Unstuck by God’s Goodness

In our home group, we are looking at biblical ways to get unstuck. Christians get stuck in different ways. Some get saved, slip through the doorway into the kingdom and then refuse to go or grow. Some walk with God many years, but then plateau-out: happy to be a little more spiritual than most they know. Others get tangled and bound in sin—then condemned, then depressed. Others have played the religious game to a stalemate: not forsaking God but also not surrendering. As you can see, there must be different cures for different kinds of stuck, so this will be the first of a series of posts on getting unstuck.

When I think about what has helped me get unstuck, I realize it always a truth everyone thinks they know. For instance, few truths have more power to yank us out of the muck than the truth that God is good. When the serpent tempted Eve, he first challenges what God has said and then plants a suspicion that God is withholding something good from her. Although some make a point about Eve adding “shall not touch” to God’s command, Eve basically gets right what God has said. The serpent directly contradicts what God said and proclaims, “You surely shall not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). In other words, you can’t trust God because He is wants to keep something good from you.

Like a lot of good evangelicals, Eve got right what God said, but she failed to trust in the character of God—in the goodness of God. Many believers get stuck at this same place. Temptation has power in their lives because they harbor a suspicion that complete surrender and obedience will mean giving up something good. Their mudhole is a cycle of temptation, sin, guilt, repentance—over and over. They live a life of faith with neither victory or joy.

A revelation of the logic of God’s goodness can free us from the tyranny of the cycle of sin.  God is perfectly good in all his ways. All his commands are expressions of His love and goodness. All debate about whether to obey God in this area or that area is stupid—a waste of time. Why? Because God is good and anything other than his will is shoddy and has a thousand one-star ratings on Amazon.

A second way we get stuck is when the meanness or hypocrisy of other believers trips us into the mudhole. Of course, reading the Old Testament should cure us of the idea that God’s people are always going to reflect His goodness. Often church is like a hospital’s ER, wounded and sick everywhere. During his ministry, Jesus was literally surrounded by the sick and demonized much of the time. His love seemed to draw them. That the hurting can hurt others should not surprise us, but it cuts to the bone when those who should be doctors wound us. Again, we need only read a history of Israel’s kings to discover how much corrupt leadership angers and grieves God. In all this, God is on our side, grieved and angered by hypocrisy. Our hatred of hypocrisy is best expressed by moving closer to God and being absolutely and humbly genuine. God’s people are a work (sometimes a jerk) in progress. God, though, is always good.

We get stuck in this mud hole in another way. Many Christians have been surprised not by joy like C. S. Lewis, but by tragedy, disappointment, and heartbreak. Many believers have written a happy narrative of how their life should go only to see it shredded by one catastrophe after another. Some are bitter and others shell-shocked. Many are stuck with low or no expectations of God.

I have friends, however, who have seen their dreams shattered by a marriage falling apart, a spouse dying unexpectedly, and a child dying. Man is fallen, the world broken by sin, and our own bodies targets for disease and injury. The question of why God intervenes in some situations and not others goes unanswered. But the logic of God’s goodness means we will never let anything evil move us further from God and closer to the enemy. In the face of every evil, we must proclaim God’s goodness. In every tragedy and attack of the enemy, our reflex must be to cling to God more tightly.

I have been pursuing God for fifty years and only now feel as though an unshakeable revelation of His goodness has possessed me body, soul, and spirit. Because God is good, I have decided to ask for everything His Word promises. (I have heard that God is a good father who won’t give me a scorpion if I ask for egg.) None of this seems radical until you begin doing it. When you start expecting your church gathering to have the power, love, and purity of the church in Acts, everything gets turned upside down.

Years of praying for that which I have not yet seen has not diminished my confidence that God is good, that He loves me, and that at any moment—maybe as I write this—His goodness will break through like the sun on a rainy Oregon day. I am unstuck and pressing on.

