Dot-to-Dot

When I was a kid, I always enjoyed the coloring books with “dot-to-dots.”  It might have been the first indicator that engineering would be in my future.  When first learning to connect the dots, I paid close attention to the numbers, ensuring the figure that was developing was correct.  In short order, I discovered that if I “stepped back” and observed the arrangement of the dots, I was able to envision the figure that was about to emerge.  Since I knew what the ultimate figure was likely to look like, I could stray from using just straight lines, ending up with a more artistic version of the picture.

One of my top five CliftonStrengths is Connectedness.  When I am able to connect dots in life, things make a lot more sense to me (I’m guessing I’m not alone in this).  This is especially true when connections lead to a better understanding of Context (another of my top five Strengths).  I’m guessing I’m not alone in this, either.  I think it’s an important consideration when it comes to practical theology, to our understanding of who God is and what he is up to.

Dot-to-Dot

As previously discussed, theological understanding comes through the reading and interpretation of scripture in context.  The greatest context, of course, is all of scripture.  As we continuously spend time in scripture in its full context, dots get connected and themes begin to emerge – themes that allow us to “step back,” giving us a better understanding of who God is and what he’s doing in his creation.  One example is the theme of Justice that threads throughout scripture (see What is Justice?).

About 35 years ago, through an Old Testament seminary course, I was introduced to a theme that has helped me connect biblical dots, giving me a context that has informed my reading of scripture ever since.  It’s a theme woven throughout scripture.  That theme?  “I will be your God and you will be my people” in some manner, shape, or form. 

The theme first appeared in the book of Genesis when God called Abram (Abraham) and his descendants to be a blessing to the world, to participate in His project of “putting creation back to rights,” as N.T. Wright would say.  After changing Abram’s name to Abraham (meaning father of a multitude), God told him of a covenant that he was about to establish with His people (Abraham and his descendants).  The covenant was to include land and the inclusion that “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:1-8).  For the restoration project to succeed the people needed to follow God’s lead, letting him be God.

The people seemed to like the idea of being God’s chosen, but not so much the idea of following his lead.  Hundreds of years later, we find his people in captivity as slaves in Egypt.  As God was about to rescue them from captivity, he said through Moses, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:6-7).  At this pivotal point in human history, God reminded the Israelites that he was God (and presumably, they were not), promising that he would lead and care for them.  As the people followed his lead, God provided for them and reminded them of their covenant relationship to him – e.g., “I will put my dwelling place among you…I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12).

As we watch the story unfold, we see a recurring pattern. The people strayed from letting God be God, got themselves in trouble, requiring God to repeatedly rescue them. As we watch the story continue to unfold, God repeatedly reminded his people of this covenant relationship to him. We find the theme in both the Old and New Testaments:

  • I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. (Jeremiah 24:7, NIV)
  • And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord God.  And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 34:30-31, ESV)
  • The Apostle Paul, drawing from Leviticus 26 and Ezekiel 37 – For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Corinthians 6:16, NLT)
  • The author of Hebrews, drawing from Jeremiah 31 – This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Hebrews 8:10, NIV)
  • And from the book of Revelation – I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3, NIV)

Since this theme threads its way throughout the entire Biblical narrative, it translates to us as Christ-followers today.  God wants to be God (which he is very good at, by the way) and has invited us to be his people.  If we live in that relational understanding, “all will be well” (Jeremiah 7:23, NLT).  I’m not intimating that following Jesus is easy or simplistic.  But I do know this: God wants to be our God and he wants us to be his people. This is bottom-line stuff. It’s the stuff that helps us connect dots.

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).

As a Man Thinketh…

In 1903, James Allen wrote the essay As a Man Thinketh based on Proverbs 23:7 which, in the King James Version of the Bible used a century ago, suggests “as a man [and presumably a woman] thinks in his heart, so is he.” Or as N.T. Wright would remind us, we become like that on which we focus. Allen’s essay submits that what we spend our time thinking about has a significant impact on who we become.

This morning as I was contemplating what I might want to post this week, I read a “Reading for Reflection” in the devotional guide I have used over the past 30 years, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants. The reading contained an excerpt from Allen’s essay worthy of sharing…

“And you, too, youthful reader, will realize the Vision (not the idle wish) of your heart, be it base or beautiful, or a mixture of both, for you will always gravitate toward that which you, secretly, most love. Into your hand will be placed the the exact results of your own thoughts; you will receive that which you earn; no more, no less. Whatever your present environment may be, you will fall, remain, or rise in your thoughts, your Vision, your Ideal. You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration… The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart – this you will build your life by, this you will become.” (My emphasis)

I have always suspected that what we focus on in our younger years comes out in full force in our last years on earth – crabby people get crabbier; happy people exude a grateful cheerfulness, even as the body deteriorates and life becomes more frustrating and dependent on others. As I grow older, I can’t help but wonder what type of resident I will be in a care center. 😕

Yesterday Barb and I attended the Celebration of Life for our dear friend Pat Feit, who passed away last Thursday. I have known Pat for a dozen years, half of which she had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Pat exuded grateful cheerfulness, even as she suffered from the debilitating disease. The Pat I knew had an outlook on life that came through the lens of her walk with Jesus. Others confirmed that yesterday. She became like that on which she focused – Jesus. She was Jesus to all those around her to the very end. As James Allen would suggest, Pat became as great as her dominant aspiration (Jesus) – on this she built her life, this she became.

Thanks be to God for models like Pat Feit!

Doing Right Things

After reading the last post, you can probably surmise that my dad did things right. We had the best crops in the area with rows straight as an arrow. My dad loved driving down the field roads admiring the crops. We stacked hay on the hay-wagons with perfection – exactly 105 bales on each wagon load. We had a premier dairy herd, finishing 1968 with the highest producing herd in the state of Minnesota. And he had only been a dairy farmer for 17 years. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, right?

In fairness to my dad, his success as a farmer was directly related to the fact that he did right things. Anyone can plant corn in straight rows. But my dad was a good steward of the land. He applied humus (manure) to the soil, working it in to prepare a good seedbed. He was also a model conservationist. He rotated crops and allowed land to rest every seven years – a long-lost conservation practice. He treated the cows in a similar manner – allowing plenty of rest between lactations. Doing right things led to his agrarian success. So, how does this apply to our faith journeys?

Jesus told a lot of agrarian-related stories (parables), many focused on doing right things. Living in a highly agrarian culture, his followers were able to understand. Though our culture isn’t agrarian, we can certainly glean (no pun intended) from his stories.

The last post intimated that the Jesus way of doing life entailed doing right things, contrasted with the first century religious leaders who focused on doing things right. Grace versus law. First things first. We also suggested that we westerners tend to focus on doing things right, focusing on second things (and I would suggest western Christians are no different than others).

Did you know that the main topic of Jesus’ story-telling focused on the kingdom of God? Of the 34 parables recorded in the synoptic gospels (Matthew,* Mark, and Luke), 19 address the nature of the kingdom of God and/or life in the kingdom. Likewise, did you know Jesus’ primary message to his hearers was focused on the kingdom of God? Many don’t. In fact, while preaching at a “bible-believing” church a few years ago, I talked about this focus of Jesus. I was inundated after the service by a number of longtime parishioners indicating this was unknown to them.

With an understanding of Jesus’ focus on the kingdom, Matthew 6:33 makes a lot of sense – seeking first God’s kingdom and the associated righteousness. First things, doing right things. Then (and I would propose, only then) would the things we need for living be provided by Him. What does it mean to seek God’s kingdom? That’s a conversation for another post. However, here’s a hint: Jesus wasn’t talking about Heaven.* Meanwhile, as you read the Gospels, pay attention to how often Jesus talks about God’s kingdom and listen to what he is really saying. You might be surprised!

* It’s important to understand that Matthew used the term “kingdom of Heaven” which scholars agree equates with “kingdom of God” language used by Mark and Luke. However, this distinction may have led people to view the kingdom of God as simply Heaven. NT Wright suggests (a bit tongue-in-cheek) that this view might have been perpetuated by well-meaning people, intent on reading the Gospels, who started by reading Matthew first and quit part-way through, thus never encountering “kingdom of God” in Mark or Luke. 😉