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 wantedto 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?
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.
How Religion Works: If I obey, then God will love and accept me.
The Gospel: I’m loved and accepted, therefore I wish to obey.
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.
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.
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.
He was also a runner. In more ways than one. If he was outside, unrestrained,
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
One of the things I appreciate about Facebook is its “On This Day” feature. It can serve as a great reminder of what we’ve accomplished, overcome, and experienced. Diaries used to do that, or, if you’re a guy, “journals.” Facebook just makes it more convenient.
My “on this day” from a year ago includes two posts. The first from 2:32 am was a lengthy quote from Psalm 37 (vs 1-8). The time gives you a little idea of my state of mind–I couldn’t sleep. The second was from 4:06 pm:
To clarify what is buried in another post and cryptic replies:
Our house deal is officially a bust. We are starting over. It was a long, difficult process that at the end the seller refused to close or comply with other contract terms. As much as my nature is to fight, hold people accountable, punish wrongdoing, and generally be real-estate Batman, we have decided to walk away.
No clue as to what is next, but we are trusting God for the right house at the right time.
That’s my “stiff-upper-lip” voice. The words were carefully chosen to not betray the devastation that Kelli and I felt. I was a volatile mix of enraged and inconsolable. The house deal I referred to was supposed to be the culmination of a months’ long process where we sold our house in Florida, moved across the country to Tacoma, Washington, because God told us to come out here, become part of this city, and start a new church. When I wrote these posts, our stuff had been in storage for about 2 months. We had been living in a hotel for more than 6 weeks. The deal that was originally to close on November 1 had been pushed to December 28th. We endured delays, lies, and thousands of dollars of unrecoverable expense because we were certain that THIS house was part of God’s crazy plan–and because there was NO viable “plan B”. On December 28, 2016, we found out we didn’t even have a Plan A.
Lots of friends encouraged us; the general sentiment was “God must have a better plan.” That sounds great, unless you’re the one living in the hotel, with a dog, two cats, and a wife that’s had more than enough. I second-guessed everything I thought I knew about the journey that had brought us to that moment.
“Seriously, God? We stepped out, big time, obeying you and putting everything on the line. And THIS is how you reward us?”
I’ll spare you the rest of that rant. It’s not the best example of how a devoted Jesus follower should talk.
While I truly appreciated our friends’ encouragement, it didn’t help much. I’d said similar words to others, knowing they were true, and in a small corner of my mind, I hung desperately on the belief that they had to be true now, too. But it didn’t help much. I knew that we were looking at another 6-8 weeks of hotel living, and couldn’t imagine a better option than the one we had lost out on. We looked at EVERY house that came on the market. Nothing was even mildly interesting, let alone something to get excited about. Every option was literally, “can we make this acceptable enough to not hate coming home every day.”
It was almost two weeks later when an open house showed up that looked promising. Not exactly the same neighborhood we were looking in, but close. We went by after touring a rapidly filling new apartment complex that we could get into immediately… an apartment. We were that desperate. We went to the open house, just in case.
This is it: Our 1907-built Craftsman home is more than we could have hoped for, and waaayyyy better than what we lost out on.
On THIS day, one year later, I’m incredibly happy that the events of 365 days ago happened. I run past the first house fairly regularly. We would be miserable there. It was too small, the street is much narrower, my garage wouldn’t have come close to being what I needed, let alone as amazing as what I have now. We wouldn’t have had room to let my parents, and then our kids, live with us while they are looking for a place to live nearby.
Proverbs 3:5-6 is a verse that a lot of us Jesus followers memorize. You may have even seen it on a desk calendar or motivational poster. I like the Message version:
Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.
A year later, everything’s not perfect. There’s still no church. I don’t even know how that’s going to happen; everything I’ve attempted to make it happen over the past 12 months has been unsuccessful. But I have had a great year nonetheless. I’ve been able to spend time with my family, make new friends, serve my new neighborhood, and most importantly, I’ve gotten at least a little closer to God, which helps me better trust him. And I’m learning that’s what he really wants: me to be closer to Him.
As we approach the New Year, I pray that this past year has been one of good things for you, and that better things are ahead. I hope you’re not in the same boat I was one year ago, when everything seemed hopeless. But if you are, I encourage you to believe that God is keeping you on track. Listen for his voice, trust Him. He loves you. Believe it.
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.
Fewer and fewer people are doing anything outside of their normal Friday routine today. As the US becomes less bound to the Christian tradition, less of its people recognize that this week is the most important week on the Christian calendar, and that today is known as “Good Friday.”
As a kid, that name boggled my mind. Now that I’m older and wiser, it still boggles my mind. Shouldn’t it be “Good Sunday” and “Really Bad Friday?” Now, before you start going all theological on me, I’m going to ask that you take off your spiritual glasses for a moment, and look at this story like most of the world would. Jesus, the focal point of the Christian faith, is nailed to a cross (don’t gloss over that, just because you’ve heard it a million times–let it sink in for a minute) and he dies.
How can that be “good?” As a kid, well-meaning family members and Sunday School teachers explained to me how it was necessary to satisfy God, to make up for all the bad things I had done, for Jesus to die.
“Why?” young Greg asks.
“Because that’s the way the penalty is paid.”
“So the guy who didn’t do anything wrong had to die to make up for me telling lies and stealing cookies?”
“Who made those rules?”
“Well that’s a dumb rule… But Jesus is dead, and that’s why we call it ‘Good Friday?’ ”
“I think I hear your mother calling you…”
Dead Jesus certainly didn’t seem to make sense to 10-year-old Greg. It didn’t make sense to Peter, James, John, or the rest of Jesus’ followers. In fact, it was so far from logical, let alone “good” that it had to be the worst day of all of their lives.
Today, no one gives a lot of thought to the execution of Jesus on the cross. Christians might acknowledge it when they say “Jesus died for me,” but most don’t think about it any more deeply than they do “2+2=4.” We tend to focus more on the resurrection of Jesus than the death. Non-Christians probably don’t give it much thought at all. Most non-Christians, if they take the time to consider the death of Jesus, are apt to write it off as either myth, or a relatively insignificant historical event that’s been blown way out of proportion by the deception of his early followers.
As Christians, we tend to demonstrate more gratitude to someone who finds and returns our lost wallet (with cash and credit cards intact) than the one who died a horrific death on our behalf. What if Christians showed their gratitude for Jesus’ death by loving others the way Jesus loved those around him during his life?
For non-Christians, its doubly unfortunate in that their disbelief in the historicity of Jesus’ death, or their dismissal of its significance, causes them to not seriously consider a crucial question: What if Jesus really did die on a Roman cross in Jerusalem?
The historicity of Jesus’ death on the cross is one of the most accurately established facts in all of history. Refuting his death as a made up story that was manipulated by his followers into a grand religion has as much credibility as refuting the Apollo moon landings.* And if his death was so significant that the Roman cross went from being a symbol of oppression, torture, and disgrace to the most recognized religious symbol in the world in a few hundred years, perhaps it is worth more consideration, not just from a historical standpoint, but from a personal one as well.
IF the accounts of Jesus’ death are true, if Jesus and his first followers believed he died for a purpose, and that purpose crosses the boundaries of history and includes you and me today–isn’t it worth at least exploring?
And if you believe, as I do, that the event is not only true, but that it occurred for the reasons Jesus said it would, then shouldn’t his willing sacrifice of life for my eternal benefit, cause me to live differently, as he asked?
*I use the analogy of the Apollo program very deliberately. The writings which became the New Testament are strongly established to have been written within the first 50 years after Jesus’ death. Today we would quickly dismiss as insane anyone who claims that the Apollo landings didn’t happen (approximately 50 years ago). There is insurmountable evidence that it happened. In much the same way, the truth of the death (and life) of Jesus of Nazareth is insurmountable, and is only dismissed by those who choose to consider only the evidence which supports their predetermined conclusion.
No, this is not a political post, although I can see an application in our current political climate. But I’m not going there today. I’ve spent the past few days hanging out in a hospital with one of my closest friends who is fighting a fight that would terrify any of us. So my mind is primarily there, but it is also with many other friends, who are
dealing with loved ones battling major health issues,
dealing with the too-soon unexpected death of a spouse,
facing dramatic career-change and relocations,
and many others who are rightfully overwhelmed by the unknown future of family members, close friends, and their own inner struggles.
I was reminded of the phrase “be strong and courageous” from the book of Joshua, and I share it with all of you. Joshua was the successor to Moses. If you’ve ever taken a job where the person you are replacing was a legendary figure in the company, you have a little idea what it was like for Joshua. Moses was the greatest leader they had ever known, and he had led the Israelites to do extraordinary things. The book of Joshua begins with God talking to Joshua–passing Moses’ leadership mantle to Joshua. What makes Joshua’s assignment even more daunting is the fact that he’s not merely taking over an organization that is running in a steady state, with the job “not to screw things up.” Joshua is charged by God to take the nation of Israel to the next level–literally to lead them to take the “Promised Land,” the mission for which Moses had been training them for the past 40 years.
It’s easy to sit here in the luxury of nearly 3500 years of hindsight and underestimate Joshua’s situation. Because, of course, God “promised” the Israelites this land, so certainly Joshua was going to be successful, so he should have no doubts, right? Joshua was probably more focused on the fact that Moses was the one God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land, and he died in the desert. If Moses couldn’t do it, how was he supposed to pull it off? Joshua had been a faithful second-in-command, but when you become “the guy,” everything changes. All that to say, Joshua had more than a little reason to be overwhelmed with legitimate fear.
Fear is a messy thing. Our culture has cast it as a weakness, a thing to be ridiculed, a sign of insufficient confidence or inner strength. Religious people point to it as a lack of faith, as if it were some sort of character flaw or shortcoming. Many try to deal with it in a number of unhealthy ways. People suppress fear and deny it, or at the other end of the spectrum, embrace it as part of “who they are” and allow it to suppress them. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the psychology of fear, but instead I want to look at this one teaching on it, and see if there’s something in here to help all of us as we grapple with the emotions generated as we contemplate the unknown (or sometimes that which we do know, and are about to encounter again).
God’s charge to Joshua starts brutally bluntly: “Moses my servant is dead. Now, you get all these people ready to invade the land that your ancestors have been dreaming about.” (Joshua 1:2, GMW version) He then goes on in verses 3-5 to tell Joshua about the success God has in store for them.
Then in verse 6 God changes the topic slightly. In the next 4 verses, God deals with a critical issue: Joshua’s fear. Joshua was a confident, courageous leader who had proven himself strong already on multiple occasions. He is one of the few major biblical characters who has no significant character flaws (the only real negative I can find recorded in Scripture was his failure to consult with God about the Gibeonite treaty–a mistake, to be sure, but primarily because it was so out of character for Joshua). Joshua was no wimp, no weak man. But three times in four verses, God encourages Joshua:
v6: “Be strong and courageous…”
v7: “Be strong and very courageous…”
v9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous….”
God didn’t dismiss Joshua’s fears. Too many times someone who is dealing with fearful situations is told “don’t be afraid” or worse yet, “Why are you afraid?” Dismissing fear is less than pointless; it’s demeaning. God doesn’t do that to Joshua. He offers something better! He tells him to be strong, to have courage. That’s easy for God to say, he’s not looking at the situation through my eyeballs!
I left out a lot of text from those four verses, where God gives the details of how Joshua can “be strong and courageous” in the midst of his fearful circumstances. More on that in a minute. But first, I want to explore something I hadn’t noticed in that passage before, even though I’ve read it dozens of times. In verse 9, God starts with “Have I not commanded you?” I’ve always read that as something akin to that parental breakdown point, when logic and patience fail simultaneously, and the parent screams, “DO IT BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!” But that’s not what is going on here. Just as in John 13:34, where Jesus tells his disciples, “a new command I give you: love one another”, Jesus is not commanding an emotion. So also God is not commanding Joshua to have an emotion. Emotions can’t be forced.
In our culture, we don’t fully understand Jesus’s command in John 13, because we think “warm fuzzy feels” when we think “love.” But Jesus’s command is to an action, rooted in a choice. In the same way, God commands Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.” He’s not saying “don’t have an emotion (fear).” He’s saying, essentially, “Make a choice: Choose to have strength and courage.” Just as our culture misunderstands love, we also misunderstand courage. What most of us think of as courage is more accurately “bravado,” which Oxford defines as “a bold manner or a show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.”
