I Picked the Wrong Church


Listen to this story here:

A friend recently asked, “How can you tell if your congregation is growing in discipleship?” Being a contrarian, I immediately thought of one sign that a congregation is NOT growing in discipleship: NOT seeing love in action? It’s NOT growing.

My mind went back to a trip I took around Europe right after graduating from college. When I got to Vienna, Austria on a Saturday evening, I called a family who were missionaries with the same mission board as my folks, and got directions to their English-speaking church. I was secretly hoping they’d invite me to lunch, but that didn’t happen during the phone call.

The next morning, I left the youth hostel and made my way to their church. The service had already begun, so I slipped into the back row and set my backpack on the floor. Strange… everything was in German. I don’t speak German. An old lady on my pew could see I was confused, so she asked in broken English if she could help. I showed her my map, and the name of the church I had written down. She smiled and pointed on the map to where I should have gone. It was two blocks away. I had picked the wrong church.

“Oh well,” I thought. “It would be rude to leave now. I’ll just slip out as soon as this service is over. Maybe I can make it over to the English church before they let out.” The preacher ended his sermon and slipped out to where he could shake hands with the congregation and with visitors as they left his little chapel. So much for me escaping quickly. The preacher shook my hand and engaged me in a brief conversation. I don’t recall the content of that conversation; I do recall the warmth and evident love in his manner.

I shouldered my backpack and walked briskly over to the “right” church, the English-speaking church where the missionary family attended. Whew! They had not let out. I entered the lobby and set my backpack down beside me. It was a large pack, containing everything I needed for traveling around this strange land for two months. So there I stood, left hand steadying my pack, right hand ready to shake hands with my missionary contacts, or with anyone for that matter.

The service ended. People began filing out. They were speaking English! By this point in my travels, that was a welcome sound. I didn’t know what the missionaries looked like, and I was too shy at that point to ask the people who walked past me. They didn’t seem to notice me standing there, and I didn’t want to interrupt their conversations. Well, surely the missionaries would notice me! Given that I had talked to them on the phone the evening before, they’d surely be on the lookout for me…. The sanctuary emptied. Not a single person walking by me acknowledged my presence. The lobby was empty. I left. Empty, hungry. I had picked the wrong church!

Surely someday, the Lord will introduce me to the people in that little German-speaking Viennese church. Perhaps He’ll seat me with them at a banquet. The banner overhead will be “LOVE.”

We Learn Most by Obeying

THIS is one of the most influential truths I have experienced in my 58 years. (I have checked out MacDonald’s claim…. Look at where “doctrine” is mentioned in the New Testament. Almost always, you find descriptions of BEHAVIOR, not abstract head knowledge):

“I firmly believe people have hitherto been a great deal too much taken up about doctrine and far too little about practice. The word “doctrine,” as used in the Bible, means teaching of duty, not theory.

– George MacDonal

And it’s beautiful. The best head knowledge comes as a result of practice, not the other way around. Are you not very “smart”? DO what God requests and you’ll be far smarter—where it REALLY counts—than the most intelligent God-denying individual ever, anywhere.

Terra Dominus


As mentioned in an earlier post, I have recently begun thinking about GREED, and how it relates to other sins. While close friends know that I’m a hopeful “glass one-fifth full” sort of guy, I do also acknowledge the four-fifths empty. I am a sinner saved by grace, and am never surprised to discover how utterly sinful I am (and so I’m pleased at any progress!).

This pondering of greed began as a reaction. Some who believe differently than I do accuse “my side” of hypocrisy. “We” dwell on certain sins but completely ignore others. I considered using discussion of greed as a thought experiment, frankly a trap: what if I were to promote greed, insist on equal treatment of greedy people, call for greedy pride parades? You can guess where that was going (and now it will not serve as a trap). But by God’s grace, the thought experiment got out of control.

Greed

I have begun thinking about greed. It occurs to me that it is at the base of many other sins. Next step: catalogue and observe how it is mentioned in the Bible. My vague recollection is that it heads up several lists of vices, and is the subject of various stories and parables. It is one of the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Would it be greedy to ignore the thinking of Christians over the centuries and concentrate solely on what I personally can derive? Probably so. And stupid.

