Of Mutts and Methodists and Mennonites

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morgans-best-friend-gingerOf Mutts. My families, by both birth and marriage, have owned a number of dogs, mostly mixed-breeds. Caesar joined our family when I was in second grade, we affectionately referred to him as a cross between a cocker spaniel, a dachshund, and a mutt. The dog we now own, Graceyn, is a Westie-Poo, a mix between a West Highland terrier and a poodle. Only Ginger, a golden retriever we had for a few years, was a purebred.

My wife’s family has owned a number English bulldogs. It’s a tenacious and tough-looking dog originally bred to take down thousand-pound bulls. But they’re very loving and loyal to their owners, with the endearing wrinkles of a fuzzy teddy bear. It’s also a breed in trouble, as this recent CBS News article reports.

That’s the thing about purebreds: the inbreeding leaves animals without enough genetic diversity to overcome inherited health problems. The very thing that keeps the breed pure also risks its extinction.


Of Methodists and Mennonites. When I was a kid my family moved around a lot, so I’ve been part of many different churches. Though our roots were in one of the 31 flavors of Baptists, those roots did not define us as we sought out a new church home with each move. I first made a faith commitment to Jesus in the Sunday School of our “community church” in Minnesota. In Texas we joined a “Bible Church.” In British Columbia, I was baptized in an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren church.

During high school in Germany, we joined the American Protestant Church, whose pastors were primarily Methodists and Lutherans. I went to a Free Methodist university for a year before joining the Air Force, where I sat under chaplains from the United Church of Christ, Salvation Army, Southern Baptist, and Seventh Day Adventist denominations. Later I would attend both Presbyterian and Assembly of God churches. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a spiritual mutt.


Inbreeding is as harmful in churches as it is in dogs.

In some church worlds, it’s all about doctrine: we are united by what we agree on, and because we agree. Of course, we are also therefore divided by what we believe. But Jesus sought and prayed for unity within His body, the Church. He rarely talked about believing the right things—unless it was about who He was or what He could do.

Shortly before He was crucified, Jesus prayed “that they [His followers] may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). In other words, the greatest strategy for growing the Kingdom of God is unity within the Church.

For too long, though, Christians have sought a false unity, focused not on who Jesus is, but on how we should behave: who can and should lead, how much water to use in baptism, and which sins are acceptable and which will keep you from heaven. We argue about fine points of doctrine: what “is” really means in the Lord’s Supper, and when Jesus will return. (Hint: even He didn’t know!)

Our arguments divide rather than unite, and they keep bewildered onlookers out of our churches and out of His Church.

Doctrine—right believing—is important. Right doctrine leads to right conduct. Seeking right doctrine is what led to numerous councils over the past two millennia, beginning with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15, Galatians 2). Seeking right doctrine gave us the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and more.

Over the past several years, I’ve looked at hundreds of church websites and doctrinal positions from a dozen or more denominations. Ironically, for all the distinctions in these groups, the doctrinal statements are so similar you’d think they could be from just one or two churches, not dozens. And one of the most common introductory statements is this: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

The problem is, we cannot agree on what are the essentials but seek—in vain—for unity in the non-essentials; and we show precious little charity in most things.

As a result, our differences are centered around things on the periphery, and what unity we have has led to the same type of inbreeding that is endangering the English Bulldog.

We need some doctrinal cross-breeding. We need tables for conversation, not fences down the middle of God’s Kingdom.

We need to breed more spiritual mutts.

 

 

The Problem of Intercession (Lord, Teach Us to Pray)

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coffee-prayerPrayer is hard work. Maybe that’s why the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Or maybe Jesus just knew their models weren’t great (Matthew 6:5), so he showed them another way.

A dozen books on my bookshelves have titles about prayer; certainly as many others include sections about how to pray. It’s hard work, and we need help.

Years ago a man who was training me in how to follow Jesus (a process we call “discipling” or “discipleship”) showed me a way to organize what I would pray for. Back then—in the dark ages!—he was using a file box with 3×5 cards: he had dividers for each day of the week, Sunday through Saturday; other dividers for each day of the month, 1-31; and a section in the front for daily prayers. Each prayer request was written on a card and put in the appropriate section depending on whether he would pray daily, weekly, or monthly. When he prayed, he would go through all the cards in the daily section, then those in the section for “today” (Tuesday), and finally in the monthly section behind today’s date (6).

It’s a good, organized system and for the past few weeks I’ve gone back to that method using a tool in my Bible study program. Being computerized now is an advantage because I can easily add different frequencies like twice a week or every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Here’s the challenge, though: if this becomes the primary way I pray, then it’s easy for me to slide away from relationship and begin treating God more like a vending machine.

Think of it this way: What if the bulk of what your kids said to you was centered around making requests? “Dad, can you help me study? Can you do something to make my day better? Can you give me some medicine to make me feel better?” None of those are bad requests; as a parent, we love to help our kids. And if they were asking for good things for their friends, we’d be okay with that, too.

But if this was all our kids said when they talked with us—or even mostly what they said—we’d get weary of it. We want to hear about their day, the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows. We want to know them, and be known by them. Frankly, we’d love it if they’d ask about us, too. We’d love to be listened to by our kids – for them to hear our hearts and minds.

And it’s not just kids and parents. We want to have heart-and-mind relationships with our friends, too.

The ten-dollar word for “prayer requests” is intercession; it means “going between” – when you pray, you are going between a person and God. It is good and right and necessary. Jesus taught, encouraged, and praised people who intercede for others. In fact, the Bible says that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are presently interceding for us. (See Romans 8:26-39, I Timothy 2:1, and Hebrews 7:25.)

But intercession is only one part of prayer, and maybe not even the most important part. We need to love God; and love is born and grown in relationship, talking to and with God, listening to Him, reading His Word. Have a cup of coffee with God.

So intercede for your friends and family. Pray for them, their needs, their hopes, their hurts. But when you find yourself just slipping prayer coins into the prayer vending machine, stop! Take a break from the prayer requests and just spend time with God. Talk to Him about Him. Praise Him for who He is. This is different, by the way, than thanking Him for what He’s done – try to focus on who God is; it’s harder than it sounds! (More helps on this kind of praying in another post at another time.)

Another Prince, Another Pauper

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prince and pauperTwo men came to Jesus, each with a request. One man was blind and poor, and wanted to see; the other was rich and sighted, and wanted eternal life.

Both requests were good and right, and Jesus offered answers to both. So why did one man walk away praising God and the other walked away sad?

The difference between the two men was not in their wealth, but their heart. Yes, the blind man was poor; unable to see, his only income was the coins he begged from passersby at the city gates. Yet his poverty went deeper than his wallet. Downtrodden and outcast, all that his blind eyes could see was the rejection of those walking past him each day. And it was in this poverty of spirit that he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” His request was both simple and impossible: I want to see.

The rich man may well have been one of those who tossed a few coins at the nameless, faceless beggars he daily rode by. Doubtless honored both for business savvy and his commandment-keeping righteousness, his request was no less honorable than the blind man’s: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Though both petitions were good, the difference between them was stark. Where the blind man knew he was could do nothing to bring about his own healing, the rich man believed his prayer could be answered by some good deed, some noble gesture, some further mark of his own power and wealth and righteousness. His perfect eyes and fat money-purse blinded him to the poverty of his own soul.

Jesus answered both men’s requests just as they wanted him to: He did for the blind man what he knew he could not do for himself; and he gave the wealthy man a very simple task – a good deed that was very do-able yet proved impossible for the seeker of life.

There is a deep irony in these two encounters (read them in Luke 18:18-43): a penniless blind man sees his poverty, and purchases by his faith the new eyes that no king could ever afford. Across town a wealthy man, blind to his own destitution, refuses to trade his affluence for the only thing that could make him truly rich.


It is easy to read these stories in the Bible, to celebrate the healing of the one and groan at the obstinacy of the other. But God does not want us to merely read, cheer, and groan. He wants us to see ourselves in His Word, to decide how we will respond. Who are you?

Are you the man without eyes, convinced of your unworthiness and the impossibility of your situation? Or are you the one with both eyes and money, wondering what else you can do to earn God’s favor and presence?

Will you come to God in helpless faith, pleading for mercy first and sight second? Or do you come with wallet open, looking for yet another spiritual tax deduction?

Will you walk away with Jesus, glorifying God? Or will you just walk away, sadly looking for an easier way?

