Jul 17, 2007

My Personal Influences: Spiritual Guides

A lot of the people on my list of 65 have had a powerful influence over my spiritual life. They include my mother and father, and my friend J, who you've already read about, as well as Carl Waldron, Oystein LaBianca, Rich Mullins, Bono, and Dwight Nelson among others, who you will read about in later entries. However, the people I've placed under the category of "Spiritual Influences" are unique in that, with the exception of the majority of the AFM missionaries, these people were my friends--people I knew or know well, who I spent a great deal of time with at certain points in my life, and who were instrumental specifically in influencing my spiritual development.

I expected that my thoughts on the spiritual guides in my life would be quite brief, but it turns out a I had a lot to say about these five individuals and one group. Which is fine. One of my "rules" for doing this series is that I won't limit myself in what I have to say. Readers should be fully aware that how much I write has no bearing on the relative "importance" of the individual in question. If I can say what I want to say in a few words, I will. When I need more words, I will use them as well. There has been no effort to ensure that all the people on my list get an "equal word count."

My faith is probably one of the most important aspects of my life--spiritual things are never far from my mind. And yet, ironically, I'm not a very "religious" person. I'm not the sort of person who is eager to pore over the Scriptures for hours, or is likely to lose track of time while in prayer (unless, of course, I fall asleep). For me, reading my Bible is still a duty, prayer a discipline, good works a chore, my faith not always as strong as I'd like. But fortunately for me, God keeps wooing me, sending me people like the ones you'll read about below. Through them He's softened my heart, encouraged my spirit, helped me hold on to Him and trust Him more. I'm still a work in progress, but these people have given me confidence that indeed, "He who has begun a good work in me will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1:6)

Heidi Bauer Starling
Clari & Darchelle Worley
Carol Paez
Dr. Richard Ludders
The Missionaries of AFM (Adventist Frontier Missions)

Heidi Bauer Starling

For over a year, Heidi invited us to pray. We always declined. It wasn't that Barbara and I didn't like the idea: Gathering with some friends on Sunday evenings at Heidi's house for the sole purpose of praying together: How could that be a bad thing? And besides, as with all religious activities, I felt guilty if I expressed anything less than a desire to pray at any time and any place. So, of course we "wanted" to go, but there was always a reason we just couldn't seem to make it. Fortunately for us, Heidi never stopped inviting us (though we never felt pressured by her) and finally one Sunday evening we went. My spiritual life hasn't been the same since.

Prayer time with Heidi Bauer and friends was a like a shot of spiritual adrenaline. We always left her house feeling elevated, closer to God, a little bit more spiritually fired up than we had when we came. It's true that we didn't always feel "in the mood" for prayer and there were certainly evenings where it was difficult not to let my mind wander or succomb to rebellious temptations while we knelt together, each person praying aloud as they felt moved to do so. Still, our weekly prayer meetings remained a source of spiritual strength and grounding. Over the years the prayer group evolved and changed format. We rotated to different houses each week, experimented with different prayer styles and time lengths, and even started a phone prayer chain for awhile. After Heidi met and married her husband Eric Starling, we started emphasizing on specific one "prayer mission" for each member of the group that we focused our prayers on week after week. When Barbara and I moved to Saipan we took the prayer group idea with us and for many years, we'd meet every Sunday evening in Saipan with friends to pray. It's been a few years since we've had a regular prayer group, but the thanks to Heidi's influence, prayer as a spiritual discipline is still an engrained part of our lives. I still have prayer requests listed in my journal and Barbara and I find it easy to "stop and pray" for situations great or small in our lives.

Heidi taught me that prayer is like a lot of things that are good for you--flossing, eating healthily, exercising, listening rather than talking--you rarely feel like doing it, but when you're done you're glad you did. I haven't talked to Heidi and Eric in seven years, but I'm sure that, as their prayers and ours rise from our respective corners of the globe to mingle in the throne room of God, we are praying together still.

". . .but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."
--Philippians 4:6

Clari Worley

Darchelle Worley

Like a lot of people, I used to think that really devoting your life to Jesus meant there wouldn't be much excitement. An exciting, appealing life? That was what "the world" had to offer and we all knew where that broad and easy path ended up. For us Christians, I knew, when we finally got our act together, there would only be a lot of earnest, awkward, proof-text witnessing, tuneless music, mind-numbing Bible study, mourning the surrounding worldliness, and grim waiting around for Jesus to come so the real fun (one hoped) could begin.