“When greed builds her dam,
The river becomes a cesspool.”

from The Politics of My Heart: A Book Not Yet Written by Brad Hepp

The Shoe Shiner Taught Seminarians

Shining my black dress shoes just now (for a banquet this evening), I realized that as a child, I SHARED in my father’s ministry when he taught at the seminary in Mexico. I don’t know how often it really was, but it seems like it was almost weekly that he’d line up his dress shoes and have me polish them. It was a privilege, even if I didn’t understand that at the time! Unbeknownst to me, he was often up all night preparing to teach difficult subjects in Spanish, and didn’t really have time for shining shoes!

i thank You God for most this amazing day*

What a beautiful day for walking around White Rock Lake! The temperature was perfect, and all the wildflowers were coming off a couple of cool, moist days. They were ecstatic. With my smartphone, I listened to all of 1 Peter through Jude, backing up several times to listen more carefully to some intriguing passages.

By the end of the hike, I had in mind e.e. cummings’ poem:

*i thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings
1894-1962

Silliness of Mythical Proportions

There’s something irresistible about being INSIDE a tree. I knew that early. Reading My Side of the Mountain, I met my kindred spirit, Sam Gribley. At age twelve, Sam ran away from home and survived winter in the Catskill Mountains by living inside a giant hollowed-out hemlock.

My early reading also included Greek myths featuring un-kindred spirits. For instance, there were the Dryads, a form of nymph who lived inside trees. Even Christianly literature, like The Chronicles of Narnia, would harken back to the animation of trees. Mr. Tumnus warns Lucy about the Dryads: “The woods are full of her spies, even some of the trees are on her side.” And then, you have to admit… trees are pretty special in the Bible, from beginning to end.

For those reasons — and because I’m part Scottish (my excuse for strange excess) — when I see a giant hollowed-out tree, it still tugs at the little boy brain in my old man body. That happened yesterday. The question was inevitable: “Can I get inside?” One disturbing picture — that I’ll spare you — says, “Yes, I can get inside.” After removing my daypack, I was swallowed whole by an ancient tree at White Rock Lake.

Reviewing tree-related mythology, I encountered a Slavic myth: Leshy.
Judge for yourself if Leshy is also a kindred spirit.

I am INFLUENCED. How about you?

I am just about finished reading an EXCELLENT book by Brian Loritts: Insider Outsider: My Journey as a Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for Us All. I expect to write more about this book later, but here is a graphic that came to mind while reading this morning. In part, the graphic reflects my gratitude for Loritts’ skillful enlightenment, but it also reflects an insistence on probing deeper for the causes of what Loritts describes.

While Loritts hasn’t touched much on polarization yet in the book, I do think polarization is affecting how readily we embrace one sin or another: if “our side” is for it, then we aren’t going to bad-mouth it, are we? If “our side” is unsympathetic to the suffering of others, then maybe we’ll be just fine with an unloving attitude. If “our side” is for downplaying sexual immorality, then maybe we’ll make sure we aren’t the kind of prudes who are repulsed by sexual immorality.

Reflecting on Loritts’ book also prompted this comment to a friend (how the comment relates to the above is something I haven’t worked out yet, but AM working on!):

I’m trying hard to understand the intersection of Kingdom and culture. That is, which kinds of thinking are RIGHT (aligning with the Kingdom of God), which are WRONG (driven by Satan’s purposes), and which are merely DIFFERENT (benign cultural preferences). In this regard, [name] and I have both found Jonathan Haidt very helpful.

– email to a friend

I know this is undeveloped thinking, but I welcome interaction with friends (and not-yet friends) who would like to reflect on their own journey of self-inspection. How are YOU finding yourself influenced by good, evil, and the indifferent benign*?

*Different from Camus’ “benign indifference?” Let’s think about that…

Cat Proof Plant Propagation

Every year, I take my beautiful begonia next door for my neighbor to prune. Why? Glad you asked. Don Miller (my neighbor) is a nationally-known begonia expert. In fact, the begonia in question is one that a friend of Don’s hybridized and named in his honor. It’s called the “B. ‘Don Miller'” (or I believe some are now calling it the “Frosty” for its silver leaves). This year, he put the trimmed-off stems in a mason jar and assured me that I could easily propagate his plant. We’ll see about the “easily” part.

Here’s the challenge. The cats in my house go bonkers for begonia. If I leave my office door open, one will go over on my right side and distract me by juggling oranges or singing an aria from La Traviata (riveting!) while the other sneaks by me on the left and chows down on begonia leaves. They’ll take turns doing this (or something like it) until all the new leaves are gone. I say “gone.” Actually, the bulimic cat burglar runs out of my office and vomits on the rug as quickly as possible.

So, here’s the plan this year…. I made these three hanging shelves, suspended from the top of my glass office door using 1/8 inch all-thread. The shelves themselves are made from vinyl gutter downspout. At the ends, they are sealed off with 2″-thick styrofoam that I saved from an Ikea shipping box.

my plant propagation perch

The trimmed begonia branches were given a sprinkling of root starter (my idea, Don may laugh) and planted in little jiffy pots. Way up there, in their propagation perch, there is absolutely NO WAY the tender new plants will be discovered and destroyed by my wicked cats. Soon, the begonias will be ready for regular pots, and I’ll give them to regular families, preferably families who don’t have cats. That’s the plan.

Oh yeah, the part about Don Miller is true. Scroll down for a photo Don forwarded to me. But first, here’s a video I just found (sorry, it isn’t embedded; clicking will take you to YouTube):

Don Miller Video

B. ‘Don Miller’ growing at the Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, Alabama

Sparking Joy. In Whom?

This morning, while cooking breakfast, I noticed how beautiful the cooktop is. Last night, Susan must have carefully cleaned it, as she often does. A clean, uncluttered work area is delightful to her. In the words popularized by Marie Kondo, it sparks joy in her. As I look around the kitchen and living room, I see objects that were given to Susan by sisters-in-law and other girl friends. These ladies are world-class experts in sparking joy. They learn what Susan likes, what colors she uses in her decor. They pay attention to what is delightful to her. Over the course of the year, they purchase or make things that match what they know about Susan. Then, on her birthday and Christmas — sooner if they just can’t wait — they give her these joy-sparking gifts. She does the same for them.

Am I learning from my wife and her friends? Do I keep my eyes open for things that would spark joy in Susan? In my own friends? In my boys? In my Savior? By God’s grace, I do occasionally spark joy in others. But, looking around the kitchen this morning, I want to do better. After breakfast, I think I’ll clean off the cooktop. Again. Better than last time.

Observations

NOTE: many of the following (but not all of them) were written at a time in my life when I was extremely frustrated. For several years, I had been ramping up my own side business, and I was eager to go out on my own. But the side business was not yet profitable enough to support my family. I felt trapped.  In early 2017, the break finally came. Since then, frustration and resentment that built up over many years are slowly ebbing away.

Like I always say, “Like I always say…”

People without a sense of humor shouldn’t kid themselves.

Anything worth doing right is worth doing in a timely manner. This is what people sometimes forget when they say that anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Blood is thicker than water. Never mind how putrid the blood or how sweet the water.

Blood is thicker than water. So is sewage.

There’s plain old thoughtless lack of communication and then there’s malicious lack of communication.

My brain is like Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lacunas. That’s “lacunae” for the more affected.

When a man is arrogant, and insults everyone around him, then everything he does is liable to criticism.

A preacher who never ponders will likely be ponderous, but never deep.

Adding “so” to the end of every utterance does not make you a man of consequence.

He had bested the berry by popping it in his mouth
This he initially thought.
But within a year the berry vines had taken over
The farm he thus had bought.

You’re like a genius in disguise!

Congratulations! That was almost professional.

A preacher must love The Word more than his words, The Manuscript more than his manuscript.

The fellow in the next cubicle is a hunt-and-peck typist. But his thumb always knows its position. Between each word, his thumb pounds its one key with authority. The result is a staccato rhythm that interrupts my thought.

Mixed metaphors are like when the fly is in the pudding.

At the top of a leader’s priorities is making sure that the people who work under him have everything they need to be productive. A man who does not take care of that cannot be a leader.

Learning a New Language

I ran across this Ted Talk on language and it confirmed some of my notions about language learning. I have been frustrated ever since I attended Seminary and saw how little the language professors availed themselves of our natural aptitude for language. If Greek and Hebrew were taught as languages to be used in CONVERSATION, I bet a lot of us would have picked them up and retained them far better than we did. Instead, we were taught merely to read, write, and parse the languages. The enormous resources that God gave us for language learning were barely harnessed. One of the lame excuses was that we don’t know how NT Greek was pronounced. WHO CARES! So what if we pronounce it incorrectly!