Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Sharpening is the act of taking something round (or full or dull) and removing material from it until it has an edge. I know of no technique to add material to something to make it sharp. Sharpening is always a removing. Sharpness focuses the force of the knife against the smallest possible edge to maximize pressure (or impact).
John 15:1-2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
To prune is to trim back a tree or bush by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to increase fruitfulness and growth. A pruned grapevine and a pruned chocolate tree look almost dead. Yet this pruning causes the plant to focus all its energy in making the remaining branches fruitful. Pruning is the precondition of grafting. There is no specific addition without general subtraction.
Neither “sharp” nor “pruned” are conditions that last indefinitely. Even the best, strongest knives need sharpening, and even the best trees and vines need pruning.
Which brings us to the title of this blog: How sharp is your life?
Is it full like a balloon? Does it expand in every direction? is it “overgrown”? If it is, it may be time to get out the whetstone and pruning shears and start getting rid of some extra material.
post-script If Jesus’s life had to pruned in the era before the internet and 24 hour news, well, there is no shame in admitting that our lives need a bit of work too.
I just turned 35 years old. I also haven’t been in the same time zone two weeks in a row since the first week of June. As such it is natural that I reflect about change and its absence.
Perhaps this is just the jet lag talking, but I am convinced that change is never absent. Constancy is just an illusion. This is not a new idea. “A man can never step in the same river twice” and “Change is the only constant.”
But gradual change is difficult to see, easy to ignore, and so we do. What if we took change seriously? If we did, we would focus on change itself. How do we control it, guide it, benefit from it? We would have to learn what I call the art of becoming.
There has been a lot of emphasis on learning how to “be” especially in the Asian religious tradition. Be in the moment. Be present. That is an admirable skill to learn. But learning how to become is crucial because we, and everything else, is constantly changing. Even as we “are present”, we become someone else.
We are either becoming something better, worse, or different all the time. We can either guide that process consciously or not. (Note: I use the word “guide” instead of control intentionally. Much of our formation is out of our control. I didn’t pick my parents, nor the accidents that I have experienced, nor my native talents to pick just a few examples.)
What might it mean to master the art of becoming? I don’t know. I’m only 35 and I’ve just now figured out that this is important.
It is important to realize that we are “becoming” all the time in every aspect of life: physical, mental, emotional, social, and in the beliefs that underlie it all. It is important to realize that the process of change includes things that seem not to change. When Pharaoh’s heart hardened, his actions and thoughts and feelings stayed the same, but thee became less likely to change in the future. When a living being stays the same over time, there is still a change, a hardening, a habit-forming that makes future change more difficult. That is a very real and important change.
It is crucial to realize that everything and everyone else is also in the process of becoming. That is true of nations, cars, schools, friends, spouses, and children. That is not to deny that there are areas that are mostly the same.
Have you ever thought about how much everything is changing? Politically, socially, spiritually. Everything is changing, in different ways. The physical aspect is obvious. We are growing older every day. Our choices as far as diet, exercise, work, transportation, relaxation are all contributing to who we are and what we are becoming. The mental and emotional aspects are equally obvious. Less common is realizing that our relationships are in a state of flux, we tend to ignore changes and assume that everything is still the same. But if they are changing and we are changing, there is no way that our relationship is staying exactly the same.
Neither is it obvious that our actions define our future. But our actions always reinforce themselves (the power of habit). Our actions, their consequences, and the stories we tell to explain them give importance to even seemingly inconsequential actions.
The art of becoming is the paint with which our lives are given form. Every stroke of the brush is permanently impermanent. The stroke itself can never be undone, but its impact on the picture can be changed. The darkest blot can become the shadow that highlights a beautiful rose. Unfortunately, even the brightest stroke of the brush can become the ray of light illuminating the snarling mouth of a demon. Neither jot nor tittle of even the most recent past can be undone, but it can be re-imagined.
The brushstrokes of our lives are varied. Some strokes are bold, some are tentative. Some are a speck of contrast in a sea of uniformity. What we do and think today, how we relate to God and others today determines who we are tomorrow.
Our lives are a painting, and within the frame of the canvas and colors given to us by God, we are the painters. The art of becoming is knowing what we want to paint!
I think there is a clue in the way that Jesus chose to live his life on earth. He acted in love in the present and kept his eyes on the future. He invited others to do the same using the metaphor of fruit and pruning. Perhaps that is the key. It seems relatively consistent throughout the New Testament. Do the right thing right now, keep your eyes on the future, and evaluating the fruit that our lives are producing.
In any case, the key questions are obvious. What are we trying to become? As individuals, as a group, as a nation? How are you doing so far? What are the next steps to getting there?
Easy enough, right. Looking forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.
That’s a true saying, think. Fear is the path to the dark side. Followers of Jesus have long held a negative view of fear. The Bible acknowledges the reality of the emotion, but rejects its power. “God did not give us a spirit of fear”. The command “Do not be afraid” occurs more than 70 times in the Bible, even though the recipients of the message often had exceptionally good reasons to fear. “Perfect love drives out fear”. From the beginning, Jesus followers have confronted fear with love, faith, and encouragement.
And yet there is a troubling trend in modern Christianity, especially in America. We do not confront fear, we fertilize it. We are not just insecure, we are fearful. Full of fear. Fear, risk, safety have become staples of American Christian conversation. I’m not sure what caused this shift. I suspect that the rise of mass media based on fear, greed, and sex may have played a role.
How many times have you heard someone talk about fear this week? A quick search using Google N-gram shows us that people are talking about fear more today than they were during World War II! “Danger” is the only fear-word that is showing decreased usage. This makes sense! Americans and their families have never been as safe as they are now. The rate of violent crime in America is lower today than it was when “Leave it to Beaver” was first aired in 1957. (Yes, these statistics include kidnapping, murder, rape, child molestation, and the like. It is a general trend that seems unrelated to our overreactions to over-publicized crimes.)
But that is not how Americans feel. We feel scared, insecure. Almost inevitably, fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate. That is what I’m hearing today from Christians. Fear. Anger. Hate.
This is inconceivable for those who have dedicated their lives to the God who IS love. Christians fear Muslims and immigrants, and so deny them shelter. In doing so, they ignore the Bible’s teaching on caring for the exile and foreigner just as Israel did. Their lack of compassion was a primary cause of God’s destructive judgment of Israel. Don’t believe me? Read Isaiah and Jeremiah. Will the American lack of compassion lead to different results?
Christians are fearful of political parties. Whether it is Democrats or Republicans, we are afraid of what will happen if they get elected. We say terrible (and often untrue) things about their leaders. We ignore clear commands to honor our leaders written by apostles whose leaders were far, far worse than ours.
Christians are afraid of military weakness. We seem to have forgotten how God prepares armies. Goliath and five small stones. The walls of Jericho and a bunch of trumpets. Sending the majority of Gideon’s army home.
N.B. To put our military spending in perspective: President Obama spent 1,000 BILLION more dollars on the military over his 8 year presidency than George W. Bush did . In 2015, the United States spent more on the military than the next 7 largest military spenders combined (Russia, China, Saudia Arabia, the UK, France, India, and Germany).
Let’s reject fear and the politics of fear and remember Jesus, who conquered his fear through prayer in the Garden. Who submitted to his execution out of love. Who was respectful and forgiving in the midst of unjust treatment by Herod, Pilate, and the Pharisees. Jesus is our example.
Let’s remember Peter and Paul, who rejoiced when they were unjustly beaten and imprisoned. They both wrote letters after their ill-treatment reminding us to honor the government (Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2).
Let’s remember the apostle John who was was made a political prisoner. He then wrote a letter encouraging the faithful to persevere in the face of persecution because of God’s ultimate victory. He denounced the cruelty and corruption of the Roman empire. (For more info, check out Riches, Poverty, and the Faithful: Perspectives on Wealth in the Second Temple Period and the Apocalypse of John by my friend Mark Mathews. )
Let’s remember Hebrews 11 and the early Christian martyrs. Lit as candles to light the Roman night, thrown in the pit with wild beasts, torn apart by horses. “The world was not worthy of them”.
Let’s remember the struggle against apartheid. “[The black South African church] know that the odds against them are (humanly speaking) enormous. But they have a deep and simple confidence in God. They are never going to make terms with apartheid. They will not rest until this evil thing is removed from South Africa. And if this means that they must suffer, they will suffer to the limit. And therefore they are hopeful and joyful.” (Lesslie Newbigin, South Africa: A Fabric of Fear and Hope, 1980:13)
Doesn’t that sound better? To be hopeful and joyful because of our deep and simple confidence in God? Is the American situation anywhere near the difficulty of the situation of the black South African church?
