Leave a comment

A Loving God with Dirty Hands

Your Heavenly Father rejects a remote control approach to your discipleship walk. You know: God way up there somewhere, pushing some buttons or pulling a few levers behind the curtain to make things happen in your life. Instead, in the person and work of Jesus, God rolls up metaphorical sleeves, puts on an artist’s smock, dips those divine fingers in the water, and engages your life the way a potter engages the lump of clay spinning on his wheel.

If you ever get a chance to see a potter shaping and molding clay—whether in person or on YouTube—watch the potter’s eyes! As that potter shapes and molds, her full attention is on what she is doing, on the pot she is starting to form. If the potter dares do something drastic—and I have seen potters take take a piece of wire or even a fork to use on their clay—if the potter does something unusual or unexpected, she doesn’t do it with her head turned, looking in the other direction! Instead, she focuses her full concentration and energy on the pot while she shapes and molds the clay. When the shaping gets most dramatic or difficult or sensitive, that’s when the potter is more engaged than ever.

As you go through something in your life that is causing you to be shaped and molded—and for the clay, that’s always uncomfortable!—when God allows something difficult in your life, and then uses that difficulty to make you look more like Jesus, you can trust that your heavenly Potter hasn’t abandoned you. It’s not that God is absent from your life and therefore difficult things are happening. No! In the difficult things God’s eyes and heart are focused on you more than ever! Pots get special attention when the sculpting is most drastic. When your life feels like it’s spinning out of control, divine eyes and divine hands are focused on you. You have a loving God with dirty hands.

Dirty HandsThat’s what the message of the incarnation is all about. As God shapes and molds the lives of real people, God ends up with dirty hands. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, just like you and I were born; in the same, messy way. And his dad probably wiped him off and picked him up by the feet and spanked him on the butt to make him cry. He came into the world just like you and I did.

Jesus walked–that’s what he did! He didn’t have an angel chariot that whisked him wherever he wanted to go! He didn’t even have a bike. Jesus walked everywhere he went, and his feet got dirty, and his legs got tired, and he got hungry; even, at times, exhausted.

Jesus knows what it’s like to bury a father; Jesus knows what it’s like to stand at the graveside of a friend and weep; Jesus knows what it’s like to be betrayed by someone you trusted. Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty.

Jesus got his hands dirty when he touched a woman who was ceremonially unclean because of an illness she had carried in her body for years; Jesus got his hands dirty when he made mud and put it on the eyes of a man born blind, in order to heal him. Jesus got his hands dirty when he knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet; Jesus got his hands dirty when he let Roman soldiers nail them to the rough wood of a cross.

God was not willing to play remote control with your discipleship walk from a distance. God rolled up potter’s sleeves and, in Jesus, touched your life to mold you and shape you in love. You have a loving God with dirty hands.

Whatever you are facing this week, you can trust the God who is willing to have a potter’s dirty hands. You can pray with the Psalmist: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever; do not forsake the work of your hands!” (Psalm 138:8)


V6 Discipleship: Social Influence (Part 2 of 3)

V6 Discipleship: Social Influence (Part 2 of 3)

This three-part article is looking at six sources that influence change, for better or worse. Research has shown that the more of these sources are functioning at the same time, the more likely you will be propelled forward on your journey (see VitalSmarts Influencer training for more in depth theory). That’s why I like to think of these six sources of influence as a V6 engine: if you can get all six cylinders firing at the same time, you’ll really have momentum!

V6All change—discipleship or otherwise—requires both motivation and ability. You have to want to do it, and you have to be able to do it. In Part 1, we looked at personal factors that influence your motivation and ability. But personal factors are only two of the six cylinders! Social factors can also influence your behavior.

And it’s a good thing, too! I was telling you about my friend who lost some weight and managed to keep it off with real life change. But when he started, he didn’t have with personal motivation or personal ability.

Discipleship can be like that: you can want to change, but not really want to do what’s necessary for change, or not even know how to do it! Don’t throw in the towel. Let’s look at how Social Motivation and Social Ability can help you move forward on this journey of faith.

V3 and V4

So my friend knew he needed to change, but he didn’t want to change and he didn’t know how to change. He needed help. (Don’t we all?)

The third cylinder of our V6 change engine is Social Motivation. These are the people and relationships that help you want to do the kind of things that bring positive change. I like to think of this source of influence as Your Cheering Section, the people in your life who help motivate the right kind of habits and behaviors.

Once my buddy made the decision to change, he needed people to cheer him on. In this case, his wife was also on board with losing weight and getting a little healthier. That’s a huge plus. When you interact with someone you care about daily, and they encourage the change you want, and they want the same change, it starts feeling like you have somebody on your team.

Again, discipleship is like that. Discipleship is a team sport. We follow Jesus better when we follow him together, for lots of reasons. Encouragement, support, sharing burdens, forgiving sins, speaking truth in love, listening with compassion—all of those elements of discipling relationships fit in this third cylinder of Social Motivation. (Check out We Are the Coals for another take on the importance of mutual encouragement on your faith journey.)

But all the encouragement in the world won’t bring about change unless you also know what to do: change takes motivation and ability. So the fourth cylinder of our V6 change engine is Social Ability and includes all the ways relationships help increase your knowhow.

Reddit logoWhen my friend went to lose weight, he knew he had to pay attention to what he ate, but he didn’t know what tool in the diet bag would be a good fit for his family. He told me about some of the conversations he had with friends at work who were fired up about different kinds of diet plans that involved everything from no carbs to balancing fat intake to eating kale three times a day… But ultimately he used Reddit to get this Social Ability cylinder up and running.

Reddit is a group of online communities organized around interest areas. These interest groups, or Subreddits, discuss specific topics, and the quality of the content and the kinds of answers that get seen most are determined by the group itself. You don’t have to add your two cents to the discussion to follow along, and my friend checked out some Subreddits on losing weight just to get a handle on all of the information out there.

Although those communities were online, they functioned in the Social Ability cylinder; they helped move the needle on my friend’s own Personal Ability when it came to losing weight. Based on what he read, he chose a kind of intermittent fasting as a primary tool on his utility belt for losing weight. He doesn’t eat or drink anything but water or black coffee between 7:00PM and 11:00AM. Cutting back on late night snacking and a free doughnut in the morning workroom of course cuts down on calorie intake, but there are other benefits as well. (I’ll let you explore Reddit if you are interested in learning more…)

The point is, my buddy didn’t have the Personal Motivation or the Personal Ability to lose weight, so he found a way to affect both of those areas through relationships. His relationship with his wife brought significant and daily encouragement to the change he was trying to effect: she is definitely in his Cheering Section! And the internet provided a community of specific shared knowledge that, with some trial and error, allowed him to gain skills he had never had before. That’s why I think of this fourth cylinder as Your Reference Section: it’s the place you can go to learn how to do what you need to do from people who are already doing it.

car need help smallerIs there an aspect of your faith walk that really needs an upgrade? Is there an area of your relationship with Jesus that is really exciting right now, and you want to build momentum? Is there a next step you feel the Spirit is inviting you to take on this journey? To take even a small step, you will need Personal Motivation and Personal Ability.

But that’s only one small part of the equation. We follow Jesus better when we follow him together. You’re going to need people on this journey with you, people who will encourage you and cheer you on and pick you up when you fall down. And you will need people who know something you don’t, people who can help you experiment with and learn new ways of growing and new tools for change.

Can you think of people like that in your life? Who’s in your Cheering Section? What kind of help do you get from your Reference Section? Who are the people that increase your ability or your motivation to take a next step following Jesus?

If you have all four of these cylinders firing together, you are well on your way to positive change in your discipleship walk. But wait! This is a V6 discipleship engine! In Part 3 we’ll look at how your motivation and ability can be affected by other external factors. The more cylinders you have firing together, the more inevitable the change will be!


We Are The Coals

As Paul begins his second letter to Timothy, he makes reference to Timothy’s living faith:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:5-6, NIV)

Paul seems to think that faith is a living thing that gets passed on from generation to generation. Passing on a living faith isn’t restricted to families: Paul even says the gift (I think he must be referring to Timothy’s faith at least, though “the gift” could be broader than just faith)—Paul says the gift came to Timothy through Paul’s ministry. But family certainly plays a primary role.  Grandma Lois is involved; Mother Eunice is involved; and Paul (adopted “faith father”? He calls Timothy “my child,” in verse 1) Paul is also involved in passing down a living faith to Timothy.

This faith that lived in Louis, and in Eunice, and in Paul now lives in Timothy, too; so Paul encourages his young friend to “fan into flame” this gift that now dwells in him.

That’s a really interesting image for a living faith, a faith handed down from one generation to the next.

“Fan into flame.” The Greek verb Paul uses shows up only here in the New Testament. The verb is anazōpuréo and it comes from three distinct Greek words:

“Ana-” as a prefix means “up, anew, over again;” “zō” is a contracted form of the Greek word for “life” or “living thing” (maybe you know the name Zoe means “life”); and “pur” which means “fire.”

Ana + zō + pur = anazōpuréo: to enliven the fire anew; to rekindle the spark; to fan into flame.

What a wonderful image for faith! A living fire that dwelt in Grandma, and Mom, and Paul, and now Timothy—and Timothy is invited to fan that living fire into a flame!

