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.

Out of the Salt Shaker

In 1979, I stumbled onto a great little read to which I still reference 40 years later – Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World: Evangelism as a Way of Life, by Rebecca Manley Pippert. She drew attention to an easily overlooked passage in the Gospel of John that was key to the development of a philosophy of ministry/life that has served me well for the past 35-40 years.

The passage is from John 20. On the evening of the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples were huddled behind locked doors in fear of the Jewish religious leaders who might have been out searching for them. John, an eye witness, writes that Jesus came and stood among them, apparently just showing up in the room, presumably not having opened the door! His first words were, “Peace be with you” – an appropriate response when one pops into a room without opening a door!

Jesus proceeded to show them the scars from the crucifixion he experienced two days earlier, to which the disciples were relieved that it was Him and not a ghost of some sort. Then Jesus repeated, “Peace be with you” followed by “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21). Turned out to be a pretty revolutionary statement…

Forty days after Jesus popped in among his followers, he departed them and left in their hands the Kingdom work he had inaugurated (See Acts 1). On the day of Pentecost, one of the significant Jewish festivals, the Holy Spirit arrived in their presence, marking the start of the Kingdom work for which Jesus had prepared them to carry out. What I find interesting is this: Reading through the Book of Acts, the story of Jesus’ followers going about the work of the Kingdom, nowhere do we see them ask “How are we supposed to do this?” They just did it. They knew because they had been with Jesus, apprentices learning from the master. They did what he did. “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you.”

Fast forward a couple thousand years. As 21st century Christ-followers, we have been tasked with the same Kingdom work. How should we do that work? To me, its pretty straight forward: “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you.” We are being sent in the same manner that Jesus was sent. If you have been reading my postings regularly, you know where this is going: Read the Gospels! The disciples knew what to do by watching how Jesus did things, how he was sent. You and I can do the same. As we spend time with Jesus in the Gospel accounts, we begin to see how he was sent.

In your future readings of the Gospels, I encourage you to be asking the question, “How was Jesus sent?” 40 years ago, I poured through the Gospels with the express purpose of answering that question. The outcome was revolutionary, leading to a philosophy of ministry/life that, as I said earlier, has served me well. In fact, as I write this, it occurred to me that many of the “Right Things” listed in the previous post are directly related to a continuous asking of how Jesus was sent.

Stay tuned – In subsequent postings, we will look at some of the ways Jesus was sent.

Striking Out a Land

Spring plowing on the farm was one of my favorite things to do. When I was in high school, we plowed with a 39 horsepower John Deere Model ’60,’ capable of pulling a 3-bottom plow, each bottom turning over 16″ of soil. Each spring we plowed about 100 acres, prepping the soil for spring planting of corn and grains to feed our dairy herd. Plowing 100 acres, turning over a maximum of 48″ of earth at a time, meant we plowed over 200 miles at 2-3 mph. Translation: we did everything we could to keep the ’60’ and its plow in the field, weather permitting. As soon as I was old enough to plow, my dad and I took turns keeping the tractor moving. I might start at 4:00a, he would relieve me so I could have breakfast and do morning chores, then my turn after lunch till after evening milking, then his turn until midnight. Efficiency was critical to spring plowing.

Plowing in a straight line was an integral component to efficiency. The key to plowing straight is starting straight – what farmers call “striking out a land.” I don’t know the etymology of the term, but apparently it’s part of farming 101. Striking out a land is pretty straight forward. You pick a target at the other end of the field (i.e., a tree or fence post) and head for it. Here’s the key: Never take your eyes off the target! For anything. Typically while plowing, the operator is always looking back to insure the plow is at the correct depth. Not when striking out a land. Never look back.

My first experience striking out a land didn’t go so well. I was maybe a freshman in high school. I had seen my dad do it many times. I had this. I picked a tree at the edge of the woods on the far end of the field, focused on it, dropped the plow in the ground and struck out across the field. About a third of the way across the field I looked back to see how I was doing. I was doing great – straight as an arrow! I turned back to the woods to again focus on the tree. Or was it a tree? I wasn’t sure I was focused on the correct tree. Looking around a bit, I found the correct tree a bit to the right. Whew! Or was it the correct tree? Nope. I decided the correct tree of focus was a bit further to the right. After a few such iterations, I finally settled on a tree. Another third of the way across the field I looked back to discover that a curve to the right had developed. Course correction. I picked a tree to left and headed toward it. When I got to the end of the field, I had plowed a beautiful ‘S’ curve – not the original intent.

How often do we do we start down a path only to later discover that we’ve missed our original intent? How often have we watched friends or relatives who had every intent of walking with Jesus for years to come, veer off and miss the mark part way into the journey? What happens?

When Jesus, the carpenter who understood farming, wanted to help people grasp the cost of following him, he told them “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Jesus was not making a statement of who’s in or out of the kingdom. He talked a lot about service in his kingdom, as he did here. He’s telling us that to follow him is to put our focus on him and not look back. Look back at what?

In context, Jesus is implying that we not look back at where we’ve come from or at what we have might have left behind when we started to follow him and serve in his kingdom. I also wonder if he might have been suggesting that we not look back to see how we are doing – equally as dangerous. And we all do that. We want to know how we are progressing in the faith. Or, worse, how we are progressing compared to others. No matter why we take our eyes off Jesus, the result is the same – we veer off course. How do we keep our eyes on Jesus?

First, it’s a choice. Life is always about choices and choosing to daily focus on (follow) Jesus is one of them. Second, and of primary importance, is focusing on the correct Jesus. Sounds like an odd statement. In our culture, there are many versions of ‘Jesus’ on which we could focus – the ‘Jesus’ of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (more on that another time), the ‘Jesus’ of evangelicalism, the ‘Jesus’ of the Democrats or Republicans, to name a few. The correct Jesus is the Jesus of Scripture, the one we encounter when we read the Gospels regularly and continuously. With our eyes on that Jesus, we have a better chance to stay the course, to not veer off, to not miss the original intent.