Learning about Jesus from my Yogi

No, I’m not creating some sort of new age spiritualism combining Christianity and yoga. Meet my Yogi.

Yogi is the newest member of the pack at my house. He’s a 13 month old Alaskan Malamute that moved in with us two months ago.  Yogi is a rescue that I located through the Washington Malamute Rescue League (WAMAL).  I began working with WAMAL last summer with the idea of getting a new dog that Kenai could train.  I was planning to introduce you to Yogi earlier, but Kenai’s tribute took precedence.

Bringing Yogi into our home was a challenging experience.  My wife isn’t the biggest fan of Mals, after our experience with Kenai (he grew on her, and Yogi is too… but don’t say anything because she’ll deny it).  It took a lot of work to convince her that Kenai wasn’t the norm, and that I’d learned a lot from training him, that would help me integrate a new dog into the house with a lot less stress and drama. Then there were the rest of the members of the house:  in addition to Kenai, we had (still have) two geriatric cats, along with my daughter and son-in-law (who are living with us until they get a house bought here), and their two dogs–a Great Dane and an Italian Greyhound.  Both of these dogs are rescues as well, and come with their own… quirks.  It’s a rather full house, with a higher energy level than we are accustomed to, before you add a 90# puppy.

Yogi arrived just after New Year’s Day, and overall his integration has gone amazingly well.  Yogi is very different from Kenai personality-wise.  Where Kenai was a true Alpha, Yogi is more of a surfer-dude personality.  He’s not interested in being in charge of anything, and just wants to have fun.  I still need to convince him that chasing cats and excavating the backyard aren’t “fun,” but he’s learning.

Yogi, like all Mals, is super-smart.  Almost too smart.  Malamutes are a difficult breed for many people, which is probably why there are so many in rescue situations.  No one can resist the cute fuzzy puppy:

 

Awww, he’s so cuuuutteee…

 

But cuddly becomes less cute when he’s a little bigger, a lot stronger, and bored.  Mals need mental stimulation as well as physical.  If I don’t do something to keep Yogi’s brain busy solving a problem, he creates a problem.

Yogi is a great student-he learns what you teach him on the first try… but he makes you do it twice to determine if you really mean it.  He’s always thinking, always testing rules and boundaries.  It’s really entertaining, unless I’m in a hurry to do something, and he decides to test my boundaries… and patience.  But as I said, I learned a lot from Kenai, and it’s helped me understand Yogi much better.

As I said in the Kenai post, I’ve learned a lot about relating to people, and even about understanding God, from dogs.  The idea for this, and some future posts, is to share what I’m learning about God, from getting to know Yogi better.

The first lesson/observation I made–the one that gave me this idea in the first place–was shortly after Yogi came to live with us.  Yogi is VERY food-motivated.  A dog treat gets his undivided attention, and will cause him to obey just about any command you give.  That can be useful, but eventually you want him to obey commands without knowing there’s a treat involved.  This particular night, I really wanted to give him a treat for no reason… just because.  But I told him to sit.  I had the treat in my hand, but he didn’t know it.  That treat was the thing he wanted most…  And he thoroughly understood the command “sit.”  But part of training a dog is consistency.  You give the prompt once, and you don’t reward any other behavior.

I told Yogi to sit.

He wandered around my closet looking for things to sniff…

He looked under the bed for a cat to torment…

He tried to leave the room…

He knew what I wanted him to do… but he wasn’t going to do it.  He wanted things his way, not realizing that doing what I asked would get him what he wanted more than anything–more than smelly shoes, or hissing cats–a TREAT!!!!!

And I wanted to give it to him!!!  All he had to do was plop his butt down, and doggy nirvana was his.

I was beginning to get frustrated.  I had decided for no particular reason to give him something that would bring him sheer joy.  I wanted to give him a good thing, and his stubbornness was keeping it from happening.

And I laughed.  I wonder how many times God has had a good thing for me, something he wanted to give, something I wanted, but I was too stubborn, too independent, too selfish to realize that I was missing out on something my Good Father wanted me to have.

The Bible says God is “patient.”  The older translations use the word “long-suffering.”  I think that means he puts up with our annoying stubbornness much better than I do Yogi’s.  But how much better would things be if I did what I was asked, instead of doing what I wanted?

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Good People and Bad People

The Christian church in the US (and the western hemisphere) is in undeniable decline. Despite the recent surge of influence of “evangelicals” in our political environment, the reality is that we are less and less likely to be affiliated with Christianity in the US, and the influence of churches is waning. Church leaders have been wrangling with this for several years; numerous explanations have been offered and various approaches to addressing the decline have been discussed. Pockets of change are out there, but as a general rule, the decline continues, and seems to be picking up steam.

I’ve been pondering several things lately, and I think I see something worth considering. The idea started forming when a friend recently talked about a spiritual conversation she’s been having with her 5-year-old daughter. The little girl, who has not been raised in a “Christian” home, informed her mom, “Mommy, when you die you go to Heaven if you are good. When you are bad, you might go to Heck. God says so.” My first reaction was a mix of “how cute” and amazement that a 5-year-old was processing something so complex. Her mom had not taught her this, and was unsure where the little girl picked up the idea.

My second thought was, “NO! You’ve got it all wrong!!!” But, really, she hasn’t. This is in essence what the Church is teaching today. It’s been what the Church was teaching since I was a little boy. Oh, sure, I was told, “God loves you,” but that was peripheral. The message I received for most of my 52 years has been some version of, “when you die you go to Heaven if you are good. When you are bad, you might go to Heck. God says so.” My learned theology was founded on being good enough (which really meant following all of God’s rules well enough) that he loved me, then I could go to Heaven when I die. If I wasn’t good enough, I was bound for Heck, or a less censored version of it.

Tim Keller’s tweet is profound, and points to the idea that I’ve been considering: Maybe the Church is losing members and influence because we’re teaching religion, and not the Gospel. I know as a younger person, I had trouble with the God I’d been taught: He seemed mean. He WAS mean! A God who says, “follow my rules well enough to earn my love, or else I’m going to torture you endlessly”? If a husband or employer behaves like that, we call them an abuser. Why would I want to sign up for that?

Consider it another way: Why would HE want that? Suppose you paid for an “arranged marriage” with a person from a third world country, brought them to the US to live with you, then told them that if they showed you affection, you would treat them well, but if they broke your rules, you would punish them severely. When this spouse hugs you, kisses you, says “I love you,” do they really love you? Or are they following your rules out of fear?

Our God is different. He loves us. Period. He pursues us with love! He offers love to us with no preconditions. We just receive it. This life is not a crucible to be run, in order to win a prize or avoid eternal damnation! It’s an opportunity to know our Father, the one who loves us, cares for us, and wants to be with us.

It was terrifying to me growing up fearing a God who was waiting for me to break the rules so he could smite me. Or even a God who, at the end of my life was going to make a judgement of whether I was “good” or “bad” to determine if my eternity involved a cloud castle, or a lake of fire with barbed-wire floaties. I spent most of my life with some version of that God in my head, and knowing that I couldn’t measure up… I just hoped he wasn’t paying attention to me too closely, or that I lived long enough to shift the scales once I was too old to be bad anymore.

It would be one thing if the God I was taught were true; it’s a travesty (heresy?) that we are teaching this when it’s NOT TRUE!  Can you see how this false God is driving people away from the Church?

You might object that my perception of Christianity isn’t the common one in our culture. I am not going to argue with you; instead I’d ask that you just take a look with fresh eyes. With 5-year-old eyes.

Lessons from a Great Dog

I like metaphors.  They help me put shape to concepts, and often help me see things from different perspectives.  Jesus liked them as well; he often used them to make difficult truths seem understandable.  He would tell a story, or compare his followers to something they could relate to–like a grapevine, or sheep and shepherds–all common elements of 1st Century Jewish culture.

Dogs have been a common element of my life.  I was an only child, and have had at least one dog throughout my life, except for the first two years of my Army career (my platoon sergeant wouldn’t have thought too highly of me having a dog in the barracks).  Dogs help me better relate to people.  I’m not a “dog whisperer,” but I’ve always been “good with dogs.”  I felt like I could relate to them well (go ahead and insert your own joke here… I’ll wait).

I have been thinking about dogs and how they help me relate to people, and to God, a lot in the past few weeks.  We’ve got a new dog, and I’m getting to relate to him a lot while I’m teaching him how to be a part of our family.  I’ve been composing a few posts in my head of ideas he’d revealed to me in this process, and plan to start writing them down soon.  But that’s for another day.  This post is a tribute.  Monday I said goodbye to a pretty special dog.  This is for him.

Part of my early success working with dogs was blind luck.  Most of the dogs I’ve had were Great Danes.  Danes are very much like people–and not just in physical size.  If you can relate to a person, you can probably build a good relationship with a Great Dane.  When my kids were young, we had two amazing Danes-Zeus and Hera.  They were the best family dogs anyone could ask for.  Zeus was 140# of solid muscle, but he took care of his little girl, Shelbi, like she was his baby.  He protected her from other dogs, and strangers passing by, but let her walk him, even though he was twice her size.  Hera was a goof, and loved to play, snuggle, and generally make you laugh.  Hera had some serious health problems, and although several years younger than Zeus, she left us all too soon.

Not too long after Hera died, Shelbi (by then in junior high) came home from a friend’s house, all excited about the puppies her friend’s dog had.  The momma was a Malamute, who had a midnight tryst with the neighbor’s Siberian Husky.  An unrelenting stream of “Daddy, they’re so cuuuuttteee, can we go look at them, please” numbed my brain.  I remember saying, “We don’t know anything about those breeds.”  This was over 12 years ago, so I don’t recall every detail, but I can see us standing in a dark wooded yard, with the momma and one puppy left, a little furball with a lot of energy.  I can hear myself muttering over and over, “we don’t know anything about these breeds” as I was bombarded on three sides (my wife, son, and daughter) with a torrent of “but he’s so cuuuttteee).  I’m pretty sure there were promises to brush him every day, walk him, even in the rain, train him, and buy the dog food with their allowances.  Somewhere in this mindless stupor I relented.  That’s how Kenai became part of our family.

“He’s so cuuutteee”

My concerns were prophetic, but understated.  Kenai turned out to be a whole different species.  Northern breeds are in general a lot closer in behavior to the first animals that strayed from the pack to come into the fire ring with humans.  They’re very strong pack animals, and are a lot less people-like than a Great Dane, or a Golden Retriever.  And, in every pack, there’s occasionally one born who is perfectly wired to be the pack leader.  If you’ve ever watched Cesar Milan, aka The Dog Whisperer, you’ll here him tell people that their dog is being dominant because the people aren’t.  Most dogs don’t want to be the leader, but realize someone has to be.  If their humans aren’t leading the pack, the dog steps up, reluctantly.  But there’s that 1%, whose DNA is coded with “pack leader.”  That was Kenai, but I didn’t realize it.  I just knew he was the most difficult, ill-behaved, obnoxious beast I’d ever been around.  Any promises from kids to care for and train him were quickly abandoned.  This guy was a nightmare-high energy, teeth, and a bad attitude.  We wanted a cuddly little fluff-ball.  We got Cujo.