I don’t think this is “passing down the faith” the way we usually imagine it. Typically, “passing the torch” means the people who have more knowledge or experience or faith transfer that knowledge/experience/faith to someone younger and less experienced. That kind “passing down” or “passing on” is always only in one direction, from the one who has more for the benefit of one who has less. And, whether it’s a baton or torch, you pass it on as quickly as possible and then it’s the next person’s turn to run with it…

But that’s not how Paul seems to be imagining this living faith. Paul already said, one verse earlier, how much he longs to see Timothy again, not so he can transfer some more knowledge or experience onto Timothy, but so Paul’s joy might increase. It kind of reminds me of what Paul says elsewhere to some other friends:

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.
(Romans 1:11-12, NIV)

Faith is a fire that spreads from person to person, but it’s not exactly a torch that gets passed down. I think faith works more like charcoal.

You know how a grill works: if you want to light the charcoal, you pile it all together because one coal that’s lit will light other coals. Put coals together and they will feed each other; take two live coals and separate them and they will go out. Just being in contact with other coals that are hot will increase the heat for all the coals involved.

ash-barbecue-black-1309072Faith is like that. Faith is a living thing. When Lois passed it on to Eunice, that wasn’t the end of their faith relationship; Timothy now has the gift of living faith in him through Paul’s ministry, but Paul can’t wait to be together again, so their mutual faith can stoke their individual faith.

When Paul encourages Timothy to fan his faith into flame, to rekindle the spark, that increase in faith isn’t supposed to happen in a vacuum. (Actually, flame can’t exist at all in a vacuum…) Part of Timothy’s work of fanning his faith into flame is to hang out with people like Paul; Timothy’s faith will rekindle as a result, but so will Paul’s. The last thing you want to do as a coal is to go it alone.

And yet “going it alone” is a real temptation we face as followers of Jesus, especially in a culture that teaches “rugged individualism” and self-sufficiency as lofty values we all should aspire to. Multiple times over the years, I have had people tell me something like, “I’m sorry we haven’t been to church in a while, pastor; we’re really going through a really difficult time. But when things get better, we’ll be back …”

I mean, I can see where they are coming from… When your world is upside down, sometimes you just don’t want to show up and face questions about how you’re doing. And if you go through a rough patch where even your faith seems cold and hard, showing up to worship can make you feel like a hypocrite.

But the thing is, a coal off on its own will naturally go out. What I need when I am hurting or anxious or troubled or full of doubt is not time away from other coals; what I need is someone’s living faith burning in close proximity to my cold and hard faith. Not only will I find a new sense of rekindling in my own faith, but their faith will end up burning even brighter.

We follow Jesus better when we follow him together. He designed us that way. We are mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

Please don’t hear that as a burden; Jesus intends it as a joy. I know there are times when going back to the same place you have been worshiping, the same place that has perhaps even done damage to your faith or thrown water on your fire, may not actually be a Gospel invitation.

I trust that God works through fallen, sinful humans at fallen, sinful congregations (there aren’t any other kind, of people or congregations…). And I know that sometimes, for a time, in some circumstances, going back to your congregation would mean putting on a mask that you hate wearing and smiling at people who have deeply wounded you. Rekindling your faith may be impossible in that kind of a setting.

But you also can’t rekindle your faith on your own. You need people who follow Jesus to help you regain the joy of following Jesus. They don’t have to be the most experienced Jesus-followers. They don’t have to be semi-professional disciples. Any coal that’s a little white around the edges will help rekindle any other coal, given proximity and time.

The more it feels like things are too difficult to show up at church right now, the more you need somebody who loves Jesus to love you, too.

I wish I had a simple answer for how you find those people in your life. Because when you need those people the most, you have the least amount of energy to go out and look for them.

So maybe we have to start thinking about fanning faith into flame before we get too hard and cold and have no energy left for relationships. Maybe now is the time to start wondering, who is kindling my faith? And who’s faith am I rubbing off on? Which of the people in my address book could I send an email that read, “I long to see you, so that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith?”

I have gone through regular cycles of having people who kindle my faith in close and regular proximity, and ending up all alone at the edge of the grill wondering where all the heat went. I have succeeded, and failed, and succeeded, and failed again at having relationships that help me follow Jesus.

But I know this: I have to keep fighting to find those burning coals in my life. As difficult as it can be to find them, as heart-breaking as it can be to lose them, there is no better way to follow Jesus than to follow him with another person who serves as a live coal touching your faith. We need people, even if they are fallen, sinful people—we don’t have access to any other kind.

If that feels a little daunting to you right now, you aren’t alone. Take heart in this: when it comes to increasing the flame, any coal can help any other coal. You don’t have to do something super-religious; you don’t even have to “get it right.” Mutual rekindling just takes proximity and time.

ancient Greek oven

An Ancient Greek Oven

Almost five hundred years before Paul, a Greek poet and playwright captured an image that I think gets 2 Timothy 1:6 exactly right. “The heavens are an oven,” he wrote—an ancient Greek bread oven looked kind of like a cake tray with a cover except made out of clay: you put the coals on the tray, put the domed cover over the try, and let the coal heat up the oven. So the earth is like the tray and the dome of the sky is like the covering of the oven…

“The heavens are an oven,” he wrote, “and this oven is around us; but we are the coals.”

“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” 2 Timothy 1:6 (NIV)

Who can you burn a little closer to this week? You might both need the natural rekindling that takes place when the Spirit blows in the conversations of believers and fans their mutual faith into flame. Start asking that question now, and keep fighting to find those coals in your life. Mutual encouragement in the faith isn’t rocket science, but it does take proximity, and time.

Jesus wants to give you the gift of a rekindled faith. And the means he uses to stoke your fire are the people he places in your life. His is the Spirit, and that Spirit is around us; be we are the coals.



Photo Credit: Featured Image by Lukas from Pexels


V6 Discipleship: Personal Influence (Part 1 of 3)

V6 Discipleship: Personal Influence (Part 1 of 3)

A V6—that is, an engine with six cylinders—will unfailingly provide more power and more drive if all six cylinders are working together. Discipleship is kind of like that. Research has identified six distinct sources of influence that create the drive needed for change or growth. Knowing what those areas are, and getting all six cylinders up and running, will help propel you forward on your journey of faith.

I have a friend who recently dropped some significant weight. He’s even been able to keep the weight off with the kind of consistency that only comes from life change. As I listened to his story and asked some follow up questions, I was reminded of the research done by VitalSmarts and presented in their Influencer training. Their research suggests six distinct areas that enable (or hinder) change.

In order to make any significant or lasting change, like my friend did, you must have A) the desire to do it and B) the ability to do it. That much seems obvious. But VitalSmarts lays out six types of influence that affect either motivation or ability, three for each. I like to think of all these influences together as the cylinders in a V6 engine, an engine that propelled my friend into a healthier lifestyle and has the potential to drive both individual and congregational discipleship growth. Let’s look at all six cylinders, two at a time.V1 and V2The first set of driving factors has to do with your own personal motivation and personal ability. I like to talk about your Personal Motivation cylinder as your secret identity, the values you hold that define who you are and shape the choices you make on a daily basis. If you want to make a change, you will have to find a personal value that aligns with the change you seek.

Ironically, my friend felt almost no personal motivation to lose weight. He was happy and (kind of) healthy and had no personal desire for change in this area of his life. You might think that your own individual motivation is the key to any change, but actually, personal motivation is only one of the six cylinders. Maximizing the number of the cylinders firing together is far more important than any single source of influence by itself. As we shall see, once some of the other pistons started firing, my friend found some personal motivation. But he didn’t start there. And that’s a comfort for people like me, who don’t always feel an overwhelming personal desire for ongoing spiritual growth…

The counterpart to Personal Motivation is the Personal Ability cylinder.  (Remember, change takes both motivation and ability.) If personal motivation asks, “Do I want to?” personal ability asks, “Do I have that tool in my bag?” That’s why I think of this source of influence as my utility belt: Batman might want to climb out of the trap he’s in, but without the Batarang, he’d still be stuck in the Joker’s secret lair.

When my friend finally got to the point where he wanted to lose weight, he had to figure out how to do it. There are lots of tools available for counting calories or tracking exercise, and lots of eating plans to affect change: should he go with Atkins, Keto, South Beach, Paleo, Dukan, HCG??? He wasn’t born with that tool in his bag, and he didn’t come by it magically. He knew he needed to lose weight, but he didn’t really want to; and he didn’t really know how to.

Does that sound familiar? Have you ever thought it would be nice if you wanted to read the Bible more, or at least knew how to read more productively? Have you ever wished you felt like going to church more, or knew what to do once you were there?

V6 PortraitTake heart! Personal Motivation and Personal Ability are important, but they are only one third of the equation! The other four cylinders help get these two up and running. And once you get all six firing, positive, lasting change is all but inevitable!

We’ll get into how social influence can affect both Motivation and Ability in Part 2 of this V6 Discipleship blog. For now, keep reflecting on what small step Jesus might be inviting you to take next. Can you discern any change in your discipleship motivation or ability? Ask the Holy Spirit what he is up to in your life. (And don’t forget to look and listen for the answer!)

Featured Image credit: V6 photo by Rafal P. from FreeImages


The Whole Pie (X)

I got to officiate at the wedding of a college friend this last weekend; what an honor! One of my favorite parts of the service was an image I stole from the groom.

He told me the story as we met together to prepare not only for the wedding but for the marriage to follow. His bride-to-be was stressing over some quirk in her personality or some ingrained pattern of behavior that wasn’t completely compatible with sharing a house, let alone a life, with someone else.

