The Next Step

Some guy walked passed me at the department store one day.  He had on a T-shirt which was making some statement about evolution.  The shirt said something about “the ascent of man” and profiles of ancient hominids becoming full-fledged homosapiens.

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Now it is possible that this shirt was more comedic than serious.  I couldn’t see either end of the ascent as the man was wearing a jacket which obscured them both.  There was also the name of some school under the profiles.  It could be that either the last or the first profile was something ridiculous (a professor from said school or something; I don’t know) which would have turned the whole thing into a joke.

Serious or not, though, I reacted to it.  As soon as I saw this shirt, I imagined things I could say to this man to debunk evolution.  I started thinking of how I could fight this man, in other worlds, fight him and his evolutionary presuppositions and all he has built on them.

But as soon as I realized I was doing that, I additionally realized I shouldn’t be doing that.  I realized that wasn’t the way of Jesus, whom I call my Lord and on whom I base my behavior.  I realized that Jesus didn’t fight with people, didn’t attack and throw down their worldviews, as much as He moved people into the next step in their walk with God.

The idea of “moving people” like this comes to me via something called “The Engel Scale”.  I don’t know who Engel was, but I learned of this scale during some disciple-making training a couple years ago.  The scale shows that people are not just “all God” or “no God” but are instead at differing levels of closeness to or distance from God.  The scale further shows that success in disciple-making is not necessarily a matter of -10 to +10 but could instead be a matter of moving someone from -7 to -6 or +1 to +2.

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This sounds correct to me.  It also seems a lot like what I see Jesus doing in the Gospels.  If you look at His encounters with tax collectors and religious leaders, with Nicodemus and the woman at the well and the rich young ruler, what you see is not Jesus so much engaging in large scale worldview battles as much as figuring out where they were and helping them to move one step closer to where they needed to be.

That being the case, Jesus probably wouldn’t have argued evolution with the guy I passed in the department store.  Jesus probably would have sidestepped evolution to find out where the guy really was and what the guy really needed to move closer to God.  And then He would have given it to him.  Jesus, in other words, would have been far more like a scalpel whereas I (and so many like me) are too much like an ax.

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I certainly would like to be more like Jesus in this area, would like to do more of what He did or do things more like He did.  I’m not sure how to do that.  But I believe it is the right and better thing to do.  I believe trying to move people to the next right step, giving them what they need despite themselves rather than beating them in an intellectual contest, is far more right and better than what I typically do.

From Why To What

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching…”  So says Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16.  And this has certainly proved itself to be true in my life.  I have been taught (as well as rebuked, corrected, and trained, as Paul says in the rest of the verse) by all Scripture.  I have even been taught, etc. by Scripture I didn’t think was possible of teaching anyone anything, Scripture which on the surface seems to have little to teach.

A recent case in point is Genesis 42:36-37:

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This passage came up in my daily reading a few days ago.  It is part of the Joseph narrative of Genesis, the story of how Joseph, who has become the second most powerful ruler in Egypt, is testing his brothers to see how they have changed after selling him into slavery years ago.  In this part, the brothers report to Jacob after their first trip to Egypt to get grain.  They tell Jacob that Simeon has been imprisoned and will not be released unless they return with Benjamin.  In reply to this, Jacob says, “Everything is against me!”

At first glance, it doesn’t look like there is much in this passage for the follower of Christ.  That’s what I thought at first.  I even remembered discussing it in Bible college; I remembered my Old Testament professor saying that Reuben’s response to Jacob here is “boneheaded” (I believe that is the word he used).  That gave me a little laugh.  It didn’t give me much direction.

But then something happened.  I read over those words a second (something I often do as I read the Scripture for devotion), and that phrase “Everything is against me” caught my attention.  That is how I believe hearing from God works: I believe we hear from God when something in Scripture catches our attention (or maybe when the Holy Spirit who is in us and who is operating as we read Scripture brings something to our attention).  And this phrase caught my attention as I read that day.  It caught my attention as I read because I realize I often say the same thing.  I often look at the obstacles that are in my path and conclude that everything is against me.  I often get frustrated when difficulties come my way and I ask, “Why is this happening to me?”  (That, by the way, is how I would paraphrase Jacob’s words here: “Why is this happening to me?”)

That is obvious not a mature response to difficulties.  I think we all see that in Jacob here.  I think we are supposed to see it in Jacob here.  I think we are supposed to understand that while this reaction was somewhat understandable (as indeed a lot of unfair and unhappy stuff had happened to him), it was not at all mature or noble or helpful.  It was whining, in other words.

