After being at Wheaton for one semester I returned home for a summer mission experience among the Navajo Indians in New Mexico. When I returned to Wheaton I experienced a deep sense of aloneness and spiritual malaise. The Spirit prompted me, I now believe, to organize a student-led movement of prayer. This movement was used by God as a precursor to a genuine outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our campus that came on a memorable Thursday evening in February of 1970. I was transformed by this renewal of grace so powerfully that I would never be the same. I went on to do graduate work in theology, mission and ministry and became a church planter. In 1976 I returned to Wheaton and served a local church as pastor for sixteen years. My last Sunday, in April of 1992, I preached from John 17:21. I cannot tell you how all this happened but this text so deeply transformed my life that I have never been able to go anywhere, or do anything, without these words being at the forefront of my life and mission.
“My prayer is . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21). Here we listen to our Lord pray for oneness among his people, a oneness rooted in the oneness shared by the Father and the Son (thus within the Trinity). Jesus prayed that this oneness would be visible “so that the world may believe.”
The words of this prayer so transformed my heart that through this prayer I literally gave my life to God in new obedience in order to pursue their meaning in all things. After several encounters with God in deeply personal ways this prayer would change my life for the rest of my days on this earth. I had been given a unique calling, a charism as we call it. It was all grace. I never sought it. I didn’t even volunteer. God gave this to me and thus this honor belongs to him alone.
As some of you already know it took me a few more years before I understood what this vision really meant for my mission. I was deeply immersed in a popular national ministry that attracted thousands of people to conferences. This ministry opened pulpits to me in some of America’s largest evangelical churches. But God allowed me to see that this ministry had a profoundly sectarian orientation. Over several years I increasingly saw that such sectarianism was a scandal in the larger Christian community. I was growing weary of what I call “a culture of polemics.” I deeply longed for the kingdom of God. (My Wheaton College motto is: “For Christ and His Kingdom!”) Paul’s words haunted me: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
In the year 1998 God showed me how my future was going to take a very different course, a course rooted in radical love.
After twelve years in a desert of loneliness, often marked by tears and profound anguish of soul that felt like inky black darkness and dying, I was brought into a new place. This timing of this is uniquely connected to my being here today. Let me briefly explain.
In 2008 my wife Anita, whose love for me never wavered, encouraged me to tell my own story. I began to write my book, Your Church Is Too Small (Zondervan, 2010). When it was published in March of 2010 we convened a group of leaders to discuss the book at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. I invited an Orthodox priest, a Catholic priest and an evangelical member of the faculty to interact with me about the book before an audience that could ask questions. A whole new dialogue was begun. Later that year a Catholic missionary in Latin America read the book and called my thesis “missional-ecumenism on the margins.” He saw in the book a kind of ecumenism that would sustain the vision of mission among the poor as Catholics and evangelicals worked in collaboration. This friend, Nate Bacon, invited me to join a small group of seven missionaries who would visit the Vatican in March of 2011. God confirmed through many answered prayers, and the counsel of my community of friends, that I should go. I met with professors in Rome who teach ecumenism as well as with leaders from the Pontifical Counsel for Promoting Christian Unity. My life was again profoundly changed. I knew that God had led me into a new place, a place where deep unity was being learned and treasured. Shortly after returning to America I attended the American Lausanne meeting in Orlando, Florida. (Lausanne is a movement of leaders for global evangelization, begun in 1974.) There I met the general director of the movement and shared both my book and story. By late 2011 the dark skies began to slowly recede as a glimmer of sunshine broke through. A friend gave Cardinal George my book and one day an email came asking me to come to visit him at his residence. This meeting led me to invite him to dialogue with me about the book, and missional-ecumenism, at Wheaton College. We met on March 26, 2012. It was that evening, before over a thousand people, that the Lord spoke to me in a powerful way: “I am taking you out of the desert and placing before you a new work that I shall bless beyond your wildest dreams. You will know that this is all of me and you can take no credit for any of it.”
The entire speech is 53-minutes long and can be seen on the video link below: