Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.
-Paul (Ephesians 4:15)
I come from an educational background. Two of my immediate family members are collegiate professors. I enjoy academic pursuits and what they bring out in me. I finished my masters degree last year, and though I complained a lot, I love being a student. This week alone I cranked out several academic papers for a project that will never even be graded.
In my seminary experience, I noticed a movement that has come to characterize much of contemporary higher education. There is a major focus on the process of improving the final product, rather than simply writing a paper and handing it in. And the way improvement occurs is through "peer-review,” which simply means that your colleagues give feedback to your work as it happens. The goal is that with helpful outside input, original thoughts can become clearer, sharper, and more polished.
Almost universally, graduate professors now invite students to review each other’s work as they are developing it. This benefits both professors and students. Students help to sharpen each other’s work in advance, giving the professor a better product when it’s handed in. And as students learn how to edit and think through each others’ work, they become better at creating good work themselves. This is how my master’s program worked. Each of us gave simple feedback to each others’ writing. We highlighted good things to lean into, and asked questions about concepts that were unclear or potentially misinterpreted.
As we progressed in this environment, we became invested in each other’s work in new ways. Instead of being isolated as individuals doing our own thing and focusing only on ourselves, we were aware of what was happening in each other’s studies as we tried to make each other better. Originally we were forced to do it, but before long we found ourselves genuinely caring about what each other was working on. Additionally, we stopped being so defensive and embarrassed about our work because we were forced to share a product that was clearly still in process. We all knew that sometimes we’d express ourselves well and sometimes we would do it very poorly. There was no way to avoid that, so we stopped getting defensive when someone said, “I don’t think you were very clear about this idea at all.” Instead, we could respond with something like, “Thanks! Any ideas on how to make it better?”
Being open to change is difficult, especially when we have blind spots in our lives.
Transformation is hard work.
And yet, how beautiful of an image this is for community life with Jesus at the center! We are all "rough draft" versions. Let's not live under the illusion that we are final copies, fully ready to be handed in for a perfect grade. The problem is that we are not comfortable presenting our personal drafts to one another for editing. The vulnerability feels too risky. And unfortunately, that’s because Christians have often lacked grace and humility, two things that should be at the core of our identity. We have participated in a culture where we criticize rather than energize (see below), and pile on guilt and shame. But it can be so much different.
Imagine an environment of love where we, as sisters and brothers, are committed to each other enough to listen to the stories of our lives. Through loving peer review, an atmosphere like this can help us refine who we are, what we’re about, and if our lives are clearly communicating it. This need not require full agreement on every topic. Rather, it requires a culture of love, founded on the understanding that we belong to each other and have a responsibility to help each other become more thoughtful, more gentle, more loving, more Christlike versions of ourselves. In seminary I cannot tell you the amount of times that someone brought up a question that I thought had already been answered clearly in my paper. But upon further reflection and feedback, I realized that I was not communicating it well at all. Time to make some changes.
But this type of mutual editing, or mutual “editification” (read Romans 14:19 to fully appreciate my wit just now), takes some serious vulnerability, humility, and intentionality. We have to have the humility to invite this sort of growth in our lives. We must relinquish our defensiveness. And we must choose to actually read each other deeply enough to see the heart, taking the time to encourage one another in a way that truly helps us each become a more complete representation of Jesus.
The cost of community is significant. But that's because it's so valuable. Nothing else will transform and refine us in our journey with Jesus quite like the editing of a friend who truly loves us. Let us not grow weary in allowing others in.
Jesus, keep me humble and open to how others can help me grow.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
(This weeks’ TFG is adapted from the message I gave on Sunday. If this sounds familiar, it’s alright. Sometimes a second coat of paint is what you need to make the color pop.)
Wisteria vines look nice. And they’re horrible.
For two weeks their cascading purple flower clusters hang effortlessly from the limbs of trees, turning a forest into a wash of pastels. And then there’s the rest of the year, where they slowly choke out every single tree that comes into their viney grasp. It’s a horribly invasive plant.