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What is less easy to see is how often we whine in that same way.  Immaturity in others, after all, is always far more visible than immaturity in ourselves.  Immaturity in ourselves is always far more understandable in ourselves than in others (we give ourselves a pass on such whining more readily and easily than we give such a pass to others).

As I read this text that morning, though, I could see it me.  I could see that I am often so immature and unhelpful, that I often whine.  And I could also see what to do about that.  I could see that God was calling me not to simply stop whining; I suppose that was part of what God was calling me to, but it was not the totality (stop is rarely the totality of what God tells us about anything).  I could also see that God was not calling me to try to escape the situations which result in whining; that’s not possible; many of these situations are out of my control and thus inescapable.

Rather, I could see that God was calling me to change my question.  He was calling me to turn from asking why to asking what.  He was calling me to move from asking, “Why is this happening to me?” to “What is Kingdom in this situation?”

I take that phrase Kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  Kingdom was His primary message, being the subject of what I call His “inaugural message”, the sermon He preached when He began His public ministry (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15).  It was also in a prominent place in His “model” or “Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13).

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I sometimes call this “the goal of God”.  I think that is what it is.  I think God’s ultimate goal and thus Jesus’ ultimate goal is the Kingdom coming, God’s will being done as perfectly on earth as it is in the heavenly realms.  Every other goal God has (making disciples of all nations, transforming us into the likeness of His son) is a subset or expression of that one, great, overriding goal.

And since that is His goal, it should be my goal as well.  That being the case, “Why is this happening to me?” is always the wrong question.  A much better question is, “What is Kingdom here?  What does the Kingdom want to result from this my encounter with this obstacle?  How can God’s will be done in this difficulty?”  There is a positive answer to that question/those questions.  Every obstacle and difficulty, every setback and attack and insult and hardship, is a Kingdom opportunity, a chance for God’s will to not only be done but be done through me.  And thus that is the question to ask.  That is the avenue to take.

And I’m not very good at taking it.  I’ll be honest about that.  I’d love to see myself as Joseph (who it seems had some immaturity in the early part of his story but who was fully living into the Kingdom by this point), but I know I’m far more like Jacob.  It is not easy to switch questions like this.  It isn’t for me, anyway.  I will keep that switch in mind, though, or I’ll try to.  It is what will indeed bring the Kingdom, so it is what I will try to do.  I’ll try to go from “Why?” to “What?”

Reacting To Jesus

I don’t know when I first learned about Westboro Baptist Church and their protests.  It seems like I have always been aware of them.  What I do know is that I just learned they will be in my area.  According to a local ministers’ group, they are planning on picketing a couple local churches.  Here’s is the flyer they are apparently putting out to notify people of this planned picketing:

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The person who made the group aware of Westboro’s presence in our area leads an interfaith group.  Not an interdenominational group (of group of people from different Christian denominations) but an interfaith group (a group of people from different faiths).  He says he is “envisioning a world of interfaith peace”, and he signs his emails with greetings from several faiths (i.e., “Shalom, Peace, Salaam, Om Shanti, Solh, Amani” etc.).

As I read the email about this situation last night, I felt conflicted.  I obviously don’t side with Westboro Baptist.  I don’t want to attack them (I think attacking anyone, no matter how deserving, is wrong), and I probably won’t participate in the counter-protests being organized (I think protesting is lowly, a “weapon of the world” rather than a tool of Christ; 2 Corinthians 10), but I don’t want to be consider of them, on their side.  I don’t want to be considered on the side of the interfaith group either, though.  “Interfaith peace” sounds good on the surface; if by “interfaith peace” or “coexist” you mean not killing or hating people of other faiths, then I’m all for it, but if you mean (as I largely suspect most do) not affirming your own faith or taking it that seriously, then I’m not.  In fact, when I see a list of greetings such as the one this interfaith person signs his emails with, I’m reminded of this scene from The Simpsons:

So I find myself between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.  I find myself pulled between two extremes, both of which are certain they are correct and both of which, I assume, think I’m incorrect in some way.  I know Westboro Baptist thinks I’m incorrect; according to a fellow minister, they picketed my denominations annual gathering in Cincinnati, holding signs that said, “Your pastor is a whore.”  So I don’t have to imagine what their opinion of me is.  I do imagine the interfaith person likewise thinks I am seriously wrong in some way; he might not call me a whore, but he probably calls me “narrow”, “bigoted”, “closed-minded”, etc because I believe that Jesus is who and what He said He was: the only way to the only God.