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Bilbo, Gandalf, the Holy Spirit, and My Green Door

Every couple years I re-read The Hobbit for the course on Tolkien I teach. This year, I once again am grateful that Tolkien made Bilbo fifty when he began his great adventure. We are more accustomed to the adventures of the young—quests of self-discovery or initiation into adulthood. At age 64, my spirit is refreshed and challenged by Tolkien’s reminder that adventures can disrupt our comfortable hobbit lives at any time.

Like Bilbo, and most hobbits, I love my comforts: my books, the chair where I grade papers, the walk I take with the dog. I often share Bilbo’s attitude toward adventures:

We are plain and quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them. . . . We don’t want any adventures here, thank you.

Although I have this reflexive response to new ventures, there is always a part of me that longs for quest—the battle and danger.

When Bilbo discovers he is talking to Gandalf, the wizard, his adventurous (Tookish) side comes alive:

Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!

Bilbo eventually catches himself and realizes Gandalf is also responsible for many going “into the Blue for mad adventures. He retreats: “Bless me, life used to be quite inter—I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time.”

This scene perfectly describes my response to the Holy Spirit’s invitations to do something new. No adventures needed here! I am comfortable! Adventures are nasty things. But then I realize it is the Holy Spirit speaking and I start to remember:

Good gracious! Not the Holy Spirit that transformed and empowered Peter at Pentecost and set all the world ablaze? Not the Holy Spirit that makes young men see visions and old men dream dreams? Not the Holy Spirit that baptized me with joy when I was sixteen? I remember Him.

And then I catch myself. The Holy Spirit does upset stuff. And honestly, sometimes there are dragons and goblins and miserable days. But all of Bilbo’s misgivings don’t matter; Gandalf has marked his door and adventure is going come knocking.

While reading this part of The Hobbit the other evening, I realized this summer Teckla and I had painted our door green like the round door on Bilbo Baggin’s hobbit-hole. Last Thursday we opened our home to a small group. None were dwarves that I could tell, and all seemed nice enough. But I know how adventures begin, so I am checking my door for marks. The Holy Spirit seems on the move. As Tolkien says of Gandalf, “Tales and adventures sprout up all over the place wherever He goes, in the most extraordinary fashion.”


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The Dangers of Servant-Leadership

I know I am slicing up a sacred cow here. Therefore, lets straight-up acknowledge that the best leaders are those with a heart of a servant. Even secular leadership models acknowledge this. The Bible clearly declares that those who are the greatest in the kingdom of God are those who serve:

But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for may.” Matthew 20:25—28 NASB

Versions of these words appear in Mark and Luke as well, we can’t escape their importance and centrality to understanding of greatness in God’s kingdom.

The passage, however, does not explain exactly what “great among you” looks like. Many, especially those offering leadership seminars, assume that “great” equals being a leader and exercising the authority of a leader. However, the line following declares that such a person “shall be your slave” (doulos in Greek). How we get being a leader out being a slave is baffling!

Further on in Matthew (23:11) Jesus declares, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” Matthew 10. Here a different Greek word is used. Instead of doulos which is translated as slave, we find the word pais which is translated as servant. Pais, however, still carries the idea of one under the authority of others and sometimes is used to refer to children or young servants.Neither word, slave or servant, suggests a person exercising authority but doing it with a servant’s heart.

These passages argue for someone joyfully submitted to the leadership of others. They suggest obedience—even submission. In short, Jesus is not prescribing a path to leadership but rather a path to greatness in God’s kingdom. This greatness may or may not include the responsibilities of leadership. It is a declaration of what God sees as greatness.

This servant’s heart is something every believer should have. It should never be seen as a means to an end—a path to leadership. Such a view is corrupting. If we are serving because we yearn to be recognized and lifted into leadership, our service becomes paying our dues, something we endure until promoted. Young people are especially vulnerable to seeing servanthood as a kind of boot camp preparing them for leadership instead of the identity of all followers of Jesus.