And then I met the Worleys. These women blew every preconception and misconception about solid, hard-core Christianity I'd had out of the the water. There are four Worley sisters, missonary kids born and raised in Africa, and all were in various stages of attendance at Andrews University when I met them. All four sisters--Alicia, Clarissa, Darchelle, and Celina--were gorgeous, brainy, indepedent, bohemian, and completely sold out to Jesus--but I knew the middle sisters Clari and Darchelle the best. Clari is a pastor, singer/songwriter, and charismatic worship leader. Darchelle is a high school teacher, dynamic speaker, and leader in her own right. Both women are inspiring to be around, whether speaking from the front or talking to you heart to heart during a long, soulful conversation. From both of them I learned the joyful truth that deep spirituality could be exciting, appealing, rewarding, and--dare I say it--yes, even cool.

When I met them, Clari and Darchelle lived in rambling old house on the edge of the Andrews University campus. Their place was always a hive of activity--huge international potlucks on Sabbath, musical jam sessions, impromptu prayer meetings, people of every color and creed, of every station in life, the rich, the poor, the high, the low, the saints and the sinners--everybody felt comfortable hanging out at the Worleys. It wasn't long after meeting Clari and Darchelle that I was swept into their orbit (Barbara was already there , having lived with them for awhile before I met her and there earning the honored distinction of being "The Fifth Worley").
I could never figure out whether Clari and Darchelle were "conservative" or "liberal." Unlike most of us who claim we are neither, but are obviously one or the other, the Worley women are among the few people who honestly don't even seem to think in those terms. I knew they were serious Bible students. I knew they were unashamed in their love for Christ. As far as I knew they followed the usual Adventist "lifestyle standards" but there was just something different about them. Clari and Darchelle were too smart, too earthy, too real, too happy, and semed to having way too much fun to fit my narrow ideas about what "serious" Christianity should look like. But their testimony was compelling and with relief, I realized that my conception of what being a "real Christian" looks like would have to change. From Clari and Darchelle Worley, I came to believe that the Christian life was not just the life I should live; it was also the life I wanted to live.

"These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be made full."
----John 15:11

Carol Paez
Simply put, Carol is a woman of great spiritual courage. She'd probably scoff at such a description--she's a working mother of a brood of teenagers. A resourceful woman, yes? Dedicated? Sure. Caring? Why not. But some sort of spiritual adventurer? She'd be too busy and too tired for that kind of thing. Yet that's exactly what she is, at least from where I stand. Most of us are happy to stay in our comfort zones. It's the main reason why most of us don't seek more of God, why we tend not to want to hear new spiritual truth that might rock the calm waters of what we've always believed. That's most of us, but not Carol. She was raised Catholic, became a born-again Christian early in her adulthood, and currently attends our Seventh-day Adventist Church. I've known Carol for the past 9 years, ever since I moved to Saipan and started teaching her children. Over the years she's gone from being a friendly parent to one of the closest friends Barbara and I have on Saipan, and as I've grown to know her my admiration for her and her influence on me has grown as well.

Carol is resolutely unwilling to bind herself to anything beyond Jesus, and that makes her remarkably open to learning from, and embracing the spiritual truth found in the many strands of Christian faith. I'm really amazed at Carol's ability to live in this open zone, willing to change,move or grow as the Spirit prompts. It inspires me and challenges me. I've never really talked to Carol about her spiritual journey--the fact that it is a journey for her, rather than a destination--but I'm guessing that the reason she feels safe on the spiritual edge is because her trust is anchored in the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Everytime I talk to Carol, I'm encouraged to trust in Him a little more and in my comfort zone a little less.

"And you will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart. And I will be found by you."
--Jeremiah 29: 13, 14a
Dr. Richard Ludders
Nothing matters more than the character of God. It is the focal point of the battle between good and evil. It's trustworthiness must be proven. A correct understanding of it is vital. This is what Richard Ludder's believes. Dr. Ludders, known to me as the former director of the Saipan SDA Dental Clinic (he's retired a year and a half ago and has relocated, with his family to North Carolina) and one of my favorite Sabbath School debating partners, is a theologian at heart. So his belief in the nature of God's character as the most critical issue of faith is a theological one. He's not given to misty-eyed emotionalism or spiritual feel-goodism. He's pragmatic and a tad skeptical of grand religious proclimations of "what God told me" or "how the Spirit is leading." Richard believes that much of Christianity is pushing a picture of God at best is misleading and at worst is downright dangerous. A student of Adventist author and theologian Graham Maxwell, Richard doesn't believe in an angry God aching to blast the sinners, appeased only by His Son throwing himself in front of us and soothing Him with his bloody sacrifice. He believes in a God who desires our friendship, who wants us to truly know and understand Him, and for whom the cross is the ultimate demonstration of the love of, not just of the Son, but of the Father as well. The way I understand Richard's take on the cross, God didn't need Jesus to die for our sins, but we needed His death to understand the depth of His love.