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Kenai looking over his kingdom, Eagle River, Alaska

He was also a runner.  In more ways than one.  If he was outside, unrestrained,

Washing a muddy Kenai, in the dark, after a game of “chase-the-escapee”

he ran. And ran.  No human was going to catch him, although he found our attempts to do so quite entertaining.  Most of those escapee chases ended in a bath (he liked mud too).

 But he also liked to run on the leash.  While I was nearing the end of my forced running career (at the tail end of my Army days, I no longer had to go to organized PT), I could still put down a pretty healthy pace for 4-6 miles. So I decided that I would run that energy out of him.  Ha!  We could take off for Frye Cove Park, and run the loop multiple times, at a pace that would have my heart rate in the danger zone and my legs burning, and he would finish, look at me, then go tearing through the house like he had just finished warmups.

11 year old Kenai, revisiting his puppy stomping grounds of Frye Cove Park, near Olympia, WA, 2017.

Kenai never understood rain days.  Living near Olympia, Washington, this could be a problem.  I was never a fan of running in the rain, but I was less of a fan of an over-energized Mogwai (amazingly appropriate 1984 pop culture reference).  So we ran.  Every. day.  When we moved back to Alaska, I discovered that cold didn’t bother him either. In fact, he kinda liked it, like he was made for it or something.  So we ran.  Every. day.  25 below zero?  He didn’t care. My best estimates are that over the last 12 years, we logged over 10,000 miles running together.

But running didn’t solve everything.  His aggressiveness was a problem, and I wasn’t very good at dealing with it.  Oh, and by this time, he’d become “my dog.”  Part of that was just because I was the only one big enough to physically handle him, and partly because he had no respect for anyone else in the family, and very little for me.  By this time, Kenai had grown to about 90 pounds of solid muscle. What “respect” he had was based on fear.

Kenai and I after a morning run in Alaska

Kenai had a lot of behavioral issues, including a fierce protectiveness of his food.  Or any food he decided was his.  This lead to a pretty ugly incident where he stole my daughter’s Easter basket, and had it under the desk, devouring the chocolate.  My daughter, out of either a concern for his health, or her own protectiveness of all things chocolate, tried to retrieve it, and Kenai bit her foot.  I came close to killing him on the spot.  I’d always had a rule:  Any dog in our house ever bites anyone, he’s gone.  And I tried to find a new home for Kenai.  We had him on Craigslist for about two weeks, with no response.  He spent a lot of his time in his crate, or outside during this stretch.  In my mind he was already gone.  My daughter was the one who came to me after two weeks, and reminded me of something else I’d always said, “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners.”  So I set out to find someone to help me train Kenai.

Up until this point, I had never watched The Dog Whisperer.  But I found a trainer who came to our house, and she had studied under him.  Part of my homework was to watch the shows, and in the process I realized that my lack of understanding was making Kenai a problem.  Cesar uses the phrase “rehabilitating dogs, training people.”  That was exactly what I needed.  In the process, I learned to understand what Kenai needed, what he was telling me, and how to lead him.  It was a LOT of work.  For most of his life, I said, “I’ll never get another Northern breed.”

But we ran together.  Every morning.  For 12 years.  No matter what was going on, all I had to say was “Go for a run?” and his eyes lit up, the problems went away, and he was looking for the leash.  And slowly, we became closer.

Kenai in napping his natural habitat

After seven years in Alaska, our pack relocated to South Florida.  Kenai enjoyed the road trip, but we were concerned that a true Alaskan dog was going to have a hard time adapting to the Florida weather and lifestyle.  Kenai enjoyed the snow, and the mountains.  He chased moose and bear out of our yard, and occasionally stood on the hill, howling along with a wolf pack that ranged the valley below.

“Retired” Kenai napping in the Florida sun, with his “sister”Jillian

Kenai took to Florida.  He actually enjoyed the heat.  He would nap on the back patio, soaking the warmth into his aging joints.  His disposition improved too.  He was mellower, and although he never became “cuddly”, he’d occasionally seek out a friendly pet on the head.  We jokingly said that Kenai was the first Northern breed to have Seasonal Affective Disorder.

A year ago, as we moved back to Washington, Kenai was really starting to show signs of aging.  He had arthritis in his hips, and I had to stop taking him on runs because he would drag his back toes until they bled.  He wouldn’t stop running, he just couldn’t control his legs well enough to not hurt himself.  We downgraded to walking, which he still managed 2-4 miles per day.  Raining or not.  By this fall, the walks were getting shorter, and the stairs in our house were becoming a challenge.  This past weekend, I could see it in his eyes.  It wasn’t fun anymore.  He was never going to give up, but his body was giving up on him.  We spent the weekend saying goodbye, taking slow walks, and spending time rehearsing memories.  Monday morning we took one last ride.  As I laid with him on the vet’s office floor, with him sedated and resting before the vet came in, I was trying to whisper “happy” words to him.  I assumed he was pretty well out of it, and figured it was safe to say “go for a run.”  His eyes snapped open, his ears perked up, and for just a moment the face was that of an energetic pup.  I smiled through tears.

When the vet came in to administer the injection, Kenai was sound asleep.  She was going to use a back leg for the injection.  All of his life, Kenai was pretty adamant that people weren’t allowed to touch him unless he okayed it, and then only on his head.  On rare occasions you could pet his shoulders, but anything else got you a rather stern growl-warning.  Even with me, if I had to do anything to his legs, or heaven forbid touch his belly, teeth were slashing and he was having nothing to do with it.  Grooming and toenail trimming were a significant emotional event. Even under heavy sedation, in the twilight of his life, when the doctor grabbed his back leg, he came to, and firmly explained that he didn’t approve of ANYONE touching his legs.

