By Leighton Ford
Our lives are stories, lived out in chapters. For me, one of those chapters began in Oslo, Norway in June of 1984. At a meeting of international Christian leaders, I had called for a time of prayer, during which a young British leader quoted Isaiah 43:18-19 “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
Those words were like an arrow to my heart. For some time my wife Jeanie and I had sensed that God had something new for us, but we were not sure what. From those words of Isaiah there was a release to a new ministry; identifying, developing and networking the emerging young leaders for the global cause of Christ. Some few months later Leighton Ford Ministries (LFM) was born to carry out that vision.
Looking back, I can see this as one of several chapters in my ministry.
Chapter 1 began in high school and carried on through my many years with Billy Graham, in my calling as an evangelist proclaiming the gospel in 40 countries of the world.
Chapter 2 covered the years from 1974- 1990 when I had the great privilege of working with Christian leaders from across the world as chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. I continued to preach the gospel with joy, but it also became a passion to encourage leaders to work together for world evangelization … in cooperation, not in contemplation.
Then the 3rd chapter was that new call to pass on to younger leaders what I had learned across the years. “Be creative and passionate evangelists” I asked them. “Be kingdom-seekers and not empire-builders.” LFM developed leadership programs to help them, and we saw many of them “springboarded” into wider and more effective ministries.
Now comes the 4th chapter, when it seems that all the themes of these years are converging into the next phase of deepening and energizing these young leaders, and many more like them, in their journey on with Christ.
Another significant summer
The summer of 1992 was an important time for me, as was that June prayer meeting a decade before. I spent many weeks that summer in Vancouver, Canada, where our son Kevin had just finished his graduate studies. Those were unhurried weeks of reflecting, reading, praying, walking, and thinking about the future. And during this time three themes surfaced in my mind and heart.
► the power of story: that God’s Story intersects with our stories, and that evangelism
living and telling the story of the one who changed our story.
►The idea of journey: that the spiritual life is a journey … Israel journeying from Egypt to the Promise Land … Jesus going from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from cradle to cross … as Dante pictured it moving from the “dark wood” of our lostness, to the “white rose” of intimacy with God.
►The image of the artist: that summer I picked up one day a book on drawing and found
that, although I never thought I could draw a straight line or a circle, I could draw and paint and wanted to, but more importantly that art is really about seeing in a new way, seeing both with the eyes and the soul.
In the years ahead those themes were worked out over and over … in books I wrote … in young leaders we taught … in preaching and painting … in prayer and contemplation … and eventually in a new sense of mission for my life.
“To be an artist of the soul and a friend on the journey”
This is my personal mission statement, as best I now understand how God has led me … and if Frederick Buechner is right, that “vacation is the place where our deepest joys and the world’s deepest pains meet”, then that is the true calling God has given to me to pursue through Leighton Ford Ministries.
For these many years I have found great joy in walking closely with young leaders … listening to their visions, encouraging their call, sharing their joys and hurts, affirming their gifts, passing on whatever wisdom I could (gained as much through mistakes as successes!), and at the same time learning so much from them, and finding they keep me young in spirit!
Now I sense that God is calling me to deepen those relationships, and to be a spiritual mentor to these women and men I have come to know, as well as many others, on their journey with Christ.
Spiritual mentoring – spiritual direction or guidance it has also been called – is centuries old and means to help shape our lives and service in Christ-like patterns. It is modeled on Jesus, whose way of developing leaders was not like classroom teaching, but life upon life, like a master craftsman tutoring a young apprentice, or an artist painting a portrait in which people saw themselves as they were and could be!
Spiritual mentoring is an art, said the late Henri Nouwen, the art of “helping a person to discern the movements of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, assisting in the difficult task of obedience to these movements”. Spiritual mentoring means paying attention to people, listening to them and helping them to pay attention, to see what God is already doing in their lives. It is more like the work of the artist than the mechanic.
“Christ is more of an artist than the artists” said Van Gogh, the great Dutch painter, “he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes men instead of statutes.” And this is what I mean when I speak of being an “artist of the soul” – not painting watercolors, but helping young leaders to see all that Christ has for them and to become all he calls them to be. That takes trust, listening, waiting, patience, discernment and prayer together.
It also mean to be a “friend on the journey” – available, hospitable, vulnerable. The women and men who have been through our program have often said the most important influence came from older leaders who were willing to be vulnerable.
The ancient Celts had a word for this “anamchara” – the “soul friend” – one who comes alongside to walk side by side and heart by heart on the journey.
Jesus again is the model: the Jesus who on the road to Emmaus came to two disciples, heartbroken over his death, and made his risen presence known to them on the road, in conversation, opening the Scriptures, eating a meal and break bread with them … the Friend on the Journey.
Across the years I have found that the transforming moments for young leaders are often not in the lectures, but in the walks and talks, perhaps by a mountain stream, when our guard comes down and hearts are deeply open to God and one another.
This then, is the next chapter which God the Great Artist and friend has opened to me … to be a spiritual mentor to young leaders as they journey on the way he is leading them.