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And I can live with that, I suppose.  I have been living with it all my life in one way or another.  I’ve always been aware that there are people who find my faith or my way of expressing my faith wrong in one way or another, and I’ve always been told I just have to deal with that.

If I could make a wish, though, or, even better, if I could speak some sanity into the insanity I see coming into my community in the next couple of days, it would be for those people on these extremes to see that I am reacting to Jesus.  The things I do (many of them, anyway, possibly even most of them) I do in reaction to Jesus and the things Jesus taught and the way Jesus laid out.  That, I believe, is the basis of discipleship (as I already showed here).  And that is undeniably what you find in me.  I may not be reacting to Jesus perfectly (I don’t know anyone who does).  I may not be reacting to Jesus as either Westboro or the interfaith group thinks (rightly or wrongly) I should be.  But I am reacting to Jesus.  The decisions I make every day…make that every hour of every day…are influenced by Jesus, by what I think Jesus would want me to do.  Jingoistic though it may be, I truly am a WWJD guy.

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I believe that makes me a disciple.  An imperfect disciple to be sure.  A different kind of disciple or at least different-looking disciple than some others.  But a disciple nonetheless.

I’d like to think the same is true of Westboro.  I’d like to think the same is true of the interfaith group.  I’d like to think the same is true of both these extremes and every other extreme I encounter.  It may not be true of them; I understand that; I know that there are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” among us, “deceitful workman” who are not genuine followers.  But I’d like to think it is.  I’d like to think that most of the followers of Jesus who differ from me in one way or another are WWJD people, influenced by Jesus, reacting to Jesus, true disciples by this measurable definition.

And if we all recognized that about each other, wouldn’t there be more respect?  Wouldn’t there be less protests and counter-protests, less accusations, less suspicions, less attacks?  Wouldn’t there be less extremes?  I think there would be.  I think there should be.

Not-Kingdom

Every dog has his day.

As it turns out, every Doug has his day as well.  Such was the case for me last Friday at my congregation’s annual retreat (which for some reason we call an advance).  We invite other congregations to this advance, which we hold at the beautiful Alliance Redwoods campground.   We had men from at least four congregations there, maybe even more (I didn’t know everyone so I’m not sure where they all were from).

The theme I wanted us to focus on at this advance was “Lead Us Not Into Temptation”, one of the petitions our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to make in His “Model Prayer” in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4 (also called “the Lord’s Prayer” and “the Our Father”).  I’ve been praying this prayer for years and have found that this particular petition has had a huge impact on my life.  I thought it and it’s mirror-image petitions found in other parts of the Bible (“He leadeth me beside still waters”, Psalm 23; “Lead us in the way everlasting”, Psalm 139) would be as helpful for the men as it was for me, so that’s what we talked about.  I took the “negative” in the first session, allowing the other pastors to speak on the “positives” on Saturday.  Here are my notes for that Friday night session:

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As you can see, there isn’t a lot there for a 45 minute talk.  I basically “free form it” at the advance, just talking from a rough outline.  It isn’t hard to do as I’m always talking about discipleship, which is just the way I live and thus fairly easy to talk about without advance preparation.  The fact that the men usually interrupt me with questions and other ideas helps keep it moving, too.

During that lecture time, I came up with a phrase that I hadn’t engineered beforehand.  That phrase was “not-Kingdom”.  I came up with that as I was trying to explain that Jesus’ concern about not falling into temptation and/or walking in the way everlasting is not an example of “hand-wringing morality” (as I’ve often heard it called) but rather about “living into the Kingdom”.  I use the phrase “living into the Kingdom” a lot.  But that night, as I tried to express the same beautiful concept, I just somehow said “Jesus wants us to stay away from everything that is ‘not-Kingdom’.”

And the men loved that phrase.  One of the speakers the next day told the entire group that was the best thing I said that night (I thought I said some other worthy things as well, but, hey, I’ll take it!), and one of our guys told me last night he’s been thinking of that all week.  So that was the preacher equivalent of a home run.

But there is more to that phrase than just crowd-pleasing.  There is a truth there, a truth which is fairly foundational to discipleship.  This really is what sin is: something that is “not-Kingdom”, not like Christ, not of God, and thus detrimental, destructive, etc.  This really is why Jesus and God emphasize it so much, why They want us to stay away from or out of it so badly: it is the opposite of Them and Their ways.

And when you understand it that way, not only does the phrase “Lead us not into temptation” make more sense, but discipleship itself makes more sense.  It makes complete sense that God would want us to not walk in the things that are not-Kingdom/not-Him and to walk in the things that are-Kingdom/are-Him.  We’re not talking archaic patriarchal repression here (or any of the other silly things call the way of God).  We’re talking Kingdom here.  We’re talking God and the ways of God and the things of God.  We’re talking about what is right and good and healthy.

