Meet My Friend Pete Paulson

I want you to meet Pete Paulson, Associate Regional Director for Young Life in the North Star Region (MN, ND, SD). He provided this word of encouragement to Young Life staff of the region last week. With his permission, I want to share it with you. It is an excellent, thought-provoking treatment of the abundant life Jesus promised us all…

Peter Paulson
A word of encouragement from Peter Paulson

John 10:10
How do I live “Life to the full”?  I want it.  I want it so badly.  When my time comes to go home to Jesus, I want to know that I experienced everything that this world has to offer.  We talk about this abundant life a lot in Young Life.  We even promise this to kids.  Life with Christ is life to the full.  However, I’m starting to realize that what I thought “abundant life” is, might in fact, be found in a different way.

Mark 10:17-31
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the young man asked.  It’s the same question I asked, just framed in a different way.  “You know what the Bible says” says Jesus.  “I do, and I follow what it says” the rich young man replies.  “There’s a deeper way than the rules…let go of what you have, give it away to those who need it, and come spend time with me” Jesus offered.  He offered him life to the full, but the man’s eyes looked down, and he slowly walked away not willing to give up his previous dreams. 

Jesus looked at those with him and said basically, “see how hard it is to live a different way?  See how hard it is to go against the status quo and look at a new way?”  Peter said, “ but we’ve followed you!”  Jesus looked at him with compassion and concern and encouraged him, “Yes, Peter, you are right, and the things you left at the fishing boat pale in comparison to what you have!  Life with me, and life in true community!  Hundreds of times better than what you left, but don’t forget, with it comes persecution and pain. You can’t have one without the other because my way isn’t just about you, its about life for everyone”.  

Life to the full only matters for any of us if it is possible for all of us.  God has rigged it to be just so.  Our lives are linked together and also linked with Him.  Those who are rich and privileged, though, can be owned by their possessions; physical possessions as well as their self-ambition and dreams can get in the way.  So those with much must let go, and give to others, so everyone can have abundant life together.  They must see that the old way only worked for the few, because it took advantage of the many.  

Jesus offers us an opportunity to change and do life differently, by letting go of what we cling to, and instead cling to one another and to Him.  This is what eternity looks like, and we can live it now.

I pray we do not walk away.

My Journey Into Racism

I want to (need to?) write about my journey toward an understanding of racism. The events of the past few months – the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – have caused me to reminisce about my journey with God in trying to understand racial injustice, especially as a white man of privilege.

My journey began in the mid-60s. As a high school student I struggled to understand the Civil Rights movement and its off-shoot events. I was enamored with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work as he attempted to bring the country’s attention to the plight of the Negro population. I don’t remember hearing the term “racism.” What I do remember was this: There is something radically wrong, though I couldn’t name or articulate it. I wanted to understand, but did not have anyone to process with me. Most of the people in my life wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. off as a trouble-maker. I could not. His assassination in Memphis had a profound impact on me, a farm boy in rural Minnesota.

1968 – My freshman year of college at NDSU. I lived in a dorm made up of 2-room suites. One of my “suite mates” was Leon Carroll, a sophomore from the South side of Chicago. I’m sure I “whelmed” him with questions and wonderments about life on the south side of Chicago. He helped me understand the life of a young black man in America. Though I didn’t know the term, I began to understand systemic racism. Kids of means could go to college and avoid the military draft and thus the Vietnam war. Most of Leon’s high school friends were drafted and already serving in Vietnam. Leon helped move my understanding forward.

Late 70s – As a volunteer Young Life leader, I was privileged to attend a national conference where Young Life staff wrestled with the makings of a of a new Mission Statement. The final Statement included an incarnational commitment: To seek out and welcome all those whom God directs to our ministry, male and female of all races, salaried and volunteer, with a diversity of Christian traditions linked in our common purpose, and to honor their calling and encourage the fullest expression of their gifts. Young Life was making an unprovoked statement about women and minorities in ministry. No other evangelical organization dared touch such topics. I was proud of Young Life, though I could not articulate why. I was still trying to understand.

1980s – We moved to Muskogee, OK, for an engineering job. It was my first time experiencing economic disparity. And the disparity ran along color lines. Whites were privileged to live in the newer parts of town. Our realtor – a white, “upstanding, Christian man” – steered us away from older housing developments that were being “invaded by the Blacks,” jeopardizing future home values. The factory where I worked was on the “wrong side of the tracks.” I saw serious poverty for the first time in my life. I began to understand that something was amiss, something greater than simply personal prejudice.

1994 – We found ourselves in the heart of the South (Memphis, TN) when my position was relocated to the company’s corporate headquarters. What we experienced in Oklahoma was mild compared to Memphis, located at the head of the Mississippi delta where manual cotton-picking reigned supreme through the 19th century and into the mid-20th century. I watched my kids wrestle with extreme prejudice and racism at school and among their Christian friends. It was confusing for them. It was confusing for me!

We attended a church in a white suburb, started by a couple former Young Life staff. Though both white and leading a predominantly white congregation, they determined not to be a typical southern church, encamped in the the suburbs, distanced from the plight of the city. They were intentional about educating people with an understanding of God’s heart* and how such an understanding might affect the way we lived. A few times a year, they hosted an Urban Plunge, where participants spent several days in the heart of Memphis, living at the downtown YMCA. The intent of a Plunge was to prick consciences and educate the participants. Plunges always began by spending several hours at the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (which most white Memphis native had never visited), generating robust and emotional discussions.

To this point in my life, I, like most white Americans, viewed racism as simply prejudice fueled by hatred. I think many still do today. What I didn’t understand, but learned during my Urban Plunge experience, was that racism isn’t just a derivative of personal prejudices. I learned the sociological description of racism – the ability and wherewithal of a dominant social group to suppress and keep subservient another sector of society. I began to understand. Racism, by its very nature and definition, is systemic. As we continued to live in the Memphis area, the systemicness of racism became clearly evident everywhere I went. Black people had to prepay at the gas station. I never did. Black people did not get to sit in the prime seats at high school sporting events. We didn’t have to bag our groceries. Black people did. I was told, “We have to provide jobs for the those people.”

I will continue to describe my journey in subsequent posts. For now, this is what I would like us to consider: We cannot treat racism as simply a personal ideology with the assumption that we can’t possibly be racist, referencing the adage, “I don’t hate anyone.” As part of the privileged and dominant group, I, as a white male, am part of a system that suppresses and keeps another people subservient whether I like it or not. Once we begin to understand and accept this, we can begin to make a difference.

Here’s the rub for us: The problem is so massive and pervasive that we feel there isn’t anything we can do or say to make much difference. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. So we retreat into doing and saying nothing. However, silence is complicity. Silence can speak volumes.

* And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

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.)

Thinkin’

Circa mid-1970s. We started every Young Life club with the same song – Thinkin‘, page 90 in the old brown Young Life Songbook. We would sing the first verse (see below), then allow the kids to yell out what they might be thinking about and then we’d insert that instead of “Thinkin” in subsequent verses. Without much thought, they would yell out things like, “Hockey, girls, fun, basketball, boys,” etc. Not much depth, but we sure had fun!

I fear that we live in a time in which deep thinking has waned to a dangerous point. Several years ago, James J. Howard III, the CEO of NSP (now Xcel Energy) was speaking to a group of engineers, applauding their creativity and depth of thought. He wrapped up his speech with: “And if [this information age] seems overwhelming, there are a number of spin doctors eager to package the information for us.  Our political candidates talk in sound bites, interpreted by political pundits.” He went on to name some of the pundits (both political and non-political) as “whoever’s putting the latest twist on the story.” He closed with a powerful and telling statement – “We don’t ever have to come up with an original thought.” It reminds me of something I heard the late Howard Hendricks say several years ago…

Hendricks was known for his famous comment that 70% of Americans don’t think, 20% think they think but merely rearrange their prejudices, with only 10% of us actually thinking. (He ‘claimed’ it was a study – I’m guessing he was speaking from personal observation.)   The day I heard this adage (about 20 years ago), I determined that I wanted to be part of the 10% that actually thought.  I still aspire to that (maybe someday 😊).

All his life Hendricks challenged people (mostly seminary students) to become deep thinkers, to not simply buy into the company or party lines (speaking mostly from a religious perspective). One of Hendricks’ favorite scripture passages was Romans 12:2 – Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing or your mind. One of the claims-to-fame of modern Christians is an ability to name and push back against the “patterns of this world.” However, we then settle for and conform to another set of patterns, which is not what the Apostle Paul was suggesting!

In this passage and throughout his writings , Paul encouraged people to become deep thinkers – to think through what they believed and why they believed – leading to renewed minds and thus transformation. Jesus walked into a religious world where the leaders quit thinking and simply focused on conforming to the party line. Jesus challenged them with hard questions to which they had no response except to repeat the party line. They were 1st Century pundits! Jesus didn’t have much patience with people that focused on conformity (I think, for example, of the sevens woes he leveled on the religious leaders – Matthew 23:13-33).

Jesus wanted thinkers, not regurgitators and conformers. So did Paul. I encourage all of us to become thinkers – its transformative. And directional. This is the second half of Romans 12:2 – As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete.

Can you imagine what our world might look like if Christians became deep thinkers?

Hesed and Emet

Circa summer 1984. I participated in the most influential course of my life to date – Old Testament Survey. It was my first graduate-level course as I began the long journey toward a masters degree. The course was offered by Fuller Seminary, in partnership with Young Life’s Institute in Youth Ministry. IYM attendees, professors, and their respective families all lived in community at Hope College in Holland, MI, with classes held at Western Theological Seminary. We attended classes in the morning, all had lunch together, then hit the library to study for about 8 hours.

The course was taught by Dr. Terry McGonigal. He started our journey together by reminding us that everything we would discuss in the Old Testament pointed to Jesus. Theoretically I knew the truth of this statement, but never had anyone who could explain it to me.

Dr. McGonigal, another professor, and I went for long runs every evening around 9:00 pm. Terry could run the 6+ miles at a sub-7:00 minute/mile pace, a little faster than my norm. The solution? I would ask Terry questions that surfaced from class or my readings to which he was more than willing to expound, slowing him down and providing me with amazing tutorials. I learned more from that course than a typical three credit class. During the coursework, I was introduced to a couple Hebrew words that have impacted my reading and life the past 35 years – hesed and emet. Let’s look at hesed

The Hebrew word hesed (sometimes transliterated as chesed) is translated into English as either steadfast love, lovingkindness, mercy, love, or unfailing love, depending on the translation of the Bible. Looking at Psalm 85:10, we see the treatment of hesed by various translations:

  • Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (NIV)
  • Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (ESV)
  • Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (NASB)
  • Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed. (NKJV)

Hesed is such a rich and robust term that no single English word (or two words, in the case of “steadfast love”) captures its essence. Hesed is not just mercy, but covenant loyalty and relational fidelity. It is freely given, often unexpectedly, without requiring anything in return. Even though hesed stems from covenant (contract) loyalty, there is a sense that the loyalty surpasses the letter of the law. In Hosea, God said that he desires mercy (hesed), not sacrifice (law), which Jesus reiterated (Matthew 9:13). Jesus further reinforced this thought when addressing the Roman law forcing locals to carry soldiers’ packs for a mile; Jesus suggested going an extra mile (Matthew 5:41).

Hesed, you can see, describes the rich and robust depth of God’s character.

Though hesed is usually directional in its Old Testament usage – from God to his people – there is a sense that it was to be practiced ethically in the the way people treated each other, be it relatives, friends, or foreigners. Boaz recognized hesed (kindness) in Ruth’s character (Ruth 3:10). One also thinks of God’s desire that his people not seek vengeance, but show love toward their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) which Jesus reinforced, as part of “Great Commandments” (Mark 12:30-31). The author of Mark used the term agape (love), the Greek equivalent of hesed. Again, think “go the extra mile.”

Hesed is used 248 times in the Old Testament, 50% of its usage is in the Psalms, so it isn’t difficult to spot. As you read, be looking for it. Pay attention to the context in which it is used. I find myself translating the English back to Hebrew, knowing the richness and robustness of the word. I recently read Psalm 85 (above) and wrote in my journal, “Hesed and emet meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” As in Psalm 85, hesed and emet are often found together, increasing the richness and robustness of the description of God’s character. May you experience the hesed of God as you spend time with Him in Scripture.

Next time, we’ll look at emet.

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.

Chili Con Carne 2.0 (or Geometry 101)

Circa 1987. After a 5 year stint with Young Life, we decided it would be healthy for family and me to return to the world of engineering. I took a structural engineering position in Red Wing, MN, designing high voltage electrical transmission structures. My desire to work with high school kids, however, had not diminished, so I went to some Red Wing High School cross country meets. Not only did I meet a few kids, but also the coach, discovering he was the geometry teacher at RWHS. I asked him if he had a need for a tutor. His response: “YES!!” So, I began to volunteer at RWHS 2-3 days a week during my lunch hour.

In the meantime my wife, Barb, and I joined a small group through the church we were attending. One of the members was particularly fascinated that I chose to tutor high school students with no apparent agenda. A bit out of frustration, he finally asked, “How do you make the transition?” I knew what he was asking. He wanted to know how I transitioned from tutoring to telling kids about Jesus. My response was politically correct – kids needed caring adults in their lives regardless of any potential to share the Gospel. He was not satisfied with my answer. Nor was I. It was one of those times I went away thinking there must have been a better response.