Of course, the groom also had his own back story and baggage—the later you marry, the more baggage you tend to carry, but only by virtue of having more time to pick some up. So the groom is a complicated individual with personal baggage and wanted to let his bride know that it was both normal and expected for her also to be a complicated individual with personal baggage. So he told her, “I love your whole pie.”

Pie-CrustI love your whole pie.

It must have worked, because they both told me how that concept became kind of a saying in their relationship. They even came up with an emoji, so they could text the idea, shorthand: (X).

Get it? It’s a pie: (X).

To say, “I love your whole pie,” is to say, “I accept you just the way you are. I love you, all of you; even the parts of you that aren’t easy to like; even the baggage you carry with you; even the patterns of behavior you have learned over time that protect you while shutting everyone else out.

“I love you at your best and at your worst. I love you when you make me happy and when you make me sad. I love you when you forgive me, and I love you when I have to forgive you. I love your whole pie.”

I think that’s a wonderful thing to be able to say to one another as you prepared to get married. I think it’s even more wonderful to say to each other after you’ve been married for a year or two (or 10 or 20)…

I think they capture the right verse to go with their pie when they selected Colossians 3:13-14 (NIV) as part of their wedding text:

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Bear with each other. I think that actually means, accept the whole pie.
Forgive + Love = (X).

And the result of that love and acceptance, that free forgiveness and even pre-forgiveness, is not somehow getting walked all over by someone with more baggage than you. The result of loving the whole pie, as Paul describes it, is songs of thankfulness, ongoing growth, and gratitude in your heart.

Jesus puts it in an even more obvious way. After commanding his followers to show the same kind of humble and servant love to each other as he shows to them, Jesus describes the outcome of loving people who don’t deserve it, forgiving people who constantly disappoint you, and giving yourself away for the sake of sinful people who carry all kinds of personal baggage. The result of loving people like that? According to Jesus, the result is joy. And not just any joy; the kind of joy that belongs first to Jesus, and then to us.

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
(John 15:11, NIV)

[I really wish Jesus would have said that same thing earlier in John… The first reading for the wedding service included Zephaniah 3.14; the second, Colossians 3.14. If I could have just worked John 3.14 into the service, we would have had a buffet of pies! (Get it? 3.14. That’s pie…)]

When you love someone’s whole pie, you are only being like Jesus, who loved your whole pie first. Jesus loves you completely (X) and the result of that love is joy. By the power of that love, Jesus invites you to love others with reckless abandon (X) in part because he knows your joy will be so much more if you do.

We all carry around all kinds of baggage. We have all developed habits and defense mechanisms over time that might be there to protect us, but end up shutting everyone else out. We all have good days and bad days, moments of grace and miles of self-centeredness. The only hope for any marriage, for any friendship, for any human relationship boils down to this: learning from Jesus to say, “I love your whole pie.”

And, according to Jesus, the result of that kind of love is joy!




Featured image: photo by Prateek Katyal from Pexels


Orientation vs Performance: GPS or GPA?

I got a chance to walk a dozen people through a “Moving the Needle” self-evaluation tool last Sunday night, and I was reminded of a couple of things I thought I would pass on to you (because I think anyone who is trying to take a next step or help others take a next step following Jesus will run into some of the same things).

1. People automatically feel pressure to perform.

I began to develop this self-evaluation tool as the Pastor for Adult Discipleship down in Texas, and refined it some more in my ministry in Ann Arbor. It’s not yet ready for public consumption but I am continuing to run experiments to make it better.

Whatever else might change in the tool, I will be sure to keep the key distinction between finding your GPA and using a GPS. Whenever you measure attitude or behavior, you will intuitively get some kind of sliding scale from “Absolute Heathen” to “Fully Devoted Follower.”

testEven if you admit that Jesus loves the people on the bottom of the scale, and go so far as to say no one reaches the top of the scale until the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, you still get a bell curve of disciples. Everyone wants to be at least a C- follower (or a little better than the person taking the test next to them) and as long as I can compare myself favorably to anyone else, I must be doing OK. That’s Discipleship GPA.

To try and get out of that sliding scale mentality, I have my tool set up as a series of gauges, like you might have on the dashboard of your car. I’m not grading your engine temperature or even your fuel level. In fact, the intention of the tool is to give you some idea of where you are in six different areas of discipleship and then give you some idea of the direction you are heading.

The express purpose is to find your location and orientation, not to score your competency. Yet even though I tell people this is a GPS, not a GPA, as soon as they start putting pen to paper they feel like they want to do well on the test.

