What ELSE Can I Do?

My dad used to say that I was a charter member of the “Do Daddy” club. Always a curious person, I bombarded him with questions about what he was doing or going to do and why – “Whachya gonna do, Daddy?” He would then let me watch and listen as he explained what he was doing and, equally important, why he was doing it. Of course, that only led to more “do Daddy” questions. As I got older, I was able to participate, joining him with the never-ending farm work. I loved doing stuff on the farm and often looked for more things I could do – “What ELSE can I do, Daddy?”

A couple weeks ago in the posting, What Can I Do?, I addressed the question that many woke white Americans are now are asking. Beginning to realize that there are such things as unjust racial policies and white privilege, we all want to know what we can possibly do to make a difference. I directed us to Jesus as a start point, reiterating that “I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change.” So we correctly ask, “What ELSE can we do?”

I have been privileged to spend some time the past ten years with Dr. David Livermore, a social science researcher who has devoted his career to helping people develop their cultural intelligence. He helps clients objectively discover their cultural intelligence, describing it as one’s Cultural Quotient (CQ). As a Christ-follower, Dave has the privilege of helping people all over the world develop their CQ.

According to Livermore, the development of one’s cultural intelligence starts with their CQ Drive (see graphic). CQ Drive is asking me how much I really care about developing my cultural intelligence. Am I willing to put in the work necessary to let God create in me a heart for those who are racially or culturally different than me? Am I willing to spend time with Jesus to let his heart for the other permeate my own heart? Am I willing to listen, learn, and understand?

As God draws our heart into alignment with his, the next thing we can do is learn and gain an understanding of the culture and the world of another. This requires me to listen and learn from those who live in that culture. This cannot happen without intentionality, effort, and humility. It’s the next step in answering the question, “What ELSE can we do?”

How do we do this? The best way, of course, is to learn directly from someone from the culture that we want to understand. We also need to know the story behind the story – the history. Right now, many of us want to better understand the world of our fellow Black Americans and fellow Black Christ-followers. We want to understand, Why are people angry? Why so upset? Didn’t we elect a black president? Pass civil rights laws? Isn’t racism illegal now? These are the tough questions we ask and were posed by Phil Vischer (creator of Veggie Tales) in his podcast Holy Post.

So what ELSE can we do? Certainly we can watch Vischer’s video! And if your CQ Drive pushes you to know and understand better, let me suggests some resources worthy of your time and persistence:

  • Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody
  • Cultural Intelligence (Youth, Family, and Culture): Improving Your CQ to Engage in a Multicultural World, David Livermore
  • Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland
  • Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith
  • Do All Lives Matter? The Issues We Can No Longer Ignore and the Solutions We All Long For, Wayne Gordon and John Perkins
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World of Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson (the movie as well)
  • Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (also a movie)
  • The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities, Adrian Pei
  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (Vischer’s video addresses some of her content)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (an old classic)
  • White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum  (This is the only book from this list I can’t vouch for personally.  It’s next on my reading list.)

We start by allowing God, through Jesus and reading books like the ones above, to develop in us a CQ Drive, followed by CQ Knowledge. Then we can begin to move toward action that can make a difference within our spheres of influence. And we all want to make a difference, don’t we?

What Can I Do?

“What can I do?” is the question that I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations since May 25, the date of George Floyd’s death at the hands of former police officer, Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s death has launched world-wide protests and conversations related to systemic racism. While a segment of our society refuses to believe that systemic racism exists, an even larger segment has come face-to-face with its reality and ugliness. And its left us stunned, numbed, and in a quandary about what we can do to thwart such rampant oppression. It’s a natural response to injustice. We are passionate about a need for change and want to do something.

My confrontation with the ugliness of racism came to a head twenty-five years ago (see My Journey Into Racism). I was outraged and immediately wondered what I could do? What could one outraged and frustrated Jesus-following engineer do to have any impact on systemic racism? It’s a natural question. But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “What can I do?” maybe we should be asking, “Who can I be?” When confronted with issues like systemic racism, the first response of Westerners, and certainly Americans, is to jump right to doing. And there certainly is a place for that. However, as I read scripture, it is increasingly evident that God is primarily interested in actions that are natural extensions of who we be.

All during his ministry, Jesus was confronted with groups that focused primarily on outward actions, disregarding the inward being and its attitudes. This was especially true of the group known as the Pharisees. We tend to imagine them as an evil group of oppressors, kind of like those racists, of which we assume/hope are not. In truth, the Pharisees were a grassroots group that wanted to address the issues of a nation gone awry, that had moved away from God’s vocation as a called people. So they banded together and asked, “What can we do?” For a century or so prior to Jesus’ arrival on the scene, the Pharisees worked hard to get the Israelites back on track. In doing so, they focused on actions (doing) and missed the opportunity for God to address and transform their hearts.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, they had lost sight of their original intent of systemic change, actually becoming a systemic problem in and of themselves. Today we might refer to this as Mission Drift, which occurs when one’s passion for a cause outruns their passion for Christ. The Pharisees were passionate about the re-institution of the Mosaic Law into Israel’s life and practice. Over time, the Law became more important to the Pharisees than God himself, which is idolatry in it’s truest form.

As a result, they did not know God’s heart for the “other” which led them to become an oppressive separatist group, focused on their tribal rights and neglecting the needs of others. They missed God’s heart to such a point that they could not recognize Him when he stood right in front of them (Jesus). Jesus called them out on their miss of God’s heart – Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders (Matthew 9:13, Jesus quoting from Hosea 6).

What can we do? We can find ways to let God’s heart for the outsider permeate our heart. Right now, many of us are incensed with the injustice we’ve recently witnessed, and rightly so. We are passionate about being participants of change, and rightly so. We cannot, however, let our passion for justice outrun our passion for Christ or we might someday also hear Jesus say, “Go figure out what this Scripture means…”

Actually, that’s exactly what we can do right now – go bathe in scripture and figure out God’s heart. The best way to do that? We can never go wrong by focusing our attention on Jesus. As the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), he can give us a clear understanding of God’s heart.

I’m going to be frank here: I am continually amazed at how few of us who call ourselves Christ-followers have ever completely read through the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). We settle for bits and pieces here and there, learning about him without really knowing him. Continuing the frankness: if we aren’t willing to do this, then how serious are we really about affecting systemic change?

As we get a clear understanding of God’s heart, we are better equipped to speak into the lives of people in our circles of influence. It gives us credibility (who is more credible than Jesus?) when in conversations with Christian friends that display racist tendencies (unfortunately, many exist). We can point them to Jesus – who he is, what he did and said. They can argue with us, but they can’t argue with him (though they might try). Our job is not to change minds. Our job is to point people to Jesus and let him do the heavy lifting. If people have ears to hear, they will.

Note: I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change. Stay tuned for more thoughts on this worthy topic.

Hope

Hope is a word we use all the time, yet its meaning is a bit elusive as is hope itself. I was recently thinking back of things I have hoped for over the years. There were the simple hopes, like Christmas coming sooner. The first Christmas hope I remember that came to fruition was a Tonka Firetruck (which I still have). As I reached adolescence, my hopes moved beyond firetrucks. I had hoped to be nominated to the Air Force Academy (which did happen) and to be selected (which didn’t happen).

Moving into my 20s, I hoped (beyond hopes) that I might be privileged with a beautiful wife (which certainly happened). As we raised a family, my hopes turned more external, more God-influenced. I hoped that our kids would grow into adulthood as Christ-followers (which has happened). With prayer at the center, that hope was accompanied by doing the hard work necessary to not screw it up. The wishful thinking of our younger years doesn’t serve us well in adulthood nor as Christ-followers, leaving us to wonder, “What is hope, anyway?”

The dictionary definition of hope suggests wishful thinking, a desire for something good to happen. While Biblical hope certainly includes a desire for something good to happen, it is much more than that. We discover that a variety of Hebrew words are often translated into the single English word “hope.” An aggregation of the various Hebrew words provides us with a description of hope that includes, “to trust in, wait for, look for, or desire something or someone; or to expect something beneficial in the future.”

Notice that Biblical hope implies trust. And the focus of that trust is Yahweh, the Lord God – on who his is and what he has done. We western Christians struggle to trust and hope in God simply for who he is. We tend to focus of our hope and trust on what he can do for us (here we think of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). In Scripture, on the other hand, we see hope and trust focused on God himself…

  • Psalm 25:2-3 (NIV) – I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.  No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame… The Hebrew word here implies not only hope and trust but also security.
  • Psalm 33:22 (a mix of ESV & AMP) – Let your steadfast love [hesed], O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope [placed our confidence] in you. Notice that trust (confidence) is placed on God and his character, his covenant love for his people.
  • Jeremiah 14:22 (AMP) – Are there any among the idols of the nations who can send rain?  Or can the heavens [of their own will] give showers?  Is it not You, O Lord our God?  Therefore we will wait and hope [confidently] in You, for You are the one who has made all these things [the heavens and the rain]. Again, the bracketed confidence implies trust.

Biblical hope also holds an element of waiting, which we see in the Amplified translation of Jeremiah 14:22, above. One of our go-to passages that speaks of waiting is Isaiah 40:31they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. The word ‘wait’ could easily be translated as hope. Read the passage with hope inserted: they who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. It comes to life!

The origin of the Hebrew term in the Isaiah passage suggests a twisting, stretching, and tension during the time of waiting and hoping. Ah, we do not want to hear that! We want hope to be positive, not twisting, stretching, or causing tension. We want a quick sprint that leads to soaring like eagles. We aren’t interested in a marathon. It doesn’t fit our western Christian thinking or culture.

But life has changed, hasn’t it? We are actually living out Isaiah 40:31. We may be in a marathon without an established finish line. We are experiencing twisting, stretching, and tension from all sides. And we wait in hope. Our ability to navigate these days is fully dependent on that which we place our hope as we wait. Are we hoping and waiting for this to get over, for improved circumstances? Or do we settle in for a marathon, placing our hope, trust, and confidence in the one true God as we wait?

Likely we waffle between the two and thus a cause of much tension. God is well aware of our waffling and wants to hold us, not scold us! I recall Jesus not scolding the father of a son desperately in need of healing: “The father of the boy cried out [with a desperate, piercing cry], saying, ‘I do believe [trust]; help [me overcome] my unbelief [lack of trust].'” (Mark 9:24) God, we believe! Help us in our unbelief!

We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit! (Romans 5:3-5, The Message)

On the same night in which He was betrayed…

“On the same night in which he was betrayed,” or some form thereof, are familiar words to Christians the world over. They are the beginning of the words of institution of the Eucharist – the Lord’s Supper or Communion. The wording comes from the Apostle Paul, found in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 as he describes what took place during Jesus’s last Passover supper with his beloved Twelve. As we focus on that last meal, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that a lot more happened on the same night in which he was betrayed.

I have mentioned previously that Jesus showed us how to live. In a similar fashion, on the same night in which he was betrayed, Jesus also showed us how to live the Lord’s Prayer…

This year I have been traveling through Lent using Walter Wangerin’s Reliving the Passion, an amazing ‘crawl into the story’ treatise of the passion week as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. I have used it off and on over the past 20 years, experiencing new thoughts and emotions each year of its use. This year I saw, for the first time, the way in which Jesus lived out the Lord’s Prayer as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the same night in which he was betrayed.

Wangerin reminds his readers that Jesus often taught the same thing twice – first with words and then reinforced with actions and deeds.* On the same night in which he was betrayed, as we watch Jesus praying alone in the garden, we have a glimpse of the Lord’s Prayer actually lived out. With a deep and desperate desire, Jesus pleads with his Father, his Abba, to be saved (rescued) and to be spared of what he knew was coming. He was living out, in raw honesty, the sixth petition of the Prayer…

Lead us not into temptation – Save us from this time of trial.

Jesus pleads not once, not twice, but three times, “Remove this cup from me,” embodying the plea of the seventh petition of the Prayer…

Deliver us (me!) from evil, from the evil one.

As Jesus pleads with his Father, he displays a posture and attitude of faithful and complete obedience saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus is living out before our eyes the third petition, “which prepares us properly for any answer God may give to all [our] other petitions” (Wangerin)…

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Wangerin continues: “Implicit, hereafter, in his entering into ‘the hour’ of trial after all is his personal conviction that ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.’ Jesus, now more than ever in his ministry, is the living embodiment of the second petition, Thy kingdom come. Right now, his acceptance of the Father’s will is the coming of that kingdom here!”

Thy kingdom come.

Jesus begins both prayers addressing God as Father, with the garden prayer showing a deep intimacy – Abba, Father. It’s the expression a child has when her father comes home from work – Daddy!

Today is Maundy Thursday, the same day in which he was betrayed. During a worldwide pandemic, we struggle for words to articulate our deep, raw and desperate feelings. May the Lord’s Prayer be of comfort – especially in light of Jesus’ deep, raw and desperate prayers in the garden. Maybe during this time we, too, are learning to live the Prayer. That would be a good thing!

Walter Wangerin’s Paraphrase

* A great experience would the comparison of Jesus’ own deeds and actions with his Sermon on the Mount exhortations.

The “New Normal”

Earlier this week, I was in a conversation with a young man with whom I have a mentoring relationship. As we discussed how COVID-19 has impacted (disrupted) our lives, including our ministries, we wondered aloud if things would ever get back to normal. Or would we find ourselves transitioning into what we commonly hear these days as the “new normal.” As we conversed, he said, “I wonder what normal actually means?”

So, as I’m wont to do, I looked up “normal” in the New Oxford Dictionary that resides on my laptop. This is what I found: “a town in central Illinois, home to Illinois State University.” That didn’t help. Searching further, I found the definition of the noun, normal – “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” As I read the definition aloud to my friend, we both responded, almost in unison, “Why would we settle for normal? Why would we settle for the usual? For just average or typical?” There must be more to life than “typical.” I think Jesus calls us to more than typical…

Jesus constantly pushed back against the normal of his day. Have you ever noticed how often Jesus said, “You have heard it said …, but I say you…?” Many such statements were contained in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here are a few examples:

  • “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’ (the old normal). But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (the old normal). But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ (the old normal). But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ (the old normal). But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44)

Jesus was communicating to his hearers that with the arrival of the kingdom of God through his person, everything was now different – new creation! The old had gone and the new had arrived. The Apostle Paul reiterated this to the early Christ-followers (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Please note that in the above passages, Jesus was not suggesting a new ethic, a new way to act. If that’s all we hear, then we have settled for a typical and usual approach to the Christian faith whose focus is behavior modification. Jesus did NOT suggest we ACT differently. His desire for us is to LIVE differently – as people who have stepped into God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ Sermon was not about how to live, but rather what life looks like in God’s kingdom, his realm, his rule. Quite frankly, Jesus was describing what life would look like if God were in charge. God broke into history through Jesus, ushering in the kingdom. God was taking charge. This was Jesus’ main message, that the kingdom was at hand (had arrived), to which he called people to repent (change their mind and direction) and believe this incredibly good news, or gospel (see Mark 1:14-15, Amplified Bible). Thus the words in the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come.”

So what does this have to do with “new normal” thinking? I think this: We live in a time of inbetweeness. The kingdom that Jesus ushered in has been advancing and will continue to advance, coming to fruition upon his return. In the meantime, as Christ-followers, we figure out how to live with one foot in the kingdom of this world and one foot in the kingdom of God. I suspect Christian maturity is learning how to live in the world as a kingdom of God person (notice I said “learning how to live,” not how to act).

History and experience tells us that such maturity (which I think most really desire) is difficult to realize when life is “usual, average, or typical” – normal. It’s during times of disruption that we get to rethink what we want our life to be like, and that’s a very good thing. During this pandemic, we have no idea what the new normal will look like in the kingdom of this world. But we do have an idea what the new normal will look like in the kingdom of God. It will look like Jesus. I pick new!

Why Moralism Doesn’t Work

People like to be right and like to get it right. I’m that way and I’m guessing I am not alone. I remember back in high school and college the standard question was asked, “Will this be on the test?” I certainly asked the question as well as others. Truth be told, we were more focused on “getting it right” than on learning.

I went back to school a few years ago in pursuit of a doctorate in education. It was one of the best learning experiences of my life. I honestly think I was beginning to toggle over from “getting it right” to purely wanting to learn. My (much) younger cohort were always referring to the course rubrics when writing papers. I found myself writing first, based on the assignment prompts, and periodically consulting the rubrics to see if I had some glaring misses. When I was satisfied with what I was learning, grades become secondary.

The more I dig into the adverse effects of moralism, the more I realize that we naturally tend to focus on the rubrics and miss the intent of the prompts, especially Jesus’ prompts.

Moralism doesn’t work for a variety of reason, primary of which is a natural tenancy toward law and legalism. If we have a bent toward wanting to “get it right,” then we naturally want to know what the rules are, the rubric which defines right living. God provided a rubric for his people, the Israelites, which we know as the Law. However, the law was not to be an end in itself. The purpose of the law was to provide a framework for people who were learning to live in a covenant relationship with the one true God. When the law, especially the 10 commandments, were given to the people, living in a covenant relationship with any god was foreign to their ears and lives. Prior to leaving Egypt, their religious understanding was of many deities, none of which desired a covenant relationship with their subjects.

The law was a framework, a rubric, for learning – learning how to live in a covenant relationship with God and with each other. God didn’t desire the law to become an end in itself. It was to lead to something more. In learning to live in a covenant relationship with God and each other, the rescued Israelites could then become the good news (blessing) to the rest of the world, as intended. Love of God and neighbor was embedded in the law (see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). The law, seen as an end in itself, actually kills love.

Good parents develop a rubric for how their family can live in a covenant relationship. “We clean up our messes, we do our chores diligently, we treat each other with respect, etc.” If the family members simply see the rubric as an end in itself, then it becomes a checklist that leads nowhere, however they might have the cleanest house and the most (seemingly) polite kids. Yet the house may lack evidence of a loving, covenant relationship. Love is learned and simply keeping the law doesn’t get us there.

Can you see where this leads? The purpose of a rubric is to facilitate learning. I can write a paper to the letter of the rubric (law), get an “A” and miss out on all there is to learn. If moralism is my de facto understanding of the Christian faith, I can look good on the outside and miss all that Jesus is saying about living in a covenant relationship with the one true God and with those around me. And worse, I will only hear Jesus’ prompts and parables as law – checklists that I should try to perform – and never quite learn and become someone who can naturally….

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus

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.)

Pondertude

About 20 years ago, I was introduced to the Franciscan retreat center, Pacem in Terris. It was founded and developed to provide Christ-followers a place to retreat in silence and solitude. Located near the community which I served as a Young Life Area Director, I couldn’t wait to “try it out.” After my first experience, scheduling a couple 2-day retreats per year at Pacem in Terris became a staple of the last 20 years of my ministry.

I am a fan and a proponent of the concept of blocking out regular times for silence and solitude, times for pondering scripture and encountering God, times for discovering what he is up to in my life, ministry, and the world at large. Though not a guided silent retreat, we were directed by Pacem in Terris staff to arrive with only our Bible and journal, allowing God to speak directly into our life by encountering him in scripture.


A Typical Hermitage at Pacem in Terris

Something Jesus modeled (and I assume wanted his followers to emulate) was the practice of solitude. A couple well-known examples are found in the Gospel of Luke: Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God (Luke 6:12-13) and Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). When we read passages like this, we tend to agree with the concept, agree that we should do likewise, and THEN DON’T! Guilt sets in so we steer clear of similar passages.

Several years ago, while mentoring a Young Life staff trainee, he and I discovered that an expectation of a staff person was to schedule one day a month for solitude – a withdrawal from normal stuff to be with God. I gave the trainee the assignment of interviewing a couple senior staff persons to discover how they took advantage of their monthly day of solitude. He couldn’t find anyone who regularly scheduled times of solitude with God. Why was that? Jesus modeled it, then strongly suggested we follow suit (“In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you”John 20:21). Why do we not do it? Over the years, I have discovered a variety of reasons we give for not emulating Jesus’ example:

  • We think we are too busy to take chunks of time for solitude and reflection. People in ministry are as bad at this as anyone, if not worse. I often wonder how much of this is connected to an exaggerated view of one’s importance.
  • Fear seems to be a powerful justification for not spending time alone with God. “What if I ‘hear’ him speak into my life and I don’t like it?” I have heard this more than once from people reasoning why they shy away from solitude.
  • Many people speak of not knowing what to do or how to spend time alone with God. This is the brilliance of Pacem in Terris’ suggestion – simply reading scripture and reflecting. The late Howard Hendricks suggested reading for a 20-30 minutes, then reflecting for 20-30 minutes. And if I fall asleep? Then I fall asleep reflecting on scripture and God. How can that be a bad thing?
  • A common justification of us “doers” for not engaging in solitude: “I can’t shut my brain off.” Then don’t. Let your brain loose to reflect and ponder the scripture you are engaged with.

This is where the late Dallas Willard’s description of prayer is helpful – talking to God about what we are doing together, pondering together what’s going on my life. Picture Jesus’ times with God as exactly that. Picture Jesus pondering, “I really like Peter, though I know he’s a hothead. I wonder if he is someone I should develop as a follower?” (Or, more likely, “Peter? Seriously, Father? One of the Twelve?”) I can picture Jesus pondering with God, looking for ways to help his followers understand the reversal of the kingdom he was inaugurating. Maybe it was through times of pondering and talking with God about what they were doing together that he landed on the idea of passing through Samaria instead of around it as they traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee (see John 4).

Out of my experiences of solitude and pondering, plus a desire to make the experience less mystical for others, I coined the term pondertude. It describes the reality of my times with God – alone with him (solitude), pondering what we are doing together. Pondering what we are doing together in all my roles in His kingdom – as a husband, a dad, a grandpa, an engineer, a supervisor, a ministry leader, a math tutor, etc. Though I love Pacem in Terris, pondertude is a frame of mind more than a place. It’s a choice to regularly be with the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, who has our best interests in mind. Why wouldn’t we want to block out times for pondertude?

He Picked Levi, Too!

Ten years ago we started Young Life in Elk River, MN, the town where I grew up. After a 20+ year absence from the community, we returned and I became the director of youth ministries at a local church. Five years into my tenure at the church, at the urging of the senior pastor, I left the youth ministry work in the hands of others and helped start the community outreach ministry.

A local Young Life presence exists only if the community deems it important enough to provide leadership and financial support. One way of communicating the importance of the ministry and to garner financial support is an annual fund-raising banquet. At our first banquet, we invited the Mayor of Elk River to close the evening with prayer. Prior to praying, she made a couple comments, including the belief that my late-father and former mayor would have been immensely proud of his son. I assumed she was right. Over the years, unfortunately, I’ve known of a number of dads who could not say they were proud of their sons. Take Alphaeus, for example.


Alphaeus’ son, Levi, had gone over to the dark side – he became a tax collector for the Roman empire. Conquerors relied heavily on the taxes collected from their subjects. Given the aggressive building of infrastructure including entire cities, the Romans especially needed to collect significant monies. Their approach was to outsource tax collection – the recruitment of locals as tax collectors. With community eyes, these local tax collectors were well aware who they could bleed for funds. They worked on commission – the more they could collect, the more for themselves. It has also been suggested that a tax collector had a quota to reach. Anything above and beyond was theirs to keep. In essence, a tax collector was a traitor in the eyes of his community.

In Palestine, the tax collector was more than simply a traitor. He was in league with the pagan government. They were doubly despised for their choice of occupation – traitors to the people and traitors to their God. The Mishnah, the written collection of Jewish oral tradition, tells us that Jews who collected taxes were disqualified in every manner – expelled from the synagogue, shunned publicly, and a family disgrace. Thus, tax collectors and sinners were considered one and the same (cf. Matthew 11:19, Luke 5:30, 15:1).

We don’t know anything about Alphaeus’ response to his son’s career choice. But we do have record of Jesus’ interaction with Levi, also known as Matthew (cf. Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32). Jesus was walking along the beach, much like he had when he called the fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – to become his followers. The Gospel of Mark indicates he was accompanied by a crowd that he was teaching. We can surmise that his newly called fishermen followers were among the crowd. We can also surmise that a source of revenue for Levi was the Galilee fishing industry.

Imagine the scene. Jesus is sitting on the beach teaching. Somewhere in the background, maybe down the beach a hundred feet or so, sits Levi at his tax booth. Imagine the fishermen in the crowd seething with anger just at the sight of this shunned traitor. Imagine, if you are Levi. What’s running through your mind as you watch the interaction of Jesus with the crowd? You long for such interaction.

Then Jesus breaks the rules again. He gets up, walks over to Levi and invites him to become a follower. Levi left everything, rose and followed Jesus (Luke 5:28). Everything. The fishermen left their fathers, but they could always go back to fishing as a fall-back option. Levi left everything. There was no going back. And he did not have family as a fall-back.

We should also imagine the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ invitation of Levi. Imagine the deep and rightfully held indignation of the people when Jesus not only entered into a conversation with this shunned character, but invited him to join the crowd that was following him. Specifically, imagine the indignation of the fishermen. Jesus gave James and John the nicknames “sons of thunder.” Peter was passionate and zealous about injustice. I can imagine Jesus needing to physical hold these guys back when Levi rose to follow. Then Jesus broke the rules yet again – he accepted an invitation to a party Levi threw for him, inviting his “tax collector and sinner” associates.

Fast forward three years as Jesus said to his followers, “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21). I suspect this experience was in the back of their minds as they listened to Jesus’ directive. Jesus expected them to set aside their righteous indignation in favor of the outsider. I assume he expects the same of us.

He Picked Me!

Circa Spring 1958. I was in third grade at Handke Elementary. We took Bus #5 from the farm to school. The bus driver actually made two trips each morning. The neighbor kids up the road were the last to get on the bus for the first trip, we were the first for the second route. The first route riders arrived at school about 20-25 minutes before start time. The second route got us to school just as the first bell rang.

When I arrived at school, the town kids would be coming in from the playground after playing some pick-up baseball. I wanted to play ball all my life, but farm chores negated that opportunity. Maybe there was a way I could get in on the pick-up games. I negotiated with the bus driver that if I was at the road when he came by the first time, he would pick me up allowing me to get early for some baseball. Life was good! Sort of. By the time I got to the playground, teams were already picked and the captains argued over who had to take me. Because the others played ball together all summer, they knew each other’s abilities. I was an unknown and lived with those feelings of being “picked last.”

One day Tim Thompson showed up. Tim, I discovered, was a pretty big deal. He was in eighth grade and apparently was a really good ball player. The town kids urged Tim to play, but they couldn’t decide which team should get him. So Tim solved the problem. He said, “Let me pick one player and we will take on all the rest of you. However, we get to bat first.” Of course all the town kids huddled around him, yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” Tim looked around and…

…he picked me – the most unlikely candidate! So it was Tim and me against nine. He asked if I could hit. I said, “Yes.” He said, “Good. Just get on base and I’ll get you home!” And that’s what we did. I got on base and Tim hit a home run – again and again. I don’t think the other team ever got to bat! I felt valued (and a bit vindicated).

Jesus tended to invite people to follow him who were not likely candidates. Israel’s first-century education system was religiously focused.  The boys (sorry girls) started school at about age six.  For the next 3-4 years they memorized the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  By age 10, those with natural abilities to memorize and understand the scriptures began to distance themselves from the others.  They were invited to continue their education.  The others?  They were sent back home to learn the trades of their fathers.  They were cut by the system – kinda like American sports.

Those that continued a formal education spent the next four years memorizing the rest of the Hebrew scriptures.  During this time, the students also began learning the questions that surrounded the scriptures.  By age 14-15, only the best of the best students remained.  The rest were home, learning the trade of their fathers.  Those remaining would then apply to a well-known rabbi (teacher) to become one of that rabbi’s disciples (student/learner). If selected, the rabbi would invite the student to “follow me.” The goal of the student, now a disciple, wasn’t just to learn from the rabbi, but to actually become like him and participate in his mission. 

Jesus was apparently a rabbi.  People called him one, so at the very least he was perceived as a rabbi.  Jesus lived around the lake Galilee region, probably in the fishing village of Capernaum.  It was a small town so it would be safe to say he knew and was known by a majority of its residents.  I’m guessing the locals were fully aware that their resident rabbi wasn’t like the rest, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on why he was different.

One day Jesus was out walking along the beach. He saw two brothers, the local fishermen Simon (Peter) and Andrew. He called out to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Farther down the beach, Jesus encountered James and John who were fishing with their father. They received the same invitation. All four RSVP’d immediately, dropping their careers to follow Jesus. There is enough here for several blog postings, but we will briefly consider a few things…

  • Jesus was probably not a stranger to the four fishermen. As Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry, he was relationally invested in the people around him. We can certainly surmise that Jesus knew these guys, maybe quite well. Likely they were his source of fresh fish.
  • The four guys were probably well aware of Jesus as a teacher (rabbi) who taught and said things differently than they had heard from other teachers. They were hearing about God and his kingdom in new ways. Maybe what Jesus said sounded right to them.
  • This rabbi invited these most unlikely candidates to follow him! They were, after all, no longer going to school. They had been cut and were working their fathers’ trade. Yet Jesus said, “Follow me.”

Given this, why wouldn’t they have walked away from their careers to follow the radical rabbi, Jesus – to become like him and share in his mission? We cannot, we should not take lightly Jesus’ call on us to follow Him, even if we feel like unlikely candidates – especially if we feel like unlikely candidates. Nor should we take lightly his call on those around us who seem like unlikely candidates.

“In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21)