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Witness Protection Program

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I don’t think of myself as a strong witness for Christ. When I’m among people who are likely unbelievers, I tend to play it safe when the topic turns to religion. There are a number of reasons for this. Partly, it’s just habit. I’ve grown used to avoiding religion discussions. When I was a child, I didn’t want to be labeled. In fact, I had an inordinate fear of it after being ridiculed as a pansy or a goody-goody. As I matured, this fear turned into an unwillingness to be misunderstood. I would remain silent because I thought the people I was with would not understand what I said.

How unlike Jesus! He repeatedly said things that confused not only his opponents but also his closest followers. When religious leaders asked him by what authority he drove merchants and bankers from the temple grounds, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again.” The leaders were taken aback. The temple had been under construction for almost 50 years, how could this man claim to be able to rebuild it in only three days? On another occasion, he told his listeners that they would have to eat his body and drink his blood. “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explained. Talk about saying things that were ripe for misinterpretation! Yet Jesus said nothing to clarify his meaning.

What was the result? The Jews called him a crazy bastard. They vilified him. He was labeled and called names. He didn’t seem to care.

One thing I’ve recently noticed, however, is that I don’t have a problem discussing religion online. In person I shy away from religious discussion, but on my blog and in my Facebook posts I often choose religious topics. I’m not sure why. I know, for example, that people are often less civil online than in the real world. But talking God-talk online is somehow easier than in real life.

Perhaps it is the perceived distance. Even though hardly anyone reads my blog except friends and family—at least as far as I’ve been able to determine—I have the sense that when I commit words to the ether that anyone who reads them is far away, separated from me by a virtual chasm that cannot be crossed. Perhaps it is that written words can be meticulously crafted. When a topic comes up in conversation, I may be glib, but I cannot be well-researched. Whatever the reason, I feel somehow safer expressing my views online than I do in person. Being online acts for me as a kind of witness protection program, giving me a comforting illusion of safety.

I consider this a flaw in my character. I need to be the same person in real life as I am online.

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Dissipation

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Jesus gave a clear and succinct mission to his followers before he left: “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.” It is not hard to understand. It is hard to do.

In fact, it is so hard to do that I basically don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong. I approve of the mission. I am willing to support those who engage in fulfilling it. I give to organizations that preach the gospel and make disciples. I just don’t do much myself. When I consider what I might do, I feel defeated before I start.

Many years ago when I was a senior in high school, one of the local churches decided to sponsor a door-to-door campaign to reach local neighborhoods with the gospel of Jesus. I went along partly because there was a girl I liked who was participating. Unfortunately, I didn’t get paired with her. I was sent out with her sister instead. We started canvassing houses. Most people were simply not home. Others clearly mistook us for Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses and refused to open their doors. After a while, we came to a house where several young men were lounging on the porch and steps drinking and smoking. I hung back, thinking that these men were not likely to want to hear about Jesus, but my companion walked right up to them and invited them to church. She was an attractive young woman, so they were immediately attentive. Their attentions quickly became crude, but my companion was undaunted. She politely ignored their comments and pressed on, asking them where they would spend eternity. They were plainly drunk and just as plainly entertained. They strung us along as long as they could, and I was only too glad when we finally left.

“That was a waste of time,” I said.

“No,” said my companion. “Who knows what seeds we may have planted.”

“But they were drunk,” I objected.

“Tomorrow they may be sober,” she retorted. “They may think about what we said and be drawn to God.”

It was very charitable of her to say “we” since I hadn’t opened my mouth the whole time. I had been silently praying, but not for her hearers. I had been praying that she would shut up so we could leave. I didn’t think—and still don’t—that we had any positive impact at all. All we had done was to reinforce cultural stereotypes about evangelical Christians. Great.

I love the gospel. I have seen people transformed by God’s power, and I have experienced it myself. I am not ashamed of the gospel. It really is the power of God for the rescue of everyone who believes. But I don’t like doing things that are demonstrably ineffective. I can’t imagine that “make disciples of all nations” means employing some of the silly methods evangelical churches have used over the past several decades in an attempt to reach the surrounding culture with the message of God’s enduring love.

I confess. I gave up. I was wrong to do so, and the thought that I ought to do more has nagged me ever since.

Recently I’ve been thinking about it more. Like most Americans, I spend a lot of time being entertained and little time thinking deeply about the state of the world, the direction its headed, and what I might be able to do about it. Sometimes it seems that our whole world is geared toward convenience. People won’t recycle unless it’s convenient. People won’t volunteer unless it’s convenient. People won’t oppose injustice unless it’s convenient. We regard those who inconvenience themselves as extraordinary. We regard zeal with suspicion. We live in a world where half-hearted efforts garner praise and whole-hearted efforts provoke envy, where ease is the only happiness and hardship the only misery.

I am by nature an optimist. I don’t do dismal, even when I’m out of a job and the economy is still in the basement. I think the world is rife with God’s blessing. Every living thing seeks opportunities to grow and develop. Many of us, however, seem content with little. We content ourselves with movies and music and food and drink when there are things we could do to change people’s lives for the better. I don’t see around me the same ambition that drove pioneers to break up the sod on the Minnesota prairie or caused fur traders to endure extraordinary hardships to feed the demand for beaver hats. Who am I to complain? I don’t see that kind of zeal in myself.

So what do I want? I hardly know. I want zeal with knowledge. I want to spread the good news of God’s kingdom in ways that work.

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Compartmentalized

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One thing I learned at a very young age was not to talk about church stuff at school. Mention God or Jesus in elementary school and you immediately got pegged as a goody-two-shoes. But it wasn’t just church stuff. You also didn’t dare talk about your family. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers were off limits. If you talked about your mother, you were a Mama’s boy. If you mentioned a sister, you had to endure crass comments about them—or fight, which was forbidden. Even a father could set off a competition as you and an opponent—a politically correct term for your worst enemy—one-upped each other in an effort to prove that the father in question was better, bigger, faster, stronger.

As I matured, these simplistic rules gave way to more nuanced guidelines, but the fundamental lesson seemed to be the same: don’t talk about your life in one sphere while you’re in another sphere. So except for the most mundane banalities, we don’t talk about work in church; we don’t talk about family relationships at work; we don’t talk about our private lives anywhere. We become compartmentalized.

At church we think church thoughts and say church-y things: “God bless you.” “I’ll be praying for you.”

At work we think work thoughts and say work-y things: “I need it done ASAP.” “Call or shoot me an email if you need anything.” The unspoken part is “anything work-related.”

At home we think home thoughts and say home-y things: “What’s for dinner?” “Where’s the remote?” “Why can’t you learn to pick up after yourself?”

And in our private, innermost being we think private thoughts that no one—thank goodness—ever hears: CENSORED.

We live lives divided neatly into compartments. At least we hope to. Sometimes things go awry. Maybe it’s your eleventh grader who just told you she’s pregnant. Maybe your wife discovered your online pornography habit. Maybe your boss is hinting that your position is being considered for termination. Maybe your prayers aren’t being answered, and you aren’t sure you trust God.

When such things happen, there is spillover. Your private life suddenly affects your work. Your home life suddenly affects your religion. Your loss of faith affects everything. It’s quite natural to suppose that becoming healthy again means getting everything back into its compartment. But what if it’s not?

What if we were never meant to live so divided from ourselves? What if we were meant to live just one life, whole, integrated, and pure? What if we dismantled the compartments? What if we used God talk everywhere? What if we let others know about our pain and failure—not in a self-absorbed way, but transparently and naturally, as if we were talking with real friends who could share our burdens instead of talking to contacts we were trying to leverage or impress?

I’m not suggesting that we banish small talk or only engage with one another at some deeply personal level. I’m merely suggesting that each of us should be the same person in every context. It’s not easy. It requires integrity. It requires intentional effort. It requires being your own leader. Back in grade school, if I had had integrity—a certain knowledge of my identity coupled with a steadfast resolve to be myself—I would not have been intimidated by those who teased or threatened. I would have stood my ground, for courage arises from integrity. I am calling for integrity instead of compartmentalization.

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