I heard about a man who put himself through veterinary school by doing taxidermy, you know, stuffing dead animals so people could mount them on the wall. When he finished school he decided to open a business where he could do both, a combination vet hospital and taxidermy shop. The sign outside said, “Either way, you get your dog back!”
One of the younger men in our church spoke at our men’s breakfast last Sunday and shared that he didn’t remember a time growing up when he turned around and thanked his father for the spanking he had just administered. He laughed and said, “But looking back on it, I know that what he was doing for me was good, and God used it to build my character. ‘For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’” He was quoting from the book of Hebrews, which explains that God disciplines us because he loves us, and because we are his sons and daughters. So, we are not to take it lightly, nor are we to be discouraged by his corrections. The end result, as we are trained by the discipline of the Lord, is well worth the momentary pain. What does that have to do with the taxiderm-a-vet? Nothing, really, I just liked the story. No, I believe we can take courage as followers of Christ that he will change us and grow us up, but not always in the ways we would prefer. That’s why the Scripture says, “It is for discipline that you have to endure.”
Joseph went through several years of discipline as he sat in a prison cell for a crime he didn’t commit. He believed that this was part of God’s plan for him, just as being sold into slavery had been, and he trusted the Lord to work through his trial for his good and for the benefit of others. Instead of sitting in the cell for years complaining, or feeling sorry for himself, or growing bitter and hardened, Joseph served. The keeper of the prison, seeing Joseph’s character, put him in charge of all the prisoners.
Peter went through the hardest trial of his life when he denied Jesus three times, just as the Lord had told him he would. The rough and tumble fisherman trusted in himself, even proudly crowing just hours earlier, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Hey, Jesus, I know these other guys are weak, but not this guy. I’ve got your back; you just turn around, and I will be right behind you.
The crushing weight of Peter’s failure did not destroy him. Just the opposite. It broke his pride and prepared his heart for that day on the beach, a few days later, when Jesus would ask him three times, “Do you love me, Peter?” For each time Peter denied Jesus, he was able to look his Savior in the eye and tell him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Then Jesus did the unthinkable: he restored Peter to a place of ministry. He told him three times, “Feed my sheep.”
Does the need for discipline disqualify you to be useful to the Lord? No, it proves that you are his. Does failure put you on the sidelines? No, it puts you in a place to be restored to usefulness. Does undeserved punishment mean that God has forgotten you? No, it makes you a recipient of an even greater measure of his grace.
So, welcome the discipline God brings, and take your life, every part of it, to him.
But don’t take your dog to a vet who is also a taxidermist.
We got a call from one of our sons this week, just wanting to check in and tell us how things are going for him in college. He is a senior, majoring in theater, and having the time of his life. He is getting ready to go with the theater students to France and Belgium during spring break, where they will present three different plays. Some will be done on the street, and at least one is for people connected with NATO. Part of the preparation for the students includes working on their testimonies: how they came to meet Christ and what He is doing in their lives. My son shared openly in his testimony about some struggles he had several years ago with internet pornography, and how he had finally gotten the courage to confess it to me. We talked and prayed together that night, and then I helped him set up a system of accountability through an internet program called “Covenant Eyes.”
A couple of days after my son shared this testimony with the other theater students, a young man called him to see if they could get together for lunch. They did, had a great time, and at the very end of their time together, the student told my son that he was looking at internet porn every day, and wanted to be free. “Your testimony gave me hope that I can get out of this, but I don’t know what to do,” he said. My son asked him about his relationship with his father, and encouraged him to call him and tell him what was going on. “Do it now,” he said. The young man did, right there in the dining hall, and his father, a pastor who lived about an hour away, left everything and drove to campus. They met and talked, and prayed together, and the father gave his son the encouragement and help he needed at that moment. I know it could have gone badly, and often does. The father could have scolded his son, told him how disappointed he was, shamed him, and made him regret that he had ever asked for help. He didn’t, thank God. We fathers need to learn to give grace to our children when they fail, just as we have been given grace in our struggles and defeats. Mostly, our sons especially need to know that they do not have to fight this battle of the flesh alone, and that we will help them.
When I was in Moldova in January, and my oldest son and I were teaching men about how to lead their families, we talked about this issue of porn. I said in every meeting, “Internet pornography is the fastest growing addiction in the world. And though I am 60 years old, I do not trust my own heart. That is why every Monday morning, one of the elders in the church gets an email from Covenant Eyes. I have it installed on each of my devices, and it monitors my internet usage. If I were to go to a site that I shouldn’t, he would get that report the following Monday. I do this for accountability. I do this because I love my wife and want to be faithful to her in every way, including with my eyes and my heart. I do this because I love my family, and I do not want to damage them through moral failure. I do this because I love the church, and I do not want to bring shame to the Gospel, and harm to the people I shepherd every week. They say it takes a lifetime to build your character, and only five minutes to destroy it. Mostly, I do this because I love the Lord, and do not want to dishonor the one who bought me with his own blood.”
I am proud of my son, and the way God used him to connect a father and son and bring help where it was desperately needed. I was reminded again of how dangerous this particular addiction is, and how deceptively enticing. So, I say to myself, and to anyone reading this column: don’t trust yourself with this.
You absolutely cannot handle it.
Is God concerned about social justice? You can count on it. He rebuked people in the book of Amos who “turn justice to wormwood,” who “abhor him who speaks the truth,” who “trample on the poor,” who “afflict the righteous,” and who “take a bribe.” God tells his people that judgment is coming, and calls on them to seek the Lord and turn from evil, that justice may be established in the land. Or, as Martin Luther King famously quoted the prophet, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Whom did God raise up to speak this truth to power in Israel more than 700 years before Christ? A simple man of labor named Amos. We know very little about him. Amos tells us in the very beginning of his book that he was “among the shepherds of Tekoa.” This was a village of no reputation, about 10 miles south of Jerusalem. Amos was just one of the shepherds in an insignificant little town. Nothing special. We know from later in the book that he was also a “dresser of sycamore figs.” Amos was a simple man who worked with his hands. If he had a business card, it just said, “Shepherd.” His number was 549-BAAA. He wasn’t invited to speak at conferences. He was not a board member for an important corporation. He did not hobnob with the rich and powerful. He didn’t have any honorary degrees from the “best universities.” He was Amos, the shepherd. Jeff Niehas writes, “It is significant that Amos chose to remain largely faceless, because this attitude reflects what should be the true spirit of a prophet, epitomized by the last of the prophets of the old covenant, who said, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”
Here’s the thing. He who was insignificant to men was significant to God. The same is true for each of us. Later in the book, a priest in the northern kingdom tells Amos, get out of town, go back home, and take your message from God with you! I love Amos’ response. He basically says to the priest, “The Lord took me. The Lord sent me. The Lord told me what to say.” Then the little shepherd turns to Amaziah the priest and says, “Now therefore, hear the word of the Lord.”
Don’t give in to those who would intimidate you into silence. Serve God where you are. He may call you to leave the sheep and go speak truth to power. But most likely, he will simply say, “Tell the truth about God right where you work, and where you live.” God is not a respecter of persons. He uses all of his own who are willing to be used, all who are yielded to him. Are you a schoolteacher? Teach with the authority that God gives you. Are you a truck driver? Drive with the certainty of God’s calling on your life, reaching people that the teacher and the preacher may never even see. Are you a judge? Judge righteously, as one who is called by God to do so in every case. Are you a businessman or woman? A homemaker? A student? Serve God where you are. It is the power of God in your life that makes whatever you do make a difference in the Kingdom of God.
That is how justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. That is how families and cities and nations are reformed, and the oppressed are set free, and the weak are welcomed and cared for, and the lost are found. It happens when the people of God live and love as we are directed to do so by the Lord.
I know some guys who get together once a week to play golf. Or to watch sports on TV. I know some guys, myself included, who meet with other men once a week for coffee and conversation, in an effort to help each other grow in the Lord and be faithful to our wives and families. Until two weeks ago, I didn’t know there were guys who met at the sauna every week. If you go to Moldova, a little country in eastern Europe, you can find these guys. You may even be fortunate enough, as my oldest son and I were, to be invited to join them. It will be for you as it was for us, one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life. It would have been even more unforgettable had the men experienced sauna like they normally do, without clothing. I thank God that they chose instead to wear at least a speedo, for our sake. As Micah said to me later, “Dad, there’s some things you just can’t un-see.”
Words cannot describe the experience; you have to be there. We baked in the dry sauna, in temperatures that continued to climb through the evening until they maxed out at 110 Celsius. Do the conversion. After 15 minutes in the oven — my mind flooded with praise to God that I will never experience hell — we leaped into a pool where the water temperature was 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I asked the men before I jumped if my heart would survive the shock, and they all shrugged and said, “Probably.”
We went from sauna to pool over and over, and then we sat in a room and sipped bitter tea. “This will cleanse your liver,” they told us as we made a face with the first sip. I told them I felt like my liver was pretty clean, and they offered another tea I could drink if I didn’t want the bitter libation. “This is women’s tea,” they said, and smiled as they pointed to a much milder drink. I screwed up my courage and proceeded to cleanse my vital organs, helped by a teaspoon of honey with each sip.
The three hours of male bonding ended with the most muscular of the men taking turns beating each of us with an oak branch. I am not making this up. The branch had been soaked in a bucket over night, so the leaves were hydrated. He methodically struck us on our chest, back, legs, and the bottoms of our feet. The idea, they said, is that the moisture and the heat is pressed into the deep tissue and even into your organs by the hot, wet branch. Umm, OK, I’ll have to take their word for it. I just know that my whole body was on fire for that final plunge into the pool, a leap that I had grown to look forward to.
Lest you think we lounged around in our bathing suits all week, let me explain. Antioch Community Church sent us to Moldova to meet with men, and to teach them how to be spiritual leaders in their homes, and how to love their wives and children. Everywhere we went, we met men who were hungry to hear what the Bible says about this. We spoke in one village where the power had been out for two days, and it was 45 degrees in the church building. Sixty men sat in their winter coats and gloves and listened for two hours, and then stayed longer to ask questions and to fellowship together. They thanked us and asked us to come back and teach them more. Micah and I were humbled by the response everywhere we taught. We heard older men say, “We wish we had heard this 30 years ago.” We heard younger men say, “We have not been leading and loving our families the way we should; may God help us to change.”
We came back with encouraged spirits, full hearts, and tired bodies. I probably need to go to the sauna. Meet me there; I’ll bring the oak branch.