In the woods right behind our fence, wisteria has grown untouched for several decades. It’s climbed 60 feet and nearly killed every tree within view. It blankets the ground with vines so thick that it’s impossible to walk through. I’ve been trying to make a difference with the slow choke of this invasive plant by chopping off the snakelike vine from trees. And more recently, I’ve been trying to clear out the ground brush layer as well.
Weedwacking was my first approach. But after one pass, my string trimmer only could get me part of the way there before getting all wrapped up. I was getting frustrated, not using the right tools at all. I decided (honestly I love feeling justified in buying tools) that it was about time to get a metal brush clearing attachment. As my string wrapped around another thick vine and drove my 2 cycle engine to a lurching stop, I said in my frustration without really thinking, “Gah! This kind only comes out with prayer!!!”
I laughed cleverly to myself (happens a lot) at my biblical wit, which my family has told me is not nearly as entertaining as I think it is. But it got me thinking about our world and a story of Jesus and his disciples and a little boy with a deeply rooted problem.
When a child who has suffered deeply from an evil spirit is brought to the disciples, they try to heal him. But we find out that they can’t, even though they’ve done similar stuff in the past! So Jesus comes and does what Jesus does… he heals, restores, takes a trajedy and turns it into a glimpse of beautiful hope.
But the story isn’t done. Later, removed from the embarrassing earshot of the public, the disciples ask Jesus…. why couldn’t we do it?
Jesus responds simply: “This kind can come out only by prayer."
That’s a powerful statement. Except for one thing.
No one says a prayer in this story.
I hope you’re asking, what’s going on here?
Clearly Jesus was not talking about saying the right words in the right order for 30 seconds. Jesus is talking about something far more pervasive. He’s talking about a way of life where compassion, action, and prayer all work together as parts of one whole.
There’s an unnecessarily complicated relationship of Christ followers between action and prayer. We live in a false duality that is neither Christlike or helpful in bringing the kingdom about.
Both are needed. Our lives must be built on both. The disciples had yet to learn this.
We pray, and then we get to work. And then as we work, we pray more. And then when we’re done working, we pray for God to multiply our efforts of faithful love by the power of his spirit. And we get up and do it again the next day.
I know my stuff only comes out with prayer. My laziness, my self-interest, my greed, my arrogance, my prejudice… these things rarely get solved by pushing harder and harder. But prayer. Prayer changes my mind. Prayer changes how I see the other. Prayer changes how I view God. Prayer changes how much power I have to live righteously in the world.
The Wall Street Journal recently published that Google searches for “prayer” skyrocketed in March as the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on our world. There’s something in all of us that seems drawn to pray in difficult times. And then there’s something else that tells us to quickly move on after a minute or two- as if it’s a task to be done rather than a life to be lived.
Even among Christians, a life of prayer seems to still be a rarity. Do we really believe that there are kinds of things that only come out with prayer? Are you willing to listen to Jesus now? The nastiest stuff, the most ingrown stuff deep within us… in our world… the things that torment and throw people onto the ground… do we believe that prayer is where power lies in overcoming those things?
As much as so many of us want to be people of action, we are not sustainable if we simply act for God without a foundation of being with God. We will have the capacity to love powerfully for the long haul only if we are so deeply grounded in Jesus that we are constantly accessing His spirit to do the work, and not relying on ours.
Honestly, I don’t trust my spirit that much. I can do good things on a good day- kingdomish things even! But then the next day I don’t feel like it anymore. Or I get mad at someone, or I get discouraged at the state of the world. And then I can be like, I’m done.
But I can’t do that if my life is grounded on prayer. There will be too much of God’s love in me. There will be too much hope to live in despair. There will be too much understanding to hate my neighbor. There will be too much motivation to see good prevail in the world.
I look at my wisteria every single day- the vines are too deep to be done in one project. I’ll have to keep after it year after year- much like my own soul. Much like the brokenness of our world.
