‘You’re not very relevant, are you?’

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” (Acts 16:7)

There are blogs for almost everything, and Christian blogs as well. Some of them are about current events, or offer their opinions and reflections on them now and then. I generally don’t do that.

As a Christian, there’s nothing wrong with blogging about whatever comes to mind when you lift the cover on your laptop. That could be about cooking, raising your children, fixing your car or visiting the Grand Canyon. I don’t make pharisaical rules about blogging and there shouldn’t be any, in my opinion.

But in my case, there’s a specific reason. My calling is to teach, and especially on discipleship. Of course, we’re all called as Christians to make disciples; it’s right there at the top of the post. I have other reasons for tilling a small garden plot, figuratively speaking.

Probably about thirty years ago, I remember reading a news account of a Christian businessman in my local community appearing in the public comment segment of a county legislature meeting. He was talking about local development, not something explicitly Christian or even some “family values” issue like casinos moving into the area (where I lived has been economically depressed for decades).

And he made a fool of himself, something that just disgusted me. I remember thinking to myself, Where are the Christians who can be leaders, influencers? (I still get the same feeling when I read comment threads on news sites, Christian or not, and self-identified Christians and amateur expositors try to apply Scripture to particular situations with wooden clumsiness.)

And then, shortly after that, the Lord made this crystal clear to me: To produce leaders Jesus used followers. Of him. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men–from followers to leaders, influencers. Obviously–but then again, maybe not–you can’t make someone into something (a disciple) when you’re not one yourself.

So, why didn’t Jesus go to Rome, Alexandria, Antioch or Athens, cities in many ways far more significant than Jerusalem in its day? Judea was a Roman province, not exactly an imperial hub for the dissemination of something as revolutionary as this brand-new faith. It wasn’t the Silicon Valley of its era for religious innovation.

And forget Nazareth, which was about as far from Rome and Athens (and not just geographically) as my farm-boy hometown in western New York is from the Washington, DC metro area where I live now.

And the answer to that question is, He did, just not right away, and not in person as he ministered in Galilee and Judea. The how was by making disciples who made disciples who made more disciples . . . The when was as soon as there were enough disciples to be scattered like seed into all these locations. And also equipped like Paul (he was first sent from Antioch) or Apollos (from Alexandria, but still needing correction from Priscilla and Aquila) for tasks other disciples couldn’t do.

The historian and sociologist Rodney Stark has written about this. Turns out that Jesus’ description of the kingdom of heaven as like a mustard seed (a tiny seed becomes the largest garden plant) or yeast that “worked all through the dough” (Mt 13:31-33) is exactly how it happened.

OK, fine, but what about all those notebooks full of “spiritual principles” I’ve been taught to apply to various issues like environmental damage, race relations and social justice, Christians and political involvement, etc.?

Funny you should ask, because this approach is conspicuously missing from the teachings and ministry of Jesus. So why does it sully the comment threads of blogs and sites from here to Portland to Dallas to Los Angeles?

Wait–what? Are you saying that Jesus didn’t teach us principles to guide us in every situation? And, by implication, to be like the tribe of Issachar, “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do”? (1 Chr 12:32)

No, of course not. But the reason “spiritual principles” is between the alleged, but not proven quotation marks is that often it’s begging the question of origins to say they are derived from biblical teaching.

And that means both soundness of doctrine and soundness of application. The Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law (i.e., first-century lawyers) all knew the law, the prophets and the writings (Psalms, Proverbs, among others). They even had enough training and sophistication to devise trick questions to try to trap Jesus into making a gaffe. And they crucified him; this was literally “the letter kills.”

Which is what “spiritual principles” do when they are legalistically applied or–and this is important–the empirical evidence to support them is limited to someone’s personal experience, even a ministry-trained someone.

A couple of years after moving to the eastern shore of Maryland, I started attending a small church a few miles from my home that met in a shopping plaza. Because I was new and still relatively new to the area, I sat down with the pastor for a cup of coffee so we could get to know each other.

I told him (1) I had been a teacher and elder in a church like his; and (2) about the turmoil in that church that led to my ostracism and isolation. We talked a little about that experience, enough for him to get the picture. Implied if not discussed in vivid detail was that I had been hurt by the experience. (Who wouldn’t be?)

When he put possible ambitions to ministry (previously an elder and teacher) together with a burned-by-the-brethren experience, the warm, open look on his face disappeared and he said bluntly, “Wounded people wound people.” His body language changed just like that.

Empirically, there’s evidence for that statement (or spiritual principle), quite a bit in fact. I had seen evidence for that myself, so it’s not like this was new, surprising or implausible. “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad” (Mt 12:33). A bitter root produces bitter fruit. I get (got) that.

The problem is in the application of that principle, more specifically the way it was ministered to me. I had spent less than 15 minutes with the man when the clouds rolled in over our conversation.

It had ended years ago, but was I bitter now? Wounded still, so that my thoughts, words and actions were dominated by my bad experience, which had taken over my mind, will and emotions? Was I a “poison well” about to taint everything and everyone that “drank” from my life? He didn’t know; he couldn’t know. It was that simple.

Well, in my experience–yes, exactly, which (looking at my watch) is coming up on 20 minutes and the conversation is now as lukewarm as the coffee in my hand I barely started to drink.

You’ve just met me, all you know about me is what I’ve told you and you have no “fruit” in the form of evidence from personal relationships, examples of things I’ve said or done, or the testimony of others about my personality and life. People do recover from these situations, even emerge stronger.

Was Joseph a “poison well” for telling the brothers who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Isa 45:5)?

When you read the end of Joseph’s story, there isn’t any bitter, He did this, or, Can you believe it? They did that. It’s all about how God redeemed every life involved, both the brothers who mistreated Joseph and also Joseph himself who, as a typical, callow 17-year-old, had a couple of dreams he just had to tell his brothers about (who weren’t exactly thrilled by the messages).

The problem with that was that the dreams themselves had to be redeemed from being about personal glory or prominence. The imagery may have been accurate, with nothing lost in the re-telling, but it’s what Joseph saw in them that needed redemption.

They were finally fulfilled when Joseph comprehended that “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all,” which in turn foreshadowed “for the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:44-45). He did become “first,” but it was through becoming a slave to all.

There was a blind man that Jesus touched who then saw people “like trees walking around.” Seeing, yes, but not clearly, until he received a second touch (Mk. 8:23-25). This is what happened to Joseph.

I’ve digressed a bit, but with a purpose: to deflate your confidence in the way we often interpret and apply Scripture. Sorry, but think of it like your car’s tires. Overinflated tires wear out more quickly and give you a rough ride. That’s a fair description of what legalism does to people, at least the ones I’ve known (i.e., for decades, not 20 minutes): makes your life rougher than it needs to be until it wears you out.

The point of all this is to say that what you think, feel, say and blog is a discipleship issue. You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about carbon footprints, white-on-black or black-on-black crime statistics or whether the local health department is Nero for regulating your church’s services.

It’s not that scientific training, statistics and eyewitness accounts or even the theology of church-state interaction aren’t important. Of course they are.

But there’s something more important: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mt 6:22-23)

Those are a couple of big ifs. And now we’re out of the classroom or lab or seminary library and back in God’s presence for that kind of transformation, which is precisely what discipleship involves, not just books and classes and study guides ad infinitum. It’s about walking in the light and getting it from the Light himself.

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