Kenai was a great dog.  He wasn’t an angel; far from it.  But he was my devoted companion.  And, in the process of learning to be a pack together, he taught me much.  This has already been a long post, but if I didn’t share some of the lessons, it would not be clear what made him a great dog.  I’ve had good dogs all my life, and Kenai really wasn’t a good dog.  But he changed me more than any other dog has, and that’s why I say he was great.

Lessons from a Great Dog

  • Love is a verb, not an emotion.  Many Christians know this fact.  The “love” we read about in the Bible is most often an English translation of the Greek word agape.  It is about self-sacrificial action that benefits the other.  I knew that bit of information, but Kenai made me really experience it.  The “feelings” of love for a cute fuzzy puppy fade with destroyed belongings and bad behavior.  Loving Kenai took work.  The funny thing about agape love is that while self-sacrifice doesn’t sound very appealing, certainly not as appealing as the infatuation of a new romantic love, this love is ultimately the most rewarding.  Kenai was often a jerk.  There were times when you knew he was going to try to bite you (like toenail clipping time).  He was often deliberately disobedient.  I loved him not because he was good.  I loved him because he was him. His behavior never caused me to love him any less, even when he had me so mad I couldn’t see straight.
  • Lordship is not domination; submission is not subjugation.  Growing up, I always had trouble with the idea of a God who wanted me to completely submit to him.  I had thoughts of complete power and utter powerlessness.  Quite honestly, this was how I treated most of my dogs before Kenai.  Not abusively or inhumanely, but I “owned” them.  Kenai wasn’t about to be owned, and the more I tried to dominate him, the more difficult he became.  As I learned to lead him, to act in his best interest, understanding him and wanting him to thrive, not just obey, he began to submit. Not a subjugation to me out of fear of my power, but out of a recognition that he could be more himself, and live a more enjoyable life, with me holding the leash.  At that point, when he knew he could trust me, I found I could trust him.  Then he could run off-leash, because I knew he wanted to come back.  Our walks and runs were different too.  At first the leash was a tool of captivity and enforcement–that’s how I controlled him.  Those days, the leash was taut; he was pulling, or being pulled.  But the leash became a means of communication; it’s how I told him where we were going, and at what pace.  It’s how he told me when he needed to pee, or that there was the most amazing aroma coming from that particular tree.  The leash was still there, but it was slack.  We were working together.
  • The most effective leadership is empowerment, not control.  When I learned to know what he was thinking, what he was trying to do, what was important to him, I could align his goals and mine.  When that happened, we were both working together.  He wasn’t out front pulling me to his objectives.  I wasn’t out front dragging him to mine.  We were moving side-by-side, enjoying each other’s presence, accomplishments, and the journey itself.

The Bible is disappointingly silent on what happens to our pets.  Disney says “all dogs go to heaven.”  Kenai taught me so much about my relationship with God, that I believe God’s gotta have a special place in his heart for Kenai.  I’m going to believe that Kenai has found a good trail in heaven, and he’s running free, waiting for me to catch up with him.  That would be my idea of heaven.

Thanks for everything, Buddy Bear.  I’ll miss you until we meet again.

From Heritage and Hate to Legacy of Love

I started this series talking about my heritage, and how my upbringing led me to be a member of the “Heritage, Not Hate” crowd.  I did so with two hopes:

  1. To help those who cannot comprehend how a person displaying a Confederate flag can claim they are not racist,
  2. To help folks with backgrounds like me to consider how we might be hurting others without realizing it.

I am hoping that some might choose to pursue a journey of understanding similar to mine.  I’ll warn you up front, it’s not a fun trip.  You’ll find yourself between two warring factions, understanding, yet disagreeing (in some aspects) with both sides. You’ll be frustrated, misunderstood, attacked and condemned, sometimes by your own friends.  Not the greatest sales pitch, is it?  Best answer I have for why you should walk this route comes from my faith.  If you’re not a Jesus follower, this might be meaningless to you, but you may have a similar principle in your faith background.  But Jesus told his followers, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

In Part 3 I explored the idea of “heritage” and the key point that “you have exactly zero input into your heritage.”  Heritage is inherited from our ancestors-it is what they did, not what we did.  Today I want to explore the other side of the “heritage” coin.  We call the coin our ancestors made our heritage, but the other side of that coin is their legacy. You have nothing to do with forming your heritage, but everything to do with forming your own legacy–what you hand down to future generations.  You choose your own legacy.

The legacy I’ve chosen is one of love, of peacemaking.  “That’s a nice sentiment, Greg, but it’s not going to change the world we live in.  This has been going on for centuries.”  I will agree that it’s easy to look around, and become overwhelmed with a sense of doom.  We’ve been fed a pretty steady diet of fear and defeatism. But here’s the thing:  While I might not be able to change the world, I can change the world around me.  Jesus called his followers to be peacemakers, not to set us up for an impossible task, but precisely because it is possible!

How?  Good question.  I don’t have all, or even most of the answers.  But I offer a few things that have helped me.

learn

“If you never leave the small comfortable ideological circle that you belong to, you’ll never develop as a human being.” -Malcolm Gladwell¹

“Read one thinker and you become a clone.  Read two and you become confused.  Read a hundred and you start to become wise.” -Tim Keller

Unfortunately, what passes for learning in our culture today often is simply reinforcing what we already know or believe.  If I keep reading the same books, or blogs, from the same authors whose ideas I already approve, all I’m going to learn is how to embed the same ideas more deeply into my thoughts.  Repetition of a thought is critical if you want it to become something that you call forward without thinking, but it’s not “learning.”

Read things you disagree with!  This is hard, but it’s key to learning.  If your news feed doesn’t include at least one or two sources that are from the other side of the ideological aisle, you’re becoming a clone.  I’m not saying you have to go totally extreme.  But if your thoughts and perspectives on a subject aren’t challenged, they’ll remain shallow.

With respect to the discussion of heritage, and race in our country, take the time to read things from the “other side.”  A couple of suggestions:

  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.  Written over 100 years ago by the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, who founded the NAACP, this is a great look at the history of black Americans in the initial decades after their emancipation.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  Written in 2012, this book looks at the legacy of Jim Crow laws, and how the underlying biases have carried through despite the advancements in civil rights of the late 20th Century.
  • Don’t want to buy a book?  Pick some topics and read the Wikipedia posts for free.  Start with Jim Crow Laws, Emmitt Till, Lynching, 1917 East St. Louis Riots. This last one was eye-opening to me, because it happened near where I grew up, less than 50 years before I was born, and yet it didn’t once get mentioned in school, not even in my state-mandated Missouri History class in high school.

Beyond reading, I recommend listening.  Not just to podcasts and famous speakers, but also to those around you.  Really listen.  Remember the story about SPC Marshall in Part 2? I learned from her because I took the time to consider her perspective.  I could have easily dismissed it, because it didn’t align with my own, and simply told her what I really meant, and called it good, because I had taught her “truth.”  That route would have left me continuing to believe what I believe, and reinforced her beliefs as well.  We’d have both been worse off.

If you don’t get “Black Lives Matter,” ask them.  And listen.  Especially in light of the history and personal experiences you may not be aware of.  Consider that the white person in the Midwest who is railing against immigration may have very legitimate concerns that aren’t driven by an ideology of racial superiority.  Discover why “systemic racism” and “white privilege” are not condemnations of personal character.

live

Add some variety to your life.  Ruts are easy, but pretty much guarantee things won’t change.  Think in new ways.  Here are three ideas:

  • Stop “winning.”  Start “excelling.”  Don’t mistake this for “everybody gets a trophy.”  Winning is measured against an opponent.  To win, someone else has to lose.  Excellence is measured against a standard.  The Latin word literally means “beyond lofty.”  When I was in the infantry, we had an award we could earn called the “Expert Infantry Badge.”  One of the tasks was to complete a 12 mile road march carrying a 35# pack and weapon, in under 3 hours.  It’s a difficult task, and in theory, 10 soldiers could finish the road march, but not make it in the 3 hour time limit.  The first one across the line still “won”, but none of them “excelled.”  Conversely, in an “excellent” unit, all 10 might come in under three hours.  When we set our standards as beating the next guy, winning can be as easy as choosing an inferior opponent.  If my goal is to beat the clock, I have to push myself.  If my goal is to beat you, I can just push you in a ditch.
  • Ask a brilliant question.  When you find yourself ready to disagree, to fight for your (correct) position, ready to condemn those ridiculous fools on the other side, ask this question:  “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act that way?”²  Part of the problem with the polarization we see in our country today stems from the mindset that everyone agreeing with me is a genius, and those who don’t are either idiots or devious evil people bent on all us good folks’ destruction.  In truth, the vast majority are reasonable people.  Rational people.  Decent people.  So, if they’re acting contrary to my way of thinking, that means there is a good chance they have a reasonable, decent explanation.  If you begin there, and then ask, they’ll be likely to share, and you can learn.  If you aren’t in a position to ask, check yourself, because you’re likely about to head down a dangerous, divisive road.  You’ve already started forming a story in your head to explain the action.  Most likely, that story begins with a belief that the actor isn’t reasonable, rational, or decent.  Once you re-start the story, you might find a plausible explanation, or at least be open to one.  Most of the people you disagree with, really aren’t the enemy.  They’re not even necessarily wrong.
  • Get out of the box.  This goes along with learning by listening.  Too many of us are living such a homogenous life that we can’t listen to diverse voices because we don’t have any in our circle.  When’s the last time you had a person of color as a guest in your home?  Had coffee with someone from outside your political, social, economic circle?  Be deliberate about making friends with people different than you.  Sure it’s awkward, but if it’s genuine, people will appreciate your willingness to reach out.  You’ll discover that most people are just waiting to be invited in-but someone has to be bold enough to be the inviter.

love

One of the most overused, misinterpreted words in English.  I’m referring to sacrificial love; not an emotion but an action, a choice that says, “I value the wellbeing of others more than I do my own.”  Love says, “I want to see you excel.”  Then love surrenders some of oneself in order to actually make it happen.

Call me naïve, but consider history.  When real cultural change has occurred, strength and power didn’t achieve it.  Military force or threat of violence doesn’t make someone think differently.  Power might subdue someone, but it won’t make them your friend.  Loving those who aren’t like you is the most counter-intuitive, objectionable answer there is;  And it’s the only answer that actually brings about real, positive change.³

What about you?  Have you seen people change for the better?  Have you experienced change in your own perspective?  What has worked?  What are you struggling with?  Let’s keep the discussion going. Drop a note in the comments.  Help us all learn.


¹ Malcolm Gladwell is an author and speaker that I’ve just started listening to.  His podcast is called “Revisionist History.”  If you want to be exposed to some new thoughts, I highly recommend it.

