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KY deer

During my D. Min. residency in 2016, I went hiking one evening on the Kentucky River Palisades Trail.    I saw only two other hikers during the time I was on the trail, and by the latter half of it I was the only one in the woods.  Near the trail in the middle of the woods, I sat on a large flat stone and spent time reflecting on the discussions we had in our class relating to Henri Nouwen’s life and the love of God.  I was led to consider God’s love for me in particularly and reflected and prayed on the stone for about 30 minutes enjoying the company of the Lord.  God’s seemed to truly manifest his presence there with me in the cathedral of the trees.

When I arose to continue the hike, I looked behind me and saw the deer pictured above.  It stood about 15-20 yards from me watching me seeming unafraid but quite curious.  My immediate response was to thank God for blessing me with this surprise.  It was an amazing experience as the deer came several yards closer and then walked in a wider circle around me to the other side of the trail where it continued to watch me.  The encounter with the Lord and the deer was a highlight for me and not one I would soon forget.

When I arrived back at Asbury for the beginning of my second D. Min. residency, I was eager to return to this trail and keen to see more deer or perhaps the same deer.  I also hoped to have a similar time of communion with the Lord.  I visited the trail the first weekend.  I took the same route through the trees and rocks descending to the KY river and then back up the hill.  This time, however, it rained throughout the hike, and poured down on the latter half of the hike.  I had a rain jacket, but it was not the most pleasant of situations, even though, once again it was only me in the vast woods.  I saw a couple young deer run off away from me during the hike.  By then, I had picked up my step to make it back to the car.

With my head down, striding toward the end of the trail, I caught a glimpse of a small mound of rocks about five feet to the right of the trail.  It struck me as strange because it was in the middle of open dirt / mud without rocks or trees.  I wondered to myself why anyone would make a mound of rocks there.  When I considered the wider expanse of the area, it dawned on me that this was the spot I sat and prayed during my previous hike.  I saw the rock I sat on further off the trail and then looked and noticed the tree where the deer stood the year before.

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There are certainly other explanations for a mound of rocks in the woods, but I thought of the Ebenezer symbol from Scripture and wondered “could this be from the Lord for me to see?”  In the story of Israel, the prophet Samuel prayed for Israel’s victory against the Philistines and the Lord answered his prayer.  Following the battle in which the Lord fought for Israel, Samuel set up a monument:

“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12

The term Ebenezer means “stone of help.”  In the case of Israel, it served to remind them how the Lord helped them overcome their enemies in his mercy and grace despite their own unworthiness.  When I saw the stone and thought of the Ebenezer stone, I also remembered the twelve stones that were brought up by the twelve tribes of Israel from the Jordan River when they crossed following Joshua into the Promised Land.  After they crossed over Joshua had them piled into a memorial:

“The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” Joshua 4:19-24

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The stones in Scripture represent the mighty help of the Lord to his people.  I don’t know how these stones in the woods came to be right at the spot of the trail where I went off and experienced a mystical time with the Lord who blessed me with the interaction with the curious deer.  But what came to my mind was that the Lord caused them to be there and for me to see them and stop to remember how the Lord revealed himself to me and blessed me through his mercy and grace.

For me, it was the Lord who set these stones there as a remembrance not only for me but for himself.  The Lord revealed to me that our times of communion together are his delight and joy as well as mine.  The Lord looks forward to the times we spend together in tune with one another. He remembers with fondness the experiences he has with us when we give him our full attention and love him with our whole heart, soul and strength — whether they are times of intimacy in solitude or times of sacrificial service to others.  God sets his own remembrance to remind him and us that communion is the true source of satisfaction and fulfillment.

It is baffling to imagine God being like a child who says to his mom or dad, “Remember that time when we…”  However, to see the Lord’s longing for communion with people, we only have to read and reflect on the prayer of Jesus to his Father.  He are the closing verses:

“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.  I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:22-26

The prayer reveals Jesus’ longing for his followers to be one with him and the Father and the Holy Spirit.  To be one with the Lord is to be filled with the love that the Father has for his beloved Son.  The pile of rocks in the woods reminded me of God’s delight in me and love for me.  It revealed to me that God delights in his love for me and my reciprocation of love to him, and he remembers our time of communion.  What a grace to serve a loving God who speaks to his children and shows himself to them. (John 14:21)

By the way, in the pile of stones beside the trail, there were eleven stones.  I added a small one on the top to make it twelve.

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I participated in the 2nd residency for the D. Min program at Asbury in August.  I was again with about 55 other students from all around the world in this program designed to better equip us to engage in God’s mission in all sorts of cultural and geographic contexts.

This residency began with a reorientation by Dr. David Gyterson, the Dean of the Beeson Center which houses the D. Min.  He reminded us that our model for leadership does not come from the world but from Jesus.  David described Jesus’ leadership style as being “kenotic” leadership.  This term is based on the early Christian hymn found in Philippians 2:1-18.  This is the description of Jesus’ condescension from glory to obedient suffering and death on the cross.  Paul writes that Jesus emptied himself or made himself nothing.  The Greek verb is ekenosen from where the adjective “kenotic” generates.  In this sacred calling, leadership includes the following three commitments: “thinking deeply, loving fully and serving sacrificially.”

