Dusty People

Dry Earth_Dusty People

People outside the faith have no idea that we who want to follow Jesus live in constant tension. It’s the tension between the ideal of trying to live the way Jesus calls us to live and the reality that we are, most often, just like everybody else. We struggle and fail and refuse to do what we know God wants us to do. It can be a life of constant frustration and deep discouragement as we experience the reality of the traditional prayer of confession:

…We have done those things we ought not to have done

And left undone those we ought to have done

And there is no health in us.

The disillusion and failure have taken many people away from faith. Facing this reality, however, can actually deepen our understanding of grace and our gratitude to God. It can also reshape our unbiblical expectations.

The starting point is learning, in humility, to accept the fact that we are works in progress. We are not “struck perfect” simply by expressing faith in Christ. Faith is a both an act and a process:

It is an act of commitment—like a wedding,

and a process of becoming—like a marriage.

It is like the birth of a child

and the process of that child growing to mature adulthood.

Second, it helps to realize God is not surprised by our failures. That doesn’t excuse them, but it does give us hope. As I wrote in a recent blog, “Our sin spoils our fellowship with God, but it does not make God love us less.”

My “trigger phrase” to awaken humility and gratitude at the same time is that we are “dusty people.” I take this concept from Psalm 103…

As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

for he knows how we are formed,

    he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13-14 NIV).

God knows our limitations. God knows our personality faults and the deep scars of our experience. God knows we don’t have– and cannot get— it all together. God knows we are dust. Mortal, wounded… and redeemed by grace to be resurrected in glory.

In his book, Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly frequently recognizes our imperfection and provides guidance for those who are likely to be overwhelmed by failure.

“The first days and weeks and months of offering total self to God are awkward and painful, but enormously rewarding. Awkward, because it takes constant vigilance and effort and reassertions of the will, at the first level. Painful, because our lapses are so frequent, the intervals when we forget Him so long. Rewarding, because we have begun to live. But these weeks and months and perhaps even years must be passed through before He gives us greater and easier stayedness upon Himself.

“Lapses and forgettings are so frequent. Our surroundings grow so exciting. Our occupations are so exacting. But when you catch yourself again, lose no time in self-recriminations, but breathe a silent prayer for forgiveness and begin again, just where you are. Offer this broken worship up to Him and say: ‘This is what I am except Thou aid me.’ Admit no discouragement, but ever return quietly to Him and wait in His Presence.” (p. 39)

The First Letter of John reminds us,

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 1:8-2:1 NIV).

Realistically, we will fail God daily– and often fail to recognize most of our sins. (And that’s a mercy, in and of itself!). God does not want us to punish ourselves with guilt and shame as the way of “self-atonement.” Instead, we cast ourselves on God’s mercy. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about faith embracing God’s grace.



A Servant Protests

Robert Greenleaf is credited with the term “servant leadership,” but I would say the concept goes back to countless examples in Scripture. Abraham showed servant leadership and humility when he allowed Lot to choose his portion of land (Genesis 13:8-9). Moses demonstrated servant leadership time and again when he made personal sacrifices and interceded for God’s people in the wilderness (Exodus 32:11-14). And David showed servant leadership in his valuing of his men (2 Samuel 23:13-17). But Jesus is The Model of servant leadership. Jesus’ example and teaching made it very clear that leadership is not about accruing power to the leader, but using whatever resources the leader has for the benefit of those in her or his care.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NIV)

For those “outside” the leadership task, this may seem like a fairly straightforward paradigm. When a person tries to live into this servant calling, however, the cost becomes very clear.

I remember my own sense of call to ministry and saying to God, “O.K., Lord, I’ll serve you.” I hadn’t realized I expected to serve on my own terms.

When I protested the long hours, the Lord said, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. Time is not your’s to keep. Time is my gift to you. I promise you time enough for my work now and your Sabbath refreshment. Keep your heart focused on an eternity of joy.”

When I longed for rewards, the Lord smiled, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. The rewards I have for you are beyond comparison. You’re looking in the wrong place for them.”

When I asked for the pain to be removed, the Lord said, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. My service is to the human heart– a place of pain. You will feel the pain of those who are broken. That is the only way I can heal.”

When I complained because I felt so alone, the Lord said, “Alone? You are never alone. But if you’re wrapped up in yourself, you miss me. I am with you. Always. You don’t seem to take that very seriously. Believe! And I have given you my children, too. You’ll find they’re a lot like you.”

In the silence of the moment, I realized that the Master of the Universe was not a tyrant, but my Father. His only son rolled up his sleeves to sweat and serve among us. This Jesus was and is the Servant King to whom no nobility can compare.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

“O.K., Lord, I really do want to be your servant. It’s not easy for me. And I’ll probably start grumbling again. I’m not even sure I have what it takes. But, if you’ll have me, I’m yours.”

And I heard God’s gracious response, “I want you — now and forever. And remember, as you serve me, I serve you .”

Adapted from Douglas J. Rumford, What About Heaven and Hell, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000, p. 124.


Gilt by Association

So who are you all-by-yourself-all-on-your-own?


No—I did not forget to do spell-check before publishing this post. I do mean ‘gilt,’ not ‘guilt.’ Decades ago, I coined this “pun” to describe a tendency I have—that I’ll tell you about in a moment. You’re likely familiar with the phrase “guilt by association,” when the people associated with a guilty person are judged guilty because of their association—even if their “guilt” is unfounded. “Gilt by association” is just the reverse.

Gilt is gold leaf or gold paint applied in a thin layer to a surface. It is a decorative feature, meant to give the impression of value and even “solid gold” beneath the surface. “Gilt by association” is the effort of trying to shine in the glow of another person’s importance. It’s all about impressing others. I fall into this when I “name drop” about people I know or who attend our church; or “place-drop” about places I’ve been in my travels. You get the idea. You can recognize it quickly in others but not see it in yourself so clearly. There are many dynamics at work in this “gilting,” but I want to focus on two.

First, let’s show ourselves some grace because this is one of the most natural tendencies we all have—to draw a sense of identity and worth from others. This is what being a sports fan is about, or being a part of a club or a special group. The danger lies in making that layer of gilt a primary factor in our self-worth and identity. If we do that, we make it part of our mask, our false self, our facade. It’s important to remember I am not who I know, or where I’ve been, or even what I do. In Christ, I am God’s child and all that means in being part of God’s family. Every other association pales in comparison with that!

Second, we dare not try to do this in the area of faith. Fake-faith, in-name-only faith, is a dead-end road. There’s a fascinating story about this in the Acts 19:11-16

God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled. A group of Jews was traveling from town to town casting out evil spirits. They tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus in their incantation, saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” Seven sons of Sceva, a leading priest, were doing this. But one time when they tried it, the evil spirit replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them, and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and battered.  (Acts 19:11-16 New Living Translation).

In my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, (Tyndale House Publishers)—here I go my-book-dropping!!! – I spend a chapter on Acts 19:15, “…the evil spirit replied, ‘I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?’” The sons of Sceva made a tragic assumption in this passage. They assumed that knowledge of Jesus was the same as knowing Jesus.  Those are two very different realities. They tried to use Jesus’ name without believing in Jesus, without trusting Him, without relying upon Him.  The evil spirit challenged their presumption. When I let my imagination go, I picture this demon sitting back, kicking up his legs on a desk, folding his hands calmly across his chest and saying, “I know Jesus… and I know Paul,…. but (and now Demon takes his legs off the desk, looks right into the eyes of every single one of the sons of Sceva, and shouts) but WHO are you???!!!” Then Demon leaps on these guys, overpowering them.

Now, I don’t claim it happened that way… but that’s kinda what I’m picturing. There is no gilt by association with Jesus. Either you know Jesus or you don’t. And people, even demons, can tell the difference.

So who are you-all-by-yourself-all-on-your-own?

But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12 New Living Translation NLT).

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure  (1 John 3:1-3 NLT)

The Punt

Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:29-31 New Living Translation).

The Punt
Photo by David Cobb /Chattanooga Times Free Press. This article implies nothing about this athlete or his team!

When I was in the 8th grade, I played on our junior high football and basketball teams. I had fun, though I wasn’t a starter. Still, I did get some playing time and had some experiences I will never forget– no matter how hard I try!

One of my most memorable experiences was playing in the football game against our arch rival, Mt. Healthy (or Oak Hills– since we had a number of arch rivals!). I was a safety– which meant I guarded against the pass and the long run– trying to tackle the guys everybody else missed. (It always bothered me that I got in so much trouble for missing a tackle when the bigger guys should have brought him down long before he reached me…).

Anyway, in this game, we kept them from getting a first down, so I went back to receive the punt. This was one of those dream situations for an eighth grader because, as I judged the distance he was likely to kick it, I ended up standing right across from our cheerleaders. There was, literally, a little red-haired girl that I had been interested in for some time.  (I hasten to add that Sarah and I grew up in different towns in Ohio and didn’t meet until my junior year in high school).

Like most junior high boys, I really thought the way to a girl’s heart was to impress them with some manly achievement like catching a dramatic pass and running for a touchdown, or getting knocked out, or suffering a severe injury that would require a transfusion– something like that. Little did I realize that the girls hardly ever noticed because they were talking– or else they just thought we guys were stupid.

So here, I thought, was my opportunity to make an impression. I hadn’t drawn blood on any tackles yet, but now all eyes were on me as the punter kicked the ball.

It was a high kick going right toward the sidelines in front of our cheerleaders. Oh, this was perfect! I can still feel it– the adrenaline pumping, the fans screaming wildly (or maybe that was just me!), and the thundering sound of tacklers bearing down on me like ferocious beasts.

The ball hung in the air forever. I waved for a fair catch. You do that when you know you can catch the ball but can’t run because the tacklers are too close. It’s really a smart move– as opposed to getting chased backwards, or just getting creamed when you catch the ball and are “unguarded.”

So I waved my hand for the fair catch. But– you probably guessed it– the one thing you must never do on a fair catch is drop the ball, because then all’s fair as far as tackling goes. You can get creamed and you can lose the ball…

and you can blow your chances of ever impressing the little red-haired girl…

and you can lose all confidence in ever putting on a football uniform again…

and you can decide to join the marching band instead…

and you can still have nightmares of dropping the ball…

Oh, sorry… got lost in my thoughts there for a moment. Guess you know what happened.

I did learn a basic lesson in life: Without the ball, you can’t do anything.

I also began to realize we cannot expect to be great or even good at everything. In Corinth, various church members were struggling with envy of others’ gifts, and some with pride in their gifts. It was dividing the community. As you may recall, Paul continued from the passage quoted above into “The Love Chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13 where he wrote,

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

No matter what else we do– or are unable to do–we are to demonstrate love as our way of life. That has implications not only for how we treat others, but how we treat ourselves. I am not loving myself when I condemn or devalue myself for not being “the best” at everything.

The key is exploring the opportunities God brings our way. Try as many things as you can. Takes some risks. Not everything will be a fit; not everything will be life-giving and fruitful. But all those experiences provide valuable information. Over time, we discover our gifts, talents and places where we’re more effective.  Along the way, we’ll have some amazing – and perhaps embarrassing and painful—adventures. But it’s worth it. Just think of the stories you’ll be able to tell.