More and more I find myself agreeing with Richard that God's character of love is the most important issue of my faith. As I grow older, I find my faith journey has not gotten any easier. If anything the way has gotten more steep, the path a little harder to see. My faith in a loving God is tested constantly, and I often find that, at times it is the only thing--that belief that God HAS to be good, that he has to be trustworthy, that He is far more patient, loving, and understanding than I can begin to imagine--that keeps me holding on. I wonder how strong my grip on that Truth, how strong my trust in His grip on me, would be if hadn't been for a golf-loving, unsentimental dentist with a passion for defending the character of his God.

"No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you"
--John 15:15

The Missionaries of Adventist Frontier Missions (AFM)
(Pictured below: Charlie Eklund, an AFM missionary in Namibia)
I am a fan. And these men and women are my rock stars. I've seen a few from a distance, even met a some briefly, and I always felt like I wanted to ask for their autograph. So this is the person I've read so much about, whose life I've followed so closely for so many years. Wow, they're so much taller in real life! Even the few I actually knew casually (Chris Sorensen--Cambodia) or met briefly (The Hendricksons--Albania) back before they were stars now occupy rarified air. And then there's the guy who goes by the pseudonym "Barnbas Hope" (lest he and his family be kicked out of the Middle Eastern country in which he works--though I know it, you won't hear his real name from me!). He was a great friend of Barbara and I back when we were in college and even then he was a force of nature. I'm not at all surprised this wild an crazy guy signed up with AFM. He along with all, the missionaries of Adventist Frontier Missions are my heroes. After all these are real missionaries. Many of them are living in the some of the most remote locations on earth under the most primitive of conditions. Even those that live in the teeming cities of the 10/40 window or in Europe are working among people who have very little knowledge of and/or interest in Christianity. Technically, they and I are both missionaries but what is my life in paradise compared to their service a "yard from the gates of hell"?

Most of these missionaries are fairly conservative Adventists--far more so than I am. And yet their methods are unorthodox, progressive--the very opposite of reactionary "old ways are best" rigidity and conservatism. They are so respectful and aware of the culture and values of the people they live among. They are patient, working sometimes for more than a decade, to first learn and understand the culture of the people before they even attempt any kind of evangelism, and then gently, slowly introduce Adventist Christianity in a culturally meaningful way. I love that their's is not a "numbers game" where they try to rack up as many baptisms as possible as quickly as possible--it's not a "game "at all for them, but a process of building real and meaningful relationships. They are humble. They love unreservedly, with no strings attached. In short they are my model for what it means to be a missionary.
I read Frontiers magazine, AFM's monthly publication with articles sent in by the missionaries in the field, religiously every month. Like any fan I have my favorites including--in additon to those mentioned above--the Wilcox family in Albania, the Polley family (who just concluded their mission in Mali. I will miss them.), and Charlie Eklund in Namibia, a young man who back in the mid-nineties cut his teeth on mission service at the same school on the island of Chuuk where I would teach the following year. And I always get a warm feeling whenever I read the editorials of Clyde Morgan, the founder of AFM and a good friend of Barbara and me during our college years. But beyond these so-called "favorites" every one of the missionaries on the AFM roster has touched me and encouraged me with their heartfelt, honest, and humble stories of the triumphs, tragedies, and miracles large and small that come with frontline mission service.

Sometimes I feel like I'm not really a missionary. After all, I've got a Subway down the street, a Blockbuster around the corner, and a Costco seven minutes away! Plus pure white sand beaches, gorgeous sunsets, and a free car. I'm not serving in Saipan purely out of a noble sense of self-sacrifice for the cause of the Kingdom. To be honest I like living there! So you would think that every time I open up the pages of Frontiers I would be consumed with guilt and shame. But you would be wrong. Every time I read the articles penned by these missionaries, I'm inspired, uplifted, challenged. I realize they are rock stars only because they are solid in the Rock. I realize that what makes them heroes is their decision to let Jesus live in them, and I realize that what He does in and through them, He can do in and through me. Far from making me feel like less of a missionary, they make me feel like more of one, and challenge me to do what I do even better, with greater dedication, and deeper commitment to God and dependence on His strength.

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirt, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age."
--Matthew 28:19-20

1 comment:

Mr. Graves said...


I loved the part about the two sisters. Sounds like knowing them was like living with Jesus just for a second. I confess that is something I struggle with. I know deep down that God's way is the best way, and even the most exciting way, but it's hard not to look with longing at the forbidden fruit. But sin is candy coated poison. God just gets better and better the deeper you go.

Kudos on Carol. I love that woman. She's probably a better missionary than you, Barbara, and the dream team put together. She doesn't work for Jesus like us. She lives for Jesus.

Great job, bro.