Jesus had a unique way of communicating. He spoke deep, cosmic truth by telling short, earthy stories. These were called parables, and they were designed to speak the truth of God’s kingdom from unexpected angles. We’ve titled one of these stories “The Parable of the Sower”.

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

This parable has always puzzled me because it seems to teach that every person is either one type of soil or the other, and they don’t have any choice in the matter. A bit too Calvinistic for my Armenian bent. But what if it’s a spectrum instead of a grid, and Jesus isn’t speaking definitively, but rather generally?

One way to think about this parable is viewing it as a spectrum of how we relate to Jesus:

Foreigner —-> Fan —-> Follower —-> Friend

The foreigner is the one who is far from Jesus, who doesn’t know him at all, doesn’t believe in him and doesn’t care about him. This is the person who represents the seed sown along the path.

The fan is the one who has heard the good news and accepted it. They have experienced that moment of salvation, and have possibly even been baptized. But their excitement and emotion soon dissipate when they realize just what is being demanded of them. This is the person who represents the seed sown in the rocky ground.

The follower is the one who has moved past the “fan” stage. They have counted the cost, so to speak, but their faith has been stalled by the worries and troubles of life. They’ve gotten to a certain point in their faith but find it impossible to move forward. This is the person who represents the seed sown among thorns.

The friend is the one who has gone through all the stages to experience what Jesus said to his first disciples: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” This is the person who represents the seed sown in the good soil.

These, I believe, are stages along a journey rather than pre-ordained destinies. When we look at the parable through this lens, we see how Jesus is explaining the reality of our lives. We are not born as good soil, but rather must grow into that reality. Because of our sin, we are all born into that first stage of being a foreigner to Jesus, of being the seed along the path.

We move from foreigner to fan when we first receive the gospel and repent of our sins. This is the moment of salvation. Many people find themselves immediately ready to make this transition, while others need to hear the gospel and see it in action for many years. Sadly, the vast majority of people never move out of the sad stage of being a foreigner to Jesus.

We move from fan to follower as we pursue the path of discipleship. In this time the reality of following Jesus will strike us, and he will demand that we make certain sacrifices to keep pace. Many, many Christians do not successfully make the transition from fan to follower.

We move from follower to friend when we experience deep soul-intimacy with Jesus. This often happens when we go through great times of pain in life. As we come through these times we can say, from first-hand experience, with the Psalmist, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” But as with the other stages, very few people move to the stage of being a friend of Jesus. Too many turn away from God when they experience pain. Rather than drawing closer to him in the midst of it, we so often blame him for the pain.

God’s will for you is to be the good soil. He wants you to move from foreigner, or fan, or follower, to that last stage of friend. Where do you find yourself on this spectrum? I find myself moving backwards and forwards along it through the different stages of my life; right now I see myself somewhere between fan and follower. I have a road to walk, as do you, but my heart is comforted because I know that Jesus walks it with me.

I recently finished Eugene Peterson’s wonderful book, Run with the Horses. I started reading it several months ago and got sidetracked, as often happens in the busy seasons of life. I’ll post a full review of the book tomorrow, but today I’d like to share some thoughts from the book that are relevant to what I posted on Monday, Born for Babylon.

Chapter 12 deals with Jeremiah 29, in which the prophet delivers a message to his fellow Hebrews who have been taken into exile in Babylon. His message is this: “Get used to life there. Settle down. Get married. Plant a garden. Pray for Babylon, because you’re going to be there for 70 years.” Not exactly what you want to hear if you’re the displaced Israelites. Peterson describes exile this way:

The essential meaning of exile is that we are where we don’t want to be. We are separated from home. We are not permitted to reside in the place where we comprehend and appreciate our surroundings. We are forced to be away from that which is most congenial to us.

Exile is where life doesn’t make sense. The familiar rhythms have been drowned in the thunderclaps of that which is foreign.

Jeremiah taught the Israelites to embrace the foreign and unfamiliar. There were other prophets, however, who were preaching a message of false hope. They said the horror would be over in less than 2 years. A far cry from the 70 predicted by Jeremiah.

These three [false] prophets made a good living fomenting discontent and merchandising nostalgia. But their messages and dreams, besides being false, were destructive. False dreams interfere with honest living. As long as the people thought that they might be going home at any time, it made no sense to engage in committed, faithful work in Babylon. If there was a good chance that they would soon get back all they had lost, there was no need to develop a life of richness, texture and depth where they were. …The people, glad for a religious reason to be lazy, lived hand to mouth, parasites on society, irresponsible in their relationships, indifferent to the reality of their actual lives.

