Monthly Archives

October 2016

Three Thoughts On Story (Leighton Ford)

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“Human beings are, in their actions and practice, essentially storytelling animals. I can answer the question ‘What am I do to?’ only if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

-ALASDAIR MACINTYRE

“Life must be lived forwards, but it can be understood only backwards”

-SOREN KIERKEGAARD

“Each of us has a story – what I call a ‘story with a small s’, the story of our lives. At some point in our journey through life, our story collides with the Story of God – the ‘Story with a large S’. God’s Story calls our story into question. We must make a choice: either to reject the Story of God or to merge our story with His Story”

-LEIGHTON FORD

When It Comes To The Election – Neutral, But Not Indifferent

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voting

The current U.S. presidential election has been a divisive one. How ought Christians to think…and to vote? To the end of encouraging reflection upon that question, we reprint the larger part of an article from the October 10, 2016 edition of the periodical Christianity Today. In its original version, the article was titled “Speak Truth To Trump” and was written by Andy Crouch.

The gospel is of infinitely greater importance than any campaign, and one good summary of the gospel is, “Jesus is Lord.”

The true Lord of the world reigns even now, far above any earthly ruler. His kingdom is not of this world, but glimpses of its power and grace can be found all over the world. One day his kingdom, and his only, will be the standard by which all earthly kingdoms are judged, and following that judgment day, every knee will bow, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, as his reign is fully realized in the renewal of all things.

The lordship of Christ places constraints on the way his followers involve themselves, or entangle themselves, with earthly rulers.

On the one hand, we pray for all rulers—and judging from the example of Old Testament exiles like Daniel and New Testament prisoners like Paul, we can even wholeheartedly pray for rulers who directly oppose our welfare. On the other hand, we recognize that all earthly governments partake, to a greater or lesser extent, in what the Bible calls idolatry: substituting the creation for the Creator and the earthly ruler for the true God.

No human being, including even the best rulers, is free of this temptation. But some rulers and regimes are especially outrageous in their God-substitution. After Augustus Caesar, the emperors of Rome became more and more elaborate in their claims of divinity with each generation—and more and more ineffective in their governance. Communism aimed not just to replace faith in anything that transcended the state, but to crush it. Such systems do not just dishonor God, they dishonor his image in persons, and in doing so they set themselves up for dramatic destruction. We can never collude when such idolatry becomes manifest, especially when it demands our public allegiance. Christians in every place and time must pray for the courage to stay standing when the alleged “voice of a god, not a man” commands us to kneel.

This year’s presidential election in the United States presents Christian voters with an especially difficult choice.

The Democratic nominee has pursued unaccountable power through secrecy—most evidently in the form of an email server designed to shield her communications while in public service, but also in lavishly compensated speeches, whose transcripts she refuses to release, to some of the most powerful representatives of the world system. She exemplifies the path to power preferred by the global technocratic elite—rooted in a rigorous control of one’s image and calculated disregard for norms that restrain less powerful actors. Such concentration of power, which is meant to shield the powerful from the vulnerability of accountability, actually creates far greater vulnerabilities, putting both the leader and the community in greater danger.

But because several of the Democratic candidate’s policy positions are so manifestly incompatible with Christian reverence for the lives of the most vulnerable, and because her party is so demonstrably hostile to expressions of traditional Christian faith, there is plenty of critique and criticism of the Democratic candidate from Christians, including evangelical Christians.

But not all evangelical Christians—in fact, alas, most evangelical Christians, judging by the polls—have shown the same critical judgment when it comes to the Republican nominee. True, when given a choice, primary voters who claimed evangelical faith largely chose other candidates. But since his nomination, Donald Trump has been able to count on “the evangelicals” (in his words) for a great deal of support.

The latest (though surely not last) revelations from Trump’s past have caused many evangelical leaders to reconsider. This is heartening, but it comes awfully late. What Trump is, everyone has known and has been able to see for decades, let alone the last few months. The revelations of the past week of his vile and crude boasting about sexual conquest—indeed, sexual assault—might have been shocking, but they should have surprised no one.

Indeed, there is hardly any public person in America today who has more exemplified the “earthly nature” (“flesh” in the King James and the literal Greek) that Paul urges the Colossians to shed: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5). This is an incredibly apt summary of Trump’s life to date. Idolatry, greed, and sexual immorality are intertwined in individual lives and whole societies. Sexuality is designed to be properly ordered within marriage, a relationship marked by covenant faithfulness and profound self-giving and sacrifice. To indulge in sexual immorality is to make oneself and one’s desires an idol. That Trump has been, his whole adult life, an idolater of this sort, and a singularly unrepentant one, should have been clear to everyone.

And therefore it is completely consistent that Trump is an idolater in many other ways. He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge. He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.

Some have compared Trump to King David, who himself committed adultery and murder. But David’s story began with a profound reliance on God who called him from the sheepfold to the kingship, and by the grace of God it did not end with his exploitation of Bathsheba and Uriah. There is no parallel in Trump’s much more protracted career of exploitation. The Lord sent his word by the prophet Nathan to denounce David’s actions—alas, many Christian leaders who could have spoken such prophetic confrontation to him personally have failed to do so. David quickly and deeply repented, leaving behind the astonishing and universally applicable lament of his own sin in Psalm 51—we have no sign that Trump ever in his life has expressed such humility. And the biblical narrative leaves no doubt that David’s sin had vast and terrible consequences for his own family dynasty and for his nation. The equivalent legacy of a Trump presidency is grievous to imagine.

Most Christians who support Trump have done so with reluctant strategic calculation, largely based on the president’s power to appoint members of the Supreme Court. Important issues are indeed at stake, including the right of Christians and adherents of other religions to uphold their vision of sexual integrity and marriage even if they are in the cultural minority.

But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.

Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.

The US political system has never been free of idolatry, and politics always requires compromise. Our country is flawed, but it is also resilient. And God is not only just, but also merciful, as he judges the nations. In these closing weeks before the election, all American Christians should repent, fast, and pray—no matter how we vote. And we should hold on to hope—not in a candidate, but in our Lord Jesus. We do not serve idols. We serve the living God. Even now he is ready to have mercy, on us and on all who are afraid. May his name be hallowed, his kingdom come, and his will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

 

Article – Christianity Today – October 10, 2016

Photo cred – HuffPo

The Preacher, The Protestor, The President (Video)

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Stories get our hearts to their true home faster than almost anything else.

From time to time Leighton will share some of his favorite stories from his remarkable life and ministry of seeing people come home to God.

Some of the stories will feature the famous, others tell the tales of people you have never heard of. All are warm, personal, and remind us of the God who speaks to us today and who desires to see our stories link with His Story – and for that Story to be told and lived every day.

This story is from many years ago, but is incredibly relevant for this very day.

 

The Preacher, The Protester, and The President from Leighton Ford Ministries on Vimeo.

The Gift Of Listening, Part 3 (Leighton Ford)

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listening

Getting Out of The Way

 

The best writing, speaking, preaching comes from first listening – to God, to others, to our own innermost voice.

 

But again listening – whether to God, the other, or our own deep places – means that we have to get out of the way.

 

Madeleine L’Engle understood this. Here is her insight about the writer:

 

When the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening … Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer.

Walking on Water 15

 

Jesus often spoke in John’s gospel of how he listened to his Father. “Whatever I say,” he explained, “is just what the Father has told me to say” (John 12:50). So his words were healing words that led to eternal life. His hometown people marveled at “the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22), and wondered where they came from. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they wondered.

 

They had heard nothing like that from the lips of his earthly father. What they did not realize was that he was listening with perfect attention to his heavenly Father.

 

This was true from the time he was a boy, when his parents realized he was missing after a trip to Jerusalem. When they returned they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions. When his mother questioned him he said, “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). And he was there to listen, to “get himself out of the way” so he would do his Father’s will, not his own, and seek his Father’s kingdom, not his own.

 

No wonder his words were the most saving and sane words the world has ever heard. He had heard them from the best source!

 

Is it any wonder so many of our remarks are so inane, unhelpful, even foolish because we have not “gotten out of the way.” When we are so filled with chatter from every other source we become deaf to God’s voice. And absurd! And truly irrelevant.

The Preacher And The Protester

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1970 protest

After the upheavals and the protests in Charlotte a couple of weeks ago my mind flashed back to another very turbulent time.

In the summer of 1970 Jeanie and I were attending Billy Graham’s crusade in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium.

We were there the night that a special guest came – President Richard Nixon. He arrived with his entourage and spoke some words of greeting.

Nixon was a polarizing figure, and his words that night were greeted with a mix of huge cheers, and loud jeers. The Viet Nam war was still going on. Cambodia had just been bombed.  The Kent State shooting of student protesters was fresh in everyone’s mind.  So that night there was a volatile mixture of adulation and anger.

Along with the worshipers there was a large section of students and others who had come to shout and protest as Nixon spoke. The crowd tried to drown them out with boos toward the demonstrators, and cheers for the president. The spirit that night was mean and ugly.

The next night was much calmer. Billy gave his usual invitation to come forward and commit to Christ. Hundreds poured down.

Among the seekers my attention was drawn to one young man, dressed like a hippie, with long hair, beads, and ragged jeans.  As he stood with the others he raised both hands high. On one hand he raised two fingers. On the other he raised one. As Billy spoke to those who had come forward the young man’s arms got tired and he rested them on his head

On the platform was an elderly black pastor who also was watching this scene. I saw him get up, leave the platform, and make his way through the crowd to that young man. Then he stood behind him and held his arms up until the closing prayer.

I was reminded of the Biblical scene where Moses raised his hands in prayer during battle and when his arms got tired his brother and others held his arms high until the battle was over.

Afterward I sought out that young man and asked what had brought him there. He explained that he was there as one of the crowd the night before, protesting against what he thought was an unjust war.

“But as  I listened to Billy Graham I heard him speak of the love of God and how Jesus died to bring us peace with God and each other.  I realized my heart had to be changed and that peace had to start with me. That’s why I came down tonight.”

And the raised fingers?

“The two fingers were the peace sign,” he said. “And the one finger was for the one way to peace God made at the cross.”

He invited me to his hippie house to meet friends the next day. We sat on the steps, they gave me some brownies (spiked or not I wasn’t sure) and we had a deep and meaningful conversation as we listened to one another. I later learned one of them had followed a call into ministry.

The memory of that night has stayed with me. And makes me think: if an older black preacher could stand behind a hippie boy and hold his hands up, and a group of hippies could invite an evangelist to share food and talk, why can’t it happen here in Charlotte?

It doesn’t need to be at a revival meeting.  It could happen anywhere.  Why can’t those of us who are older stand behind those who are younger, joined at the heart, listening to one another, and finding together the way to peace?

Leighton Ford

Originally published in The Charlotte Observer, October 2016.

Worried? (Poem)

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Frustrated?

 

With how slowly things take?

 

Here’s a good question from Mary Oliver

 

Don’t Worry

Things take the time they take. Don’t

worry.

How many roads did St. Augustine follow

before he became St. Augustine?

 

Mary Oliver, in  Felicity

The Gift of Listening, Part 2 (Leighton Ford)

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guy on bridge

God, The Great Listener

The God who speaks is also God the Great Listener.

 

One of my own morning prayers, one I repeat often at a certain time of year is from Psalm 116:

 

I love the Lord, because he heard my voice;

he heard my cry for mercy.

Because he turned his ear to me

I will call on him as long as I live.

 

The cords of death entangled me,

the anguish of the grave came upon me;

I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.

Then I called on the name of the Lord:

“O Lord, save me.”

 

That prayer came to me in April of 2003, almost exactly a year after I had both prostate cancer and a heart attack within a few weeks of each other. During those weeks I cried out to the Lord.

A year later, fully recovered, I looked back and could say with great thanks to the God who listened:

 

For you, O Lord, have delivered my soul from death,

my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling,

that I may walk before the Lord

in the land of the living.

 

God is Not Deaf

 

Deafness is a profoundly isolating affliction. Those who have been cut off from normal conversation by the loss of hearing often say they would prefer to lose eyesight rather than hearing. It is a choice I would not want to have to make.

 

But God is not deaf. Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal because their god Baal might have lost his hearing, and told them shout louder to get his attention. But Elijah’s God answered his servant with fire on the altar, and he is a God who “makes the deaf to hear,” sang Charles Wesley.

 

God is not deaf – but somedays I am! With all noise I may not hear. I need to keep in mind the great testimony of Isaiah:

 

The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue,

to know the word that sustains the weary.

He wakens me morning by morning,

wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.

The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears,

and I have not been rebellious;

I have not drawn back. Isaiah 50:4-5

 

What a joy when the God who hears also opens our ears so we can say with E.E. Cummings:

 

now the ears of my ears are awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened.

Walking on Water 9

 

Leighton Ford

St. Francis and ISIS

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St Francis
This week marked the feast day of Francis of Assisi. Around the world, millions of Christians (and many others) will remember this saintly man, who died on October 3, 1226.

Why is Francis still so revered after nearly eight centuries?

He is well-known as the patron saint of animals, who talked with birds and tamed the wild wolf of Gubbio. So this weekend many will take their pets to church to be blessed.

 

St. Francis is also known for giving up his family wealth to serve the poor, and daring to touch those with leprosy, following the example of his Lord Jesus Christ.

 
There is also his famous prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.

 
What, I wonder, would St. Francis say if we could ask him how we should live with the reality of ISIS – that radical and evil group which has beheaded journalists and aid workers and threatens attacks on all who do not accept their bloodthirsty ideology? That forms such a point of contention in the current presidential campaign in the United States?

 
Our political and military leaders face an extraordinarily complex situation, with limited options. Air bombing can have a limited effect on degrading ISIS capabilities. A coalition of Middle Eastern forces is needed, we are told, to defeat ISIS on the ground. But what other options are there?

 
A dramatic, little-known story about St. Francis suggests what he might tell us.

 

In 1219, as the Fifth Crusade was being fought, he undertook a daring mission to Egypt seeking to end the conflict.

 
He crossed enemy lines barefoot and unarmed, seeking an audience in Cairo with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil. At first he was thought to be a spy. But then he was taken to the Sultan who was impressed with his bravery and listened to him tell about his faith in Christ.

 

They spoke of war and peace. The Sultan did not convert, but gave Francis a horn made of silver and ivory which Francis took home and used to call his monks to prayer. And a period of peace followed.

 
But that was long ago and far away. What can we learn from St. Francis here, where we are?

 
I called my friend Ramez, who leads a Christian ministry in Egypt, and asked if he knew Francis’ story. He said he did, but not the details.
“But it applies to us,” he said. “We’re in the same situation, with great danger here and around the world. These radicals are evil and murderous. We are relatively secure here, but that’s because we have tough and strong security.”

 
“You’re in Cairo,” I said. “What would say if you could speak to our church here in Charlotte?”

 
“That evil has to be confronted with force,” he said, “but force is not the ultimate answer. This conflict is producing more and more radicals. The ultimate answer has to be in what Francis did – overcoming evil with love. And you can do that in Charlotte”.

 

“Most Muslims are moderates, but so many feel embarrassed by being wrongly associated with terrorists. Make your Muslim neighbors, co-workers, students, feel welcome. You might even stop a young one from turning radical.”

