Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models.
Paul, Philippians 3:17 (CEB)
At the risk of alienating 97% of this readership, I’m going to share briefly about a hobby of mine that few others understand. I’ve played disc golf for about 15 years now, both as a recreational and competitive player. It’s a growing sport, with a full pro tour that competes on various courses all over the world. The sport is big enough that many professionals are making a full time living, but small enough that you can still meet the players if you get to a tournament. We stream their tournaments online, and every now and then my kids come out with me to play, but not often.
This past weekend, our local disc golf course hosted a National Tour event, where many of the top players from Europe and the US were competing for three days. Newark, Delaware became the epicenter of the disc golf world for a weekend! (Stop laughing, seriously.) I was excited about watching the pros, but my kids were too and asked to head over to the course several times during the weekend to follow the best players on the planet.
It was a lot of fun to get autographs and see amazing shots, and be immersed in this world for a short time. But something else interesting happened as a result. Every day after school, rather than hopping on their bikes or scooters, my boys have been grabbing their discs and asking to head out to the field to throw and get better. They’ve never shown this kind of consistent interest before. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re getting better every day.
Something changes when we get up close and personal with people who are really doing something well. We can watch from afar, but when we walk alongside somebody and see how they deal with each challenge, it makes us want to imitate them. We get inspired, and we start working at new skills because we see what is possible.
The core ideas behind discipleship are following and becoming. Jesus invited people to walk with him, watch him closely, and see what life with God looked like from an "up close" perspective. This tradition continued in the early generations after Jesus ascended. Paul wrote about it constantly. In his letter to the Corinthian church he was blatant: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Why not just say, "Follow the example of Christ?” Is Paul arrogant and needy here?
I think the reality is that Paul understood that we have to see real lives lived in the Jesus way if we’re to become mature disciples. It doesn’t happen by only reading the Bible and attending church gatherings. It doesn’t just happen from solid small group curriculum. We need to have physical, flesh-and-blood examples of people in our lives who give us something to imitate. This doesn’t mean that we put people on pedestals or try to find perfection. It means that if we’re not walking with others who are formed in Christ, we’re missing a primary opportunity for transformation and inspiration.
With our fiercely independent North American mindset, finding a “Paul” in our lives seems like a luxury. We just don’t have time or energy. But we do, friends, if we decide it matters enough.
Look around your life. Who are you drawn to because you see the compassion of Jesus, the gentleness of Jesus, and the wisdom of Jesus? Who are the people in your periphery that make you want to love God and others better when you’re around them? Perhaps now is the time to be more intentional about walking alongside instead of watching from afar. We all need that, at any age.
Jesus, help me identify disciples around me that I can intentionally learn from and grow with.
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
-Jesus (Matthew 7:24)
I was listening to a pandora music station as I cleaned my office this week from the summer buildup. Papers, packages, and a host of other clutter had invaded my home office, largely as a result of my children deciding that it was their favorite room in the house to destroy for no reason at all.
I’m a music guy, and so I loved having a great backdrop of music to my task. Instead of it being an hour of drudgery, it became a joy.
After a while though, I got lost in my cleaning and apparently the music stopped playing. I don’t even know when it happened, but it had been a while. I checked my laptop, and there was a little screen that had popped up on my browser.
Are you still listening?
So I stood there for a moment and pondered the question. Pandora asks that question because it’s easy for people to walk away and forget what they’ve been doing (and also because they want you to buy the premium version but that’s not the point so please stay focused here).
Are you still listening?
The question can be a little annoying if you’re still in the room. Of course I’m still listening!
But that’s not always true, is it? It’s entirely possible for me to be sitting in the room and not actually be aware of what’s playing in the background. That’s why the question matters. It forces the hearer to do something… to actually participate, and to decide if they want to continue to listen, over and over again. Anytime that there’s lack of activity or engagement, the program’s gentle question pops onto the screen
Are you still listening? Still here? Do you want to continue?
And you have to do something.
Isn’t that what discipleship is all about? Belief that leads to action. Faith is so much more than "I pushed play once and now I believe in Jesus. I guess I’m done.” Yet, the uncomfortable reality is that much of our lives are indistinguishable from a non-follower of Jesus. But if we look at the life of Jesus, belief is simply a springboard to a way of life where we are constantly moving, acting, and living differently in light of our trust in Jesus. And that’s what the word “believe" means in the Bible, anyways. It’s about an active trust, where your action shows that you’re trusting.
The Spirit prompts that question in me once in a while…
Are you still listening? Do something to show me you’re still listening.
This may sound silly, but it could be the most transformative practice you ever do… what if you chose to do one little thing every single day that shows that you’re still listening? What if you invited Jesus to give you creative nudges each day to do something that expresses the radical faith you have in him? Something that a normal person probably wouldn’t do as they go about their life?
Maybe you stop one day and truly pray for your neighbors.
Maybe you write a note or a text that encourages someone out of the blue.
