Two days ago, I was in the airport terminal of Izmir, Turkey, reflecting with a friend. I have known Sandy since 1969. Our friendship goes back to ministry days in San Diego, but we have hardly seen each other since 1972. I left for seminary training in Portland. Sandy went on to become a Marriage, Family, and Child Therapist north of San Diego. A few months ago, Sandy saw my facebook post and joined us on our study tour, starting at Cappadocia and ending up in Istanbul. In the midst of visiting various sites, there was a lot of catching up to do.
The late ’60s were a turbulent time—campus riots at my university, the war in Vietnam, and political unrest everywhere. I had changed my mind at the last minute and chose to enter the ministry rather than go to the Air Force Academy. Sandy decided to give her life to serving God as well. We were young, idealistic, and passionate to see kids come to Jesus. We worked together on high school campuses, and we saw God radically change lives. These were days driven by powerful movements—SDS, Civil Rights, Hal Lindsey, the Jesus Movement, etc. There was little room for ambivalence. You were on one side or the other. We sensed we were witnessing a wave of the Holy Spirit, along with powerful pushbacks from the enemy.
Some of our colleagues have spiritually prospered. But sadly, a number of other lives are in ruins today. It’s a bit like standing in Perga or Myra, Laodicea or Ephesus. You see what once was—something flourishing–that now is void of life. Ancient Byzantine churches are now crumbled stones with barely an image of the cross. Some of the lives we talked about have little marks of a cruciformed life today. Turkey is where John addressed the seven churches (Rev 2-3), warning them of ungodly behavior. If they ignored the words, God would remove their lampstands. Standing at these sites today, it is clear they were removed–a warning that applies to us. We have our own lukewarmness, inviting the same darkness.
When you visit Turkey, where the early church gained traction, you can’t help but ask–what happened? How did the Ottoman Empire leave the Byzantine Empire in the dust? Why do mosques dot most of the landscape? For sure, fightings and divisions, the mixing of church and state, and the press for power—many of the things still going on today.
Talking to Sandy about our more recent past, I also found myself asking–what happened? At one time, we had a phenomenal staff of dedicated men and women. YFC-San Diego was the flagship leading the rest of the nation. Our executive director was an imaginative and inspirational leader. We had outrageous events attracting thousands of kids. I can’t recall a time I was surrounded by so many gifted men and women. But all too many have ended up in abusive relationships, addictive behaviors, moral failure, broken marriages, and untimely deaths. One of my great griefs is that our director, my spiritual godfather, died of AIDS. Like him, others lived double lives, leaving a strewn landscape.
On a trip that retraces the steps of the apostle Paul, both by sea and land, you can’t help but read Scripture differently. Paul’s letters to the churches come alive in new ways. And as I have reflected these past two weeks, it is clear that Paul understood what many of us may be ignoring—that it is possible to lose our first love. Lives can fall into ruins if they drift, lose their grip, and start going the way of the world. Read the end of some of his letters. Paul exhorted Timothy to fight the battle well, lest his faith is shipwrecked (I Tim 1:18ff). He called the leaders of the church together and warned them that some would cave after his departure (Acts 20:30). He could see something in their lack of commitment. They were not all in. To the Colossians, he called special attention to men like Epaphras, who wrestled in prayer night and day that the church stand firm in the will of God (Col 4:12). The war is this strong.
I wish I had shared some of these same warnings in my days as a campus director (as well as when I was a lead pastor!), but I am afraid I was too naive. I failed too often to warn that a passion for Jesus can be lost. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t coast! If you are not all in, your life will look like many of the ruins we witnessed abroad.