The Usefulness of Un-Usefulness

A few weeks ago, I wearily dragged myself home from a retreat. Exhausted. The retreat was terrific, but I had slept abysmally and felt utterly spent. Empty. Pathetically useless.

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I despise that feeling of uselessness: I want to accomplish something, to make a contribution, to feel I did my part. I didn’t feel completely worthless, but I somehow sensed the sorrow of barrenness.

This morning I read the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. More than ever, I sympathized with Peter. His reaction seemed honest. Think of your best friends. If you could choose between washing their feet and letting them wash your feet, which would you prefer?

I would choose washing the feet of my friends ten times out of ten. A thousand out of a thousand. It’s not that my feet are especially disgusting (I do bath occasionally); it’s just that I can’t stand the idea of my friend bending before me and doing something so menial for me.

Ask me to climb Mt. Everest or to steal the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. Some great deed. Even washing their feet would be tolerable; just don’t let them wash my feet. That would be unbearable. Far worse to let Jesus wash my feet. Let me wash his.

I would far rather be helpful to God than be helped by him.

Overcoming Chronic Sins

My twelve year old self had a violent temper. My fuse was short, and my blasts of anger detonated at insults as unexpectedly as bursts of laughter explode at well-timed jokes. Without the mutually pleasant consequences.

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I remember once chasing my older brother Andy around the house with a knife. I don’t remember what he had done (probably something HEINOUS), but I do remember him chuckling as he easily evaded my thrusts. His laughter did nothing to calm my storm.

I hated my uncontrollable anger, and I memorized over fifty verses about the angry man:

  • A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.
  • A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.
  • Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty.
  • But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

When I felt an outburst rising, I tried to calm myself by repeating those memorized verses. It even worked a few times, but not for long. I soon boiled over again.

When I was thirteen, a friend offered to pray for anything I wanted. I asked him to pray for my temper. Six months later, he asked how I was doing, and I realized I hadn’t once lost my temper since his prayer. I hadn’t even had to fight it. My explosive temper had been defused.

It was a miracle.

Since then, I’ve asked God to take away other bad habits, and he’s never acted again so instantly. He usually works slower, a little less dramatically, and (it seems) less miraculously.

The Death of Difference

I’ve always loved playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps I’m just contrary (or maybe just the devil). I was delighted to discover that my differing nature was a genetic gift. Hey, it’s not my fault!

Look at this tombstone of my grandfather’s brother. Do you notice anything strange about it? DSC_01

My great uncle (I think that’s what he would be called) hated conformity. All the tombstones in his cemetery faced the road. To revel in a life of difference, he willed that his tombstone face perpendicular to every other stone in the cemetery. Even in death he celebrated his difference.

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Apparently, the town council was furious at this desecration, so they outlawed the practice going forward. The irony, of course, is that the new law meant his differences would live forever. Every tombstone in the cemetery—before and after—faces the road. Except his.

Which is exactly what he wanted in the first place.

The Delusion of Doctrine

For much of human history, people have been executed because of their beliefs. These people weren’t killed for antisocial behavior (like murder, rape, or treason); they were slain simply because of their inner-conviction about reality.

We’re more tolerant today. That’s good. I don’t want to be burned alive because I believe that Android phones are better than iPhones (though I confess to liking roasted Apples…).

It’s right we abandon belief-based execution, but remember those who experienced it. Thousands of men and women willingly suffered slaughter without recanting. They believed so strongly, they wouldn’tMonk pretend to deny their beliefs; even to save their lives.

Today, though, doctrine is scorned. We imagine cloaked monks, closeted in their dusty cloisters, penning abstract dogmas on “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” I once asked dozens of people what they thought of doctrine. They boldly proclaimed:

  • Doctrine, schmoctrine; God only wants us to love each other.
  • Doctrine is about the head; I believe in the heart.
  • Doctrine divides; it’s more important to find what unites.
  • Thinking is the devil’s territory; let’s just experience God.

The thing is, each of these statements is a doctrine. (The belief that “God only wants us to love each other” is called the doctrine of Salvation by Works.) But would you die for your doctrine that, “Thinking is the devil’s territory”? I think not. Dorothy Sayers wrote,

In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair … the sin that believes in nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive simply because there is nothing for which it will die (Creed or Chaos, slightly edited).

We don’t need to be burned at the stake. Our shallow convictions about reality are death. The problem with doctrine is that we all have them; few of us admit it; and it’s killing us.

What If We Can’t Forgive Ourselves?

I know a man convicted of a violent crime against someone he loves. He acted in a momentary rage; he had never been violent before. It shocked him. Now he’s in prison.

Prison bars are not his greatest problem. He’s repented to thePrison victim, and the victim forgives him; and he’s repented to God, and he feels God forgives him too.

His problem is that he can’t forgive himself.

He’s confessed all known sins, prayed the sinner’s prayer, and claimed the blood of Christ. He knows he is forgiven by others, but he just can’t forgive himself.

He now feels doubly guilty; guilt at what he did, and guilty that he can’t forgive himself.

My First Parachute Jump Ever … and My Last

As a young boy, my weekends were filled with imaginary World War II battles. Nearby parks fielded the Battle of the Bulge, and the skeleton of a local building project (fatefully a new funeral home) formed our bombed-out buildings.

Dirtballs became our hand grenades, ditches our foxholes, and blankets our pup tents. We sacrificed our bodies (and the knees of our jeans) to save the world from Hitler.picture_para_drop

One Friday evening I watched the movie, D-Day. I was captured by the airborne parachute jumps, the bravery and heroism, and the infiltration behind enemy lines.

The next day I made my first (and last) parachute jump. I confiscated a sheet from my mom’s closet and requisitioned rope from my dad’s tool room. I tied one end of the ropes to the corners of the sheet and the other ends around my chest.

I slithered through an upstairs window and crept onto the roof. With my parachute and lines carefully laid out behind me, I perched at the edge of our second story, and I hurled myself into the air behind enemy lines. I waited for the tug of the opening chute.

Lying on my back, I looked up. The chute still lay on the roof, and the carefully cut lines hung limply over the gutter. I had forgotten to measure the height of the roof.

My lines were ten feet too long.

Is There Any Value in Experiencing Deep Shame?

A lethal virus is infecting many believers today. It’s the pop-therapy that claims shame is bad. Shallow-shame is bad, but only deep-shame brings healing. Without it we are doomed.

J. I. Packer tells us, “Seek the grace to be ashamed” (Knowing God).

The gospels describe two different miraculous catches of fish. The first occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry hiding(Luke 5:4-8) and the second happens at the end (John 21:2-7). They are very similar:

  • In both stories, professional fishermen fish all night.
  • In both stories, the night of fishing is fruitless; not one fish is caught.
  • In both stories, an amateur gives them specific directions how to fish.
  • In both stories, the fishermen catch so many fish that their boats are sinking.

But there is one, huge difference. After the first miracle, Peter exclaims, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” After the second, Peter throws himself into the sea and swims an Olympic-record-breaking freestyle to get to Jesus.

In the first miracle, Peter experiences shallow-shame and he runs from Jesus. In the second, Peter experiences a shame that is deep and he races to Jesus.