 
Good word, I thought. I thought also of Meredith, a young Wake Forest University graduate we have mentored, who has gone with her husband to live on the Syrian border of Jordan, ministering to the needs of thousands of refugees, Muslims and Christians, telling and living out the story of Jesus.

 
Most of us can’t make the big decisions. We may not be able to go to Cairo or Jordan. But we can pray for Meredith and others like her. And we can welcome strangers in our midst.

 
We can start and end each day, praying with St. Francis to Jesus, the Prince of Peace:
Lord, where I am, who I am, make me an instrument of your peace.

 

Leighton Ford

The Gift Of Listening, Part 1 (Leighton Ford)

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listening guys

I have had two excellent personal doctors over the past years. Both are well-trained and professionally competent. They are both respectful and helpful. The difference is in the way they listen.

 

The one came in briskly, records in his hand, and would go straight to his computer and sit down, and asking some questions about how I had been since I last came. If I had a new concern he would offer a prompt diagnosis and course of action. But that was it. I understand, of course. the peer pressure he was under to see another patient every few minutes.

 

The other does not have as many years of experience, but is equally well informed. What matters to him is to have time to be with me as a person. He comes in. Smiles. Sits across from me. Asks how I am doing. Remembers something we talked about before. Then does his professional tasks without rushing, thoroughly, efficiently.

 

They both care. But with the second one I feel like as if I have been received, noticed, valued, and listened to. And what a difference that makes.

 

Do you know what it is like to be listened to – to have someone listen to you without hurry, without an agenda, deeply and with care?

 

What would it be like to go a lifetime without having someone listen to you in that way?

 

Once I was asked to prepare and present a citation for a good friend, who was being recognized for his contributions to the school where he served and taught. I asked him to come by our house and to tell me about his life – not only his professional achievements but the events and people who had guided him along the way, and opened doors for him.

 

For nearly two hours I listened, asking a few questions from time to time, as he described those people who God had sent into his life. He told me of the two older women who encouraged him to go into ministry when no one else believed in him, of the very liberal church leader who had the grace to support him for ordination when others dismissed him as too conservative. At the end of the two hours, he told me with tears, “No one has ever listened to me tell that story for so long.”

 

I was glad to listen, because I have had so many, men and women, who have listened to me across the years – my wife Jeanie, friends like our leaders in the Mentoring Community, who have helped me along through the darker times and have rejoiced with me in the very good times.

 

Listening does not only help others. There is a reciprocal, mutual blessing that comes from deep heart listening. The one who truly listens finds their own heart stirred in the very listening to the other.

 

Spiritual mentoring – the call to listen

 

At the heart of spiritual mentoring is the art of listening: wholly and holy listening.

 

The late respected management guru Peter Drucker asserted that “The first leadership competence is ‘the willingness to listen.’” And in Leaders Warren Bennis wrote that “The leader must be a superb listener … successful leaders we have found are great askers and they do pay attention.”

 

Yet listening has often been overlooked as a key attribute of leaders. When I was young in ministry I remember spending time with several well-known leaders. After long conversations I realized that I knew everything they did, but they knew almost nothing about me! They never asked a question. Starting then I determined to be a listener to others – and later on especially to listen to younger leaders coming along.

 

If listening is of great value for leaders in any field, it is most especially so for those of us who are sensing a call to mentor these younger leaders who are seeking guidance as they serve God’s kingdom purposes.

 

We are called to serve as a community of friends on the journey – followers, companions, and learners – together in the way of Christ. We are followers of Christ as our leader, and the Way home to the Father. We are companions with those who seek to lead like Jesus and to lead others to him. We are learners helping each other to grow in the art of spiritual mentoring.

 

If this is our call and rule, then we need indeed to become a community of “superb listeners” who are “great askers, and who do pay attention.”

 

A central mark of our community will be a commitment to help each other to listen: to God, to our own hearts, and to each other.

 

Spiritual mentoring/direction is not a program, or a technique, or a profession. It is an art: the art of listening to and with others in the presence of Another.

