Friday, April 28, 2006

Sorting Through My Vocation

I am currently in a period of restructuring in my life. I approach school with questions already on the table – questions that are vital for me to have answered. I wouldn’t have had that sort of desperation had I gone to seminary straight out of college. I am also able to come with a greater measure of humility than I might have had before the church closed. I am more open to receive than when I “had all the answers.”

God has strengthened my call to vocational ministry. I was leaning toward academics with a view to become a professor until I started on this project. As I examined all the major events of my life, I saw that over half of them point toward vocational ministry but only one or two point toward professional academics. I have learned that I do not want to be in a ministry role where the goal is building a large church. I would like to change the world through ideas, especially writing.

On the day I repented for getting drunk, I received a prophecy from one of the elders in the church:
The Lord says, I am laying a deep, deep foundation in you, and I am driving pylons and I am laying things down deep to the bedrock of the earth in your heart. And there shall come a day when the building will be built upon these foundations. And the building will rise even to the height that
the foundations go deep. For I don’t intend to build on you just a small structure, I don’t intend to build on you just a little thing that requires very little foundation. But I require you to have deep foundations to the very bedrock of truth. And I require your deep foundations to the very bedrocks of true character. For I will build upon you structure. And I will build upon you a massive building, a massive edifice of your life for My glory, says God.

I asked the Lord in prayer, “Why are you going back to the foundations after you have already started building?” In one of those flashes of insight that come through prayer, I felt like the Lord responded, “I haven’t started building on you yet.”

I find that the foundations go much deeper than I expected. I find myself crying out to God for new keys that will unlock the prison doors in the lives of people.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

My Early Ministry

After I graduated from college I was determined to move into ministry. I was faced with two options. I had been accepted into the M.Div. program at Bethel Seminary in Minneapolis. I had also been offered a position as the youth director at a church near Milwaukee. I met for counsel with the pastor of the church I had been attending while I was at camp. As he prayed for me, he said that he felt the Lord saying that both options were pleasing to Him and I could choose either one. I chose to take the position as youth director because of the impact I could have on the lives of the kids while I was being trained for ministry.

The senior pastor of the church became my mentor as I moved into leadership. The church had started a new leadership training school, offering classes in theology, church history, and preaching, among others. One of my job perks was free tuition so I took as many classes as I could. During this time I learned practical components of ministry from every aspect. In practical ministry, I found that the vision and dreams I had for ministry didn’t always turn out as I had expected. Kids were not getting saved in droves and mass revival did not break out, but the kids that we had were getting a solid foundation. They seemed to be excited about our youth meetings every week, so I considered that a success.

One summer night after I had been on staff for almost a year, I felt overwhelmed with a desire to go get drunk, so I drove to a local bar and made some new friends. After several beers I told them all who I was and what I did, and made a complete fool of myself. I was ashamed of my actions and did not tell anyone for several weeks until God finally convicted me. I told the senior pastor, who suggested that because I was on staff should consider repenting before the church, though I was not obligated. I chose to repent publicly, which was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done. With the humility came a new freedom and maturity, which prepared me for my next phase. I was engaged a month-and-a-half later and got married the following February.

The senior pastor and I had talked many times about the excitement of campus ministry, so when my old campus pastor left the campus church to start a new church plant, my current pastor took his position and I joined him on staff. In the fall of 1999, I formed a discipleship group with three new freshmen. I joined forces with the leader of our local InterVarsity chapter, and another Christian with a heart for prayer, and the three of us started a monthly prayer meeting for all the campus ministers. God used this prayer time to break down barriers between ministries which had divided us for years.

On May 27th I was ordained as a pastor in the church. I preached an ordination message on Isaiah 36 and 37 on trusting God when it seems like He’s no where to be found. I learned that we had to put that principle into practice on several occasions when we thought we might have to close the church for financial reasons. But God was always faithful to come through for us, sometimes at the very last minute.

During this time I discovered N.T. Wright. I read somewhere that you should find one or two authors that really interest you and read all of their work. I was excited by Wright’s work because of his ability to hold his own as an evangelical New Testament scholar in the world of secular academics. All the bible professors I had met at the University were strongly liberal, and one was a professing atheist. I loved the idea of being able to “play by their rules and beat them at their own game.” Wright opened my eyes to a world of biblical scholarship that I didn’t even know existed.

In the summer of 2002, my pastor finally yielded to the financial pressures and left the church to pastor near Milwaukee again. That left me as the sole pastor on staff, or as I called it, the “soul pastor”. Although we had a good outreach that fall, we did not see as many students added as we had hoped. Nevertheless, we built some good discipleship groups, and had a number of exciting ministries happening in the church.