Many of the questions they ask about the tool actually mean: “How can I score better on this??” They want to get it right, even when there is no single right way to answer. In fact, the whole thing is geared toward helping an individual take a next step. So if they think they would have used a different word here or there, I tell them to go ahead and change it on their sheet. If they want to add a new category, fine. I want them to find some way of taking their temperature somehow. Just talking about how you could possibly measure your direction and faith walk gets you thinking about the right kinds of things.

But as soon as you start to measure anything, we always end up in a competitionEven when trying to use a GPS, people automatically feel a pressure to perform. Meet them where they are. Assure them they are doing a good job. And get into the discussion about what Jesus is doing in their lives as quickly as you can. The only way to move the focus off of individual performance is to turn their attention to where Jesus is and where he is headed.

That’s actually the point of the GPS: asking where are you, where are you pointed, where is Jesus, and where is he headed? Even when you frame it as a GPS, American GPA mentality makes people feel pressure to perform. So if you are trying to take a next step, watch it! You are going to naturally think this is all about you, when the point is to find where you are so you can see Jesus more clearly.

2. People are complex.

You can measure some surface behaviors like worship attendance and giving pretty directly. But as soon as you try and get at the attitudes behind those behaviors or the general direction of those habits over time, things get pretty complex pretty quick.

I think we have to measure more than just how often people are in worship or how often they read their Bible at home because the answers to those kinds of questions are inherently framed as GPA rather than GPS. Someone who is anxious to come to worship and is coming more and more and is there at least once a month is at a different place than some who is begrudgingly there every week, never gets anything out of it (and never tries to) and has been stuck in that pattern for 30 years. The second disciple would have a higher GPA, but I’m pretty sure he is not seeing what Jesus wants to give or where Jesus wants to lead.direction

Of course, behaviors matter, and you would rather have people in worship twice a month than once a month, or three times a month instead of twice. But their attitude and the trajectory of their worship life over time is probably more important than their present behavior.

Not that behavior isn’t important! We want to measure that, too. In fact, I would rather you come to worship even when you don’t want to, than not come to worship because you don’t feel like it. But most of all, I want you to come more and more regularly over time; and I want you to be on the lookout for what Jesus is giving you and doing for you in worship, more and more joyfully and intentionally as you grow. Behavior matters, but because people are complex, attitude and trajectory over time matter even more.

Because people are complex, they also sometimes have trouble putting down on paper where they actually are, at least when it comes to attitude and direction. (Behavior is a little more straight-forward: you just take your real behavior and increase it by the guilt tax and record about 15% more activity than you actually do…)

When it comes to attitude and orientation, complex people can be in more than one place at the same time. One woman at our Sunday night Bible class thought talking about Jesus was both “scary” and “exciting” at the same time and felt conflicted about those two answers being on the opposite ends of a spectrum. I told her to answer both ways. Sometimes we have more than one attitude at the same time. Don’t let nuances of any discipleship tool get in the way of the real goal: to help people see more clearly where they are and where they are headed, so they can reorient toward Jesus and take a small step forward.

Any measurement tool will necessarily simplify. Be willing to let complex people be complex, and then let the tool do its work. The point isn’t to get the tool right (more performance pressure!). The point is to follow Jesus.

3. Burden is our natural heart language as sinners.

I think every time I have used any version of a discipleship self-evaluation tool, at least some people feel pretty guilty about their results. No matter how many times I say this is about orientation, not performance, writing down my attitude and behavior when it comes to following Jesus still brings some sense of personal failure.

Last Sunday, when the group was finished, I asked them in general about their experience taking the evaluation. The first person who responded was a woman who slapped her own face–she didn’t say it was a slap in the face, she actually slapped her own face!

Now a wake-up call is not necessarily a bad thing, and whenever you do any kind of evaluation, the Law is at work. Of course there will be some sense of guilt or shame, because we are always sinners. But we are not only sinners. Whenever you work with anyone (even yourself!) on taking a small next step following Jesus, you are going to have to get past the poor, miserable sinner mindset. Of course, theologically, they are (and you are); and of course as blind, dead, and an enemy of God, you can’t take even a small step forward following Jesus.

But that’s kind of not the point. Even that way of talking is getting back to the realm of performance and GPA: of course none of us could ever have a high enough grade point average to earn God’s favor. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take out this GPS and talk about where you are in your faith journey, where you are headed, and where Jesus is inviting you to take a next step.

Jesus didn’t just die for the sins of the disciples, he also invited them to follow him. Even after the resurrection, when Jesus dealt with Peter’s three-fold failure, the punchline was still, “YOU must follow ME.”

I’m convinced that this invitation to follow Jesus is at the heart of the promise in the Great Commission: “I will be with you always... not to stand over your shoulder and grade your performance, but so that you can look around and find me and follow me, again and again, as often as you get turned around or lost or confused. I will be with you always… follow me.