You may not like where you’re at, but that’s the only place you are, and it’s the only place you can live for Jesus. Exile, in all its forms, sucks. No doubt about it. But you have to come to terms with the reality that this may be where you’re always going to be.

The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at this moment. …The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible–to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.

Peterson goes on to write that exile forces us to make a decision between feeling sorry for ourselves or making the best of our circumstances.

We can say: “I don’t like it; I want to be where I was ten years ago. How can you expect me to throw myself into what I don’t like–that would be sheer hypocrisy. What sense is there in taking risks and tiring myself out among people I don’t even like in a place where I have no future?”

Eugene Peterson, get out of my head! I’m guilty of saying these exact words, and for years! But, he says, we have a choice. And that is only the first path we could choose. The second is far better.

Or we can say: “I will do my best with what is here. Far more important than the climate of this place, the economics of this place, the neighbors in this place, is the God of this place. God is here with me. What I am experiencing right now is on ground that was created by him and with people whom he loves. It is just as possible to live out the will of God here as any place else. I am full of fear. I don’t know my way around. I have much to learn. I’m not sure I can make it. But I had feelings like that back in Jerusalem. Change is hard. Developing intimacy among strangers is always a risk. Building relationships in unfamiliar and hostile surroundings is difficult. But if that is what it means to be alive and human, I will do it.”

I wish I had been living like this for the past several years, rather than wallowing in self-pity and flying the flag of entitlement. This is how we live with hope in Babylon.

Peterson concludes the chapter with these wise words:

Exile is the worst that reveals the best. …Exile reveals what really matters and frees us to pursue what really matters, which is to seek the Lord with all our hearts.

I know you don’t feel it, but God is in your exile. He is with you, but the only way to find him there is to quit trying to get back to Jerusalem. Stop longing for the good old days, and live with hope in this foreign land. There is hope in Babylon because God is with you there.

I came across a passage of Scripture this morning that has really struck me. It’s Romans 12:10.

Be devoted to one another in love.

I wrote, yesterday, about the nature of the Gospel–it was a critique of a post from Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC. Part of the DNA of their church is “to be more focused on the people we’re trying to reach than on the people we’re trying to keep.” While I appreciate the ministry of that church, and have been blessed by it, I worry about this part of their DNA.

In fact, this is part of the DNA of many Evangelical churches in America. It’s the Willow Creek Model; all that matters is the number of people who become Christians. Pastor Furtick says it with audacity:

Focus on the people you want to reach and you’ll keep the people you want to keep. Let the rest walk. They’ll find a church elsewhere to graze.

The way I see it is they’re just occupying the space of a person who needs to hear the gospel. You’ll fill their seat.
And it will be with the person who needs it the most.

How do you reconcile this with Paul’s command to “be devoted to one another in love”? Furtick’s approach places the mission ahead of the people, and anyone who doesn’t get on board with the mission can “find a church elsewhere to graze”. So much for devotion.

It is not like God to write people off, to dismiss them to another pasture, for having spiritual needs after they’ve embraced the Gospel. The most important lesson I’ve learned in the last year is that my life is not about the mission, it’s about the people. Jesus has called us not to climb a mighty mountain or calm a raging sea, but to “make disciples”, to “be devoted to one another in love”, and to “carry each other’s burdens”.

Again and again, the Bible tells us that this life is about the people, and that each person is magnificently loved by God no matter where they stand on the spectrum of salvation. Our calling, as ministers of the Gospel, is to be shepherds of the sheep, and we will be held accountable for each one in our flock.

Is there a mission? Of course there is, but the people come first. Missions are temporal, but people live forever. Therefore, “be devoted to one another in love”.

I don’t normally write a post like this, critiquing the work of others, but I came across something yesterday that I thought deserved some commentary. Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, wrote a post called Fishers of Men, Not Keepers of the Aquarium on his blog that, I believe, creates a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship.

I should say, from the outset, that I have a lot of respect for Pastor Furtick. I’ve visited his church once and listened to him online several times, and I’ve been impressed and encouraged each time. The ministry of Elevation Church is fantastic, and the way they’re reaching people who are far from God is exemplary. But I think that drawing distinctions between being “fishers of men” and “keepers of the aquarium” is unhelpful and, perhaps, unbiblical.