² I stole this question from Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. This book is probably second only to the Bible in helping me change how I view and interact with others.  It has helped me become a better problem-solver and communicator.  Even if you don’t want to change the world, it’ll make you a better employee, spouse, friend.  It’s really that good.

³ If you’re a Jesus follower, love isn’t an option.  It’s a command; Jesus says it’s how the world will know you are a Jesus follower.  It’s your identity.  Beyond the “spiritual” aspect, consider Roman history.  The world’s most powerful country, a pagan empire that oppressed and killed Christians to defend its emperor-religion, became a “Christian nation” in just a few hundred years, not through force, but in spite of it.

Jesus-follower? Here’s some clarity on what our Lord says about Refugees

This article, published in “The Gospel Coalition,” is adapted from a speech the author gave in May 2016.  He does an excellent job laying out a Biblical foundation for bringing refugees into the US.  No tweetable platitudes here–sound theology.

I do have one disagreement though–In the author’s fourth “Biblical truth”: “Though God generally establishes government for the protection of all people, he specifically commands his church to provide for his people”, I believe the author provides an unsupportable excuse to prefer Christian refugees over non-Christians.  I don’t believe a comprehensive reading of Jesus allows his followers to show preference.

  • The author supports his point with one passage from Matthew 25, focusing on the word “brothers” when Jesus says that what we do, or don’t do, for the least of these, we did, or didn’t do for him.  The Greek word translated “brother” in this passage has a base meaning of “flesh and blood male sibling,” but culturally the Jews used it to mean fellow Jews, and the Greeks and Romans of the day used it to mean “compatriots.”  Taken by itself, one could infer, as the author does, that Jesus was talking about taking care of fellow disciples of Jesus.  But we shouldn’t interpret a stand-alone passage of Scripture to build a comprehensive understanding of Jesus’ way of thinking.  Consider other teachings of his:
  • In Luke 10 we read Jesus teaching one of his most well-known stories–the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells of a man who is beaten, robbed, and left on the side of the road.  His fellow Jews, his “brothers,” pass by without helping, because they have good legal or religious reasons not to help.  A hated enemy, from a race of people whom the Jews of the day considered inferior people, stops and goes to great trouble and personal expense to help the wounded Jew, even though society would say he was well in his right to leave the Jew to die.  The story by itself should convict us, but it is important to note why Jesus tells the story:  He’s answering a question.  A religious expert asks Jesus what the man must do to earn God’s favor.  Jesus asks the man what the Scriptures say.  The man replies with the correct answer:  Love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus tells the man that he has given a good answer, but the man isn’t satisfied, because this answer is too open-ended.  It requires self sacrifice. The man seeks to clarify, asking, “And who is my neighbor?”  The man is looking for a way out–a way to show that he is good enough for God, without having to sacrifice.  THAT is when Jesus tells the story.  He ends the story with a question back to the religious man:  “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed–his fellow Jews, or the low-life?”  When the man answers, “The one who had mercy on him,” Jesus affirms his understanding by saying, “Go and do likewise.”
  • In the teaching on the Good Samaritan, Jesus is explicitly answering the question, “who is my neighbor (or brother)?”  Earlier in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and teachings, Jesus makes a similarly difficult point:  “Love your enemy.”  This passage is one that gets a lot of “interpretation” (read qualifying) to help make it more palatable.  A straight-forward reading of the text is pretty easy to comprehend, and totally incongruent with what we believe to be “right.”  A more nuanced reading, with the benefit of some Greek background and cultural understanding of Jesus’ day makes this even more difficult to swallow.  Jesus isn’t talking about “enemy” like a foreign army.  He’s talking about anyone who isn’t “in your circle.” To his immediate audience, this was anyone outside your family, or your community, and even outside the Jewish religion.  When he says “love,” Jesus doesn’t mean to have warm feelings for them; Jesus is saying “do good things for them, even when it isn’t in your best interest to do so!” In case you want to argue with him, he even expounds on his point in the latter part of the passage, saying, “Don’t be proud of yourself for loving those who are in your circle–even evil people do that.  My followers will love those who are outside their circle!” And then he drives the point home:  “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  We were all outside God’s circle, but he sacrificed so we could be brought back in–he sacrificed at a great price.
  • Full disclosure:  I despise the thought of Christians being killed because they are follow Jesus.  It makes me sad, angry, and vengeful, to be honest.  Nik Ripken, a former missionary to Somalia who has extensively studied Christianity in closed cultures, writes in his book “The Insanity of Obedience: Walking with Jesus in Tough Places” that these martyred Christians have a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings than we do!  When Jesus teaches in his Sermon on the Mount,

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

he is telling us to “Rejoice and be glad!”  In another teaching, Jesustells us that he is sending us out like “sheep among wolves.” He’s not telling us to be mindless here, because he follows that statement with the directive to be as shrewd as snakes, but innocent as doves.”  However, he also tells a parable in Luke 15 about how important it is for people who don’t know Jesus to be connected to him.  He tells a story of a man who has 100 sheep, but loses one.  He leaves the 99 in the open country (where they are most susceptible to attack) to go find the one.  He tells of the man calling all his neighbors to celebrate when he finds the one, and then says, “In the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” 

While I’m in no way wishing martyrdom on any Christian, could it be that if Jesus wants us to show preference to refugees, that we should be more concerned with providing refuge to those who don’t know him than those who do?  As Ripken describes in his book, many Arabic Christians who have converted from Islam point out that American Christians are soft.  They are more concerned with getting former Muslims to safety outside their Arabic nation, but the Arab understands that Jesus has called him to risk his life to tell his Muslim brother the Good News!  Rather than taking these indigenous missionaries out of the country, perhaps we should be preferring (if any religious preference is indeed necessary) to provide refuge to Muslims who can then experience the life-saving love of Jesus!

If you’re not a Jesus follower, I don’t expect you to agree with this.  I’m ok with you disagreeing, because you aren’t claiming to submit yourself to Jesus’ teachings and leadership.  But if you call yourself a “Christian”, literally a “little Christ,” I would encourage you to examine whether you are showing beliefs and attitudes that are more in line with Jesus’ teaching, or with a need for safety and security.

Merry Christmas from the Inn

It’s been a while, and this isn’t really a deep post, but it’s more than a Facebook comment for friends.  I hope everyone is having an amazing, perfect Christmas, but the reality is, most folks aren’t.  Lots of people are hurting, missing someone, worried about finances, their future, their children, or a hundred other fears.  They might be battling depression, or just overwhelmed by the difficulties of life, and more than a little irritated that no matter how they try, they can’t seem to get a break.  This time of year it’s especially hard, because, you know, you’re supposed to be HAPPY!

As I’ve been contemplating the Christmas story this year, I have been drawn to thinking about it from Joseph’s perspective.  He was a good man.  He always did the right thing, to a fault.  He worked hard, and tried to honor his girlfriend even though the world said he should publicly humiliate her for cheating on him.  Then, God sent a messenger with a crazy message-he was supposed to keep her, and raise the boy as his own, even though he was God’s son.

Sometimes when we’re doing exactly what God wants us to do, we expect everything to be easy and go our way.  I’m guessing Joseph did too.  But he got ostracism, gossip, shunning by the people of his community.  Every day.  And, just when it couldn’t get any worse, he gets ordered to travel to be counted (and taxed) by the oppressive government.  With a 9 month pregnant wife.

I can hear him shouting in desperation, “Seriously God?”  (Joseph sounds a lot like me in my imagination, and I’ve been saying that a lot lately).

I can’t imagine traveling with a 9 month pregnant lady, on foot, for days.  It can’t be good. I suspect the conversation was more than a little strained.  Hours of long walking in silence, rehearsing conversations, counting frustration on frustration…  And then they get to Bethlehem, and there isn’t even a decent place to stay to have the baby.

There’s no record of any other divine communication to Joseph after that initial visit from the angel.  He’s had 9 months to second-guess himself, to doubt what God was doing, to consider how lousy his situation is, when all along he was doing the right thing.  There was one thing that was undeniably real.  There was a baby.

Our nativity scenes and Charlie Brown Christmas Specials really skew our understanding of that event.  The multitude of heavenly host didn’t show up at the birth; from what we can read, there was no angelic presence at all at the manger.  The shepherds got to hear the angels worshipping; all Joseph got that day was a visit from a bunch of smelly low-lifes who claimed to have seen angels.  That was Joseph’s only confirmation that the promises were coming true.

Joseph’s “Christmas Story” wasn’t a “happy holiday.”  But God was working.  And even when we can’t see it, he can reassure us that we are on track, even by the least-likely of messengers, if we will listen.

“Merry Christmas” doesn’t always mean “Happy Christmas.”  “Merry” would be better translated as “joyful” because joy isn’t dependent on feelings or emotions, or even circumstances.  Joy is the reality of being in God’s will, doing what he made you to do.  Joy is always available, even when you have no reason to be happy.

I truly hope your Christmas is happy, but I pray it is joyful.

 

and God knew

Haven’t posted in a while.  It’s a crazy season, both nationally and personally, and I hold to the Thumper-rule:  “If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.” OK, I try to hold to that rule.

Today, I can say something that, if not “nice”, should at least be encouraging.

My Bible reading this morning included the first two chapters of Exodus.  The Cliff Notes version:

Chapter 1:  A whole lot of time passes between the death of Joseph and the birth of Moses (We’ll leave the specific amount of time to another discussion).  During that time, a new Pharaoh took over, and decided that the Israelites who were welcomed during Joseph’s time, had become too numerous, and were now a threat to the Egyptians.  The Pharaoh declared first that they would be treated harshly as slaves, and when that didn’t decrease their numbers, he decreed that every male baby should be killed at birth.

Chapter 2:  This chapter only covers 80 years, and if you’ve watched the Charlton Heston movie, you know this story:  Moses is born to an Israelite slave couple.  His mom hides him for 3 months, then decides she can’t hide him anymore, puts him in a basket in the river, where his sister watches while Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby.  Pharaoh’s daughter gives baby Moses back to his mom to nurse him. When he’s older, she takes young Moses into Pharaoh’s house and raises him as her own son.  Fast-forward to 40-year-old Moses, a member of Pharaoh’s household, who also knows that he’s of Hebrew descent, goes for a walk in the brick yard, sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and kills the Egyptian, hides the body, and apparently is not found out.  The next day, when he interrupts two Hebrew slaves fighting each other, they get mad at him, he suddenly becomes paranoid that he’s going to be found out for the murder, and runs away into the desert to the land of Midian.  There he marries the daughter of a shepherd, and spends the next 40 years unremarkably watching sheep for his father in law.  The last three verses of the chapter tell us that Pharaoh dies, and the Israelites cry out to God about their oppression in Egypt. God hears their cries, and remembers his promise to Abraham to make Israel a great nation.

I’ve read this account countless times, and seen Charlton Heston act it out several more.  What stood out to me today was the last verse of Chapter 2, and particularly the last three words.  Today I was reading from the English Standard Version (ESV), and it translates Exodus 2:25 as, “God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

“and God knew.”  That’s interesting.  I couldn’t recall ever reading that before.  I pulled out “old faithful,” my worn NIV (84 version) and read the verse, where those translators converted verse 25 to the English, “So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” That sounded a lot more familiar!  In fact, I had looked at that verse many times, and thought, “What a primitive understanding of God.”

It always seemed as if the writer is giving the impression that God forgot about his promise to Abraham, and the fact that his chosen people, Abraham’s descendants, were being beaten as slaves for over 80 years, and then one day he said, “Oh, I wonder how they’re doing?  I seem to hear them carrying on about something.  I should check on them. They may be having some sort of difficulty.”

Now, I hold to a view of God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere at the same time, so I am certain that he hadn’t become unaware of the plight of the Israelites.  I just chalked the peculiar language up to the fact that the writer of Exodus didn’t really have as complete an understanding of God as us modern folks do (that’s a joke, by the way).

“and God knew.”  OK, now my curiosity was piqued.  I needed to know more.  It turns out the Hebrew word translated by the ESV as “knew” and by the NIV as “was concerned about them” is yada. This is a complex Hebrew word that has a lot of variation of meanings in the 944 times it is used in the Old Testament.  Without going into all of the variations, it is safe to say that both translations are accurate interpretations of what the word could mean.  Being “concerned about them” fits within the various meanings of yada, but “know” hits the primary meaning.

“and God knew.”  As a parent, this resonated with me.  As we watch our children mature, we sometimes see them experience something for the first time, and we understand their experience better than they do. Often, we understand what they’re going to experience before they get there.  Imagine a teenager in their first romantic relationship.  They are “in love,” but parents know…  There is going to be infatuation;  sickeningly-sweet, life-long commitment; and eventually the  devastation that elicits sobs of, “I can’t live without him (or her)!”

“and God knew.” As that parent, we can’t intervene, we can’t stop the process, we can’t lessen the pain.  We can warn, we can cajole, we can make crazy threats and buy “Dads Against Daughters Dating” t-shirts, but no matter how much we would like to spare them (and us) of the experience, we have to let it play out.  But we know. We let the scenario play out, standing back, but watching intently, knowing that there will be a time when the lovelorn child cries out to us in anguish, and we are ready to step in and comfort.

“and God knew.” God hadn’t lost track of the Israelites.  He hadn’t become distracted, and suddenly realized he’d left them alone.  He knew. He was there, ready, waiting for them to cry out.

“and God knew.” Not only was he waiting, but he was prepared!  Read Exodus 2, or at least my summary above, again.  How plausible is this story?  A Levite couple (the family that priests come from) hide a baby. The king’s daughter finds it, and says, “Hey, Dad!  I found a baby today while I was taking a bath.  It was one of the Hebrew babies you are trying to kill.  Right after I found it, there was a girl standing there who said she could find a slave woman to nurse it for me, so I gave the baby back to her.  When he’s weaned, I am going to bring him here and I’ll raise him like he was my own baby, ‘K?”

Then, when the 40-year-old Hebrew/Pharaoh man kills somebody, he runs away into the desert and hides in another country for 40 years.  So a guy with a top-flight education, military training and leadership experience sits on a brown mountain for 40 years watching sheep do sheep-stuff, until one day when God randomly finds this perfect candidate to take on Pharaoh and lead hundreds of thousands of slaves to freedom from the world’s greatest power.  That’s only plausible if there is an unseen power directing the events.

“and God knew.”  In Jeremiah 1:5, God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew (yada) you; and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  God had given Jeremiah a purpose before he gave him a heartbeat.  Exodus 2 is a story that God authored before “In the beginning…”  I am always hesitant to try to determine or explain God’s purposes, but if we look at Exodus 2, it would appear that God needed to get the Israelites miserable enough in their current situation that they’d be willing to go through the hardship, fear, and unknown of leaving Egypt for a “promised land” that they’d only heard stories about.  And while they were getting good and miserable, God needed to raise up a leader, train him, and then shield him from the misery until the time was right.

“and God knew.” There is a lot of turmoil in our world, our nation, our cities, and even in our own homes right now.  My wife and I are facing an exciting, but terrifyingly uncertain future as we prepare to move across the continent to a city we’ve never lived in, to start a church in a place that doesn’t perceive a whole lot of use for Christians or God.  Oh, and the cost of living is higher, starting a church isn’t real lucrative, and my retirement savings is depleted after 3 years of being a volunteer (that’s Hebrew for unpaid) pastor. Things are looking pretty chaotic, unorganized, and… impossible.  Some of my friends are facing uncertainties much greater than mine.  They’ve lost their health, livelihood, or even their spouse, or father, way too soon.  There’s no way this can work!  In their more honest moments, they might even tell you that they might not want it to work.  It’d be easier to just quit.  And if you take the time to sit in their place for a minute, you can see how they think that.

“and God knew.”  God didn’t take away the Israelites misery.  In fact, he used it to move them.  He was standing close by, watching, waiting for their cry, and at just the right moment he sent the leader he had begun preparing (on earth) 80 years prior.  Truth is, if you consider how quickly the Israelites were ready to abandon the Exodus and return to slavery in Egypt, he probably should have let them get a little more miserable before sending Moses.  But he knew.

And he still does.  The Israelites never got all the answers, and their suffering didn’t magically go away.  In some ways, life got harder once they were freed from slavery.  But God was with them, watching over them, knowing them, throughout their time in slavery, their time of testing in the desert; always watching, acting at just the right moment.

“and God knows.”  Wherever you are today, whatever you are enduring, or fearing, or mourning, he still knows.