And it’s not just that understanding which is helpful.  It is that prayer/petition which is helpful.  I have greatly helped by praying to God “lead me out of what is not Kingdom”, whether that is obvious things like sexual immorality or less obvious things like anger, selfishness, competition, etc.  I have been greatly helped by praying to God “lead me into green pastures and beside still waters/lead me in the way everlasting”, whether that be obvious things like purity or less obvious things like peace-making, humility, acceptance.  It really has changed my life for the better.

I think it can do the same for us all.  “Not-Kingdom” might be a crude phrase, but it is a great one nonetheless, a phrase that reminds me who I am and what my life in Christ is all about.

 

The Definition Of A Disciple

I was listening to the Get Religion Podcast, as I do just about every Monday.  In that podcast, journalist Terry Mattingly talks about the way in which issues of religion and/or faith are covered in the press.  As you can imagine, he often talks (maybe even most often) discusses the way in which issues of religion and/or faith are miscovered by the press (I believe that is the idea behind the name Get Religion; with that name, Mattingly is saying many journalists don’t get religion, a fact which comes through in their reporting).

In this episode of the podcast, Mattingly was talking about the political ambitions of TV personality Oprah Winfrey, an issue which has been in the news following the Golden Globes (I think; I don’t watch or care about award programs) and which touches upon religion/faith.   As he talked about that, he started talking about discipleship.

And that is where he really caught my attention.  Discipleship is a word and a concept which is very important to me; it is my way of life, in fact.  As Mattingly started talking about discipleship (and about how fidelity to Oprah can be seen as discipleship), hegave a definition of it which I had never heard before.  He said discipleship was “how you spend your time, how you spend your money, and how you make decisions” (around the 24 minute mark of the podcast).  He said, actually, that how you spend your money, how you spend your time, and how you make decisions reveals who or what you are a disciple of.

Now that is a different definition of discipleship than many I’ve seen.  It is a different definition of discipleship than what I would have personally given (I would have said something like, “Discipleship is following and becoming more like Jesus”).  But it is nonetheless an accurate definition of discipleship in general (maybe not Christian discipleship; that definition would get more specific; but definitely general discipleship).  As such, it highlights one very important element of discipleship: activity.

Discipleship requires activity.  Actually discipleship does, anyway.  Discipleship is not an intellectual or passive thing.  It is not having a belief or putting your name on a role or joining an organization.  It is much more than that.

Let me give you an example: I am a member of the Clan Mackay USA society, a society of people descended from the ancient Scottish clan MacKay (which I, a McCoy, am).

 I became a lifetime member of that society the first time I went to the Scottish games and found out what clan I belonged to.  That privilege cost me $300-some dollars.  And I’m very happy with that.  I’m happy to belong to this clan for life.  But I’m also aware that I don’t participate in this clan in any meaningful way.  I don’t go to their meetings.  I don’t vote on their spending.  I don’t even read their newsletter most of the time.  I am not changed in any way by being a lifetime member of this clan.   It does not affect my life.  It cannot be demonstrated in my actions.

Discipleship, on the other hand, is demonstrated by actions.  Discipleship is all about action.  The challenge for me, then, as well as for all people, is to answer Mattingly’s three questions.  The challenge is for me (and you) to determine how I’m spending my money, how I’m spending my time, how I make my decisions, and thus what I’m really a disciple of.

How To Be Humble

A couple days ago, I posted some thoughts I had about humility.  I said there that while I understood the need for and goodness of humility, I did not know how to achieve it.  In other words, I said that it is hard to be humble.  Somehow, I restrained myself from adding this song to the post:

As it turns out, I did come across one way to be humble.  I think I did, anyway.  I was practicing guitar after I wrote that post.  I’ve been struggling with the guitar since at least 2002.  I taught myself to do the open chords back then, but I stopped messing with it once I moved to California because I wasn’t needed; all the players in the church were better than I.  It came back into my orbit a few years ago, though.  Last year I got an electric guitar for Christmas (a present from my wife; I gave her the money to buy it for me!).  I got a few lessons as well and have been learning to do lead.  I’ve gotten much better at it over the past year.  I’m very pleased with how I’ve learned to “see” the scales on the fretboard and to understand enough music theory to get by, both of which were things I never thought I’d ever do.