In February, I encountered four crises of faith. Outside of our local church, we found out that a missionary and close friend we had been supporting and working with in Costa Rica had taken advantage of several women that had come to him for counseling. Second, a good friend of mine, who had been sent out from our church to start a new church plant, became embittered towards us. After a big ordeal we severed ties and went our separate ways.

In our church, one of our key students suddenly disappeared. He had been on probation for a sexual offense in high school, but he had really changed when he joined the church and got born again. We found that his probation officer deemed him to be too much of a risk and revoked his probation. According to the original crime, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. I felt absolutely helpless to do anything.

Social workers interrogated one of the girls in the church to find out if she had been violated. The investigation showed that there was not cause for concern, but she revealed that her parents used spanking as part of their discipline. This brought their entire family under investigation, and her parents were accused of child abuse. They were faced with criminal trials and threats to take away their kids.

Meanwhile, the finances kept getting worse and worse. At the end of the school year in 2004, nearly half our members left the church. I commented at the time how amazing it was that every person that left did so on good terms. Even more amazing, we agreed with the reasons that most of the people had for leaving: graduations, new jobs, etc. It was as if God simply closed our church at the end of that school year. We hung on through the summer, but in September we finally closed the doors. The pastors of the other churches decided to take the burden of our $20,000 debt. I was finally free to go back to school for my M.Div., which I began in the spring semester of 2005 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I am currently sorting through my theology and vocation.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

My Early Christian Challenges

When I returned to school after my first year as a camp counselor, I was just beginning my new walk of faith. I started looking for a good church to go to. My one requirement was that it had contemporary music. The only church I found was a charismatic church, a movement I knew nothing about. The pastor, Derek Miller, took me out to lunch and challenged me to let Jesus be Lord of my life. When I questioned him about what that meant, he quoted Jesus’ words in Luke 9.23-24, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” Derek asked me, “Ryan, are you seeking to save your life, or have you lost it for Jesus?” That question prompted a week of intense soul searching. At the end of the week I committed to lay down my life for Jesus. Months later I would look back to that decision as the point where I was truly born again.

Just a few weeks after I started attending church, I received a personal prophecy that has been foundational in my life. We had a guest preacher who began calling people up after his message to give them a prophetic word. I had never seen anything like this before, and the first person he called up was me! He told me I was called to be a theologian, warning me that it would be easy for me to get puffed up on intellect. God gave me wisdom to challenge the vain philosophies of this world and that things that are holding people in bondage. “I sense you being able to do that… crying out to God, saying, ‘What is the key that would unlock this prison door?’ And it’s going to really challenge you intellectually… But the fruit of it and the reward will be well worth the price paid.”

When I look back on the next three years, I am amazed at how much God did in my life during those days. It was as if every week brought new insights and revelations about God. Most of my personal stories about “what it really means to be a Christian” come from this period. I was amazed at all the wisdom the Bible contained. I had already known the gospels pretty well, but suddenly I discovered the treasures that were kept in the rest of the Bible, especially the epistles.

God continued to stretch me when I moved in with three Christians from a non-charismatic, fundamentalist church. The four of us learned a great deal from each other, not the least of which was how to deal with conflict biblically. But we all had a sense of the profound unity we had in the gospel despite any doctrinal disagreements.

It seemed that God was always bringing up things in my life that He wanted changed. I remember three specific occasions. The first happened during church, which was meeting on Saturday nights. Derek announced that instead of meeting in the building, he was giving us an assignment to go hand out tracts, and we would meet back at the church when we were done. I had never passed out tracts, and I didn’t want people to think I was a weird religious type. My group ended up being Derek, and his wife, and me. I went with them and watched them hand out tracts, but I was not ready to do it myself. That night on my walk home from church I worked up the courage to give a tract to a convenience store worker. I was so excited that I called the pastor when I got home to tell him, “I did it!”

A second challenge occurred a few weeks later during worship. I was glad to have found a church with contemporary music, but I was not too excited about all this charismatic stuff: lifting hands in the air, shouting spontaneous praises, etc. That’s fine for them, I told myself, but I would not worship like that. But during one of the songs I felt the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit to lift my hands in worship. I was offended that God would ask me to do such an undignified thing. Then I remembered all the sin in my life that God had forgiven me for, and how undignified that was in His eyes. Yet here I was, unwilling to worship Him, the very thing I was created for. I went into the bathroom and locked the door so no one could see me. I repented before the Lord and lifted my hands in worship. As I did, I felt a flood of the power of God come over me. This was a crucial test of obedience for me.

The third challenge came when I started dating Rachel, who was beginning to dabble in witchcraft at the same time I was beginning to live the Christian life. I was somewhat of a nerd, so I had never had a girlfriend before. In just a few days I went from innocence in relationships to feeling totally defiled before God. At the end of the first week I came under such conviction before God that I broke down weeping before Him. I repented for being “unequally yoked” and broke off the relationship.

I believe challenges like these are important in every new believer's life. For me, they were crucial for preparing me for vocational ministry.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Why I Became a Christian

I was born and raised in Iola, a small town of about 1000 people in central Wisconsin. I have only one sister, four years younger, and no brothers. We were raised in a good Christian home. I was baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church. My Dad was converted on October 6, 1979 when God spoke to him and freed him from a drinking problem. Outside of communion wine, he never touched a drop of liquor again. He started attending the local Lutheran church in town, and the rest of our family joined him after a little while. My Dad was my greatest hero, and I still admire him for his wisdom and achievements. Our family was very healthy. We spent lots of weekends together camping, and one night every week was “family night,” where one of us would get to pick an activity for our family to do together. We were taught that Jesus loves us and the Bible is God’s Word.
I prayed to receive Christ at a Christian magic show when I was about 10 years old, and reaffirmed that commitment the next summer at a 5-day-club run by a neighbor. I don’t remember thinking much about spiritual things during this period, but a survey in 6th grade had the question, “I would like to learn more about…,” to which I replied, “the Bible.”

I began to question my faith in High School, which coincided with an increase in sin and rebellion in my life, which, in turn, coincided with getting my driver’s license. One spiritual highlight occurred, however, when I attended the National Youth Gathering for the ELCA churches in 1991. Tony Campolo spoke during one of the sessions and challenged us to give our careers to the service of others rather than ourselves. For instance, a lawyer should represent the truly oppressed in society who cannot pay for good legal defense; doctors should go to the really needy areas of the world to serve. This call to service really resonated with me, and has continued to influence my decisions.

My questions continued to build, and I enjoyed talking about spiritual things with my peers. One of my friends said I had to talk to this guy she met named “Shadow.” He was an odd kid, a “goth kid” before there was such a thing. We talked about all sorts of things, from philosophy to the occult. Then he looked me in the eye and spoke a word, and suddenly it’s like I was no longer there. Instead, I had the sense of overwhelming remorse, the kind one feels concerning the horrors of the holocaust. I then felt an evil presence, laughing at the whole thing. Then suddenly it was over, and I snapped back to reality. I left as quickly as I could, and never saw Shadow again. During my greatest seasons of questioning, that encounter continued to drive me on because I knew for sure that an evil supernatural force existed; I hoped that all I had learned as a child about an all-powerful good force was true as well.

As I entered college, my Dad began praying daily for me. In the spring of 1994 I began to take bike rides out to a secluded spot in the woods to sit and think. In the silence of those moments, God began to influence me, drawing me to Himself. I was wrestling with a decision over whether to take a summer job in a Print Shop and use my free time to direct a play, or instead to take a position as a camp counselor at a Lutheran summer camp. To my own surprise, I found myself accepting the counselor position.

That summer God awakened something inside of me. I began the summer with the affirmation that I was just beginning to believe again. After twelve weeks leading kids in daily Bible studies, songs, and worship, my faith got from my head down into my heart. I ended the summer with a conviction of the Truth. The turning point came when people started asking me if I would come back the following summer.

“I’d like to,” I answered, “but I should really get an internship next summer so I can get a good job once I get out of college. But I’d really rather come back here because I’d rather minister to kids.” Then it dawned on me: if I preferred ministry for the summer, what would ever make me think that I would want something different for the rest of my life? That decision affected my entire destiny.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Hunger and Scholarship

I started this blog yesterday with an explanation of the title. I spend way too much time wording it just right and it was very un-blog-like of me. Here's a go at it today.

Hungry is because I am intellectually and spiritually hungry. It specifies the basic attitude I hope to take towards my work - hungry for answers. I certainly don't feel I have all the answers, and I am usually turned off by those who think they do. Not to say that I have no answers, but I am especially cognizent of what I lack.

Scholarship is because that is what resonates with me right now. I began my Christian walk with an emphasis on the experiential over the intellectual. In the past few years my focus has shifted so that I am much more interested in the intellectual. My reading material of choice is 700-page books with lots of footnotes.

I am starting this post in an effort to get my writing out to a larger audience. Unlike my undergraduate years, I actually have something to say now. I would like to share them with more people than my proof-reader (my wife) and my professor. Any feedback will be greatly appreciated. I hope to submit some of these to journals for publication, though they will need a lot more work than I have given them so far.

I am not sure how to handle footnotes on a blog. Can I cut and paste from a document with footnotes into a blog post? Maybe I should attach them as Adobe Acrobat files? I'm not quite sure the best way to handle it. Can anyone offer advice?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

First post

I spent a lot of time composing my first post and somehow it got lost. Had I been smart, I would have saved a copy on my computer, however...