Get Out of the Rut and Challenge Yourself

This post is in some ways an extension of Tuesday’s post.

Succinctly put, it is important that we challenge ourselves rather than always falling back into the same repeated, familiar, comfortable patterns. It is only by challenging ourselves that we can grow and improve and become better.

The best example of this that I can think of is my own limited ability to put contacts in. 

I have been wearing contacts for about 12 years, since I was a senior in high school. My eyes are very
sensitive, and I always hated having eyedrops or anything put in, so it was a challenge for me to learn how to put contacts in and force a foreign object into my eye. I had to use both hands and have a mirror to do it so I could stare straight ahead and get the contact off my finger and onto my eye.

But here’s the thing: since I always put my contacts in this way, I never learned how to do it otherwise. I’ve known lots of people who can put their contacts in with one hand or without use of a mirror, but because I never challenged myself to learn how to do it, I’m still stuck in the same two-handed, mirrored rut (which can be a problem if you find yourself camping without a mirror or a broken arm or something prevents you from getting both hands to your eye).

I think this is an important lesson to learn for a lot of different aspects of life:
  • Think of how limited our health care options would be in brilliant and daring doctors hadn’t pushed the limits of what was considered to be possible at the time. A lot of the surgeries and procedures which are now commonplace are only possible because people challenged themselves and risks were taken.
  • A pitcher with a great fastball might tear through the high school ranks, but unless he challenges himself to try different things and learn additional pitches, he’ll never have more than a mediocre career.
  • Maybe you’ve never received the promotion at work that you want because you haven’t challenged yourself enough. Maybe you haven’t spent free time learning new skills that would make you an attractive candidate, or maybe you haven’t gone out of your way to network and develop the relationships that are needed to get the promotion.
  • Do you find yourself ignorant or uninformed about a specific topic that seems to come up over and over again? Challenge yourself to expand your knowledge in that area. Talk to a mechanic to better understand what’s going on under the hood of your car, or read a book that explains inflation, or get some CDs to listen to in the car that teach conversational Spanish.
  • If you are a Christian, are you tired of the fact that you claim to live your life based on a book that you only study at church and barely understand? Commit yourself to studying the Bible every day. Talk to a minister or read a book for tips on how to study deeper and more effectively. Sign up to teach a Bible class at church—that will force you to spend time in study!
  • Are you frustrated with your relationship with your teenage children? Challenge yourself to understand them better—listen to the music they listen to, ask about their interests, sacrifice your free time to spend time doing what they like to do with them.
We could probably come up with dozens of examples, but the principle remains the same: if you want to improve your life—professionally, spiritually, athletically, relationally, socially, informationally—you’ve got to challenge yourself. You can’t stay in the rut, doing the same things over and over and expect to improve.

Oh, and by the way, today I put my contacts in without a mirror (You know, practice what you preach and all that).


Different Types of Maps: Read (and Preach, and Teach) the Whole Bible

In 2 Timothy 3.16-17, Paul writes:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Based on Paul’s words here, I think it should be obvious that we should give attention to all of Scripture, rather than just study the parts that we like over and over again. Some people focus on Paul’s writings; others spend a lot of time in the Gospels. Some folks obsess over the accounts of the early church in Acts, while others never stray far from the wisdom literature or the historical books of the Old Testament.

And it’s okay to have favorites, but if we emphasize our favorites to the point that we neglect the other portions of Scripture, then we aren’t taking Paul’s words from 2 Timothy 3.16-17 very seriously.

In Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, Jonathan T. Pennington puts it very well:
“…For Jefferson County, Kentucky, where I live, we could look at a topographical map that shows terrain and elevations or a road map; at a map that records annual rainfall or one that indicates historical landmarks and points of scenic interest; or we could consult a survey that shows where property lines begin and end. These are all different maps, and they would look very different if set beside one another. But of course they don’t contradict one another. They are complementary and beneficial. They are different discourses of truth—or different ways of approaching and presenting knowledge. 

If this is true for maps of Jefferson County, Kentucky, how much more for theology and Holy Scripture. We need to think of the Bible not as a single map that just gives us doctrinal statements or moral commands, but we must realize that the Bible is like an atlas—a collection of maps/books that shows us the way, the truth, and the life but in a variety of languages or discourses or ways of communicating. To privilege—or worse, to rely exclusively on—only one form is detrimental to apprehending truth; a topographical map helps little when we’re seeking the best restaurants.” 
What a great analogy this is! The Bible is true, but it presents truth in a variety of ways. In Matthew, truth might be presented through a parable. In 1 Kings or Acts, it might be presented in historical narrative. In Psalms, truth is presented through poetry, and in Proverbs through pithy sayings. In books like Romans, Paul often presents truth in direct theological or doctrinal statements, and in Revelation, John presents truth through bizarre and sometimes frightening visions.

All of these different “maps” are a vital part of the entire “atlas” of the Bible. Some are more useful for certain purposes than others, but all contain truth and none should be neglected.

I think all people of faith would do well to be more well-rounded in our Bible study.


Half A Thousand

Today marks a milestone of sorts for The Doc File, as I noticed that I have now amassed 500 blog posts. I started this blog back in the summer of 2006, right before I got married and got into “real” youth ministry (i.e., youth ministry other than a summer internship). A lot has changed since then!

Looking back on some old posts, it is interesting how similar some things are and how much others have changed:
  • I write more about ministry and theology than I used to, and less about sports and other things. Perhaps this is to be expected: when I first started the blog, I didn’t intend to be a long-term minister, and I wasn’t a theology grad student.
  • I continue to write long, convoluted sentences which sometimes contain excessive commas and clauses.
  • I think I come across as a little more humble and a little less arrogant than I used to. I sure hope so.
  • My posts now aren’t as funny as they used to be. That’s too bad—I promise that I am still funny in person!
This blog has been a blessing to my life over the last (almost) seven years, and I want to thank all of those who read and comment. I hope it has been, in some small way, a blessing to you as well. Looking forward to the next 500 posts!


Reflecting on Religious and Theological Disagreements

As a theology grad student, I read a ton of stuff about religion, theology, and doctrine from a wide variety of sources. I also hear a lot of podcasts, sermons and devotionals. And some of the stuff I read and hear is really, really good, but some of it I’m not too sure about and some stuff I think is absolutely wrong.

There was a time in my life when I was greatly disturbed anytime someone disagreed with me about theology, and felt a compulsion to try to convince them that I was right. I still feel this way at times especially if the issue at hand is one that I think is of essential importance.

That being said, I have come to understand something which I think is very important: I can still respect someone’s opinion even if I disagree with it. 

Sounds pretty simple right? And it is simple, but it’s not all that easy—just look at all the religious, political, and cultural debates that surround us and see how often respect is completely left out of them.

When it comes to matters of theology, even if I disagree with you, I can respect your opinion if the following two characteristics are true:

(1) You are a person of integrity. Maybe this is obvious, but I’m going to tend to be skeptical about what you’re telling me if you’re not a very good person. If I don’t see the Fruit of Spirit in your life, why would I think that you have an exemplary understanding of the character and nature of God?

(2) Your viewpoint is not shallow. I am not going to be impressed with your argument if it is based on some hunch or feeling or tradition or something your pastor told you that you cannot support with Scripture. If we have a difference of opinion about how a particular biblical passage should be interpreted, that’s a different issue, but if you’re making no attempt to be anchored to the Word in the first place, we’re going to have a problem.

If you meet these two qualifications, we might disagree on some things (and we almost certainly will), but I can still respect you despite those disagreements.


The Last Pictures

This past weekend, our youth group went to Ponca, Arkansas to float on the Buffalo River. It was a great trip and we had a ton of fun. 

I wanted to document the trip with pictures, but was concerned about water damaging my nice camera, so I brought my old camera instead and carefully kept it wrapped inside a double layer of ziplock bags. 

Unfortunately, when we went to hike to Hemmed-In-Hollow, I slipped on a rock and fell, jacking up my back and breaking the LCD display on my camera (once again causing me to reflect on the benefits and limitations of planning ahead).

Still, I was able to get some pictures of our trip. A few of them are posted below (you should be able to click on the pictures and see larger versions).

Obligatory group photo in front of and on 1940s fire truck.
The part of the Buffalo we were floating was bordered by bluffs that were hundreds of feet tall. 
Several from our group enjoyed jumping off of bluffs.
A closer look at the tops of some of the bluffs.
Hemmed-In-Hollow Falls, the highest waterfall between the Rockies and Appalachians (209 feet). My own fall took place just after taking this picture.
We had a great weekend! It was great to spend time in such beautiful country, and I was reminded yet again that, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19.1).


Naaman and the Commands We Don’t Understand

As a kid, one of my favorite Bible stories was the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. I think I had some sort of children’s storybook version which probably influenced my preference, but it has remained a story that I enjoy as I’ve gotten older.

Do you remember the story? Naaman is an important man, the commander of the army of Syria, but he has leprosy. An Israelite slave girl who works in the service of Naaman’s wife suggests that Elisha, a prophet from Israel, could heal him. Naaman relates this to Ben-Hadad, king of Syria, and then the king sends him to Israel, laden with gifts, to seek a cure. Eventually, Elisha gets word of what is happening and sends for Naaman, who arrives at Elisha’s house with his horses and chariots.

But Elisha doesn’t even come out to see Naaman; instead he just sends a messenger to tell him that his health will be restored if he goes and washes in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman is enraged by this response. He had expected Elisha to come out and do something dramatic, and he doesn’t even begin to understand how washing in a dirty little river could cleanse his leprosy. Furious, Naaman prepares to depart for home, but his servants basically point out that he has nothing to lose by obeying Elisha’s commandment, and so Naaman goes to wash and sure enough, his leprosy is cured.

Grateful for his healing, Naaman renounces Rimmon, his former god, and accepts the God of Israel, pledging to worship no other god in the future.

By personality, and by heritage as well, I like to understand things. If someone makes a decision that affects me, I want to understand why the decision was made. If I am told or required to do something, I want to understand why it is a good thing to do. The same thing is true in my approach to Scripture as well. I come to Scripture wanting to understand it, wanting to figure out what it means, and wanting to discern the correct interpretation of a certain passage.

And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, except this: even when I don’t understand Scripture, I still have to obey it.

And honestly, there are a lot of things in the Bible that I don’t really understand. Why does God choose to save people the way He does? Why is He so particular about some things and not about others? Why are some practices so abhorrent to Him? How exactly does the Trinity work? I have some ideas, but ultimately, I don’t know.

But I don’t have to understand everything, I just have to obey. Just like Naaman.

God is more interested in my trust than my knowledge.

He is more interested in my obedience than my understanding.


Football Teams and Church Commitment

More good stuff from Mark DeVries’ Family-Based Youth Ministry, Rev. Ed., pp. 148-49 (emphasis added):

“I have often wondered what would happen if football coaches approached their work like most youth ministers are expected to. For example, I wonder what would happen if, when a player was too busy to show up for practice, the understanding coach simply said, “We’ll miss you. I hope you’ll be able to make it next week sometime. ” Imagine the players leaving practice and hearing the smiling coach say, “Thanks for coming. I hope you’ll come back tomorrow.” 
If a football team operated like a typical youth ministry, we might expect concerned parents to call the coach, saying, “Can you tell me what’s been going on in practice? My son says it’s boring, and he doesn’t want to come anymore. I was wondering, could you make it a little more fun for them? And by the way, you might want to talk to the coach at the school across town. He seems to have the right idea.” The coach might send out quarterly questionnaires about what the players would like to change about the team. (I can just imagine the answers: “shorter practices,” “more winning”).  
Responding like a typical youth minister, this coach might first feel guilty that the practices were not meeting the boy’s needs, and he would try to adjust his program to suit this boy (and every other boy who complained). Between trying to keep everybody happy and giving every student a good experience, the coach would squeeze in a little football practice. And what kind of season would this coach have? It’s a safe bet that the coach wouldn’t be the only one who felt like a loser. 
But this is the very way that most churches expect to run their youth ministries. To expect that youth be committed to the church with the same level of commitment that would be expected of them on an athletic team would draw the charge of legalism and insensitivity. Our culture has been so carried away by the current of religious individualism that the expectation of commitment to the church has become implausible to most Christians in our culture. Because the god of individualism pressures us to program to the lowest common denominator, we seldom raise the expectations high enough for teenagers to experience real community. 
Real community means real responsibility for each other. It means a commitment to be there for each other even when the schedule is tight and the motivation is low. But the typical Christian adult in our culture knows little about commitment to community.”
How true this is! I would love to be able to count on the same sort of commitment that a football coach expects. An unfortunate by-product of the extreme individualization of Christianity is a de-emphasis on the importance of Christian community, specifically in the context of the local church body.

The Christian life was never meant to be lived in isolation. 


Destroying the Works of Satan

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak at a youth rally and my topic was the purpose of the church. I talked about how the church is God’s vehicle for saving the world today (through the preaching of the gospel), for influencing the world and trying to make it a better place (through service), and equipping Christians for those first two tasks (through education and discipleship).

And those are all pretty standard ideas—we hear about those things a lot when we talk about what the church should do. But the church has another important purpose that is often neglected in such discussions: the mission of the church is to oppose and destroy the works of Satan.

In 1 John 3.8, John said that Jesus came to earth so that “He might destroy the works of the devil.” In Ephesians 6.12, Paul says that our struggle as Christians is not against flesh and blood, but against the forces of darkness. 

These verses make it clear that as the church, we are a part of a spiritual battle against Satan and his influence. Moral corruption and sin are the works of the Devil (and we focus on things like that a lot),  but so are things like disease, starvation, poverty, terrorism, and racism. 

When you look at all the sad and messed up stuff that happens in our world—do you think God likes that stuff? Of course not! Children starving to death in the developing world, or innocent people being killed because of racial wars, or bombs going off at marathon finish lines—those are works of Satan, and when we take part in efforts to fight against those things, we are fulfilling the purpose of the church in opposing and destroying the works of the Devil. 

To me, realizing that when we fight against evil, we’re part of a cosmic struggle and are fighting against Satan himself gives us a whole new level of motivation for doing it. The decisions we make each and every day are important because we have the opportunity to stand up against evil. 

A cosmic struggle against evil: think about that the next time one of your friends tells a racist joke—are you going to sit there and laugh at the works of Satan, or realizing that God loves all people regardless of race and that racism comes from Satan, are you going to speak up and put a stop to it? 

Or the next time you have an opportunity to give to people, maybe people living on the other side of the world who have less than you do—are you going to be willing to use what you have to fight against the works of Satan like poverty and starvation, or are you going to hold onto those things so you can continue to pursue the idolatry of the “American dream”?

Studies show that a whole bunch of teens leave the church after high school, and I think a big reason for that is because it just doesn’t seem like the work of the church is all that important. After all, if we narrow down what church is to only a couple hours of activity a week, of course its importance is going to be diminished. But when we realize the cosmic nature of the struggle we are involved in—saving the world, serving the world, training Christians to do those things, and opposing the works of Satan—we see that the church is absolutely a cause worth giving our lives to.

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