There is only one kind of fear that is appropriate for the Christian: fear of God. I’m still not exactly sure it means to be afraid of a loving, merciful, and just God. Trying to explain it will just expose my ignorance and make this post even longer. But we can affirm that “fear God” means “be afraid of opposing God” and “be afraid of God alone and nothing else”. God is going to win every confrontation, period. So don’t confront God, don’t defy God, and don’t be afraid of those who choose to. “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” (Romans 8:31).
“‘honoring the governing authorities’ … and submitting oneself to the authorities was not to acquiesce to the demands of the state. Following the example of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, Peter and John affirmed that obedience to the command of God superseded the orders of the state: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29; 4:19). With this seemingly simple declaration, the apostles exposed the true nature of the conflict and identified every other authority, secular or religious, as subordinate to God.” (Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service, p.34)
Where is the room for these other fears, of politics, of war, of refugees, of people? There isn’t any! We cannot be faithful to God and committed to fear. Or, to put it another way, “One cannot serve both God and … ” anything else, including fear.
Let’s encourage one another to boldness. Let’s nurture the kind of deep, godly love that drives out fear. Let’s rejoice that we have the chance to witness to the superiority of Christ. Let’s reject the fearful and hateful narratives which dominate American news and politics. They are unworthy of us. We are children of the King.
There has never been a better time for a revolution in American politics than right now. I have heard hundreds of people say something to the effect of “Well, I hate Trump, but at least he is better than lying Clinton” or “Well, I hate Clinton but at least she is better than that hate-filled bigot Trump”. People feel trapped in a terrible choice between two people they would prefer not to invite over for dinner, much less trust to become the leader of the country. People are tired of business as usual, but they go looking in the usual places for a solution. Everyone knows that our two-party system creates deadlock, and yet the common wisdom is that voting for a third party is throwing your vote away. We are trapped in a sea of bad choices, aren’t we?
But are we really trapped? Really? We live in the age of the internet! The age of social media, alternative media, Youtube. We are should be as dependent on political parties and mainstream media as we are on horse and buggy for transportation! How long would it take, really, to get another viable candidate if people got active? A week? Two weeks?
What are the functions of political parties that make them so irreplaceable?
Select candidates (Trump and Clinton? I think we can do better)
Mobilize and inform voters (A dancing cockatoo video can get 300 million likes on YouTube in a month, can Democrats or Republicans?)
Facilitate governance (Deadlock anyone?)
Monitor the opposing party (I think Twitter and Social Media have this one handled)
We aren’t trapped, except in our own minds. Let’s get on social media, let’s get active and start a campaign (s). Start your own party of like-minded people. Nominate your favorite governor or senator or CEO of a successful business or President of your favorite NGO. Whoever! Start campaigning for them via the web. Get involved! If we don’t like the system, let’s change it. We have to take accountability for our problems, and try to solve them. That’s what it means to live in a democracy. “There is no other choice” is just an excuse for inaction. Why on earth are we trying to ride a horse and buggy to work and complaining about the speed (and smell)?
I’d like to talk a bit about spending versus giving in the church. This will be quick. I’m going to present 3 facts and a belief. So indulge me.
Fact 1: The average church attender in America spends about as much on church as they would on a monthly gym membership.
Did anything about that sentence make you feel a little weird? Perhaps you felt weird because gyms and church are receiving the same amount of value. That’s important too, but not the point I’m getting at. I used the word “spend” as if church were a consumer good that is purchased. But we don’t spend on church, we give to church.
Or do we?
Fact 2: The average church donates around 2% of its income to those outside the walls, e.g. serving the poor, missions, outreach, etc.
Interestingly enough, UPS, Bank of America, State Farm Insurance all give more than double that percentage. Even Wal-Mart manages to squeeze out 1.3%. But we spend money at UPS, Bank of America and the rest to get their services. Why is it giving when it goes to the church?
Fact 3: My old church in Jakarta gives 40% of its income away.