No discipleship tool is ever supposed to merely pile on more guilt and shame. Burden is the natural heart language of sinners, and we make everything about performance, even Gospel invitations. (I can follow Jesus better than you can! In my whole class, I’m the best at not rejecting the promise!) So we will naturally experience any evaluation as burden. But guilt and shame can’t help us move in the right direction.

dashboardIf you want get unstuck, honestly take a look at where you are, and then start looking for ways Jesus is inviting you to take a step forward. Of course forgiveness is a natural part of moving forward, but the point is not to hammer people over how they have failed (that’s GPA thinking again); a GPS is value-neutral, it tells you where you are and maybe which direction you are heading. Feeling bad about where you is a real experience, and guilt and shame need real forgiveness. But you can’t always only focus on your sinfulness.

In fact, carrying that burden makes it harder to move forward. So give people–even yourself–lots of grace. Forgive sins and ease burdened consciences whenever necessary. And then try to help people see some small way Jesus is gently and persistently and lovingly trying to get their attention.

And while Jesus getting your attention is sometimes uncomfortable, it is also fundamentally good news: Jesus loves you and is leading you and has something he wants to give you. That’s awesome.

Featured image credit: dashboard photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels



1st and 40

packers bearsHave you ever been really discouraged in your discipleship journey?

This weekend kicks of the 100th season of the National Football League. My wife and I caught the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bears’ home opener against division rivals, the Green Bay Packers. Since I grew up in Detroit, I was rooting for them both to lose…

And then something happened I had never seen before.

The Bears were down 3-7 about midway through the last quarter of play. Their offense, which had not yet worked out all of their pre-season kinks, was finally starting to move the ball. They had gotten a first down inside Green Bay territory and were only a few yards from field goal range. That’s when the wheels started to fall off.flag

It was 1st and 10, and the incomplete pass was nothing special. Nor was the holding call on the Bears’ offensive line.

That’s a ten-yard penalty: repeat 1st down.

So now its 1st and 20. The Bears try something (play action, if I remember right) which didn’t amount to much, except another flag against the Bears.  Illegal hands to the face.

flagTen-yard penalty: repeat 1st down.

We’ve gone from just outside of field goal range to the other side of midfield. The Bears are struggling.

It’s 1st down and 30, and the Packers dial up some serious pressure for the pass play they know is coming. The Bears quarterback drops back to pass; the pocket begins to collapse around him; he feels a heavy hand on his back shoulder, ducks, spins out of trouble, and throws an amazing pass down field. Having just lost 20 yards in penalties on the last two plays, quarterback Mitch Trubisky had dodged tacklers and delivered an amazing 52-yard completion to put the Bears in striking distance of a lead-changing touchdown.

flagExcept there was a flag on the play.

In order to get the space he needed to catch that desperate pass, the wide receiver put both hands on the back of the defender and pushed. That’s called Offensive Pass Interference. And, you guessed it, it’s a ten-yard penalty: repeat 1st down.

That’s the thing I have never seen before: 1st down and 40.

1st down, with only 40 yards to go…

That had to be just a terrible feeling of frustration and failure: things were going so well, and suddenly everything you try starts going from bad to worse. Even when you make a great effort, and it looks like you have just done something amazing, more information comes to light that sets you back even more. Your goal is getting farther and farther out of reach. The people who are supposed to be your biggest fans have started booing you. You thought you were in an almost impossible situation, and then you thought you had miraculously gotten out of it, and then you find yourself in an even worse position. You’ve got to go try again, with no hope, and no chance, and three more tries before you can punt.

Do you ever feel like that?

Has your discipleship walk ever gone from bad to worse? Have you found yourself overburdened, and then something happened and you thought things were going to improve dramatically, and then more information comes to light, and you are worse off than before? Do you wish you could just punt and get it over with, because the effort of going out and getting pummeled again is just not worth it?

That kind of discouragement is actually a natural part of following Jesus. And it can affect not only your attitude, but your performance; it even limits what you see as possible.

1st and 40 for the Bears, and Trubisky throws a quick out-route to his wide receiver. The receiver, knowing it’s 1st and 40, turns his head to start running up field just before the ball arrives. It’s hard to catch an NFL pass if you are looking in a different direction… The pressure of gaining 40 yards in the next 3 plays made the receiver take his eyes off the pass. It actually looked like he was playing volleyball instead of football, because he basically spiked the pass into the ground. It wasn’t a difficult play, and there wasn’t even a defender in the area, but the pressure of 1st and 40 affected the pass.

2nd and 40 and the Bears try a play that goes nowhere. 3rd and 40 and the commentator says something like, “I wonder what the Offensive Coordinator is going to dial up. There aren’t too many options in your playbook for 3rd and 40. They’ll probably go with a screen to try and gain some positive yards.”