God’s command to Joshua is something different. He is commanding an action. And precluding that action is a decision. Joshua gets to decide whether he is going to act on his fears, or on something else. Courage is the act of choosing to persevere despite the conditions that warrant fear. Courage is focusing on your source of strength, and acting. Fear is nothing more than empowered doubt. Courage is choosing to focus on and continuing to work toward the right outcome, despite the risks.
God redirects Joshua’s attention from the obstacles and enormity of the task at hand. Joshua wasn’t acting on blind wishes. He’d seen God’s work and knew His strength. He knew God’s assurances that Joshua would succeed could be trusted, because he knew God.
All of us face fearful circumstances at times in our lives. Some of us are staring at the impossible, the insurmountable–at monsters so big that the only reasonable response is to curl up in the corner and wait for it to devour us. But we have another choice. We can choose to be strong and courageous. We can choose to focus on the sources of strength in our lives, and to recognize that those strengths can help us press on in the midst of our fears. When fearful thoughts start washing over us, we can choose to think a new thought! We can decide to keep going, and not let our fears control us. They won’t always go away, but they don’t have to dominate.
For followers of YHWH, Joshua’s God, our source of strength is the same assurances that Joshua had: God is worthy of being trusted, because he has always proven himself to be true. While verse 9 was not specifically addressed to us, God’s nature is such that we can be assured that we have the same promise:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”
I’m a “Pentecostal.” That means I believe that the miraculous, supernatural power that Jesus promised his first disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, and otherwise do his work here on earth is still available for his followers today. Pentecostals believe that if we are truly following Jesus and devoted to being like him, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, empowering us to do things that we can’t do on our own.
Unfortunately, we sometimes rely so much on the element of the supernatural that we sit around waiting for the miracle, and in so doing miss the opportunity to BE the answer to prayer ourselves. We’ve become enthralled with manifestations of power, and end up missing an opportunity to manifest love.
Jesus’ first followers did amazing things through the power of the Holy Spirit, including healing many people of various diseases and infirmities, as well as raising people from the dead on multiple occasions. However, they also saw prayers answered as they lived life together in Christian community. God’s plan has always been that the world would come to know HIM through his followers loving one another–see “Greatest Commandment(s).”
Recently we had a friend who had a material need, and asked for Christian friends to pray with her for fulfillment of that need. In similar situations, most Christians pray, and then sit around hoping for a mysterious envelope to arrive in the mail or the material good to fall from the sky (Amazon drone malfunction?). But this time, we didn’t do that. Instead, the friends realized that THEY could be an answer to prayer–and they took it upon themselves to team together to meet the need. THEY became the answer to prayer. Not to get all self-righteous, because it’s not that they were special. Instead, they realized that God uses his church, his people, to meet the needs of others.
Just today I got to witness another miracle-but not one where God wrinkled the fabric of the natural world. Instead, I watched God’s incredible timing bring a man with a talent together to help a lady with a desperate need. He even said it was “no big deal at all.” But he solved her unsolvable problem. That’s a pretty big deal in my book! It was a miracle because God orchestrated the timing, and because he was generous with what he had.
How many prayers go unfulfilled because, rather than using a supernatural event, God appointed one or more of his people to meet the need, yet they didn’t respond? I don’t recall where I first heard the principle, but credit it to a former missionary I know:
If someone you know has a need, and you have the means to fulfill it, God most likely put that means in your hand to meet that need!
But we want to hold on to what we have, because we might need it, and instead expect the cosmic air force to fulfill the needs of others with emergency resupply drops. We essentially pray and say “I’m believing that God will magically meet your need; but don’t ask me to act in faith that he’ll meet MY need if I meet yours out of my provision.”
I spent too much of my life telling my kids that my job was to ensure they “grew up to be productive members of our society.” I was wrong, and my only defense is ignorance. For most of my kids’ formative years, that was my understanding of life. As the author linked above states, “The only problem with this goal is that it runs in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches.” I didn’t realize that until about nine years ago. See, God’s goal is not to teach morality or ethics, so that we can be strong, upright citizens. I didn’t know that; in fact, I spent most of my life thinking that was the goal, and our reward for attaining the goal was a ticket to heaven.
