What the Right and Left have in Common

Election seasons can be pretty frustrating. I was once part of a conversation involving people from opposite ends of the political spectrum.  “Part of the conversation” meant I mostly remained quiet and listened, wondering what and if anything I had to offer.  Then someone, noticing my silence, asked me what I thought.  I responded that we might want to consider what God thought.  Their follow-up question: “And what do you think God thinks?” I struggle during election seasons primarily because far too many of us are not willing to consider what God may think.

We tend to invoke Jesus’ name in support of our particular political ideologies but not necessarily inviting Him into the process of developing them.  I watched a friend over the past several years become a serious follower of Jesus – giving Him permission to speak into his life, to grow his understanding of grace, to mess with and shape his ideologies.

As a result, I heard this friend say a few years ago that he was really struggling with how he should vote in light of becoming a thoughtful Christ-follower.  In the past he may not have asked that question but simply voted his “party line.”  What a novel idea – to ask Jesus how we might vote as opposed to telling him how we want to vote and assuming he agrees with us.  Or not include him at all.

The conversation reminded me of an article I read in the old, now defunct, youth ministry magazine, The Wittenburg Door.  The article was an interview with the late Brennan Manning, author of many wonderful books, including The Ragamuffin Gospel, Abba’s Child and Ruthless Trust.

What I remember about the interview was an interesting musing by Manning as he wondered when the liberals and conservatives might figure out that they are all in the same camp and are really in agreement.  Manning suggested that what unites these opposite ideologies is the proposition that Jesus is impractical in the real world. Manning:

“The bottom line is that conservatives and liberals are united, the left wing embraces the right, Pilate and Herod becomes friends, and the one proposition that unites them is that Jesus is impractical.”

People tried to press Jesus into their civic political agendas and he would not allow it.  In their mind, Jesus did not seize the opportunity to change the course of history.  Jesus was political for sure – just not the way people wanted.  He made it very clear that Caesar was not in charge.  Nor was the high priest.  The people’s attempts to draw Jesus into political debates on their terms fell short.  He quickly reminded them, through his discourses, that they were pretty clueless about the grand scheme of things.

Likewise, our attempts to draw Jesus into our political agendas fall short. He’s on a different playing field.  He is King of kings (king over all who think they are or should be kings) and Lord of lords (Lord over all who think they are lord over others).  Because the resurrected Jesus humbled himself as a servant, even to the point of a criminal’s death, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 2:9-11).

In free countries, we take elections very serious, as we should. But we must remember that it is God who is sovereign!  He is sovereign over kings and dictators, over presidents and prime ministers, over liberals and conservatives and, yes, over nations.  We take our privilege of voting very serious, but it pales in comparison to the privilege of knowing and following the King of kings.

Gratitude

The core of the Young Life ministry, of which I have been a part going on 47 years, is the volunteer leaders that invest in the lives of teenagers. I am privileged to help train younger staff that lead the volunteer troops. Several years ago, while in a discussion during a training time, we deliberated the make-up of the best leaders. We decided that what separated best leaders from average leaders was this: they get “it.” As the discussion progressed, we attempted to quantify and define “it.” This is where we landed:

“If someone gets “it,” no definition is necessary; for those who don’t, no definition will suffice.”

In the context of practical theology, I suspect this is a truism that crosses all aspects of faith understanding. I suspect it was central to Jesus’ repetitive quote from Isaiah 6 addressing the Israelites – people that kept on listening, without perceiving; that keep on looking, without understanding. I think this describes our journeys of faith as we try to figure out this phenomenon of following Jesus. We wrestle with an aspect of faith for a time – reading, researching, discussing – seemingly to no avail. Then, all of a sudden, something happens and it makes sense. We get it. We cannot explain it yet – we just know we get it now and we see everything through a new lens…

We hear two distinctly different responses during this pandemic – gratitude or censure/blame. Gratitude* is a core virtue of the Christian life. It’s one of those things I didn’t get for years, but became clear in the middle of a personal crisis. I finally got it, though I couldn’t have explained it to anyone for a time. But I knew it was a life-changer.

From the New Oxford American Dictionary, gratitude describes the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. During these days, grateful people are coming out of the woodwork to serve others, even the ungrateful. Grateful people get it. They don’t need to work at showing gratitude, its second nature.

One of the best books I’ve ever read was Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust (a book I HIGHLY recommend). In Ruthless Trust, Manning described how he might determine if someone truly trusts God:

“Let’s say I interviewed ten people and asked them each the same question – “Do you trust God?” – and each answered “Yes, I trust God,” but nine out of ten actually did not trust him. How would I find out which was telling the truth? I would videotape each of the ten lives for a month and then, after watching the videos, pass judgment using this criterion: The person with an abiding spirit of gratitude is the one who trusts God.” my emphasis)

During his message on Sunday, April 26, Bjorn Dixon of the WHY Church (Elk River, MN) made an interesting and telling statement: “What you thought about God before the pandemic is how you will relate to God in a pandemic.” If gratitude was core to my trust in God before the pandemic, then gratitude is the natural response during the pandemic. For those of us struggling to be grateful right now, here’s the very good news: God uses interruptions and crises to transform us, to help us get “it” (whatever “it” we might be in need of “getting”). I have observed people “get” the virtue of gratitude these last few weeks. Others will get it before this is over. If you aren’t there yet, there’s hope.

“God is the creator, redeemer, and consummator of all that is. Human beings live in a relation of inescapable dependence on God to which gratitude is the appropriate response.” (Miroslav Volf, “Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in the Christian Life”, my emphasis).

* Interestingly, the Greek word used in the New Testament and translated as gratitude is eucharistía, the same word from which Eucharist is derived. (See Colossians 2:6-7, 1 Timothy 4:4-5, Hebrews 12:28 as examples of gratitude used in the New Testament.)

Dishwasher Broke!

Our dishwasher broke a couple weeks ago and just got fixed this week, thanks to CenterPoint Energy’s Home Service Plus program. It wasn’t a huge inconvenience, except that it required us to wash our dishes by hand for a while. The nice part about washing by hand is the built-in opportunity to ponder (as I am wont to do when involved in menial tasks).

One day I was washing glasses that our grandsons had used after eating something sugary. The outsides were sticky, clear evidence of the sugar. As I started to wash the glasses, I realized something interesting was taking place. In the process of washing the inside, the outside naturally became clean. I wasn’t focused on washing the outside. I was focused on washing the inside. The cleansing of the outside was a natural outcome. I began to wonder if Jesus’ dishwasher might have broken once because he talked about the same thing. Sort of…

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal. Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?” (Luke 11:37-40)

In his Gospel, Matthew records a similar discourse between Jesus and some Pharisees in which Jesus concluded, “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26). The context of Matthew’s narrative? Prior to 23:26, the editors of the NIV translation added the heading, Seven Woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. Seven times Jesus said “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Ouch! Jesus wasn’t mincing his words with the religious leaders. Seven times he called them out for their hypocrisy, for missing the mark. And they knew it. It would have been difficult for the hearers to respond, “I wonder what he meant?” They knew exactly what he meant. And they didn’t like it. It was around this time that they stepped up plots to kill Jesus.

What was the sin of the religious leaders? I would suggest moralism. The religious leaders had reduced God’s steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness (hesed and emet) to a recipe for moral improvement. In the 21st century, we can also succumb to the (some would say seductive) false gospel of moralism. Moralism in our context is the reduction of the Gospel – the outrageous, extravagant, radical, unconditional, love of Jesus – to moral improvement.

How might we know if we have culturally or personally succumbed to the false gospel of moralism? What might be some indicators? We might have been seduced by “christian” moralism:

  • If we find ourselves using the word “should” to describe the state of our faith journey (i.e., I should pray more or I should read the bible more, etc.). Brennan Manning always used to say, “Thou shalt not should on thyself.”
  • If we find ourselves reading scripture and seeing our own character flaws and missing the character of God.
  • When we read stories about bible heroes, wondering if we could ever have that kind of faith and miss that the stories are actually telling us about who God is.
  • When we miss the fact that the Gospel accounts were written to tell us who Jesus is and not just what he can do for us.
  • When we think living the Christian life looks like “Do good; try not to do bad.”
  • When we read a scripture passage and think of others who ought to be reading this. Ouch!
  • When we tell people (especially younger people) how Christians should act. (We want to keep in mind that the Greek word for hypocrite is actor. Jesus was calling out the religious leaders for being actors)

Read the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and you can see the results of 50 or so years of the presence of the false gospel of moralism. Listen to sermons. Are they about who Jesus is – his character? – or do they lean toward moral improvement and how we should act? The Gospel of Jesus and the “gospel” of moralism are diametrically opposed to each other. Don’t be fooled into believing the false gospel of moralism. It’s more prevalent than one might suspect. Be aware. Be wise as serpents. I don’t know about you, but I would never want to hear Jesus say to me, “Woe unto you!”

The Wittenburg Door

During the 1980s, I was a subscriber of the now defunct Wittenburg Door, a somewhat bi-monthly Christian satire written by, I believe, frustrated youth ministers. Being highly satirical, some content was funny, some serious, and some just plain irreverent. After a few years, I let my subscription lapse. I discovered the satire was not healthy for my psyche.

Letting my subscription lapse meant I no longer had access to the famous Door interviews, the best part of each issue. One of my favorite interviews was with the late Brennan Manning, in the October-November 1986 issue. If we desire to become deep thinkers, Manning made some poignant statements to which we might pay attention over 30 years later…

Brennan Manning

An itinerant preacher of God’s unconditional love, acceptance and grace, Manning’s life never qualified him as that ‘victorious Christian’ that western evangelicalism might judge should be realized. He struggled with alcohol addiction his entire life. But he knew one thing – the outrageous, extravagant, radical, unconditional, love of Jesus. And because of his understanding of God’s mercy and grace, coupled with his willingness to share that with others in the midst of his messy life, there are millions of us that now have a better understanding of God’s raging love for us. For that I will be ever grateful!

Back to the Wittenburg Door interview: What I remember most about the interview was Manning making an interesting statement, wondering when the liberals and conservatives might figure out that they are all in the same camp and are really in agreement.  Manning suggested that what unites these opposite ideologies is the proposition that Jesus is impractical in the real world.

Manning was speaking about theological opposite ideologies, but I suspect it translates to any ideology in which Jesus is set aside in favor of said ideologies. We err in setting him aside because we deem his directives of 2000 years ago as impractical today. We cannot turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, or love our enemies because that simply doesn’t work. So we set Jesus aside. Or, at least, we commit the same sin of Thomas Jefferson who literally cut out of his bible the words of Jesus that he didn’t want to see. Maybe we don’t set him aside, but we choose to ignore those things that demand deep thinking or a change in our thinking.

Manning: “When are we Christians going to be honest enough to admit that we don’t believe in Jesus Christ?”

Harsh? I’m not so sure. If we are willing to set Jesus aside or ignore him in favor of our own ideologies, is that not the same as unbelief? This is where becoming deep thinkers plays out practically in our everyday lives in the 21st century. Thinking and belief are intimately connected. If we don’t learn to become deep thinkers, then we let ideologies (be they theological or political) shape our beliefs about Jesus – who he is, what he did and said – maybe even unbeknownst. We don’t allow him to transform us in to his likeness. Instead, we attempt to transform him into the likeness of our ideologies.

In the United States we have officially entered into another election cycle. We must allow Jesus to shape our political ideologies. That or admit that we really don’t believe in him because he is impractical. Something worthy of our deepest thoughts.

(If you are interested in reading the Brennan Manning interview in the Wittenburg Door, you can access it here. It’s a worthy read.)

Practical “Right Things”

After writing blog posts about “right things” (see Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Right and Doing Right Things), I was asked by a couple of people that I mentor what doing right things has looked like in my life over the years. Hmm…great question! I sat down one day a month ago and jotted down things that came to mind. What a great experience! I am going to list them below in bullet form without a lot of explanation and in the order they came to mind (which is roughly chronological, because us engineering types tend to think linearly)…

  • Spontaneous dates with my wife, Barb.
  • Shopppppping with Barb, as opposed to just shopping – i.e. it’s about the hunt, not the capture. (Thank you, Gary Smalley)
  • Regular times of Pondertude – usually at coffee shops, scheduled and unscheduled. (Pondertude is my term – a combination of pondering and solitude)
  • Continuous reading of the Gospels.
  • “Stopping what I’m doing to play catch” – point being, if my kids wanted time with me, I tried to postpone what I was doing if at all possible.
    • Similarly, “Let my kids crawl on me while fixing the dishwasher” (and now, my grand-kids!).
  • Camping with the kids. I often took each of our kids camping one-on-one for a 24 hour overnight – no agenda, no plans (we usually stopped at the grocery store on the way for the necessary supplies!).
  • Incorporating a mantra (Abba, I belong to you) into the rhythms of life. (Thank you Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and others)
  • Create memories. (Thank you, Tom Scheuerman)
  • Go to our kids’ (and now, grand-kids’) stuff. (Again, thank you, Tom Scheuerman)
  • Just show up. (Thank you, Young Life)
  • Lead from a servant’s perspective. (Thank you, Robert Greenleaf)
  • Focus on a few things, do a few things well.
    • Likewise, focus on a few people – The “Jesus way” (He poured most of his effort into a few – Peter, James, John, Mary, Martha).
  • Keep learning. (Thank you, Dad)
  • Know Him and make Him known.
  • Be good news to those around me.
  • In more recent years (i.e, the last 15-20 years):
    • Learn gratitude
    • Learn submission – I don’t need to be right, I don’t need to get my way. (Thank you, Richard Foster)
    • Pay attention to the other – People that are culturally different, the one that doesn’t look like me.
    • Talking to God about what we are doing together – best description of prayer ever! (Thank you, Dallas Willard)
  • Everything’s a surprise – Allows for spontaneity and is theologically accurate.