The commentator knew it was coming. The Packers knew it was coming. The predictable screen pass gained the predictable 2 yards, but what are you going to do? Your options are limited when it’s 3rd and 40…

That football series reminded me of something that, when you are right in the middle of, is really hard to see, and so really hard to deal with. In our American culture, we typically and uncritically experience LIFE as if it were a JOURNEY: we make “progress” in life, we have a “direction” in life, we can experience “setbacks” or “wrong turns” or “new paths” in life.

And, as a culture, we are hyper competitive. We tend to turn everything into a game, with winners and losers, and opponents and teammates, and cheerleaders and victory parades: it doesn’t matter whether you are thinking about your career or discipleship walk, you will naturally, automatically, and subconsciously think about and experience your life as a JOURNEY and as a COMPETITION.

That’s not all bad; in fact, I’m not sure it is good or bad all by itself. But that way of thinking is powerful and most often hidden from our awareness, and that makes it dangerous.

Have you ever felt like, in your relationship with Jesus, on your journey of faith, that it’s 1st and 40? That you are moving in the wrong direction? That your teammates are letting you down, your fans have betrayed you, and the few remaining chances you have to get this right have no hope for success? Have you ever seen your relationship with Jesus suffer or felt like your options were limited because you were so far away from your goal?

It is natural to feel that way. And that way of feeling is only natural if your faith walk is a journey in one direction with a set goal, or faith is a competition where you have to work hard to gain ground in order to have success and therefore win the approval of coaches and fans.

1st and 40 seems like a discouraging place to be in your faith walk. I know; I’ve been there. But the answer isn’t to go out there and try hard to “win one for the Gipper.” Your discouragement, your limited options, the pressure that makes you fail even at a simple task—all of that is directly related to the lens you are using to view your life, a lens that makes everything a goal-oriented journey and a competition that can be won or lost. And you are using that lens without knowing it.

So what’s another option? What do you do when, despite your best effort, it feels like it’s 1st and 40 in your journey of faith?

Call these three plays in your huddle and see what happens.

  1. Feel What You Feel.
    Acknowledge the frustration, the anger, the feeling that others have let you down or even that others are against you. Admit that you feel like a failure; notice how you have been functioning lately: defeated, distracted, and under pressure to perform.
  2. first down markerNotice the Lens.
    This part is really hard. It’s like a fish recognizing water, or the boy in The Matrix who says, “There is no spoon…” But this step is essential to a healthier way of experiencing your life, your faith, and your relationships with others. Connect your feeling and thought to why you feel and think that way. If you feel like you are going in the wrong direction, notice that feeling only makes sense if you are on a journey with only one right goal or outcome. If you feel like a failure or that people are on the other team, notice that those feelings fit a competition in a way that may not be appropriate for your faith walk. Find a trusted friend to help you express what you feel and connect those feelings to the lens that is shaping the way you think and feel about what’s going on. This step isn’t easy. (Thinking about our thinking and feeling is never easy.) But once you get the hang of it, noticing your lens can be extremely helpful.
  3. Look for Jesus.
    When it feels like 1st and 40 in your faith journey, remember this is not actually a football game; there is no spoon. If the options in your playbook are shrinking, remember your options are narrow only if you define your next step in terms of having to make a lot of progress quickly. Instead of cursing the booing crowd or pouring your effort into the predictably futile or desperately risky, call a time out and look around for Jesus. I imagine he is somewhere close, waiting for you to notice, and inviting you to take a small next step following him.

You don’t have three chances to gain forty yards; you have as many chances as you need to take one small step following him. And then another. And then another.

Don’t worry about direction: there is no one right way to get to the goal, and Jesus may even be leading you on a scenic route to show you something amazing you might otherwise have missed. You won’t need your playbook, as much good as it is doing you; but you will want the compass of God’s Word to help you discern which way Jesus is taking you and what your next step looks like. And you’ll want some people around you to help you discover the promise from Jesus you’ll need for your next step. But they aren’t teammates to be blamed when they drop the ball; just people who need Jesus, like you.

So if you feel like you’ve been taking a beating in your faith life, and the good intentions you had for the fall already feel like they have been undermined to the point that you know you have no chance of making the playoffs; if you are burdened and exhausted and feel like throwing in the towel, take a deep breath. Recalibrate. Call a time out.

Feel what you feel, but then notice the lens that is filtering your thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, look for Jesus. He is closer than you think, with more grace than you can imagine, and he has been leading you this whole time, even when you thought you were losing yardage and heading in the wrong direction.

It’s not easy, but taking one small step following Jesus is so much more fun than trying to score a game-winning touchdown when it’s late in the fourth quarter and you are facing 1st and 40.

Your job is not to find some way to win the game. Your job is to take one step following Jesus.

(Go Lions!)


%d bloggers like this: