Slackers Need Not Apply

Robert Coleman might raise a few eyebrows with his statement “There is no place in the Kingdom for a slacker…”. But lest you mistakenly interpret that as a general indictment against laziness or a false theology emphasizing works, what he intends to communicate is that following Jesus requires a seriousness and wholehearted commitment. Being a disciple of Jesus means He is the Master–and if He is the Master, then I don’t get to pick and choose which parts of His teaching I want to obey. And if He is the Master, then to be flippant or lackadaisical in my obedience is really to disobey.

However, Jesus modeled for His disciples–including we who follow Him now–a rhythm of life and ministry that included regular periods of withdrawal from the very ones He was calling to follow Him. In other words, Jesus Himself might have been accused of slacking off when He deliberately left the crowds behind (Mark 6:31-32) or refused to make Himself known (John 7:3-9). Careful examination, though, makes it clear that the purpose for Jesus’ pattern of regular withdrawal was not an introverted or isolationist attempt to get away from the pressures of ministry, but rather His purpose was to engage deeply with His Father (Mark 6:46). Jesus was not disengaged from His Father even in the midst of intense ministry, yet He still intentionally chose to step away from active ministry in order to create space to commune with His Father alone (Mark 1:35-37).

You and I land somewhere on a spectrum of engagement, with lazy indifference on one end and devoted burnout on the other end. Jesus’ pattern challenges us regardless of which end we default toward. For those more likely to be (accurately) accused of slacking off, may Jesus’ example of tireless service toward those who could never repay Him jolt you out of your indifference and move you to invest yourself in the work of the Kingdom. But may that work start, not with the crowds in need, but alone with the One who can meet their need (and yours)–as Jesus modeled for you. And for those more likely to fizzle or flame out while trying to do it all, may Jesus’ example of regularly creating space to be alone with God remind you of your humanity and your dependence on God, so that your Kingdom work would be done in an attitude of joyful humility. And may that humility lead you to regularly withdraw into those “unproductive” spaces of deep communion with God.

Following Jesus requires total commitment. But total commitment does not merely mean busyness and hard work–creating unhurried spaces for communion with God is a vital part of that commitment.

Driveway Discipleship

Years ago, when I served in a college campus ministry, some of my most fruitful interactions with students occurred in the most unlikely places: walking to the parking lot,  hanging out at the pool tables, “studying” in the favorite lounge area, or sitting in my car in the driveway after giving someone a ride home. It is a little humbling to realize that all the hours I poured into studying and preparing messages to teach to the group had perhaps less long-term impact than those little unplanned conversations with individuals that “just happened” throughout each day.

Mark 3:14 reveals something of Jesus’ disciple-making strategy. It tells us that Jesus’ purpose in selecting His disciples was “that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” We tend to emphasize the sending out to preach and completely miss the fact that what came before being sent was simply being “with him.” It was during the long dusty walks between destinations and in the boat rides across the stormy Sea of Galilee that Jesus’ school of discipleship took place.

Robert Coleman puts it this way: “Having called his men, Jesus made a practice of being with them. This was the essence of his training program–just letting his disciples follow him… Knowledge was gained by association before it was understood by explanation.” Thus we have verses like Luke 9:18 “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him.” That doesn’t sound very “alone” to me! But it was precisely because Jesus gave these men access to His private prayer times that eventually they asked Him “Teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).

And it is precisely this principle of discipleship through association that makes parenting so powerful. Whether we intend to or not, we as parents are constantly teaching our children, for better or for worse, simply because they are with us and are observing our reaction to stress, our attitudes toward people, our devotion to God, our struggles with sin. And though we are called to intentionally instruct our children in the ways of God, we also do much informal teaching around the dinner table, on the car ride to church, in the grocery store, and snuggled up on the couch before bed. So we would do well to be mindful of all that we are modeling and teaching our children in those unplanned moments of driveway discipleship.

Strategic Selection

Many years ago, I was taught a useful little motto that has stuck with me ever since: Do few things, and do them wellIn other words, it’s better to be truly effective with a few key plans than to try to do everything and end up doing nothing well.

Jesus didn’t teach this motto per se, but His strategy of making disciples operated by this principle. He selected twelve men to be with Him and learn from Him, and He invested the majority of His time in equipping those few to carry on His work after He was gone. And that strategy was so effective that we who follow Jesus today are the direct result of its genius.

Robert Coleman says it this way in his excellent book The Master Plan of Evangelism: “Though [Jesus] did what he could to help the multitudes, he had to devote himself primarily to a few men, rather than the masses, so that the masses could at last be saved. His concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow.”

What is perhaps perplexing, though, is that the men Jesus selected–the men on whom hinged the success of His whole strategy–did not at first glance appear to be the best qualified for the job. They had no academic degrees, nor any professional training. None of them belonged to the priesthood. Only a few had perhaps some considerable means, but none would be considered wealthy. Most of them came from the despised section of the country–the region of Galilee. They were impulsive and petty and prejudiced. Not exactly the most promising bunch of world-changers.

Coleman says: “Yet Jesus saw in these simple men the potential of leadership for the Kingdom. They were indeed ‘unlearned and ignorant’ according to the world’s standard (Acts 4:13), but they were teachable. Though often mistaken in their judgments and slow to comprehend spiritual things, they were honest men, willing to confess their need. Such men, pliable in the hands of the Master, could be molded into a new image–Jesus can use anyone who wants to be used.”