Why I Coach Girls

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girl soccerThe easiest answer, of course: I have two daughters of my own, and I coach girls because of them. But there’s a bigger answer, too.

When I was a young husband looking forward to having kids, I wanted girls. I was grateful and excited when our first child—a boy—was born, but I was also afraid he’d turn out just like me…the difficult, strong-willed, challenging me. After all, that would have been an answer to my mom’s prayer: that her kids would have children just like them. (When I found that out, I quoted Scripture to her: “bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse.”)

When my daughters were born (four years apart), I was again grateful and excited. So many people assured me that girls are much easier to raise than boys. I thought the hardest challenge would be learning to braid their hair, and that my biggest fears wouldn’t come until they started dating…in about thirty years!

Then I started learning about things I’d never considered before. Sexting. Cyberbullying. Cutting Date rape. And the big one: human trafficking. My daughters were 10 and 7 when I learned of a young girl kidnapped at her school bus stop and held as a sex slave for 18 years before being rescued. She was 11 when the world collapsed around her. She had two daughters while in captivity. And she’d been snatched less than fifty miles from our home.

I’ve coached my youngest daughter’s soccer teams since she was eight. Over the course of those five seasons I’ve coached nearly sixty girls from 8-13. If you thought getting a daughter through puberty was challenging, just look up some of the statistics for that age range; they’re frightening.

My coaching won’t prevent these girls from being abused. I can’t protect them from the stranger who wants to snatch them as they walk home from school, or from the “nice boy” with roving hands. What I can do, though, is try to build their strength, both emotionally and physically. I can help them run faster and kick harder.

I can value them and show them respect. I can help them find their voice, whether that means calling across the field to a teammate or calling for help when they’re in trouble. Or even if it just means listening to them.

I can encourage and help these girls accomplish what they may never have accomplished before, whether it’s playing a soccer game, scoring a goal, or leading a team.

Why do I coach girls? Because maybe—just maybe—one of them will someday have the strength, courage, voice, and wisdom to rock someone’s world. Or even to change the world.

Go get ’em, girls!

Going It Alone

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Ethiopia vista

Jordan is the type of separation where there is no fellowship with anyone else, and where no one can take the responsibility for you.1

How many years had Elisha walked with his mentor, Elijah? Seven? Eight? How many times had he witnessed the power of God come down through the words and deeds of the great prophet? Countless times. And now….

For days now, Elisha has known the time was at hand. Three times the prophet had told his young protege, stay here while I go into the city. Three times, Elisha has refused, insisting that he stay by his side. And in each city, the locals remind him that his master’s days are numbered. I know, he says. Shut up and don’t remind me! And now….

Now Elijah has disappeared, taken up miraculously from before his very eyes. Chariots. Horses. Fire. A whirlwind. And when the tumult dies down, Elisha is alone. Alone on the banks of the river they had crossed together only moments before.

The thunderous drama of the prophet’s exit only magnifies the deafening silence in which Elisha now stands; Elijah’s billowing cloak, now lying in a dusty clump on the parched ground, the only sign that he’d ever been there. And now….

Such spectacles do not come frequently in our lives, but the times of aloneness are all-too-common. We leave the spiritual height of a mission trip and, on returning home, find that no one really understands, and too few even seem to care. We meet God at a mountain camp, only to return to the doldrums of daily life back at sea level. We are fêted well as we say goodbye to a ministry we have loved and prospered, then find ourselves alone and waiting by the Jordan for some sign that we are not really alone.

And there on the banks of our own Jordan, as Chambers says, “you have to put to the test now what you learned when you were with your Elijah. … If you want to know whether God is the God you have faith to believe Him to be, then go through your Jordan alone.

Think about that for a moment: Do you want to know whether God is the God you think He is? You can only know it when you get alone. No one can know it for you. Friends, mentors, a spouse… they can all tell you it’s true… that God is true. But only you can know it.

In order to know he was not alone, Elisha had to pick up the prophet’s cloak and put it around his own shoulders. What is that cloak for you? Perhaps a Bible that has sat too long untouched. For me it was a Jacob-like wrestling match with God (see Genesis 32:22-32).

Pick up the cloak and know the truth of what you believe.

1 [Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, Aug 11. See 2 Kings 2:1-25.]