Jesus challenges us in this story. He calls his disciples “unbelieving” because they’re trying to do everything on their own strength. What do you need to bring to Jesus today? Where is the deep stuff in you and around you that can only come out when prayer is the foundation for action?
Jesus, help us root out the deep things in and around us by taking us deeper with you today.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed— not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence— continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
-Paul (Philippians 2:12)
A former director of the CDC, an epidemiologist who has advised Republican and Democrat presidents, gave a truly remarkable and humble interview last week (I know, another article. I’m sure you haven’t read enough of them during the last 3 months). The focus was clarifying what we really do and really don’t know about COVID-19 and its path forward. He spoke of the various possibilities, from a slow burn of infections for a while, to a dip and then strong resurgence in the fall. He spoke of what the country will need to do in order to navigate the best way forward. There were simply no easy solutions or absolute answers, which was refreshingly honest since everyone knows everything about everything. But that’s not the point here.
I was deeply struck by one comment that he made in passing. He was asked about what people can really do to protect themselves. As he responded about obviously minimizing contact with large groups of people, he said this:
"I categorically reject the concept of social distancing. It’s physical distancing. I hope we never social distance, ever."
Well there’s a statement for disciples of Jesus to chew on.
There are things that work their way into our subconscious without knowing it. Today I’m thinking about what those are, and I wonder if the phrase "social distancing” has become one of those concepts.
Paul makes a little statement while he’s in jail writing to the young church he started in Philippi. He talks about when he was present with them, they obeyed the disciples apostle’s teaching and worked out their own relationship with Jesus together intentionally. But he seems to hint that when he’s not with them, when physical distance is separating them… that it’s going to be doubly important that they lean into their surrender to Jesus and commitment to the gospel. Because everything is harder when you’re apart.
Everything is harder when you’re apart. Faith is harder. Friendship is harder. Understanding is harder. Love is harder.
Over the months, as so many people have physically had larger amounts of separation, I think it’s hard to deny that there has been some serious social distancing as well. Not the kind that keeps us from coronavirus infection, but the kind that threatens the health of our relationships.
Relationships may feel far more optional than they used to. Have you noticed that? And along with that, it has become easier to view each other through a smaller amount of criteria.
Here’s what happens when social (not just physical) distance takes root:
-Screens dominate our interactions and dynamic, technicolor, complicated people become two dimensional.
-Friendships feel like too much work.
-We feel the temptation to become harsher and more critical rather than gentler and more sensitive.
-We are constantly left with our own thoughts, forgetting why we need other people entirely.
The salvation that Paul speaks of to the Philippian church is at the tail end of a statement about humbly learning to love one other and put others first… so yes, it definitely includes the social, relational work that is the Body of Christ. You can’t separate Jesus from his body, so anytime we talk about following Jesus, it means that cultivating loving relationships is always right there with it. And that can bring some serious fear and trembling, because Jesus-centered community takes work.
My hope is that we notice the difference between physical distancing and social distancing, and choose to walk the path of life together. Imagine if….
-In the days to come, the church becomes more vital than ever because we so desperately need each other for support, for mutual learning, and for loving relationships that keep us grounded.
-In the days to come, people make the difficult choice to have face to face conversations even when they feel lazy or tired (like I often do these days) because they know that physical distancing is important, but social distancing could kill us.
-In the days to come our efforts toward compassion, unity, and equality will all be rooted in the repeated truth that we belong to each other in Jesus (Romans 12:5), and nothing can separate us if our eyes are on him every step.
These are the ways that we "work out our salvation"… not only in each other’s presence, but now much more because of each others' absence.
By the way, this is not a thinly veiled message about having hard conversations regarding racial injustice, though it certainly includes that conversation. We just need each other. Period.
We really do. It’s how God made us. And we need holy reminders all the time that if the church is to be the Church, it will always choose to reject social distancing, because love knows no separation.
Jesus, keep me moving toward others even when it’s hard.
*Disclaimer in case you skimmed: I still support keeping 6 feet between people to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Speak strong words to a wise man, and he will love you. Give teaching to a wise man and he will be even wiser. Teach a man who is right and good, and he will grow in learning.
Proverbs 9:9 (NLT)
We are never done learning.
But in certain cases, it’s possible that we never really started.
Two consistent characteristics are shared by the most mature Christians that I know. I’m sure you have these types of people in your life. They are the people that you want to hear from before fully forming your own opinion about something. That's how much you respect them.
Those people in my life share two commonalities across the board: They are very humble, and they are lifelong learners. And that’s important, because to be a disciple is to be a learner. Literally.
The Greek word for disciple is mathetes, which means a pupil or an apprentice. When Jesus is inviting disciples to come follow him in the gospels, he is literally asking them to become learners. And what we find as we read more about these slow learners (Mark is particularly hard on them), is that learning is a time-consuming and painful process. It takes years years. In the gospels, the disciples’ opinions are constantly formed, challenged, stretched, and reformed as the they keep learning about the world through Jesus’ eyes.
There is a real risk in the life of a Christian when they feel like they have learned all they need to know about God, people, and God’s world. When one becomes that certain of everything, they cease to be disciples.
I see that happen sometimes, because learning is a journey, and a hard one.
When I was doing missional community and discipleship training with a movement of Christians that originated out of Sheffield, England, we used a tool to talk about discipleship. It was a square, with each side representing a stage in the learning process that the disciples went through.
The first stage of the learner was simple: You don’t know what you don’t know. We often called it "Unconscious Incompetence." There is a lack of knowledge, but you don’t acknowledge it. You are clueless because you’re either naive, inexperienced, or prideful. But at some point in the learning process you walk off a metaphorical cliff and land in a pit. That’s stage 2: You now know what you don’t know. You begin to realize that you have a long way to go, and that things are not what (or as easy as) you assumed. Now you are "Consciously Incompetent". This is a deeply discouraging phase, and many people give up at this point. Learning a new skill or a new way of being (whether spiritually or otherwise) is often a huge task, and it’s easier to just ignore it and move back to the first phase, where we enthusiastically dwell in the comfort of our unwillingness to be a deeper learner. The third phase is where we work hard to understand and live out new concepts, still failing sometimes but making progress (Conscious Competence). And then the fourth stage is when we have truly learned something new and it is a natural part of our thought/behavior process (Unconscious Competence).
Those first stages have been particularly relevant to me lately as they relate to racial injustice.
We are disciples of Jesus, which means that the posture of a learner must be a part of our identity.
For myself and some others in our community (that are specifically majority culture people), there is a growing sense of realization: There is much that we don’t know or understand about the daily experiences of our brothers and sisters of color.
This is a deeply spiritual issue, because the central tenets of Christian discipleship are love for God and love for our neighbors. People are hurting really badly right now. They have been for a long time. And we can no longer ignore it.
So here’s the choice I'm facing: Will I chose to start to acknowledging that I don’t know what I don’t know? Will I move into the learning process of realizing how much I have yet to understand and learn in order to promote love, care, and justice for one another? Or will I take a few steps backward, thinking that I know enough to not really need to press further into the issue at hand?
For white Christians to move toward neighbor loving in this area will require massive amounts of humility. For many, I'm afraid the humbling journey will be too much. They will choose not to be learners in areas of racial equity because it’s easier not to hear things that make them uncomfortable.
I’m taking the week to admit how much I don’t know. I’m reading about people’s stories. I’m ordering books that use words that I don’t want to talk about- like whiteness. I’m reading history that wasn’t written by dominant culture voices. I’m listening to black preachers preach about the heart of Jesus in beautifully different ways than how I often think about it. I’m learning why it’s so important that I publicly agree that black lives matter. I’m certainly somewhere between stage one and two, but I’m going to keep moving forward and not back. I may not have the courage to do it on my own, but I might if everybody joins me. And I know that Jesus will be there to teach me.
Jesus, give me the humility to learn something new today about someone else’s experience, so that I might love my neighbor.