Strip down before you even think of entering the house. Leave your clothes outside. Take a shower. Then can you come to bed. Only then.
I knew the drill. Coming home after a “Poker Smoker” – an evening of cards and cigars, pizza and beer, bluffing and boasting – Linda drew a line at the back door. The following day she always wanted to hear the stories from my brother and some old friends – men I had known since high school, and all connected to my home church, Oakland First Covenant – but the stench of cigar smoke was not welcome in the house.
My clothes and my hair haven’t reeked since 2006, when we moved to Washington state. But many positive memories remain of those days, including one that will be the basis of our reflections together.
Every time I came home from a poker smoker, the clothes were washed, and the body was scrubbed and shampooed. But I also needed a conversation with a trusted Friend to help me retain my mental focus.
Everyone who played cards on those evenings had a lot in common: same general age, a firm love for God, a wife and kids, a college degree, and a steady job. But it was our socio-economic status that set me apart from my friends.
Stories shared, vacations enjoyed, cars driven, restaurants frequented – the list was lengthy of the creature comforts to which I simply couldn’t relate. And as you can imagine, a bothersome pest named envy often swirled around the poker table, hoping to find a weak spot in my heart that could breed a spirit of discontentment.
Yes, I was the only pastor at the poker table, so that was certainly a factor in the equation. But being in the ministry wasn’t the core issue. Trust me, pastors are not immune to, and frequently give in to, the desire for bigger and better – be it churches or salaries. I was deeply satisfied with my calling and my work, and my friends never once made me feel inferior or left out.
What kept me from succumbing to the longings for more? A phrase that God had engraved upon my heart several years before: But as for you. Those four words were like a recurring highway sign whenever I returned home after an evening with my wealthier friends, reminding me that I was on the right path.
On the drive, it was like Jesus was talking to me: Yes, their comforts could also be yours. But you know that’s not what matters in life. You’ve set your heart on following me. I will direct your paths. I am with you.
But as for you. That phrase was spoken by Moses to the people in the wilderness, by Jesus to his disciples, and by Paul to Pastor Timothy. Sometimes with those exact words, but often from another angle:
They were bickering over who of them would end up the greatest. But Jesus intervened: “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It’s not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant. (Luke 22:24-26 The Message)
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But as for you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (I Timothy 6:10-11)
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
The moment we surrender our lives to God, these verses – and plenty of others just like them – should cause us to pull over and check our GPS. But as for you implies that the path to which Jesus calls us may not be the one the world would choose. Or to get more personal, the path your friends, your tribe, or your political party would choose may be the wrong one for you.
How do you know if you’re on the right road? That’s a foundational question, and I hope you will give it the depth of thought it deserves.
I am convinced that the most important way is to let the mind of Christ transform your mind, and that happens best by immersing yourself in his Word, the Bible. It is the key factor in thriving in your faith.
Which is exactly the opening words of the book of Psalms:
How well God must like you— you don’t walk in the ruts of those blind-as-bats, you don’t stand with the good-for-nothings, you don’t take your seat among the know-it-alls.
Instead you thrill to God’s Word,
you chew on Scripture day and night. You’re a tree replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month, Never dropping a leaf, always in blossom. (Psalm 1:1-3 The Message)
God stated it clearly – his ways and thoughts are not the same as yours and mine*. That means if we are following him, there will be some significant crossroads in your life where his Spirit will whisper in your ear: no, that one’s not for you; take the higher path.
Jesus calls us to follow him, which inherently means that we will not follow the culture, the tribes with which we align, our friends. And it takes courage to walk a different path, to swim against a cultural current.
When you do, you will be misunderstood, and your motives will be questioned. I guarantee it. People have long chalked up my semi-liberal inclinations to the fact that I studied at UC Berkeley. But they have little idea how conservative I was coming out of college. My thinking changed in multiple areas in the decades after I graduated, having received a truly “higher” education from the Gospels, the Psalms, and the Prophets, especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos.
Let’s get practical. What are some of life’s arenas in which your perspective has changed, where you have come to a conclusion: I was wrong? Has the way you treat others softened, including those who mistreat you? Have your viewing habits shifted ... for the good, and shunning the dark side of life? Do your political affiliations reflect the ways of Jesus or the passions of your tribe?
If there are never any changes in your life, but you are increasingly set in your ways, then you have unintentionally created a God who reflects your image. And the Bible calls that an idol.
And there lies a testimony to his amazing grace. All God wants is for us to accept his rebuke that we’re on the wrong road – but as for you – and he resumes his role as the Good Shepherd, and leads us in paths of righteousness. **
Want a fuller example of how this works out in life? Check out next week’s post, in which I share an episode of arm-wrestling with God (once again!) over what was the best path forward for me in ministry. As I’m sure you can guess, Father knows best. But as for you.
Benediction of Blessing
This week let’s speak David’s prayer with which he closed Psalm 139.
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
* Isaiah 55:7-9
** For a quick and inspiring lift on following Jesus, read Psalm 23 again. Better yet, memorize it.
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM