Swatting mosquitoes

One of the highlights of my week is a Saturday morning men’s discipleship group. In the previous post, I wrote about how we sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron. Sometimes that process exposes hidden weaknesses to which we’ve been blind. There was such a moment about three weeks ago. Some people might call it an epiphany. For me it was an “aha” moment. It was unexpected.

Early in our conversation, one of the men raised a question about God’s covenant to Israel and how it relates to the church. I opened my Bible and waited to respond. Without pausing, the guy raised another question about end time events. I stuck a finger in my Bible to hold the place and turned to another passage. Then we were off on another question. I put a another finger in the Bible. I was looking for a unifying thread to tie the discussion together.

All of a sudden it dawned on me. These questions weren’t going anywhere. There was no direction. We were just swatting mosquitoes.

Do you have mosquitoes where you live? We have tons of the little buggers in Clarkfield. (Whoops! Sorry about that if you’re thinking of moving here.) When mosquitoes bite, we itch like crazy. We’ll all felt those ugly red welts on our skin. They’re almost always inconsequential. Bu they grab our full attention. When mosquitoes bite, we stop whatever we’re doing a scratch ourselves.

Because we know what’s coming, we often start swatting mosquitoes before they bite. Do you remember when bug lights were popular? I recall the “crack” and “zap” as bugs strayed too close to the purple light. Bugs were everywhere. But no matter how many mosquitoes we zap or swat, one thing is certain: we’ll never get them all. One dead bug is immediately replaced by ten lives ones. Sometimes the mosquitoes we swat have blood in them. Our blood. We can feel the itch. So we swat harder. But it’s no use. They keep coming back. I think hell will be full of mosquitoes.

One of my friends in Clarkfield has told me about his ancestors pioneering into this territory in the late 1800s. The wagon train arrived in Yellow Medicine County on their way west to the Dakotas. According to the story, mosquitoes were so thick here that the travelers couldn’t continue. So they stayed. And built homes. And planted crops. And dug fence posts. And raised cattle. Somewhere along the way, they figured out how to drain the local swamps to create more farmland and reduce the mosquito population.

How did the early pioneers do all that work with the swarms of mosquitoes? Maybe their work was most productive in January. Never mind that snow covered the ground and temperatures dipped to 30 degrees below zero! Productive people don’t waste much time swatting mosquitoes. If they did, the necessary work would never get done.

That morning in the men’s discipleship group, I realized we had been scratching our itches and weren’t really getting anything done. The tasks we had laid out for ourselves were forgotten while we chased pesky mosquitoes. For example, the board had appointed the Saturday morning group to audit the church’s financial records. We agreed to do it. Every Saturday for two months I brought in a stack of paperwork and set it on the table. Every Saturday for two months the papers sat neglected while we swatted mosquitoes.

Four months ago we decided to watch a video addressed to evangelizing young adults who have left the faith of their youth and no longer believe in God. A few minutes into the presentation, we ran out of time for that day and never got back to it. Six months ago we agreed to preview a discipleship curriculum on emotionally spiritual health. Not only is it unfinished, we haven’t even begun.

See the pattern? Get the picture? Instead of moving from Point A to Point B, we’ve basically gone around in circles. We have swatted mosquitoes and left the heavy tasks undone.Life change is hard work. Just talking about it won’t cut it. We have to do it, despite the mosquitoes.

I’m not saying the group has been a waste of time. Not at all! The men have done an incredible amount of work around the building. Many times the guys have stayed til noon cleaning, mowing, trimming, shoveling and repairing. On occasions we’ve moved off campus and carried out service projects in the community. Bravo! It’s been great service and great fun.

But if we’re going to knock off the status quo and impact the trajectory of the church, it’s going to take intentional, focused leadership. So we changed our format on Saturday morning. Instead of swatting mosquitoes, we agreed to begin working on the tasks we said we were going to do. As a result, the financial audit is now complete. This week we’re doing a church health study. Next week we’ll get back to the evangelism training video. Soon we will begin to preview the emotionally healthy spirituality curriculum. If you’re in the area, we’d love for you to join us. You don’t have to be part of our church or any church. We meet 7:00 a.m. Saturdays at New Life Church in Clarkfield, Minnesota.

Look out, mosquitoes! We’re draining the swamp.

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.

What have you forgotten lately?

The pastor of New Life Church has some strange personality quirks. He’s forgetful. He can be so focused on a given task that he misses subtle social cues or works past a scheduled appointment. At the other extreme, he can be so scatterbrained that he becomes forgetful. Sometimes he’s working at the church and discovers he needs something at the house. Maybe it’s a book or a flash drive. So I run around the corner and rush in the back door. Then I get distracted—usually by something delicious in the kitchen— and return to the church without the book or flash drive.

It works the other way, too. Like several in our congregation, we get our drinking water from the church. Sometimes Carol sends me over to the church for water. I arrive with a gallon jug swinging from each arm. Then I think of something to do in the office and return home a few minutes later—without the water.

Leaving on long car trips are particularly adventurous in our family. We forget things so often that we congratulate ourselves when we don’t forget anything. Sometimes we pat ourselves on the back too soon. Through the years we’ve forgotten food, water, wallets & purses, cameras, audio CDs, coats, gloves, sunglasses, boots, jumper cables, tents, towels, matches, money…. On our last trip to Ohio, we forgot a phone charger cord at Carol’s parents’ house. We’ll pick it up on our next trip—if we remember.

Before you get too high and mighty about your good habits, you should admit you forget some things, too. In fact, the best story I know about forgetting something happened to an elder in our first church. They had seven kids, five still at home. One Sunday they arrived for worship like they always did, in a little hatchback sedan. The two youngest girls rode in the trunk. True story. That day they left church without their youngest daughter, who was about eight years old at the time. This was before cell phones, of course, and they lived in another town. So Carol and I took Rebekah home and fed her lunch, laughing the whole time, while her unsuspecting family drove all the way home, only to discover they had forgotten something rather important in their trunk.

We’ve never stopped laughing about that, but the truth is, some of our worst moments come when we forget something. I’m sorry to report I’ve even slammed my fist into the steering wheel and said a bad word. If you do that, too, you’re taking yourself too seriously. Take it from one who knows. Been there, done that. And I have several T-shirts to prove it.

If there’s more than one of you in the car when you’ve forgotten something, this is when the blame game begins.

“I thought you were going to bring that.”

“No, I thought you had it. That was your responsibility.”

That’s just the part of the conversation I can print. Have you ever blown everything out of proportion and lost something you couldn’t afford to lose around your family—your temper?

People who take themselves too seriously don’t take God seriously enough. They just can’t stand it when they make mistakes. That’s me and that’s you. And it’s also Jesus’ disciples. They took a trip and they forgot something important.

Mark 8:14—The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.

Carol and I went to Montevideo this past Tuesday, intending to eat lunch in the car. True to form, we forgot the food. But it was no big deal. We just ate a little later when we got home. It wasn’t that easy for the disciples. They weren’t on a one hour excursion away from home. Rather, they were on an extended trip out on a lake. No McDonald’s, no lunchboxes, no fishing poles. And no chance to turn around and grab the grub. It’s pretty obvious what happened next: the blame game. They started complaining and arguing. Then one of them, probably Judas, held up a loaf of bread, waved it at them teasingly and said with an impish smile: “Hey fellows, look what I brought!”

The conversation went downhill from there. It became a window into their hearts. Then Jesus stepped up and challenged them with one statement and eight questions. The questions were designed to help them understand the statement. Yes, the disciples had forgotten something important. But it wasn’t bread. Food was just the conversation starter. They forgot something else. It’s something we forget, too. Yes, the disciples forgot the food, just like we often do. More importantly, they forgot that the bread of life was with them in the boat.

When the bread of life is with you, everything changes. So why do we keep forgetting that?

We’ll talk about it this Sunday.