It supports orphanages, widows, refugees, the poor, evangelists. You can’t spend money there, you’ve got to give money to Jakarta International Christian Fellowship. It’s going out the door. And they have made sacrifices to do that.
Now which model do you think is more in line with the biblical model of the church? The average church, which gives away a couple of percent, or JICF which blesses the world with almost half of its income? The one in which the church council said to Paul “All they asked was that I should continue to remember the poor, which was the very thing I was eager to do.” ? (Galatians 2:10) Which is more in line with the “blessed to be a blessing” philosophy of both the Old and New Testaments? How about the Great Commission? The Great Commandment? With the Misio Dei?
Have we been selling church memberships? Look how good our programs are! We’ve got incredible worship! Our speaker is amazing! I would say that you can answer that question fairly easily by looking at your church budget. If there are for-profit corporations giving away more of their income than your church does (Bank of America is giving away 5.4%) …. well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
The solution: Be generous. Really generous. Start calling people to the Mission of God. That means that those of us in professional ministry have to die to ourselves. That shiny new project / building sure does look like success! As does getting those new instruments / screens / sound system that we need.
But real generosity is impossible if your church is committed to constantly updating and upgrading its facilities or building new ones. (N.B. The church has been around 2,000 years. Why are we still paying mortgages?) Real generosity is impossible if you have a pastoral staff of 12 for a church of 600. You can’t have a full-time, paid Senior, Junior, Administrative, Youth, College, Worship, Executive, and Small Groups pastoral team and still be generous. (Unless you are Presbyterian😀 Just kidding.) To be generous, you have to “insource” ministry. The average church member has to engage and take up their mantle as a priest. These are tough sacrifices to make in a consumerist culture.
But I believe that if your church will publicly commit to giving a significant portion of its money away, it will thrive. I believe the reason why more individuals are giving to Christian NGOs is because more churches are not. But an NGO has great difficulty partnering with a person, but can relatively easily partner with a church.
I believe that if you paint the vision of the Misio Dei, the mission of God, that people will want to be a part. People want to be a part of something amazing, something significant. People want to be generous! And Christians have been generous since the book of Acts whose richest member wouldn’t be as rich as the poorest of us who can read this blog on our magic computers. Give the members of your church a chance to be part of God’s people. Invest in your community, partner with churches in poorer countries, invest in the poor and in the mission of God. Don’t sell your congregation a church membership.
Over-simplified, but far less than a thousand words. Let me know what you think? Where does your church stand?
Worship through song is a powerful part of our experience of God in this life. We are rightly attached to our favorite worship music. I love Bethel, Hillsong, John Mark McMillan, Jesus Culture. I also love Jesus Paid It All, Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art. They are different genres, and I don’t think one genre is better musically or theologically. But God has spoken to me through those songs and I connect with them. Everybody has different tastes in music. It is inevitable that there will be different preferences in worship music in a congregation. The problem is that these preferences have caused serious disagreements in churches, hurt feelings, harsh words, even church splits.
Statement: If you have made worship preference a cause of disunity in the church, you have hindered the mission of God.
This is bigger than just musical style. This is about the mission of God. The reason that the church exists on this earth is to spread the Good News that God loves the people of this world and wants to be reconciled with them. Anything that interferes with that has to be taken very seriously. So let’s look at Jesus’s words.
John 13:34-35 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 17:22-23 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
In other words, unity is a requirement for proclaiming the Gospel. It is, in fact, a way of sharing the gospel. Unity. Agreement. Love. When the world can see the church’s unity and love, then they will know that God has sent Jesus and God loves us. When anything hinders unity, especially something as trivial as musical preference, the mission of God loses momentum. It loses its authenticity. Why? Because people outside the faith look at the church and see nothing special. Those Christians are just like everybody else, standing up for their preferences, arguing, backbiting.
1 Corinthians 3:3 For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?
Paul made the same point 2,000 years ago. Let me ask you a further question and bring love in. Have you ever divorced your spouse because (s)he likes different music than you? Have you ever put your kids up for adoption because of music? No? That’s because you love your family, no matter how dumb and bad their music sounds. You come to a compromise. Why don’t you extend that same love to your spiritual family?
Unity is not an option for the church, I don’t care how many denominations we have inherited. The mission of God is dependent on it. So let’s start building some.
Romans 15:5-9 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.