We Evangelicals talk a lot about “being saved”. What we mean by this is that there is a point in time at which we believed the gospel, which means that we confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, repented of our sins, and received the forgiveness he offers at the cross. This moment in time actualizes God’s forgiveness in our lives, invites the Holy Spirit to fill us and empower us for service to God, and guarantees our place in heaven. This is how we understand salvation to work, and why we believe that “moment” is so vitally important, and why so much of our ministry efforts are exerted to bring people to that point of decision.

The trouble we have, and the trouble that I see Pastor Furtick leading his church into, is that this moment becomes all-important, to the detriment of the days and years which follow. It’s like a film director who pours all of his energy into the opening scene of his movie. Sure, that opening scene is great, but the rest of the movie is a sloppy snooze-fest. It’s no wonder people walk out before the end! This approach to ministry–the emphasis on the point of decision–creates a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship, inevitably elevating the former over the latter.

Evangelism literally means “Gospeling”; it is the announcement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is the living out of that Gospel–that is, walking as Jesus walked. The two go together; in fact, perhaps the best way to think of the relationship between the two is that evangelism is the means for which discipleship is the end.

When we look at the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), we see that Jesus’ final command was not to evangelize, but rather to “make disciples”.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “While you’re going on your way, while you’re living this new life, do unto others as I have done unto you these past few years. As I have made you my disciples, so you must make them my disciples.” (Incidentally, the only imperative verb in this section is the one we translate “make disciples”.)

Part of Elevation Church’s code is “to be more focused on the people we’re trying to reach than on the people we’re trying to keep.” But the task of Christian ministry–of being an undershepherd of the Good Shepherd–is to keep everyone we reach and continually reach everyone we’ve kept. The Gospel is never done with you. Salvation is not a moment, it is a life. As Paul says in Philippians, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The Gospel is doing far more than saving individuals from hell or even announcing the forgiveness of sins. In the Gospel, God is making all things new. This is not a moment; it is a sweeping, unstoppable, wholly consistent movement of the Spirit of God that began at the cross of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and has now spread to every corner of the globe.

Pastor Furtick writes, “the people you’re trying to reach aren’t interested in the church that has been created by the people you’re trying to keep.” If that’s true, then you’ve utterly failed at living the Gospel and, in fact, being saved. The Gospel never stops working on you. You never stop being saved. There is no “in” here, there is only “getting there”. God is not out to make converts; he is out to make disciples. We must be careful to not confuse the two.

Jeremiah prophesied that God’s people would be in exile in Babylon for 70 years. That means a lot of Hebrews lived and died only in Babylon; they never spent a day of their life in the Promised Land. They never saw the temple or traversed the topography of Zion. They were born across the great river, and there they died. Exiles, through and through.

We hear a lot of talk these days about finding God’s best life for you. We talk a lot about destiny and calling, always with the thought in mind that we are meant for something great. God has a great plan for your life that will exceed all your wildest expectations. It sounds so breathtaking and exhilarating–the spiritual equivalent of climbing El Capitan every day for the rest of your life.

But what if you’re meant for only exile? What if you’re one of those people who are born and who die in Babylon? What if God isn’t that interested in making all of your wildest dreams come true? What if he doesn’t care about how satisfying your life is?

Jesus talked a lot about losing your life, and how losing your life for his sake is the only way to really find it. We’ve hijacked that statement, and we’ve dressed up all of our egotistical insecurities about significance and success and greatness and accomplishment into Jesus-clothes. We lay down certain delusions of grandeur only to take up certain others that have been spiritualized and “sanctified”. We become counselors and pastors and professors and public servants; we start non-profits and plant churches because we want our lives to have some kind of significance, and we claim that these vocations, and these tasks, are how we “find significance in Christ”.

But what if finding your life really means losing your life and abandoning all hope of ever finding it again? What if Jesus really meant it when he said that we have to lose our lives for his sake, or that the last shall be first, and the first last? What if following Jesus means never being significant, or successful, or great? What if it means that you will accomplish very little in this lifetime?

Maybe you were born for Babylon. Others may go to Jerusalem, and even call you to follow them there, singing the songs of Zion. But you’re meant for Babylon. You’re one of the folks who has to lose his life, hoping not in unveiled significance later on in this life, but in redemption and resurrection in the life to come. You’re the one who has to throw yourself completely on Jesus and live with him in Babylon. Can you accept it?