 

As the Celtic spiritual leader Aelred described times of holy listening in the presence of God: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst.”

 

Spiritual mentoring is a gift from God, for others – a gift of listening.

 

Like any art it is also a practice, an attitude of the ear, mind, and heart and soul. And so we can learn through practicing the gift.

 

The mentoring ministry at this gathering of younger and emerging leaders is a time of listening together so together we may discern God’s calling for us and them in the great task of world evangelization.

 

God Speaks, We Listen, Then We Speak

 

The entire Bible is the record of God speaking in human history and calling on his people to listen.  Isaiah provided this remarkable insight:

 

The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word

that sustains the weary.  He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear

to listen like one being taught.  The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears, and

I have not been rebellious, I have not drawn back. Isaiah 50:4,5

 

God wakes us first to listen, then to have a word for others. What is this “word that sustains the weary”?  It is the word that is apt, right, timely, helpful, convicting, sustaining. I think of many “words that sustained me” just when I needed them from friends and loved ones.

 

They came from people whose ears God had wakened and whose tongues God had instructed. Notice in the passage from Isaiah how divine guidance is offered not merely for our lives, but to help our weary fellow traveler.

 

I know that God has been given me this “word” at times for those who come for spiritual direction.  I also know it has come from what I myself have learned and lived, and especially through the hard times.

 

Our Model: The Great Listener

 

Our model above all is Jesus who was the Great Listener.  You remember his words about listening?

 

He who has sent me is true, and I speak to the world those things which I heard from him. I do nothing of myself but as my Father taught me, I speak these things. John 8:26,28

 

As the late Henri Nouwen described Jesus’ posture:

 

We will never understand the full meaning of Jesus’ ministry unless we see how

the many things are rooted in the one thing, listening to the Father in the intimacy

of perfect love.  Show Me the Way 90

 

Jesus listened carefully to others, as shown in his conversation by the well with the woman from Samaria. Count the words spoken in this story, and you will find that she spoke four times as many words as Jesus did. He spoke powerful words, but he also listened. Jesus also blessed those who listened to him, like the servants at the wedding in Cana (John 2:5), the disciples who obey his commands (John 15:7), and Martha who sat listening to what he said. Luke 10:39,42

 

Learning to Listen

 

One of our greatest needs is to learn active and attentive listening.  I like to think I am a good listener yet I have often found it difficult to listen attentively, in part because when I was a child my mother punished me by lecturing me, often and at length, so that I learned to daydream and let my mind wander. I have learned that listening takes much practice.

 

If we want to be effective servants and helpful leaders we must learn to listen to God, to those close to us, to strangers, and to our own hearts.

 

Listening to our own hearts.  “Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus, who

dwells in the very depth of your heart” wrote Nouwen.  Every day we need to set aside some time for active listening to God.

 

Listening to others.  This is one of the greatest gifts we can give.  When I listen carefully, with nuanced attention, not to frame a reply but to understand, I am saying “What you think and feel is important.  Because God takes you seriously, so do I!”

 

Listening in sharing our faith. Speaking skills are important in witnessing to others, but so are listening skills.  A layman, an engineer, described evangelism             as “listening in on the conversation between someone and the Holy Spirit, and speaking when given permission by that person, and the Holy Spirit.” As Keith Miller put it, when we listen carefully to another it is like running our fingers around the rim of a cup until we come to a cracked place – the place of need – where we can help them to connect to Jesus.

 

Listening to those we lead.  As Drucker and Bennis said, the best leaders know how to listen.  They don’t just talk about “my vision” but about “our vision” because they have listened and the vision is owned and shared by others.

 

To listen to God in his Word and through his Spirit – to our own hearts – to others – to the world is crucial.  Spiritual mentors must be good listeners.

 

So let my prayer and yours be: Lord, teach me to listen

 

Leighton Ford

Adapted from an essay written for mentors for the Younger Leaders’ Gathering of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2015