Reorientation was followed by an afternoon exercise in Spiritual Formation led by Dr. Marilyn Elliot, V.P. of Community Formation.  She led us in a time of devotional silence and prayerful meditations followed by teaching on “Seeing through Christ’s Eyes.”  This exercise was fruitful in helping us stop and take a few breaths to enter into God’s peace prior to beginning a busy two weeks of classes.  Marilyn has inspired and helped to cultivate a similarly peaceful spiritual ethos on the campus of Asbury.  I think most people can get a sense of a graceful atmosphere at the school that touches everyone involved.  I am blessed to have Marilyn as my dissertation coach, and I am thankful she has also brought a much-needed touch of peace to that endeavor for which we had trainings interspersed throughout the residency.

The first course for my cohort – Preaching and Leading – was “Discovering God’s Missional Heart.”  For my group, the first 2 ½ days were taught on the public expression of God’s missional heart by Dr. Gregg Okesson, Dean, E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism and Professor of Leadership and Development. He has spent a decade teaching at a Bible college in Kenya and was a church-planter amongst a Muslim people-group in north-central Tanzania. He and his family lived in East Africa for 13 years.  He also has served as a pastor.   His teaching emphasized the myriad cultures and contexts where God is working to save and transform people around the world.  He taught about how the essentials of the gospel reach across all borders to express the salvation of God.  He also discussed how sometimes culture can seep into and corrupt our faith.  As an example he showed the following video which definitely resonated with me as a soccer fanatic.  It illustrates the mix of faith and sports and stimulated quite a bit of class feedback.

The second half of this class was taught by Dr. Stephen Seamands, Professor of Christian Doctrine and former pastor.  He taught about the private, relational expression of God’s missional heart.  Stephen is the author of two books that were texts for the class: Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service and Wounds that Heal: Bringing our Hurts to the Cross.  I recommend both. Through the class, he emphasized the invitation we have to enter into the fellowship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and how God heals and delivers people through his presence and his body.  This was a meaningful discussion of God’s transcendent glory and power and his imminent love and goodness.  We are invited to experience both, and we need to experience both in our daily relationship with God.  Dr. Seamands taught that “Christian ministry is not my asking Christ to join me in my ministry as I offer him to others, but rather it is my joining with Him in his ongoing ministry and mission as He offers himself to others through me.”

The second week’s class was “Leading Change” taught by Dr. Tom Tumblin,  Professor of Leadership and Associate Provost for Global Initiatives and Academic Affairs.  This class featured considerable class discussion and interaction that addressed leading ministries.  The basis for leadership was rooted in the kingdom of God and applied in our various arenas of ministry.  Dr. Tumblin is incredibly competent in not only organizational leadership but Biblical principles and models of leadership.  Leadership discussions also highlighted the value and urgency of sanctification for the leader who faces pressures and temptations of all sorts from all sides.  Below is a picture of me facilitating a class discussion on a case study.

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We were blessed to have two guest speakers during this week.  The first was Dr. John Oswalt, Distinguished Professor of the Old Testament and an incredible scholar and lover of the book of Isaiah.  He enthralled us with an hour lecture on the elements of kingship in the prophecy of Isaiah.  This compared the kingship and powers of the world with the kingdom of heaven and the power of God.  The second guest speaker was Alan Hirsch, a well-known speaker and author on the mission of the church.  He emphasized the urgent need for the church to reignite the offices of the apostle, evangelist and prophet in addition to the already emphasized offices of pastor and teacher.  He taught from Ephesians 4:1-16 with an emphasis on the following verses:

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” (11-12)

Alan’s teaching was a welcome push back against the cessationist intrusion in the church against the gifts and purposes of the Holy Spirit working among believers.  Alan’s purpose is to activate missional communities that create a church on the move.  I think his new book 5Q is worth checking out.

Two additional highlights of the D. Min. residency are once again the incredible, over-the-top hospitality and welcome we experience at Asbury from the D. Min. leadership team and the Lasting Impressions Team.  They treated us to snacks and drinks at all of our class breaks.  To ease the Saturday dissertation trainings, we were blessed with Chic-Fil-A and Subway lunches.  We had BBQ one night and Burgers and Hot Dogs another night.  This treatment is indicative of the entire Asbury campus experience.  We closed out the week with a Eucharist celebration.

The other highlight is the fellowship with the fellow students who come from all over the United States and world.  It is encouraging and exciting to hear from international students how God is working in areas like southern Africa and Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Vietnam and elsewhere.  God is working through faithful ministers to multiply believers and churches all over.  He is healing, delivering and saving people.  In the United States, God is at work too in various cities and on college campuses in ways that we never hear about on the news.  In all of these contexts, the kingdom of God faces opposition but is overcoming.  The news is inspiring because God is working through ordinary people who are willing to become vessels for extraordinary works of God.

My dissertation project continues to move forward on the project of developing a training in spiritual formation for staff of pregnancy resource centers.  This project requires ongoing research, writing and planning.  I believe it is a ministry initiative that God has inspired me to develop, because this ministry is so close to his heart and has to overcome intense opposition from spiritual forces and worldly forces.  I encourage you to reach out to support your local pregnancy resource centers with prayer, financial support and volunteer efforts.