A pastor-friend of mine once went through a series of disappointments. His favor with his followers faltered, his once fruitful ministry began to fail, and many of his former friends became his biggest opponents. And that was before events really got bad.
My friend was well known. If I told you his name, you’d probably recognize it. And his meteoric fall from favor was not due to any moral scandal on his part. Yet rejection and controversy, like circumstantial evidence against him, attacked from every side:
He began with a big splash and became famous in a few short months;
His fame attracted detractors, and major church leaders spoke against him;
His followers, who used to think he walked on water, began to drift away;
Last week’s ideal plan didn’t translate itself into reality. Instead, life happened. While on an errand, I met a man and we talked for two hours; a friend called to say her father is dying and I went to visit him; and our water main sprung a leak, drenching the basement.
I’m traveling west for a retreat, so last week was filled with dozens of tasks to get ready. I use a planning app that helps me prioritize action items for each day. And then (hopefully) I complete all the items. But last week I failed utterly.
At the end of that “life-is-full-of-surprises” week, a well-known Christian blogger sent an email describing how “elite” entrepreneurs and executives accomplish their goals by eliminating the competing distractions. I thought, “Distraction-free life-management? Sign me up!”
And then I paused: How does it leave room for God?
I recently feel a need for action, practically (selling our house, helping a ministry I support, promoting my book) and humanly (a friend in divorce proceedings and other friends with health or financial woes). A season of doing has descended on me.
But where should I best invest myself?
There is no shortage of advice. Recently, resources I used to like for their insights have transformed themselves into Giant-Task-Lists. Books, blogs, and conversations bombard me with action-items, strategies, and plans:
Last May, an author sent me 26 emails (twenty-six!!) urging me to sign up for his “Three Principles for Successfully Building a Tribe.”
A friend told me of his Four-Step action plan to make a church more mission minded.
A house-stager made a Two-Page list of exactly what to do to make our house “Pop.”
And in one week, a blogger I used to like offered: (a) Six Steps to Becoming Happy, (b) Five Keys for Achievement, (c) Seven Steps to Getting Unstuck, and (d) Eight Secrets to Escape Exhaustion. (My escape from exhaustion began when I quit reading his blog).
Despite the verbal bombardment of tips and techniques for doing, God has also been speaking in a quieter voice, with a single thought that seems more invitational than edict. It’s this:
The Life of God begins to work in me at the moment of my inability.
Instead of posting an article this week, I decided to try an experiment. My good friend Gary Barkalow interviewed me in a live video on Facebook. The topic of the interview was: Does God Still Speak Today?
As a college student, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but money was so tight that Raman noodles were my Sunday treat. I found a communal farm in Israel (sort of like modern WWOOFING) that provided room and board plus ten dollars a month (and a daily pack of cigarettes!) for simple, manual labor. I signed up.
I talked with a few people who had “volunteered” in the past. They said that it’s difficult to gain the respect of the communal farm members; partly because the large farms attracted loads of volunteers; but mostly because the host members found the volunteers to be irresponsible, unreliable, and lazy.
I wanted the respect of the farm members, so I signed up for a small farm (in order to actually rub elbows with members) and I resolved myself to be responsible and diligent.
On the flight to Tel Aviv I read this verse: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Pr. 17:28). In my continuing determination to gain respect, I decided to speak less and listen more.
My siblings had been urging this practice on me for years.
In 1989, the company I worked for was dying. A multi-year sales drought had dried up our bank accounts, and our owner’s cash cistern was dusty as well. I was asked to demo our software to one of our sales prospects (actually, our only sales prospect).
If the demo failed, I would lose my paycheck and my prestigious, corner … cubicle.
The night before my demo, the client’s consultant told me that our competitors had badly bungled their demos, wasting half the time showing off “cool” but unneeded features. When the client asked to see solutions to their problems, our competitors ignored them, and continued showing off the coolness of this or that particular feature.
Our competition failed because they wouldn’t yield control of the conversation to the client. They doggedly stuck to their agenda, completely oblivious to the client’s needs.
The consultant suggested I start the presentation by asking the client to describe what they needed. He suggested I then use the rest of the demo to show how our software solved those problems. I did. They liked it. We got the deal. And I kept my cubicle.
What does demoing software have to do with hearing God? Everything.
In the movie The Princess Bride, the evil genius Vizzini repeatedly (and inappropriately) exclaims, “Inconceivable.” His partner Inigo Montoyo finally responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Like that criminal genius, Christians use religious jargon repeatedly and inappropriately. I often want to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I struggle with the phrase, “wrestling with God.” Christians use it to describe an intentional long night of pleading with God for his help. The phrase refers to God wrestling with Jacob (Gen. 32:22-31), but we use it the wrong way; let’s “Stop saying that!”
I used to work in a ministry with a man who loved the phrase. If the finances were low, he’d demand an evening bout of wrestling with God. When members failed to follow his messages, he’d insist on an upper room experience of battling with God.
My friend used the phrase as though we needed to get God’s attention, as though we needed to place a shot across God’s bow. We’d argue with God, make our pitch, and try to persuade him of our plans. Maybe we’d fast.
It reminded me of the priests of Baal as they cut themselves on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). I wish I’d said to my friend, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Our phrase may seem noble or heroic to us, but an African American preacher understood God better when he preached, “Your arm’s too short to box with God!”