If being a servant is seen primarily as the path to leadership, we are exposed to a deadly temptation: bitterness when our service doesn’t lead to leadership. I have seen zealous Christians destroyed by disappointment and resentment as year after year no one rewards their service with promotion. Some hop from church to church hoping their humility will get them noticed. Some abandon the church, even God, when their servant’s heart never pays off.

Even though the Scripture talks way more about following than leading, we have few seminars and books on becoming faithful followers. There are no conferences on meekness. We have more books on how to make disciples than on how to be one. We have blended the gospel with the peculiar American myth that we are all above average and all called to be leaders. By wedding servanthood with leadership, we avoid the kind of service that requires obedience and submission. Too often our service is something voluntary, fitting our goals, inclinations, and convenience.

Of course, we really do want every leader to have the heart of a servant. But we want this for every believer—even those never called into leadership. We want servanthood that is a genuine response to the love and grace we have received in Christ—not something that is merely a proving ground for leadership. In the end, nothing is wrong with servant-leadership as long as it doesn’t stop us from valuing and celebrating servant-servanthood.

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She Drank from Puddles

She wandered half-naked in the hills outside Redding, drinking from puddles and finding shelter in a burnt-out tree. She was discovered and rescued by a family looking for a Christmas tree.

I first heard this story on the radio about two months ago. At the time, I was surprised by the sharp sting of grief. I think my heart was already raw from all the breaking stories from women who had suffered sexual harassment and even assault.

I have resisted writing about this for weeks, but the story has haunted me. I haven’t posted on this because I have more feelings than thoughts. I went to look up the story online and first found a news story about an Alabama woman who was discovered naked, sick, and half-starved after being lost in the woods for three weeks. She was able to get water to drink by wringing out her hair when it rained.

I am not certain why my heart has been pierced by these stories. Terrible things happen to women all the time. In both cases, it seems these women were hanging out with some sketchy people. The first one was dropped in the woods by a man and woman who thought she had stolen their drugs. The one in Alabama was riding with some guys on the way to commit a crime.

I think for a moment my heart refused to be numb to the terrible vulnerability of being a woman in this culture. I had a visceral reaction to how toxic our culture is for women. I know that most of the toxicity has rightly been thrown at men, but I have been struck by how much larger the problem is than the bad behavior of men.

So many families are broken—so many daughters don’t have fathers who honor and protect them. Too many men have become nothing more than sperm donors. Too many good men, and even some women, have looked the other way and in silence enabled abusers and harassers.

But it is also true that sin—simple sin has ravaged our culture. My county here in Oregon has the highest rate of child abuse in Oregon. We also have high levels of alcoholism and methamphetamine addiction. We have a do-your-own-thang lawless culture here.  On our streets walk slack-jawed women whose meth addictions have rotted their teeth. People who love women should hate sin. Everyone’s sin.

I love my daughters-in-law and my granddaughters. I want them to be surrounded by the love of fathers and brothers—even brothers in Christ—who will be fierce protectors. I want them to love holiness and seek holiness in the men they love. I want churches that never tolerate, enable, or conceal those who abuse women.

I want them to be strong, but to never have to use their strength to survive injustice or abuse. I want them cherished and honored—never degraded.

They are daughters of the King. They should never drink from puddles.

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The Greatest Showman, the Power of Story, and God’s Circus

Two intellectually challenged adults were in front of Teckla and I when we went to buy tickets for the movie The Greatest Showman. The young man looked like he had Down’s Syndrome. The young woman seemed to have some speech impediments. The lady they had come with was buying tickets and popcorn.

It turned out we were in the same theater. They weren’t noisy, but we could tell they liked the movie. The movie, a musical version of P. T. Barnum and his circus, tells a story of man who made a place for “freaks”. He gave jobs to contortionists, tattooed men, a bearded lady, a little person. In this musical he also gives them dignity and family. Of course, this is probably a more politically correct celebration of diversity and inclusiveness than historically existed in Barnum’s circus, but I loved the movie—especially the big song and dance scenes. All dance scenes need elephants and lions!

But what happened at the end of the movie made me love it even more. As the credits rolled, we could hear the intellectually challenged woman gently sobbing. As we walked by them, we heard the young man saying, “It’s okay. I’m your wingman. I’m your wingman.” It moved me that she was so moved by the movie, and that he was so kind.

We headed to the restroom. While waiting for me, Teckla heard the young lady saying excitedly, “There is a place for us! There’s a place a for us!” She then walked up to Teckla and said, “March, March, March.” Her escort gathered her in and said, “Yes, the DVD comes out in March. I will get it for you.”

When I came out of the restroom, Teckla was in tears—moved by the woman’s declaration that there was a place for her. I was moved too and amazed at the ability of a story to create a place where we belong—where we have value. I have always believed in the power of stories, but this punched me in the heart. Here story-telling had the power to give a home to the wounded and excluded.

I also could not help thinking of church. I am part of motley crew at my little church—broken, breaking, healed, and healing. But at the end of each service, I hope we can say, “There is a place for us!” We are all God’s circus. We are all Jesus freaks. This is the power of God’s story.

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Common Grace: My Dad, Harry James, and All That Jazz

My dad loved jazz. Growing up, I never thought this strange even though in those righteous days Nazarenes didn’t smoke, drink, attend dances, or go to movies. It seemed there were more things we didn’t than did. Jazz, of course, sprang up smack in the middle of all the things Nazarenes didn’t do. And Dad, a third-generation Nazarene, played it.

Dad played the trumpet, so he especially liked Louis Armstrong and Harry James. Dad was amazingly good. I am the youngest son, so I never got to hear him play when he was at his best. I know when he was in high school and college, he turned down invitations to play at dances. He sometimes played solos at church or played trumpet and violin duets with Mom. He only played jazz at home. It wasn’t anything sneaky—just different music for different places.

I still have the sheet music of his favorite song “Ciribiribin.” It was the signature song for Harry James after he left Benny Goodman and started his own band. It starts out slow and respectable but then Harry James “swings it” and throws in a bunch of triple-tonguing.  The song was incredibly difficult. As Dad would say, “You have to have some chops to play it.” It was jazz, and Dad played it beautifully.

Dad also had a bunch of Louis Armstrong records. Armstrong (Satchmo) grew up in the worst parts of New Orleans and had played everywhere including dance halls and whorehouses. Only looking back on it, do I realize how strange it was for a Nazarene pastor to love his music and gravelly voice.

And only now do I see the gift this was to me. I had a father with a passion for God and a heart big enough for jazz and Jesus. He had an instinct for the common grace that recognizes that all the good in the world comes from the grace of God.

Though I grew up a preacher’s kid, my home never felt cramped by a narrow religiosity. We read everything and took nature walks everywhere. Curiosity was the air we breathed. I never smelled a whiff of anti-intellectualism or the fear of ideas. And when we discovered good things in our broken—but—beautiful culture, Dad and Mom embraced it. Holiness meant wholeness.

I keep harping on this common grace idea because I think the heart and experience of the church should be as big as my Dad’s heart. There should be room for every kind of music. Bars should not be the only place a person can go to hear good jazz. Those who love the arts for their inherent goodness and beauty, not just as another evangelistic strategy, should be valued by the church.

Not that all kinds of music must be part of the worship service. I am not arguing for jitterbugging for Jesus, though that sounds fun.  I simply want all the arts and every kind of artist to find a home in the lives of believers. Whenever we refuse or shut-out anything that is truly good—even if in the world—we shut out God. I long for us to have hearts as big as God who has embedded and embodied his grace in the world.

When I remember the joy on Dad’s face as he played “Ciribiribin,” I realize that faith “don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

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Common Grace on Mount Magazine

Beetles were his passion, the subject of his PhD in entomology, and the focus of his research on Mount Magazine, Arkansas. Teckla and I had seen what looked like billowing sheets tied to trees out by the bluffs that looked over the wooded valleys. He explained that these were his beetle traps. He had been camping on the flat top of the mountain for weeks, gathering specimens and taking notes on their behavior and habitat.

Mount Magazine, he explained, is an ecological island. Because it was the highest point in Arkansas, it contained species of plants and insects found nowhere else in the Midwest. With joy he declared the place a paradise for entomologists.

He invited Teckla and I into his campsite to take a look at the beetles he was studying. Half-apologetically he said, “They are small and not too impressive.” Sure enough, they were just little brown dots in the bottom of a small white box, but a quiet excitement filled his voice. He explained that the larvae of the beetle were completely dependent on certain species of mushrooms,  a kind of russula I think,  that grew on the Mount Magazine. The mushrooms depended on the rains, so theprogress of his research depended on the weather.

Teckla and I, who were camped in the same State Park, left him to his work, but I loved him for loving his beetles. I have no idea whether he was Christian or not, but I felt we had shared a moment of worship as we looked at his beetles. We shared a child-like delight in the extraordinary world God has created. We experienced a moment of what I would now call “common grace.”

Common grace is the goodness of God still found in people because they, even though fallen, are still beings created in God’s image. We all, believers and unbelievers, have a call to be stewards of God’s creation. Common grace is also expressed in the goodness and wonder God has embedded and embodied in creation itself. Therefore as a believer I have common ground with anyone (biologist, geologist, astrophysicist) who responds to  God’s creation with wonder and joy.

This moment of grace regarding beetle-infested mushrooms happened years ago—in the 1980’s–but has stuck in my mind. I have, over the years, learned to value how this concept of common grace enlarges the hearts and the minds of Christians. It gives us room for anything that is truly good and beautiful.

On this high place in Arkansas, we worshiped no false god. We simply joined with God who in Genesis looked at all the “swarming and teeming” creatures He had made and blessed them. With God, we were seeing and declaring “that it is good.”

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The Cold

Recently I wandered the grounds of the Heartland Center, near Kansas City Missouri, in 7-degree weather. The sun was shining but the grass crunched beneath my feet. At night it dropped below zero.

I had been thinking about the cold even before I flew back to Kansas City. Over Christmas break I re-read Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in Prose. I was surprised how the cold gets into the very bones of the story. I was surprised because my memory of the story always summons up visions of a warm Christmas hearth and Tiny Tim blessing everyone. Here is how Dickens describes Christmas Eve:

It was cold, bleak, biting weather—foggy withal; and he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already, –it had not been light all day,–and the candles were flaring in the windows of neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without that, although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms.

It is not just the weather that is cold. Dickens tells us that inside the offices of Scrooge, he “had a very small fire, but the clerk’s [Bob Cratchit] fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal.” Scrooge, of course, is so tight-fisted that the whole office is dark and cold. To stay warmer, Cratchit wears a long white comforter while he works and warms himself with a candle.

Even colder is the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge:

The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rim was on his head, and his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

As Dickens follows Scrooge back to his house (we can’t call it a home), the weather becomes “foggier yet, and colder. Piercing and biting cold.” Scrooge does not mind the dark and cold of his house. Dickens says, “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Inside, Scrooge broods over a low fire, barely able to warm him, and contemplates the face of his dead partner Marley—who he has seen on his door knocker.

Dickens is sometimes accused of sappy sentimentalism, but I am struck by how the cold and dark takes center stage in this classic story of Christmas joy.  But this is how it should be. At Christmas those who “walk in darkness see a great light” (Is.9:2). The fire of God’s love burns brightly in the face of baby in the manger.

Believers are simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic. We doubt the natural goodness of people. The cold and dark are real—and like Scrooge, many people prefer it. As Christians we can look with clear-eyed honesty at the depravity of man—the coldness of the human heart. We, like Dickens, are utter realists.

At the same time, believers are the wildest and most ridiculous optimists because we believe in redemption—the possibility of becoming, like Scrooge did, a new person. After his transformation, Scrooge wished Bob Cratchit a merry Christmas and hollered, “Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

Although we don’t know for certain the dates of Christ’s birth, I like that we celebrate it in December. The greatest light came in the darkest time. Hope and joy warms our hearts during the coldest season. We don’t deny the cold, we light fires.

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The Lion’s Den Delusion

Too many Christians use the story of Daniel’s night in the lion’s den, not his decades in the governor’s office, to define their relationship with the world.

I understand this. I grew up with Bible stories, VBS, Sunday school, and sermons, so whenever anyone says Daniel, I think lions. For church kids like me, Daniel is always the guy God saved from the lion’s den. This is natural because the story about the lion’s den is full of danger and drama. I like this story, but it represents only a small fraction of Daniel’s life.

We hear way less about Daniel as the governor (satrap) in Babylon. After he rightly interpreted a dream of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel was made “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 3:48). Nebuchadnezzar appointed his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, to help him administrate the province of Babylon—the most important province of the empire.

Daniel held important positions throughout his life and served under several kings. In fact, Darius’ plan to appoint Daniel over all the kingdom (6:3) led the other satraps to plot against him. After God shut the mouths of the lions and delivered Daniel, Darius declared the God of Daniel to “be the living God.” After the lion’s den, we are told that Daniel “enjoyed success in the reign of Darius and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (6:28).

Despite the miracle of Daniel’s many years of success in Babylon, evangelical Christians have usually used his lion’s den experience as the paradigm for their relationship to the world. I have called this a “delusion” not because the “lion dens” aren’t a possibility for Christians, but because they aren’t the only one or for most of us, the most likely one.

If our whole approach to working in the world is defined by the lion’s den, we are likely to retreat from involvement in “Babylon”. After King Nebuchadnezzar found Daniel and his Jewish friends intelligent and “endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge,” he ordered them to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. These were not books from the Christian bookstore or CBD; these were probably works celebrating the bad behavior of Babylonian gods (see The Epic of Gilgamesh). The lion’s den delusion would have pushed them to refuse such training. A focus on the prospect of a lion’s den or a fiery furnace would have hindered the progress and promotion of Daniel and his friends.

The constant expectation of persecution can cause followers of Christ to retreat from the positions of influence God wants us to have in the world. Daniel ended up in a position where he had the power to bring justice and wisdom to thousands of people within the province of Babylon. His decisions and policies probably relieved the suffering of a multitude of people. He could have said, “Well, this isn’t Israel and really isn’t part of God’s end-time plan, so who cares! Let’s just wait until we return to Jerusalem.” Instead he did good. Daniel served successfully long after his lion’s den experience. It did not dissuade him from serving God in Babylon. He did not get burned, then retreat.

When we live expecting the world’s hostility, we do less good. Instead we circle our wagons. We take postures, use language, and make assumptions that actually generate hostility. The lion’s den delusion makes us see persecution where it isn’t and play the victim when we aren’t. The delusion tempts us to retreat into our Christian subculture and wait for an end to our exile.

I have spent four years at a state university and over twenty years teaching at a community college. Most of my academic life has been at secular institutions. There have maybe been a few times when my faith and Christian worldview caused trouble for me, but not much. I have usually liked and respected the people I work with. Therefore, I am grieved when I find either Christian students or colleagues who suffer from the lion’s den delusion and are frozen in a posture of fear and hostility toward the world.

I know there are universities and specific departments where Christians would, if they could get hired, face much more persecution and bigotry than I have. However, it has been important for me to resist lion’s den delusion and embrace expectations based on all the rest of Daniel’s life. I expect the wisdom of God’s Word and Spirit to empower me to do genuine good where I work.

Lion dens and fiery furnaces are real. They may even be a probable result for the few put into major positions of authority in the world. When and if they come, it is important to remember God’s faithfulness to deliver us. He will be with us in the fire. However, it is even more important for us to be prepared for a greater trial—a lifetime of effective service in the midst of Babylon. We need to hear more of this story.

If all we are looking for is the lion’s den, we will never be effective enough as leaders (servants of God) to deserve the honor of such a trial. Before we can expect God to shut the mouths of lions, we need to open ours and graciously speak wisdom and justice in Babylon.

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The Angry Teacher

Have you ever seen anger, like a bolt from the blue, explode in teachers known for their gentleness and patience? Perhaps not. Far more common is the slow burn that turns a faithful teacher into a sarcastic misanthrope. This anger erupts in both the church and the classroom. Some of the reasons will always be idiosyncratic and individualized, but the common ones are easy to identify.

First, those with a gift of teaching are often like the workman with only a hammer who sees every problem as a nail. I don’t know if I have gift of teaching—that is for others to say—but I know I have the habit. My conversations slide into numb-minding lectures without warning. I can feel it happening, but can’t stop myself. Because of this instinct to teach, every problem or situation appears to be a learning opportunity. Because of my misdiagnosis of the problem, I am frustrated that my instruction falls on deaf ears. How can my clear and logical explanations not solve everyone’s problems?

The answer is that we are made up of a mind, will, and emotion. More information, no matter how clearly presented, will not solve problems rooted in the will or emotion. Sometimes we simply need someone to go with us—not the directions explained one more time. Often more information outlined with logical precision only intensifies our self-loathing. Friendship sometimes does more than expertise.

Second, teachers often fail to distinguish what can be taught by precept and what must be taught by example. Congregations can be taught the seven keys to spiritual growth again and again without doing much of what they have heard. Teachers often have a “Listen up!” instead of a “Come and see” pedagogy. As has been said, “More is caught, than taught.” This is certainly the case with faith and revival. Long arguments about why we should trust our parachute are not as effective as teachers jumping out of the plane. Sermons on prayer are not as effective as pastors praying. Costly obedience is often a teacher’s best argument for what is true and important.

Third, teachers often fail to take sin and our fall seriously. We act as though people are inherently good and will do what is right once they know what is right. Wrong! Today people approach every social problem as though the problem is a lack of information. It was frustrating when a national study concluded that the D.A.R.E. program had been almost completely ineffective in keeping kids from using drugs. Our faith in education to solve problems has also created classes for anger management, drunk driving, and domestic violence—but no classes in humility and repentance.

It turns out that people often know what is right and wise but choose what is wrong and foolish. Short-term pleasure or convenience often vetoes what a person knows is right. To the surprise of no one—people sin! This makes the progress of students herky-jerky—two steps forward, one back. Or one step forward, faceplant. Teachers should not respond to this brokenness with anger and surprise—as if most of the Old Testament hasn’t warned us about people.

So what then should teachers do? We can begin by admitting that teaching is one of many tools needed to build up the body of Christ. We need exhortation and prophecy. We need those with gifts of mercy and kindness. Some teachers need to give up control and invite the whole body of Christ to minister truth to the hearts of the congregation.

Second, we should recognize that many of the most important truths must be taught by example—made flesh and lived out in the context of a community. Many are learned in the motions of a shared life and pilgrimage. Teachers must sometimes close their books and invite students to come and see.

Third, we must take seriously the parable of the sower whose seed lands on many kinds of soil. The job of the sower is make sure the seed is good and then sow freely. Obsessing about the germination and maturation rates will drive a teacher crazy.

Most important of all is to recognize that we are co-laboring with God. His Spirit is at work in our teaching and way beyond it. Sometimes teachers must simply stop talking and let God speak.

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