Listening For Agreement

Tim Keller is one of the contemporary pastors/writers I really respect.  I don’t think I elevate him to any lofty position he shouldn’t have (I strongly believe that only Christ should be elevated and everyone else ought to be kept on the ground), I do appreciate and look to the wisdom he shares.  I think he has a lot of it.

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And that, in turn, cause me a great deal of surprise when I saw how many people were fighting with him on Twitter.  Keller posts a lot on Twitter.  I don’t know if the things he posts are quotes from his writings or new ideas.  I don’t know if there is a unifying theme he is trying to achieve with his tweets or if he is just tossing out random notions.  But I know that almost every time I have checked, someone is disagreeing with him about something.   I try not to read comments; I learned pretty quickly that the comment section of any article, post, or tweet is likely to be a cesspool that will bring unhappiness into my life.  But I can’t help myself sometimes.  There are many times when I want to see how others are responding to Keller’s words, and there are just as many times when I see that they are responding badly, that they are disagreeing with what he said, fighting with what he said, even castigating him for what he said.

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Again, I don’t elevate Keller.  He is a man, and as Galatians 2 shows us, even good men make mistakes and/or fall into errors.  He is not infallible (I doubt he would claim he is) and he not above disagreement.  So it is not the disagreement that bothers me so much.  It is the fact that so many Christians (not the atheists, whom we would expect to cross swords with him, but the Christians, the disciples, the genuine followers of Christ) disagree with him.  And it is not just that the Christians disagree with him but that they disagree with him (and fight with him, and castigate him, etc.) in an illegitimate way.  It is often the case that they disagree not with what he says but with their own concocted bizarre twisting of what he meant, with some far-flung application of his words which was never what he intended to communicate.

What these Christians are not doing is what I call “listening for agreement”, by which I mean listening for what you agree with/is good not for what you disagree with/is bad.  I’m not sure where I got that phrase “listening for agreement”, but I’m fairly confident I got the idea from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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I may have read this book in my latter years of Bible college, or I may have read it when a teacher at the high school close to my first church gave it to me.  In either case, I read it.  In it, I learned that one of the seven habits is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

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This, I believe, is what the Christians who are fighting with Keller (or any similar Christian teacher in any similar situation) are not doing.  They are not trying to understand what Keller is saying and how he expects it to be applied.  They are allowing themselves to misunderstand or, worse, concocting some possible misunderstanding.  That is ineffective, a Covey suggests.  That is counterproductive.  That is a missing of truths and a ruining of fellowship and a muddying of the waters and a dozen other undesirable things.

And it is also unbiblical.  I can imagine many of the same people who will fight with what Keller says on any given subject will fight me here, and a particular avenue for such a fight is to point out that Covey is not God and The 7 Habits is not Scripture.  True enough.  Seek first to understand is not a biblical phrase, nor is listening for agreement.  But here are a few that are biblical:

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There are several others as well.  The Bible repeatedly tells us to listen and to not argue.  When we refuse to do that even in the cyber realm, when we ignore (unintentionally or otherwise) the good thing a fellow believer is trying to share and twist it into a bad thing and then argue ad nauseum about it, we are doing exactly what the Bible tells us not to do.

I’m not trying to defend Tim Keller, my friends.  I don’t think he really needs my help on this one or any other.  I’m not trying to defend any Christian teacher.  I’m trying to defend Christian unity and effectiveness.  I’m trying to find the way for God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done.  I know that way does not involve psuedo or ego conflicts (which is what a lot of these online arguments are; they are not genuine or “simple” conflicts; they are misunderstandings at best and personality or jealousy at worst).

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Even Jesus couldn’t stop people from distorting His words and His applications into something He never intended.  No contemporary Christian teacher is going to be able to stop people from doing so, either.  The only thing which can stop this is the people themselves.  And we Christian people should be willing and able to do just that.  We should be able to be quick to listen and slow to anger (or maybe “righteous indignation”).  We should seek first to understand (even giving the benefit of the doubt when it is necessary to interpretation).  We should listen for agreement, not for disagreement.

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?”

Poured In, Pour Out

I don’t do champagne.  I don’t really have a moral or spiritual objection to it.  I have more of a caloric objection to it.  If I’m going to drink calories, I’d rather them be Pepsi calories.

In fact, I’ve never even been around champagne that much.  I’ve seen it a few times at weddings, but that’s about it.  I’ve never seen a champagne tower, either.  I’ve never seen one in real life, anyway.  But I have seen pictures of them, and I find them endlessly interesting.

As a kid learning about life through the television (or maybe that should be mislearning about life through the television), I was interested in champagne towers because they were intrinsic and luxurious.  They were life a high-life puzzle toy, and that was incredibly appealing to me at the time.  As an adult follower of Jesus Christ, I am interested in them for an altogether different reason.  I am interested in them because they are a fairly good analogy for the following of Jesus Christ.  They are are fairly good metaphor or illustration of what the following of Jesus Christ is and how it works.

A champagne tower has at least two elements which make it such a good analogy of the following of Jesus Christ.  First, a champagne tower is, to paraphrase Paul, “a unit made up of many parts” (1 Corinthians 12:12, NIV 1984).  The tower is not only a grouping of individuals  but an actual interlocking of those individuals.  The individuals (in this case, individual glasses) are not just together but interwoven, interconnected, in actual, legitimate relationship with one another.  Second, a champagne tower operates in a top-down manner.  The contents, the valuable thing the glasses contain (in this case, champagne), is passed from the first glass down to the glasses below it.  The first glass overflows what it has into the the glasses underneath it, and those glasses in turn overflow what they have received from the first glass into the glasses underneath them.

And this is indeed what following Jesus is like and how following Jesus operates.  Jesus had something good.  He had the Kingdom of God.  He had the ways, the means, the values, the heart, the mind, the essence and substance of the Kingdom of God.  He overflowed that to others.  He particularly overflowed that to twelve others but also overflowed it to a few additional people.  He also, I believe, continues to overflow it to us today.  So Jesus overflows into us; He fills us with the Kingdom He has.  Others overflow into us as well.  As we interact with other believers, they likewise pour into us; we take or receive Kingdom from them.  And then we overflow or pour that Kingdom into others ourselves.  And so the Kingdom flows from the top down through all the interlocking individuals.

Maybe a champagne tower will be a part of your New Year celebration.  Maybe it won’t (I can guarantee it won’t be a part of mine; my congregation holds a “Clean and Sober” New Year’s Eve party which is led by our recovery individuals, and they don’t allow any alcohol; we will instead have Martinelli’s sparkling apple juice).  Whether you do or don’t, I hope you will see that this is how following Jesus works, how the Kingdom spreads in you as well as from you.  And I hope you will participate in that in the new year.  I hope you will allow yourself to be poured into not only by Jesus but by other believers, and I hope that you will likewise pour out into other believers yourself.