Sharpening iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

I’ve been part of a men’s discipleship group at New Life for five years. It was initiated by two young men who were new to the church at the time. The group didn’t move in the direction they wanted and eventually they left both the men’s group and the church. Subsequently they also moved out of the area. But the group they had planted remained and thrived in the lives of four men. All of us are older. All of us are elders. Occasionally others will drop in for a visit, but four men have made a commitment and often experience spiritual highlights early on a Saturday morning.

The meetings are usually unplanned without designated leadership, but they follow a predictable format. We just talk. We are comfortable around one another and there is high personal trust. So the guys open up without fear of rejection or condemnation. But we challenge one another directly. The most common topic by far is politics. Closely related is the culture war. That often leads to the challenge of evangelism in a changing world.

In many of these discussions I remain silent for fifteen or twenty minutes while the guys vent. Eventually they ask me what I think or I finally say, “May I address this with you?” Then it’s my turn to vent. We open the Scriptures and God leads us through a remarkable time of insight and depth. Sometimes we go on for two hours. Many times we walk out of the session praising God and saying to ourselves, “Where did all those insights come from? We didn’t plan it, but God delivered. It was a wonderful time of refreshment. God is so good to us!”

Over time, no matter where we began our conversations, we kept arriving at the same conclusions from our time together: We need to change our unwritten core values of status quo and power. We started putting the ideas on a portable white board. They were radical changes, like stop judging others or stop trying to control others. We talked about radical acceptance and service from a position of powerlessness. Scary stuff. Sometimes other people would look at the list on the white board and comment, “I don’t like it!”

That’s understandable. I’m not so sure we like it ourselves, either, because our stubborn old values continue to assert themselves with force. I keep dragging out the white board. I point to it and say, “We’ve talked about this a dozen times from several passages in Scripture. This is what we always conclude, right?”

“Right,” they say. But it’s hard to put it into action. We’re still suspicious of outsiders. We are still quick to point out the faults of others. We still want to be in control of election results. We’re still angry about cultural changes. For the past year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the men’s group is stuck. Where’s the life change?

Two weeks ago, God gave me a breakthrough. It turns out we were off track and have been for a long time. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Others saw the problem and I didn’t. I’ll write about it next time.

Ice storm

A week ago an ice storm hit our area. The forecast was so dire the governor closed all the public schools in the state three days in advance. Late Friday evening the thermometer rose above freezing and the sky deposited sleet, freezing rain, and then rain. The temperature dropped quickly. By Saturday morning thick ice covered everything. 

Needless to say, travel was treacherous. Since we live in a small town, I walk nearly everywhere all the time. It’s a good thing, too, because I doubt our car could have made it up the steep slope of our tuck-under garage. Carol and I joke that whoever designed our house didn’t live in Minnesota and visited during summer to deliver the blueprints.

A week after the storm, it’s still slippery here. Everywhere. I’ve still been walking my normal routes, but it’s slow, tense work. Staying on my feet is really challenging. I’ve started to slip several times, but haven’t fallen all the way yet. I walk like an old man with tiny, defensive steps. True to form, I’m actually beginning to become an old man. I sense a fall may not be as easy as it used to be. Psalm 37:23-24 comes to mind: “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”

That’s a comforting thought when walking on ice! And it’s followed immediately by this: “I was young and now I am old…” Oh boy, Lord, keep me on my feet!

Yesterday I began to notice that my calves were a little sore because of my defensive posture, but I kept walking. Today my calves are very sore. Defensive walking–maintaining a constant tension in the legs to guard against slips–may help us avoid painful confrontations with the ice, but there has been an unintended consequence–pain of a different kind.

Defensive walking reminds me of defensive living. Defensive living maintains constant tension with other people. Our relationships are guarded. We think the worst of others, refuse to grant the benefit of a doubt, find it hard to forgive, and cannot enjoy authentic vulnerability with our family and friends. Anger is usually part of the equation. One way to describe defensive living is “walking on eggshells” around other people. We keep them at a distance and try to hold on to the status quo at any price. So we never relax. That describes a lot of relationships.

There’s a cost. We live defensively to avoid the pain of relating with others, but it turns out there is an unintended consequence–the different pain of a lonely life. Perhaps the status quo isn’t worth preserving. Vulnerability and authenticity involve real life pain, but it’s far better than walking on eggshells around other people. Life produces ice storms in the stress of difficult relationships, but defensive living is not the way to respond.

If I’m going to keep walking on ice, maybe I need to strap some spikes on my shoes to grip the ice better. Defensive walking is too painful! And when life produces ice storms in strained relationships, a gospel-driven life helps me grip the slippery mess of loving and forgiving other people who are broken just like me. Defensive living is just too painful!

An ice storm proves it.