The same principle holds true today for we who would follow Jesus in His grand disciple-making mission. “We must decide where we want our ministry to count–in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of our lives in a few chosen people who will carry on our work after we have gone. It will be slow, tedious, painful, and probably unnoticed by people at first, but the end result will be glorious, even if we don’t live to see it. Really it is a question of which generation we are living for.”

So if you are following Jesus, who are the few that you will strategically select to pour your life into and train up to do the same?

No Instant Discipleship

I love the title of Eugene Peterson’s book on discipleship: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Following Jesus has no simple, quick formulas for success. There may be instant noodles and instant messaging, but there is no such thing as instant discipleship.

Peterson defines biblical disciples as: “…people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.

It is vital that we understand discipleship in this way, as a life-long apprenticeship relationship with Jesus, because we live in a culture and time that values efficiency over the long, slow work of relationship. Big and fast and glamorous almost always wins out over small and slow and mundane, yet following Jesus and making disciples most often occurs in the small, slow, mundane corners of everyday existence.

Peterson’s assessment of how this instant mindset of the world infiltrates our Christian discipleship is very sobering:

We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments. 

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Will you–and will I–get squeezed like instant jello into the mold of this world system in which we live, or will we open our hearts to the small, slow process of transformation that comes through a long obedience in the same direction?

GPS Training

Is your GPS training you not to think?

Because I live in the huge metropolis of Los Angeles County, where traffic can make a relatively short commute into a nightmare, I sometimes use GPS even on familiar routes (in order to avoid some of the traffic). However a few times I have turned off the GPS after checking the route, but then have almost missed a turn because I was waiting for the machine to tell me where to go. Having a device that directs you through a route can eventually lull you into a mindless kind of driving that depends on the device rather than paying attention to the surroundings.

This is not a complaint about GPS–certainly it is very helpful and I will continue to use it–rather, this is simply an observation that came to me as I was driving recently: depending on something like GPS can train my mind to disengage and not think. And I see a similar principle at work in my daughter. Because all her formative years were spent in an orphanage in China where the workers did a lot of things for her (granted, for good reasons–her Down Syndrome means everything she does is very slow), her mind was gradually trained to not think but just wait for someone to do it for her.

I wonder if that same dynamic comes into play in our spiritual lives as well. Do we listen to a sermon the same way we listen to our GPS? In other words, does our mind shift into autopilot just waiting to be told what to believe or think or do? Or, do we engage deeply with the Word being preached, examining the truth of it (Acts 17:11), letting it dwell deeply in us (Colossians 3:16), and then doing it (James 1:22)? Is our singing truly an expression of worship and submission and joy to our God, or are we mindlessly mouthing words (Mark 7:6-7)? Do we love one another deeply from the heart (I Peter 1:22), or is our interaction with one another distracted and shallow?

Don’t let the routines of your Christian life lull you into passivity or mindlessness, rather “Prepare your mind for action…” (I Peter 1:13) so that you can follow Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians:

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”   – Ephesians 5:15-16

Whiter than Snow

 

img_1286A few weeks ago my family, along with some good friends of ours, enjoyed a few days up in Idyllwild to play in the snow. God blessed us with clear roads going up and coming down the mountain, but with lots of snow while we were there.

Freshly fallen snow blanketing the landscape is tremendously beautiful to me. The untouched snow is so bright and clean and sparkly in the sun. Scripture uses the metaphor of the purity and whiteness of snow to speak of the beauty that God brings to the hearts that He cleanses from sin.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:7)

From a human perspective, there is nothing on this earth that is more brilliantly white than new snow. Yet the Creator of snow can also cleanse our sinful, dirty hearts so completely that they will be even whiter than snow! How amazing is that?!

May this prayer for cleansing be our regular request as well, that the purity and brightness of the very righteousness of Christ would be seen in our lives as God washes and cleanses our hearts to be whiter than snow.

 

Is Freud Right?

Heath Lambert, in his book The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams, says that a part of Sigmund Freud’s impetus to develop psychotherapy was that he believed the church had failed in the task of “helping people with life’s problems.” Because the church was not providing this needed care for souls, Freud sought to develop a class of professional, non-religious workers to carry it out. Ironically though, Freud called this class of counselors “secular pastoral workers,” by which he seems to be acknowledging that at its core, counseling is a pastoral role.

Many psychoanalytic theories—and theorists—have come and gone since Freud, but the question posed by his indictment of the church still remains: Is the care and cure of souls a uniquely pastoral role, and if so, has the church indeed failed by handing over this role to professional psychologists?

A present-day psychologist named Larry Crabb asks a similar question in his paradigm-shifting book Becoming a True Spiritual Community. This is what Dr. Crabb writes:

If that [i.e. a desperate determination toward autonomy from God] is what needs therapeutic attention, and if attention that is therapeutic is a relationship of love, wisdom, and integrity, then successful therapy consists of a kind of relationship a spiritual community is uniquely and intentionally gifted to provide. Why, then, do we turn to professionals?

Crabb’s answer to his own question—“Spiritual community is rare. That’s why we have professionals.”—sounds like he is coming to a similar conclusion as Freud. But rather than turning to the psychotherapy he had been trained in and practiced, Crabb started NewWay Ministries to train lay people in the art of spiritual direction. According to a CT article, Crabb “turned his back on diagnostic counseling methods in order to care for people’s souls in an unpredictable, unprofessional, fickle, and, in his opinion, most useful context: caring relationships. He now believes that there’s no better psychotherapy than friendships fashioned after the everlasting friendship between Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Spiritual community is rare. Therefore we as God’s people must rise to the challenge and learn to love one another in redemptive and healing ways, in order that one day perhaps Freud’s indictment of the church may be proved wrong.