Friday, August 25, 2017

Watch Your Mouth

Throughout the summer months, we have been reading and reflecting on Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about how they should live as his followers (Luke 6) - quite different from those who do not follow Jesus. This past week, Jesus taught us that out of our mouths, our hearts reveal themselves. And therefore, we should watch our mouths, and pray for help for our hearts.

Let me acquaint you with three passages that help us evaluate our words, and thus red-flag our hearts. The first is 1 Peter 2:1: “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” The last term, slander, is the practice of tearing people down - of tearing down the reputations of people. As we see in the final paragraph of Luke 6, Jesus is much more concerned that we be building up than tearing down. So if you are good at cataloguing and rehearsing the failings and foolishnesses of other people - you’ve been red-flagged. Watch your mouth, and pray for help with your heart.

Another verse is Colossians 3:9 “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” The verse above mentioned “deceit,” but let’s think about the widespread practice of lying - of hiding our faults and offenses behind untruths, and the practice of trumpeting and exaggerating our virtues and good deeds. Now notice, few of us are wholesale liars. We only slip in a “little” lie here and there. But as your good mother taught you, “a half-truth is a whole-lie.” Watch your mouth, and pray for help for your heart.

Now this next verse isn’t so specific about talk, but about our attitudes, which also flow from the heart. 1 Timothy 2:8 says: Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” Paul, the writer, assumes the practice of prayer and a pious lifestyle. But he also sees a problem. There were evidently a lot of angry and argumentative men. And, as Paul knew, it is really difficult to pray mad. Oh, you can go through the motions of prayer. It might even sound like passionate prayer. But when your words flow from and angry and argumentative heart, there is something wrong. Watch your mouth, and pray for help for your heart.

We live in an angry society. Basic life skills now seem to include roasting others; shading the truth; and, being perpetually upset. But, as I hope to explore next post, grace expresses itself in graciousness. And slander, lying, and angry diatribes do not fit well with grace. Nor do they fit well in a disciple’s heart.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Information/Action Ratio

We live in the information age. We are bombarded with news from all angles. Now, what are we supposed to do with it?

We hear about the president’s tweets. What are we supposed to do. Well, nothing. We hear about North Korea and Russia. What are we supposed to do? It’s not that it doesn’t concern us. There is just nothing for us to do. The stock market goes up, or down. Someone tells us why, though I doubt they really know. And we do what? Nothing. We watch the weather, and there, we may alter our plans. Though the forecast is pretty sketchy, so we don’t always pay too much attention.

We are being trained in our culture to receive information and to then take no action. Neil Postman in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” makes the case, strongly, that it is all entertainment. The videos of people doing dumb things, or stupendous things, is entertainment. The harping and carping about politics is entertainment. The horror of nuclear war is, perversely, more entertainment. The media offers it, and we demand it. And then we do .. nothing.

So then, perhaps, on a Sunday (or whenever), we go to a church worship gathering and, on a good day, Scripture is read and applied. Here we go. More information. And what do we do with it. Well, we often do what we have been trained to do with it, all through the week, and for our whole lives. We hope that it makes a brief impression, and then we move on to .. lunch.

A common theme in Scripture, as with parents, is to remind readers and children to “pay attention.” Jeremiah’s words are only one example out of a thousand: Listen and give heed, do not be haughty,  For the LORD has spoken.” If I could paraphrase, God is saying, “Pay attention to what I have to say. Don’t think I’m saying this merely so that you can be entertained. I will hold you accountable for your response.” God is concerned with my information/action ratio. What I actually do in response to God’s Word matters to Him, and it makes a difference for me.

I’m not going to change the world. I will not slow the flow of information, or cause it to be more deliberative rather than eye-catching. But I will do this. I will implore you to regard God’s news as a message that is qualitatively different than all the rest of the news which is merely noise. Take some time. Turn off the TV or put away the phone. Open God’s Word, and enter a completely different world in which the information/action ratio matters.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Author Wendell Berry uses this phrase, “eyes to acres,” borrowed from the Land Institute’s Wes Jackson, to decry industrial farming -  an approach that measures productivity and dollars above all else, and in the process of amassing thousands of acres and gigantic equipment, fails to value the care of the land, the preserving of its varieties, the health and life of surrounding communities, and the ongoing prosperity that cannot be measured in terms of mere profit.