But while I’m pleased with my progress, I’m not overly-pleased by it.  I know that there are guys and gals out there who are lightyears beyond me and always will be.  My guitar instructor said as much, in fact.  He said there are seven-year-olds on YouTube who can smoke him, and if those kids can smoke him they can annihilate me.  (I can’t show you the video in which he says this because it’s behind a paywall, but here he is doing a song with his daughter.)

What he further said, though, is that it doesn’t matter how better other people are than you, and that it also doesn’t matter how better you are than other people.  All that matters is that you are growing.  And I totally dug that.

Here’s the thing, though: I think I dug it so much because I know I’m not good at guitar (which you can see in the final video; I was forced to play an unfamiliar shape that night, which is why I made as many mistakes as I did, but truth be told, I probably would have made mistakes even if I had been playing a familiar shape).  Knowing that I’m not that good, knowing that there is no way I can win any type of comparison or contest, frees me from ever thinking about being good/winning.  It frees me to be happy in the moment.

I think what I need to do, then, is apply that same idea to the things I’m good at (or think I’m good at).  If I realize I’m not nearly as good at those things as I think I am, if I realize I’m not really “good” at them at all and will never win any meaningful comparison or contest with them, then I might be freed from all pride and all vanity.  Then I might be able to be humble, hard as it is.  Then I might be able to do what I was made by God to do: perform the best I can and be happy with that.

Not Running Away

I am really surprised at the positive reaction I got to my New Year’s Day post.   A lot of people read that post and many of my friends wrote great comments about it on Facebook.  Thanks to everyone who did either or both!

I did want to clarify, though, that I am merely struggling with some negative feelings, not capitulating to them.  I am a little afraid and uncertain as we move into the new year but not yet ready to give up.  As I said in the original post, I can’t give up because…

That really is true.  I have nowhere else to go but God, nowhere else to go but The Church, nowhere else to go but life, nowhere else to go but the future.  And so, uncertain and afraid or not, that’s where I’ll go.

Beyond that truth, though, there is another truth, one I think I again referenced in the original post.  I’ve been transformed too much to give into these negative feelings.  Remember that transformation is God’s ultimate purpose for us.  We see this in Romans 8:29, where Paul says For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.  I know we might be attracted to that word predestined, but conformed  is actually the more important term here.  God wants us to be conformed or transformed to be like Jesus.  We also see this in Romans 12 and 2 Corinthians 5 and Ephesians 4 and several other places in the Scriptures.  We even see it in a song I heard as a fourteen-year-old, a song which greatly changed how I see my walk with God.

Now I have not been fully transformed.  Not even close.  I’m nowhere near what Jesus was.  That is “the desire of my soul”, but I haven’t gotten it yet.  It does seem, though, that I have been moved a little closer to that goal.  I’ve moved close enough that I no longer act on my feelings as quickly as I used to.  So even though I want to give up, I’ve been transformed enough by the promises of God and the truths of God’s character that I really can’t give up.  I’ve been transformed too much to give up, much as I might want to.

And beyond that truth is another, perhaps the most important one.  I don’t know what to call this truth.  I’m tempted to call it a “theological truth”, but I don’t think that’s exactly right.  The truth comes from a podcast I heard at least a year or more ago.  It was an episode of the Church Leaders podcast.   I know that for a fact.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember exactly which episode of the podcast it was.   All I remember is that the minister being interviewed on this podcast said there came a time in his ministry when he wanted to quit his church.  Things weren’t going well at that church, he thought they might go better at another church, so he wanted to quit (my mentors would say he wanted to abandon his original vision and find a new one; they call this the D2 dance).  He told his wife he wanted to quit, and she said that was fine.  But she also said, “Before you quit, I just want to know one thing: are you following God or are you running away?”  (Or something to that effect; I’m sure I don’t have the words exactly right.)

To his great credit (and his wife’s even greater credit), that minister did not want to run away.  He realized he was about to run away rather than actually follow God, and he didn’t; he chose to stay.  I likewise want to follow God.  I don’t want to run away.  I don’t want to do the D2 dance.

And I probably won’t.  I do appreciate all the concern shown for me after that January 1 post, but I don’t think I’m in danger of the D2 dance or even of depression.  I just feel like I could use some more energy.  I think I could use a little of this:

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(Well, I meant to have the clip where Zeus picks up the statue of the exhausted Perseus, but I couldn’t find it. Guess we’ll just have to make do with this picture.)

And pessimistic though I might sound (or to use the terms of the original post, honest though I might be), I do believe I will get it.  I do believe there is a happy future for me and my family and my church.  God promised there was, so there must be.  I just pray He picks me up a few times on the way there.