I noticed a few things as I went through this experience. First, most of these items have a faith and family focus and are not outcome-based. However, as I pondered this, I recognized an integration of the practices into all aspects of life – faith, family, ministry, job, career, etc. And any outcomes were up to God (see the Seed Scattering post).

Secondly, please know that I have not practiced all these for the past 40 years. If someone had shown me a list like this 40 years ago, I would have thrown up my arms in surrender, knowing I couldn’t incorporate all these into my life. In reality, they showed up as needed and, I assume, as God deemed them necessary (here I think of Acts 15:28 – it seemed right to to us an the Holy Spirit). Simple math tells me that one of these right things showed up every couple years.

Finally, I discovered that over time, a number of these practices have become second nature, to borrow a term from NT Wright. I was watching the Twins game the other night, noticing the right things players did that had become second nature, things they didn’t need to consciously think about anymore. (One could argue that Rocco Baldelli’s success as a manager has been the encouragement of players to do the things that have become second nature for them.) Same thing when we practice doing right things (the operative word here is practice). To be clear, some of these practices are NOT second nature for me. They still take a lot of thought, intentionality, and practice on my part. Maybe, just maybe, 20 years from now a few more will have become second nature.

Note: I am fully aware that the explanations for these right things are brief. I can can certainly expand on any of them – just ask and I will do that (after all, it was a couple people’s asking that led to the creation of this list).

Anything worth doing is worth doing right!

I cannot tell you how many times I heard my dad utter these words as I was growing up. They were words of wisdom. They were also words of instruction. (And sometimes correction. :/ ) For the most part, they were words I could live by and that seemed to served me well – on the farm, in school, in the workplace. To a point. Unfortunately, I think they also led to a performance-based approach to life, which didn’t serve me so well. I became focused on doing things right.

The adage proved to be a stumbling block to my faith journey, as well. As I have mentioned previously, I have struggled with a presupposition that faith is performance-based. A performance-based view of faith affected my role as a husband, father, Young Life leader, etc. Then, about 30 years ago, something began to change for me…

(Apparently Hunter S. Thompson gets credit for the saying, but I doubt he originated it!)

Young Life has a great training program. All new staff participate in the two-year, graduate level training. Each trainee is assigned an older staff person to walk with them through the training process – a trainer/mentor. Perry Hunter, my Regional Director, served as my trainer/mentor. We spent hours at the Pannekoeken Huis in Roseville, MN, talking theology and philosophy. During one of our sessions, we started talking about the tendency of 20th century Christians to focus on doing things right (of which I certainly was one). Perry then made a statement that has radically changed my thinking and life.

He said something to the effect that we might want to focus on doing right things rather than doing things right. The statement immediately resonated deep within my soul and I came back with “Oh, it’s law versus grace. Doing things right is law; doing right things is grace.” I had been trying to live a life of grace but from a legalistic perspective. I was working so hard at getting it right.

I immediately thought of the Pharisees that Jesus encountered 2000 years ago. They really wanted to figure out how to live for God, but their only approach was to do things right (and teach others the same). I discovered that I, too, was a Pharisee. I had no grace for me and I certainly didn’t do a good job of showing grace to others. I focused on what I and they should be doing right. (Brennan Manning would always remind his readers and listeners to “stop shoulding on thyself.”)

I know from experience, the suggestion that we do right things instead of doing things right often leads to some blank stares and wondering what’s the difference. Is it just semantics? Could be, but I don’t think so. It’s very similar to Why before What and How. Discovering one’s Why is a right thing. The focus on What and How is doing things right. We’ve already discussed C.S. Lewis’ First Things. Paying attention to first things is doing right things. Doing things right is a second thing. Jesus challenged the Pharisees to learn about doing right things when he reminded them that the God they faithfully tried to live for said, “I demand mercy, not sacrifice.” (See Matthew 9:13 and Hosea 6:6)

Do we want to do things right? Absolutely, but it has to be an organic outcome of doing right things. Doing things right is a second thing and we westerners struggle to put first things first. We will be revisiting this in upcoming posts. In the meantime, ponder the implications in your context.