Industrial approaches have been applied to a great many things, like mining, and forestry. It brings in the machine, replacing the husbandman, the steward, etc., and applies techniques of the factory to a broader environment. Industrial approaches have also been applied to churches, replacing pastor-shepherds with CEO’s and boards of directors, using the machinery of the front office to direct marketing campaigns in order to gin up church growth.

When it so happens that the industrial phase passes - when the mountain has been mined, the soil depleted, the forest left in a tangle - what is left behind will begin to regenerate, but will forever bear the scars of man’s hubris and greed. We got what we wanted, and then we left. What is left has been burned over.

The farming phrase, “eyes to acres,” says that in order to run a farm well, someone who has a personal stake in the enterprise needs to be so familiar with the environment, so in touch with little changes - that he only “pastor” so much. Bigger is not necessarily better. And I think the phrase works well in churches as well. How many people can we know and love? How many  before we can no longer feel their spiritual temperature and discern the distempers robbing their souls of joy and tempting them to hit the road for a life of wandering? 

Now this is not just the job of pastors and elders and deacons, though Scripture clearly gives responsibilities to these. It involves the one-anothering of the whole congregation as well. But it must never be industrial. We will never be successful in a local church environment in manufacturing a productive result measured in attendance or reputation. It will always be that tedious task of making disciples whose weakness is more apparent than their strengths, their humility more notable than their personalities, and their sacrifices more valuable than their salaries. They will be deeply loved, because they are carefully known.

Friday, August 04, 2017

"The Mud will Stick to the Wheel"

This quote comes from Martin Luther, pioneer of the Protestant Reformation - a firebrand whose passion and wit and clarity still speaks today, 500 years later. At this point in time, Martin was holed up in Wartburg Castle, translating the Old Testament Scriptures into the German language. Here is what he says: “I figured from the very beginning that I would find ten thousand to criticize my work before I found one who would accomplish one-twentieth of what I have done.” He knew, and said, that when you are trying to move forward, “the mud will stick to the wheel.”

It reminds me of criticisms that D.L. Moody received regarding his efforts in evangelism and soul-winning. Evidently, many thought that he was doing it wrong. He replied, “I much prefer the way that I do evangelism to the way that you don’t do it.” And I’ve heard criticisms of (usually) older Christians, who when they pray aloud, pray in King James English, as though that is the proper dialect for God’s understanding. But couldn’t the same thing be said? I much prefer the way he prays to the way that you don’t? 

So with that leadership principle firmly in mind - “the mud will stick to the wheel” - let’s turn to the Leader of all leaders, and recognize that Jesus Himself is the wheel that churns forward, and all the rest of us are either the mud who sticks to (him), or else we remain unattached, still lying along the edge of the road, mud none the less.

The metaphor is not difficult. In Genesis, the text tells us that “the Lord God formed Adam from the dust of the ground.” A departed business man from Milford who grew up as a farm boy used to, on occasion, refer to a person as “a piece of dirt.” Whether he intended it or not, it’s Biblical. Further, Scripture is fond of the metaphor of the Potter and the clay. Yes, just common clay, carefully and skillfully applied by the Potter to serve His sovereign purpose. And what a privilege, to find oneself of use in the Potter’s hand, not because of some inherent quality inside of us that makes us more useful than some other “piece of dirt,” but because of a usefulness gifted to us from the One who made us and chooses to use us.

So yes, the mud will stick to the wheel. But not all of it, and not automatically. And so, if you are a follower of Christ (to use words of a song with which we often conclude our corporate worship), cling to Christ. Be the mud on that wheel. No, not to criticize and judge. Just to be close, in gratefulness, in hope that he might choose a usefulness for us for His glory.