The author quotes Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, who said:
“We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true.”
That first sentence describes me, and everything I taught my kids (except I was pretty light on the third part–mine would probably read more accurately if you substituted “Sunday school stories and Veggie Tales” for “gospel”). But I’m afraid that the author of the blog goes too light on what he proposes as the antidote. He says:
“or do you teach your kids that they will never be good without Christ’s offer of grace? There is a huge difference. One leads to moralism; the other leads to brokenness. One leads to self-righteousness; the other leads to a life that realizes that Christ is everything and that nothing else matters.”
While I don’t disagree with his point, I think that his description of “Christ’s offer of grace” still points to a message of “personal salvation,” one that tells you that if you accept Christ as your personal savior, your sins are forgiven, and you get to go to heaven.
Jesus didn’t die so we could get a ticket to heaven. Jesus didn’t preach personal salvation. He preached the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s not a ticket for your afterlife, that’s a new life, starting right now.
I believe that so much of the hopelessness we see in our world, particularly in kids raised in the church, is that we are told, “pray a prayer, get ‘saved,’ then after you die, God will make everything better.” That’s not what the BIBLE says! If you read the whole book, it’s not just a collection of morality tales, but a comprehensive story, a metanarrative of how the Creator God has planned since the beginning to make things right in his Creation, and how each one of us, under his Lordship, can participate in that story.
I made a mess of things when I tried to do it on my own, and when I tried to use God, the church, and Veggie Tales to make my kids “productive members of society.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got amazing, God-loving children, who have grown up to become productive members of society, and of whom I’m very proud. However, I way too late in life discovered that “the Protestant work ethic and the American dream” weren’t enough.
What makes my life exhilarating, and fully worth living is the fact that God wants me to be a part of his Kingdom, that he made a way for me to not only be a member, but to be an active participant in the Greatest Story, the one where he brings his fallen Creation back to relationship with him. That purpose was what I was looking for all my life, and only recently discovered. My hope is that my kids have that same purpose, and that other parents out there can raise their kids with The Story, rather than just the “ethics and reward” lessons I taught.
So it seems in my random musings that I have at least two threads of thought started, both of which I promised to continue to develop in coming posts. That said, I’m not thinking linear at all lately in any aspect of my life, so why should this place be any different. My wife has picked up the analogy of traffic lights to describe her current state of being… In that vein, my life, my thoughts, my world seems to be analogous to a traffic circle–I’m in it, I’m going around, but there’s no signs to mark the streets that branch off the circle, and I’m not sure what my destination is anyway. (If I still haven’t convinced you, just look at the total disconnect from the previous posts, to the title of this post, to the totally unrelated analogy above).
My post today is nothing more than grabbing a quote from a book I’m reading: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I’m only vaguely familiar with Bonhoeffer’s work, and have been wanting to read this biography for a couple of years now. For those of you who, like me, don’t know much about him, here’s the short version: Born around the turn of the 20th century to an elite German family; afforded the most privileged upbringing and education, this genius chose to pursue theology, wound up as an amazing scholar who also turned out to be a great pastor (an uncommon pairing), who lost his life as a result of his participation in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler.
I’m still early in the book; the excerpt below is from a lecture he delivered in his early 20s, to a high-school aged crowd on a Tuesday night (says something of his pastoral abilities to be able to get high-schoolers to church on a weeknight).
“One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn’t do: one doesn’t take him seriously. That is, one doesn’t bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman — just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant…. Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me…. Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”
80 years ago Bonhoeffer spoke to something that has become even more significant today. Too often I compartmentalize Christ. I fail to acknowledge through my priorities, my thoughts, and my actions his “absolute claim” on me. I was somewhat shocked to see him calling out the failing of the “Enlightenment” almost a century ago. And this isn’t some uneducated religious rube; by the time of this particular writing, he’d already earned his doctorate (at 22), studying under some of the preeminent liberal theologians of the modern era.
I am more certain than ever that my first response inside the pearly gates will be “Forgive me for underestimating you so completely.”