I lay in bed that evening running the conversation through my mind, wondering what a better response might have been. Around 11:00p, I sat up in bed and said, “I get it!” Barb (who was sleeping and a bit annoyed at being awakened) asked “You get what?” I said excitingly, “I am the transition!”

In the previous post we posed the question “How was Jesus sent?” in response to the directive to his followers, “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21). If we are to follow that directive, then it’s important we consider how Jesus was sent by the Father. In the post we considered the incarnation of Jesus, his taking on of human form and living among humanity. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).

So what? How does that affect what 21st century Christ-followers do? It affects everything. As followers of Jesus, He lives in us through the Spirit. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Galatia of this: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And to the followers in Ephesus he prayed they realize the resource of the Spirit within and that “Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him” (Ephesians 3:16-17). Just as Jesus was an incarnate being, so are we!

That means when I attend a cross country meet or tutor high school students, Jesus is in their presence. To borrow a term from Guy Doud, the Staples, MN, educator who was the national teacher of the year in 1986, we get to be “Jesus with skin on” to those around us. We become the transition!

What does that look like for you and me as we live out life? It means when we cross the road to be with our neighbor, Jesus is visiting her. It means when we engage in a conversation with the checkout person at Walmart, so does Jesus. We don’t have to work so hard to share Jesus – we can’t help but! To be “Jesus with skin on” is the highest calling and privilege afforded to Christ-followers! “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you.”

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.

The Visible Expression of the Invisible God…

Circa 1973. God had drawn me into youth ministry through Young Life, a non-denominational outreach to teenagers. I was serving teenagers in my hometown, working full-time, and pursuing an engineering degree taking classes a couple nights a week. In the midst of it all, I tried to read scripture with some consistency and with some success. In the 70s, we didn’t have the availability of scripture translations and paraphrases as we do today, but we had a few – King James, Revised Standard, New American Standard, The Living Bible, The Good News Bible, and a favorite of Young Life staff, the J.B. Phillips New Testament.

Early into my Young Life experience, at a volunteer leader training, we were pointed to Colossians 1:15Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God (Phillips). The passage, it was explained, was a cornerstone to Young Life talks – we wanted kids to know the real God and the real God made himself visible through Jesus. Jesus revealed God’s character, compassion, and heart for people. In preparing Young Life talks, I diligently worked at helping kids see this Jesus, the visible expression of the God they could not see. A few months into the beginning of my Young Life tenure as a volunteer leader, a thought occurred to me: I didn’t know God or Jesus, save a few stories I learned in Sunday School*…..

In the midst of a fairly busy schedule, I embarked on a year-long quest to know God. It didn’t start as a year-long quest. It started as a one-time reading of the the Gospels in my brand new J.B. Phillips New Testament, underlining and highlighting with a red colored pencil as I progressed. After an initial read, I decided to read them again – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – marking the pages with a different color. I was amazed to discover how much I didn’t observe in the first go-around. So I read them again. I soon realized that my eyes were drawn to passages that were already highlighted. So I bought a new bible of a different translation and repeated the process, highlighting new discoveries about Jesus (and thus about God).

Seven translations and a year later I felt I was ready to adequately venture into other parts of the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. As I look back 45 years, I have to believe that year was one of the most transformative experiences of my faith journey. It’s what likely saved me from the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It set me up to know Jesus (not just about Jesus). It set me up to give decent Young Life talks. It set me up to be a better husband and father. It set me up to learn to read Scripture exegetically. IT SET ME UP FOR LIFE!

I am amazed how few people have actually read straight through the Gospels even one time, which is why I give everyone I mentor the exact same assignment – read through the Gospels. When done, I usually have them repeat the process. Invariably, I get the same response – it was a transformative experience (a common ‘practical theology’ theme, you’ll notice). If you happen to be one that has never done a read-through of the Gospels, then you know what I would suggest. I sincerely hope you would heed the suggestion. My heart aches when I realize how few Christians spend time in the Gospels, and thus with Jesus. How else will we ever know Him?

* I had the privilege of joining a group of people to hear George Barna give a researcher’s perspective of what is needed to develop our young people in today’s culture. He said research shows that most church children and youth teachings tend to focused only on about 20 basic Bible stories. (In one of these posts we will need to discuss “kindergarten faith.”)