachings of some people that I knew from the larger Foursquare family I am a part of. (If you’re interested, the rotation consisted largely of Ralph Moore, Daniel Brown, Jerry Cook, & a few others.
For the most part, these weren’t people that I had really ever had personal interactions with – they were more well-known for many years of faithful & fruitful ministry, esp. in regards to raising up & releasing others into the callings that God had put on their lives. And every Monday, I listened to these guys lead their churches in Sunday worship through various teaching series, & over the next couple of years, I began to feel like I really knew them. What motivated them. Their loves & values & strengths. Areas of frustration, traps & pitfalls they’d discovered over time. I even got to know their families & family dynamics. And not one of them ever knew that they were mentoring me, shaping me, challenging me to grow into what God was calling me to be & do in my own life, family, & ministry context.
In the middle of this time, I can remember praying, asking God to ‘send me a mentor, someone that I could look up to & interact with that would help point me in right directions.” And God answered, “I have. You’re being mentored right now. Listen. Learn. Question. Wonder. Pursue Me in the context of what you’re hearing, what you’re learning & I will guide your steps.”
It was revolutionary for me – at that moment, I saw my own life from a mile-in-the-sky view & saw that God had been working in (& THROUGH) my life for years through the men & women He’d brought into my life, whether in person (like my dad & dear friend Chuck Shoemake) or from a distance, (the teachers I was listening to, Steve Taylor, Annie Herring, & many, many others.)
The funniest part of the whole interaction with God was the very subtle but very real understanding that I came away with – I, Louie, am to live a life of someone to look up to. I am a part of the great challenge given from Paul to the Corinthians, “…follow my example AS I FOLLOW the example of Christ. 1Corinthians 11:1, NIV.) Instead of trying to find a person to be my mentor, I was to follow the great examples of those men & women in my life who were following Christ… & to expect that there were those that would then use me to do the same.
All of this to say – there aren’t any short-cuts or “7 steps to…” anything that substitute for the process of growing as a disciple of Christ, physically, relationally, emotionally, & spiritually. And if we look around, there are many, many men & women who are someone to look up to, people who are living flawed but exemplary examples of what it means to follow Christ, in their context, on their mission. Look for them. Be one of them. Keep moving forward, & bring others with you whenever you have the opportunity.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend about my age (40+ish. The closer I get to 50, the more 40 seems like another lifetime ago. But I digress.)
My friend, (like me) had been in ‘the Church’ for more than 20 years. And after those many years of active, vibrant church-life, he felt like the Church really had nothing else to offer him. After all, “I’ve been there, done that, learned that, heard that, lived that… And I feel like I’m at the spot in my life/maturity where there’s nothing else in it for me. Nothing else really to learn…” That wasn’t the 1st time I’d had the conversation, & most likely, it won’t be the last. While I think I understand, in theory, what my friend was saying, I think he could be missing something incredibly important: the opportunity to be a spiritual father/father in the faith to upcoming generations of Christ-followers. Here’s what I mean.
Looking back on my life inside (& outside) of the Church, I can point to a handful of men & women, some who couldn’t have been more than 5 years older than me, who invested themselves in my life, people who helped shape me into the man I am today. This (non-comprehensive) list includes:
- my Sunday school teachers
- a large number people who attended some incarnation of our family’s small group Bible study over the course of 15 years & took the time to include me in their discussions (Bible & other kids), played catch with me, & generally acted like it was totally normal for an adult to have a pre-teen/teen kid hang out
- sports team coaches/assistants
- youth leaders & pastors
- camp cabin leaders
- small group leaders who hosted a Bible study group (& fed me & my friends)
- the list goes on…
In real life, we go through transitions… at one point, we were all completely dependent on others for our care, food, shelter, diaper changing, etc… & gradually, we all go (& grow) through various stages of dependence to become, for better or worse, independent. We get married, have our own families, & then repeat the cycle, except this time with us being mostly on the giving vs. receiving of the care. When we’re dealing with our kids, it’s not like we come to a spot where we think, “You know, I am not really getting anything out of this whole parent thing. Shouldn’t there be something more in it for me…? I’m out.”
In the Church life, we go through transitions as well… hopefully reaching a point in our Christian development where we are able to give back & pour our lives into others who are still in the early stages of growth & maturity. In essence, we get to give back as spiritual fathers/mothers, without regard for exactly what’s in it for us, or knowing HOW we are going to get something out of it. We get to join with the very Body (the Church) that brought us to the point where we were grown/mostly grown up, mature, not ‘needing’ anything from others. This joining with the mission of the Church can be called a lot of things, discipleship, mentoring, etc… To me, the terminology isn’t what’s important. What matters is that we adopt & ascribe to the Kingdom of God values more than we adopt & ascribe to our American culture of consumerism (a ‘what’s in it for me’ faith.)
I’ve had many, many conversations with young people (translation: people younger than me) who say they don’t have a role model, a mentor, a coach, a spiritual father/mother to give input in their lives. And, they don’t really know how to go about getting one. Which, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why we who have been around the block a few times, who have grown & matured in our relationship with God, have the responsibility to take the initiative & get involved in the lives of others. I’m not saying we start out by introducing ourselves as their new spiritual father/mother, (c’mon: that’s weird.) I’m saying we just do it – in a small group, as a coach in rec-league sports, inviting people over for dinner – & not worry about what title we get/don’t get from them. Call it paying it forward or being on the Giver Team, it is an integral part of the lifecycle of the Christian faith, & we have the privilege of being able to play a role in the lives of others.
And the best part, we DO get something out of that.
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak & remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ Acts 20:35 English Standard Version
NOTE: I intentionally avoided (or attempted to) the definition of what the Church could/should look like. To me, those are delivery systems, (not the main thing) & the point I am trying to make is, whatever the Church delivery system you’re a part of, take the time to invest in (disciple) others. Someone. Somewhere. Somehow. It makes an eternal difference.
I’m amazed at how God can use the most mundane of life activities to bring people together. The Apostle Paul left Athens and headed to the booming metropolis (and wide-open mission field,) of Corinth. Left with the question of how he would support his gospel spreading and church planting campaign, Paul fell back on the trade he knew, tent making. And it just so happened that two members of the local ‘tent-making guild’ were Aquila and Priscilla, a couple of refugees from Rome that had fled to Corinth at the order of Emperor Claudius because they were… Christians. And, just like that, Paul had a team.
Paul’s followed his pattern of testifying to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ, His promised Anointed One. Here at Corinth, the message was soundly rejected, complete with threats of violence against Paul by the Jews. With the non-Jewish Corinthian audience, however, the response is drastically different. They believed. In large numbers, people in a city famous for sexual immorality and wild living flocked to the gospel of grace and the message of justification by faith.
Even though the Jews continued to threaten Paul, he knew that unlike Philippi, Berea, and Thessalonica, he was to stick around Corinth for a while. The LORD Himself confirmed this, saying something to the effect of “Keep it up. You won’t be hurt. I’ve got lots of people here, and you’ve got lots to preach, teach, and train.”
I often think about how the Apostle Paul wrestled through the dichotomy of the two responses to the gospel at Corinth, where one group soundly rejected and strongly opposed the Good News, and the other joyfully embraced and applied it. I think that this contradiction was at the forefront of his mind as he wrote letters back to Corinth:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1Cor 1:18, 22-25 ESV
One way I like to think about this is that my role in sharing the gospel and investing in discipleship is “looking for the hungry bird.” What I mean is this: when the mama bird comes back to her nest after a morning of worm digging and bug grubbing, the baby bird that gets to eat is the hungry one, the one with the open beak! In the same way, I want to be looking for the “hungry birds,” those people that eagerly hear and respond to the Good News. This doesn’t mean ignoring others, but rather is a picture of looking for where God is actively at work, and then intentionally partnering with the work He’s already done in preparing the ‘soil’ of their hearts.
I pray that we would have eyes to see the hungry birds in our lives today.