Maybe you take a brief prayer walk and simply waste time with Jesus.
Maybe you choose to give your money away to care for the poor in some tangible way.
Maybe you turn your phone off for 2 hours so that you can be more present with people.
Maybe you read the perspective of a marginalized person in America and ask Jesus how he would respond.
Are you still listening? Click the button.
The transition from summer to fall is right on top of us. Many of us are busy making plans, getting back into school year rhythms, and trying to finish all of the items on our summer to-do list before we’re out of time. There is no better time than now to pause and ask ourselves if we’re listening to the voice of the One inviting us to live in the Kingdom… or if we’re so consumed with our tasks that we hadn’t even noticed what’s playing.
Jesus, open my ears, stir my spirit, and lead me toward your Kingdom today.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
-Jesus (John 10:27)
Do we think that God is intentionally difficult to understand?
The late Dallas Willard was a professor of philosophy at USC for most of his career. He was also one of the most influential Christian spiritual formation voices of our time, writing a number of profound books on following Jesus. He trained an entire generation of pastors toward spiritual depth (myself included). If you’ve never his work, check out his seminal book, The Divine Conspiracy.
There’s a story that a young man tells about his interaction with Dallas during a ride to the airport after a conference. The young man was trying to figure out a PhD program to pursue. This decision would affect where he lived, what specific career path he would be moving in, financial implications, and more. The decision-making deadline was right upon him. He shared with Dallas the difficulty and complexity of the decision and his anxiety at a lack of guidance from God though he had prayed about it many times. Dallas listened, asked a few questions, and then gave this response:
“Well, simply pray, and say: 'Lord, I do not believe that you mumble, so if you’d like to direct me, you need to do so before Friday. Otherwise, I will presume your blessing to make my own choice.'”
Whoa. That sounds terrifying. God would give us the freedom to make our own choice about important things?
I’ve known many Christians that approach life as if it’s a nearly impossible maze, and at every turn there is the way God wants and the way God is against, yet there’s little clarity on which is which. It suggests God’s will is one single path made of hundreds of little decisions that I could get wrong at any point and screw up forever. Therefore, there is a constant underlying anxiety that we are always about to get it wrong. Sleep well tonight, friends!
I’m not talking about moral decisions here of doing something loving vs. something selfish. We’re talking about decisions that have no clear moral implications.
What if God trusts us to be seeking after Jesus and acting accordingly? Maybe much of this is less about God’s will and more about our own. I remember, as a youth pastor, having senior high students in my office who were paralyzed about which college God wanted them to attend.
Have you spent some time praying for guidance?
Well, do you sense that you can serve Jesus more effectively at one school over the other?
Can you imagine yourself glorifying God at both schools?
I think so.
Then uh…. where do you want to go the most?
God’s will for us is not a needle in a haystack. God’s will is that we would trust in the way of Jesus and the rescue of Jesus, and live our lives openly, inviting others to join us in expressing God’s kingdom.
That doesn’t mean we don’t prayerfully discern. The flip side is dangerous too. To act as if everything we do is obviously God’s heart for us without prayer and discernment is arrogant and foolish. But if we have been set free, and we trust that disciples of Jesus can hear his voice and guidance…. then maybe we need to stop it with the constant fear and pressure.
From the beginning and through til now, God has entrusted humans to partner in God’s redemption purposes. Like Willard says in his book Hearing God,
God is not looking for people to endlessly command; God desires to form persons and a people who can bring to bear all their own redeemed creativity and will into the realization of the Reign of God on earth...
Everything we do can glorify Jesus. That’s the beauty of freedom and grace working in our lives.
Let’s seek God for guidance about decisions and constantly move in the best direction. Let’s be patient with those decisions and not rush. Let’s involve other trusted disciples in those decisions. And when no clear path emerges, maybe it’s not because God is staying silent and unreachable. Maybe it’s because God is saying… I trust you.
Is there a decision that you’re stuck on because you feel a lot of pressure? Maybe you need to hear God’s grace and trust.
Jesus, speak to me. And when it’s not audible, form me enough so that I can express your heart in everything.
Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus...
Paul (Philippians 2:4-5)
Over the summer I work out of an office in the school our church meets at. They have empty space when school isn’t in session, so they graciously share it with me. I love the chance to form friendships with the year round staff, since we see each other daily all summer long.
One of the custodians who does a great job keeping the school spotless is primarily a Spanish speaker. I am (very) primarily an English speaker. Over the weeks, we’ve gotten into a habit of greeting each other. It’s very simple. I’ll walk in and see him in the hallway.
I’ll wave and say “¡Hola!”
He’ll look back and respond, “Hi!”
It’s funny. I use his primary language to greet him, and he uses my primary language to greet me. Neither of us uses our most natural language, choosing instead to make it just a little easier on the other guy. I’ve never made much of this very simple interaction until I started thinking about it today. Whether or not we realize it, what we are doing is a beautiful metaphor for how Jesus taught his disciples to engage with the world around us.
These days, the assumption is that for understanding and love to occur, everyone has to come our way. They have to see things from our perspective or we get frustrated at them. The prevailing attitude is that in order to find common ground…. the other person must do the work. This happens spiritually, culturally, and politically. I’ll give you a moment to consider what happens when everyone thinks that it's someone else’s job to take the first step.
The way of Jesus, however, is upside down. It always has been, and it always will be. Jesus teaches us to move toward the other, not demand that the other move toward us. Jesus teaches us that in order to show compassion, we seek to understand and meet people where they are. We enter their story, rather than first requiring them to enter ours. This is particularly difficult for those of us who are part of a historically dominant culture, because we don’t even realize how much we require others to come our way first.
Jesus reveals this "I’ll move first” commitment through the content of his teachings and his example of leaving the temple and synagogue to heal and teach where marginalized people were (Gentiles, the disabled, and women would not have been permitted in the inner religious courts). But it’s also revealed in the incarnation itself. There’s a divide between the human and the divine. So the divine moved toward the human.
John proclaims that the word “became” flesh (John 1:14) . It’s the only time in the Bible where God “becomes” anything. It’s extraordinary. He became like us, in order to join us and reveal God’s heart. In Mark, the first phrase used to describe why Jesus choose the twelve disciples was so that “they might be with him” (3:14). God wanted to be with people so much that he came their way and entered their world, their culture, their language, and their lives. Amazing. The first act was movement toward. That would lead to the ultimate act of reconciliation between.
My friend and I both desire to move toward the other. What if that was one of the marks of Christ followers across all our lives? What if we took Paul’s encouragement more seriously to imitate Jesus by putting others first? I imagine some things would change…
We’d ask to hear the views of others.
We’d seek to compassionately understand the story that forms each person.
We’d be willing to be less comfortable personally if it created comfort for someone else.
Let’s do it. Speak someone else’s language today, and watch God open new doors.
Jesus, help me take the first step toward another today, so that I might reveal your love.
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)
You know those moments when you have an interaction that leaves you with tension or hurt? Maybe someone said something at work that made you feel less than another worker. Perhaps your spouse made a comment that made you feel taken for granted. Maybe a friend made a statement about a political view that left you feeling misrepresented. Or maybe you just had a basic argument with someone and it left you full of all sorts of strong feelings afterwards. Whatever the reason, whatever the tension, so much goes on in our minds and hearts in those moments. And it doesn’t stop with that interaction.
Have you noticed that when tension enters a relationship, every movement becomes analyzed in a new way? Every look and word is examined. We wonder what they’re thinking. Actually, we’re pretty sure that we know. And we begin to construct a complete world in our minds that fills in all possible gaps.
Do you wonder if you do this? Here’s a clue: Yes.
We all formulate stories surrounding conflict. And they tend to be very one sided, and we are always the party that has been unfairly wronged. I cannot tell you how many times, after a conflict with my children, that I’m convinced that their only goal in life is to destroy me. I’m positive I haven’t constructed any of that in my head. It’s real. I’m sure of it.
The problem is that when we create a narrative in our heads, there’s a very real chance it isn’t true. And for a disciple of Jesus, that’s a problem. We cannot live with integrity if we’re not chasing after what is true.
So what do we do? One very simple way of dealing with conflict and tense relationship moments is so helpful, but it requires humility, honesty, and courage. Brene Brown is a vulnerability researcher and author, whose work in the social sciences eventually led her to become a follower of Jesus. She shares one of the greatest and most courageous ways of moving toward reconciled relationships.
We identify the story we’re making up. Then we ask if it’s true.
We choose vulnerability with our selves, and with the other. When we admit that we’ve made up a story and we’re not sure it’s 100% accurate, we communicate something to our sister or brother. Brown says that it communicates,"I want you to see me and understand me and hear me, and knowing what you really mean is more important to me than being right or self-protecting.”
If someones clarifies that our story is not true, the tension shifts and we can move forward in truth. And if we learn that we actually were reading the situation correctly (rare), then asking this question breaks the tension and gives us an opportunity to move toward reconciliation and grace in our conversation. And yes, someone could be dishonest with us. But we’re talking about doing our part here, not finding reasons to avoid it.
Jesus has taught us to be a people of reconciliation. That reconciliation is strikingly holistic. It comes to us in the form of God reconciling the world to himself through Jesus. And then, as people who are loved and in right relationship with God, we are given what Paul calls, “the ministry of reconciliation” for the world around us. In simple talk… it means we are committed to the process of becoming right with people and right with God. It’s in one of our job descriptions.
Much interpersonal tension lacks clarity and dialogue- and therefore remains a heavy burden with no resolution in sight. But Jesus wants us to know freedom, and he gave us the tools to seek truth and reconcile.
What stories have you been telling yourself lately about yourself and others? Are you sure they’re true? It’s worth asking.
Jesus, give me humility and courage to name the stories I’m making up.