Measuring Fruit

My father pastored five different churches between 1949 and 1994. His first four churches averaged 200 members, and his last church grew from 250 to 750 during his ten years of care.

A few years before dad retired from that last, rapidly growing church, I came home for Christmas. We went out for coffee, and he shared with me some reflections on church growth.

When he pastored his first four churches, he felt the “fruit” of his ministry was show in the parishioners’ growth in prayer, Scripture, fruit of the Spirit, and outreach. But when his last church doubled in size, he began to think of “fruit” in terms of Sunday-morning attendance.

He said he had never thought about numbers until he saw the membership increase. And when he saw numbers increase, he began to think of little else. He concluded,

Who would ever imagine that spiritual fruit could be measured by numbers, the same way GM measures a good year, by the sum of the pickup trucks produced?

Making Truth Real

When I was a freshman at university, I tried climbing up the side of my dormitory. (Don’t try it.) Halfway up, I slipped and fell several floors. On the journey down, I hit my head on a cement window sill, split open my forehead, and collected a concussion. I still have that scar.

My friends rushed me to the student health center. The doctor pried the laceration open with metal instruments, pulled out debris with tweezers, and began to stitch me up. When I cried, “Ouch!” he finally remembered to give me a local anesthetic.

A year later, I canoed a local river with friends. Once when we tipped, I stood up on the river bed and stepped on a piece of glass. Blood began to spurt out several inches with each heartbeat. A student nurse wrapped my foot and rushed me back to the student health center.

The same doctor was on duty. (What are the odds?) Before poking and prodding, he offered to numb the pain. Only then did he go ahead with the prying, prodding, and cleaning. He was surprisingly gentle, and kept asking me if “this” hurts. I still have that scar too.

Afterward, I mentioned that he had stitched up my head the year before, but—and how was I to say this?—on that first visit, he lacked this gentle touch.

He said he had recently sliced open his hand while cutting a bagel. The doctor on call had treated him like a medical student experimenting on a cadaver rather than a doctor caring for a living patient.

He concluded, “I always knew these procedures hurt, but I didn’t really know. That doctor’s insensitivity has changed the way I practice medicine.”

And then he showed me his scar.

An Unearthly Delight

Sometimes I hear God best in surprises. Seemingly unrelated circumstances suddenly unite, and their merger stirs something in my heart. Like a succession of waves on a beach, one last surge dissolves my sandcastles.

This last month I talked with:

  • A despairing man whose ministry seems stagnant, and all his work seem fruitless;
  • Another man who keeps a tally in the front of his Bible of all the souls he helped save;
  • A group of friends who mused on our all-absorbing attraction to superhero movies;

Each discussion hinted at some deep longing for significance, expressed in meaningful ministry, “souls I helped save,” or that desire to be superhero (ish) ourselves. Wanting a life that matters doesn’t contradict Scripture. We are made in God’s image, and he is the God of all glory.

And yet. Last week I read about the baptism of Jesus. A voice from heaven cries, “You are my beloved Son; I delight in you.” My first response (and probably my second and third) was: “That’s exactly what I want, to hear the Father say to me, ‘Well done. I am pleased with you.’”

Then a thought flashed through my mind: Is it possible to have as much joy when the Father affirms Jesus as I would have if He so affirmed me? Can I simply take joy in the joy of Jesus?

Spiritual Warfare: The Real Battlefield

Two friends and I host a weekly podcast on various spiritual topics. Last month we planned to discuss (I kid you not), How to Recognize Spiritual Assault. Schedule conflicts and illness forced us to cancel our two previous podcasts. We didn’t want to call off a third.

To complicate matters, one of my friends was still under the weather, the other was swamped with work, and I had a longstanding 6:00 pm dinner date with out-of-town friends. I planned to leave the dinner at 7:30 to make our 8:00 call.

That was the situation four hours before the podcast. This is the story that followed:

  • Late in the afternoon, my wife and I had a tense discussion. I missed much of my podcast planning time, leaving me irritated, distracted, and unprepared.
  • Our dinner reservation was changed from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm, leaving me little time for conversation with friends, and even less time for food.
  • The closest parking spot was several dozen blocks from the restaurant, and I arrived five minutes late.
  • As I left the restaurant, a torrential downpour greeted me, and I splashed and waded the six blocks back to my car.
  • Three different traffic jams—three!—delayed me further. I arrived home with two minutes to spare, soaking wet, and freezing. And further irritated, distracted and unprepared.

I began the call in a frenzied, intense, and distracted state of mind. Do you recognize the frontlines of the spiritual assault?

When Trusting in the Lord Doesn’t Work

A college friend of mine watched every episode of Marcus Welby, M. D. (the TV series about a small town, family doctor), and my friend wanted nothing more than to be a like-minded, caring, personal physician.

My friend aggressively pursued his pre-med studies, but he also countered the competitive culture of his program by tutoring other pre-med students. His life verse was, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord” (Jer. 17:7). He said he didn’t want to grind through med-school simply by his own hard work. He wanted to “trust in the Lord.”

He and I graduated in 1979 (back around the time the flush toilet was invented). He went off to med-school and I went off to the mission field.

I saw him next three years later. He had dropped out of med-school after a prolonged, unknown illness (probably Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), and he struggled to pay his mounting bills, not to mention finding a job with any sense of personal fulfillment.

He had also rejected Christianity. He said, “I trusted in the Lord, and look what it got me, illness, exhaustion, humiliation, and grunt work. Not exactly the Promised Land.”

If Only …

I once read an article that blamed the plague of modern discontent on the internet. Facebook flaunts vacationing friends sailing the Caribbean, or their “perfect” kids topping the honor roll, or we drool over the mansions of the rich and famous. And our hearts whisper, “If only….”

Others argue that it is advertising that supercharges our unhappiness:

Marketers have turned television into an instrument of dissatisfaction. The shows bring an idealized, expensive world into the homes of people who can’t afford it. And the ads remind everyone that their lives are incomplete and unhappy—unless …. (Seth Godin)

It’s not that everything in our lives is bad (after all, we live in the safest, healthiest, and most prosperous time in history); we just wish our environment could be a smidgeon better:

  • If only I could lose twenty pounds.
  • If only I could work thirty-five hours a week instead of forty-five;
  • If only my husband listened more, or my wife was better looking (or I was better looking).

While the internet and advertisers intensify our discontent, Scripture says the human heart has an almost unlimited capacity to pin our hopes on the tiniest of changes in circumstances. As one spiritual writer put it:

The terrible fallacy of the last hundred years has been to think that all a person’s troubles are due to his environment. That is a tragic fallacy. It overlooks the fact that it was precisely in Paradise that mankind fell. (Martyn Lloyd Jones)

Why Won’t We Admit the Evil of Our Deeds?

When I began Beliefs of the Heart, a friend suggested I adopt a Comment Policy. His site already had one, and I copied his almost word for word. The short version is: Keep comments short and sweet.

In the last seven years, about five thousand comments have been posted. Out of those five thousand comments, I have only deleted five, from four different people.

  • I deleted one comment because it was an advertisement for Ray Ban Sunglasses that had somehow eluded my spam filter.
  • I deleted two comments that were twice as long as the article itself. In both situations, I sent the readers a copy of their remarks with suggestions for making their comments punchier. Both readers edited and reposted excellent comments.
  • I also deleted two different comments from one reader because they were nasty. She called one reader a “moron with an elbow for a brain,” and she bullied another commenter, saying, “Why don’t you include your full name, you coward, so I can post it on Facebook and show the world what a fool you are.”

When I contacted her to explain my reasons for deleting her comments, she replied, “Are your readers so thin-skinned that they cannot handle a little honest criticism?”