During my sophomore year at university, I met a freshman new to college life. His dad was a business-exec in a wealthy suburban neighborhood; my dad was the pastor of a poor church in a dodgy Detroit neighborhood. He studied performance violin; I studied physics.

His dad frequently traveled; my dad never missed family dinner. His older sisters taught him boys were naughty, and to flee from danger and dirt. My older brothers taught me that boys are fun, and that nothing is more fun than a set of bloody elbows and a pair of muddy trousers.

Nevertheless, a deep friendship was born. We played in racquetball matches, performed together in several small concerts, and sailed the Great Lakes. He asked my opinion when he switched majors from violin to computer science, and he gave me good advice when I switched from physics to history.

After school, we worked together for a few years. Then he took a job in Latin America and later in Europe. We saw each other infrequently, but our friendship always resurrected instantly.

After an absence of seven years, we met again a month ago, but he seemed distant and our former friendship felt aborted. We stumbled through family narratives, and we parted cordially. I emailed him the next day and suggested we not wait another seven years.

He didn’t respond.

Surprised by Tears

Three weeks after that depressing lunch, he finally responded to my email, beginning, “I couldn’t bring this up at lunch because I would have bawled like a baby.”  Then he wrote,

When I first met you, I was not very masculine and desperately needed masculine role-models and friends.  You became both.  You showed me what it meant to be masculine and virtuous at the same time.

You could’ve just said, “That wimpy kid is a lost cause, don’t waste time on him,” but you didn’t.  You pushed me in directions that helped me become the man I am.

I am incredibly grateful to you. You have no idea how much.  I realize what a blessing you were in my life and I’ve never thanked you for being there as a friend, a mentor, and a brother.

I don’t tell you this story to share the impact of my life: I write it to show the impact of yours.

The Very Best Fruit

Every human being wants their life to matter. We consciously try to leave the world a better place; when the greatest fruit of our lives is always born unnoticed. But only by us. I was completely unaware of any impact my life had on my friend. If I listed the top hundred ways I may have influenced the world for good, his name would never have entered my mind.

I thought he was “just a friend.”

The Gospel of John explains the secret to a fruitful life: Abide in Christ. Oh, we work hard to build a legacy or leave an impact, but we will always be unaware of our greatest fruit, because God himself bears it through us. Our efforts are good; his efforts are longer lasting.

God’s way is better, it leaves no room for us to conceive self-conceit. Yes, let us consciously bring all the good we can to the world; but even more so, let us rejoice in the life of God in us. For he can do through us far more than we can ask or even imagine.

The fruit of Abraham’s life was not his conscious work conceiving Ishmael but the supernatural work of God in birthing Isaac.

There I was at lunch thinking my friend was cold and distant, when all the time he was near to tears. It never dawned on me. I never sensed it. I was ignorant. And when I read his email, I wept.

Boys may be fun, but their heads are very thick.

Sam

I recently heard a popular Christian speaker tell of a “rich spiritual exercise” he began practicing in secret. A friend of his encouraged him for years to try it, and for years he resisted. Finally, he gave it a shot. And he loves it.

The friend who introduced him to the spiritual practice is an Eastern Guru, and the exercises themselves are born out of Eastern Mysticism. At first, the popular speaker feared mixing eastern religion with Christianity, but afterward he spoke of the wonderful, inner-peace he feels. “The proof,” he preached, “is in the pudding; ‘We’ll know it by its fruit.’”

When he indulges in these practices, he asserts he “is more kind to himself, has learned to receive, has discovered his self-worth, grown in self-love,” and is “growing in heroic self-care.”

He concluded, “It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.”

When it Seems Not to Work

A pastor who read Hearing God in Conversation recently told me about “learning to know God’s will.” Ten years ago, he felt called a smaller, poorer church. When he accepted the invitation, he and his wife put up their suburban house for sale and bought a house in the city.

Their old house took twenty-six months to sell. A bridge loan handled the double-payments.

God’s delay bewildered them. They thought they heard his guidance, they priced their old house fairly, it was a seller’s market, and the darn old house sat there empty. After it finally sold, they had five years of extra monthly expenses before they paid off the loan.

Whenever they asked God about it, they sensed him say, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Thought provoking but hardly inner-peace.

When the bridge loan was finally paid off, they found they liked their simpler lifestyle. Instead of buying a new car, they gave that monthly money to a missionary in Ghana. When they told their story to the congregation, many of them began to donate more also.

Soon, the church itself donated over 30% of their monthly income to missions and charities.

The pastor concluded, “The fruit of God’s ways was to transform our minds to think more about other people: the local poor, our missionaries, and the people they care for. We could never have changed our own hearts in our own wisdom. It took adversity.”

God’s Ways Often Make No Sense

Obedience only shapes us when we disagree with God. When we agree with him, we obey our own reasoning because the alternatives themselves seem stupid. Only when God’s ways seem stupid have we begun to understand what obedience means. And what does God command?

Scripture prohibits mixing with other religions ten times more than it speaks against murder or adultery. Why so over the top? Because we naturally agree that violence and betrayal is bad, whereas idols disguise themselves by promising something good. To us, it seems intolerant to reject practices of other religions: how could a loving God forbid fruitful-spirituality?

Idols have eyes that can’t see, ears that don’t hear, and mouths that don’t speak (Ps. 115:5-8). They promise good that they cannot deliver. Yet we believe them. Christians today are abandoning faithfulness to God at the same rate our culture abandons marital fidelity.

Real spirituality is born in the fires of adversity, declining a good for the sake of the best, and God alone knows what that is. Jesus himself “learned obedience through suffering” (Heb. 5:8).

The fruit of that famous speaker was his increased self-focus, nurtured in an inner-peace of disobedience. The fruit of the of that poor pastor was an increased other-focus, nurtured in the suffering of obedience. “To walk out of His will is to walk into nowhere” (C. S. Lewis).

It’s only stupid if we don’t obey God’s way.

Sam

What is Christian meditation?

In February 1978, I sensed God call me to spend a summer volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel (a communal farm that provides room and board for six days of work). I asked friends to help me discern if I heard God correctly. Some were pretty sure it was from God, and others were certain it wasn’t. After deliberation, I decided to go, but not until April.

The deadline to register as a volunteer had passed a month earlier (this was in the days before internet, email, or fax; though indoor plumbing was making a splash). I still thought I heard God invite me to go, so I drained my savings and bought a plane ticket.

When I boarded a plane May 2nd, with my last $300 in my pocket, not a soul in Israel knew I was coming. And I had no idea what to do when I got there.

My itinerary took me from Detroit to London (where I visited friends), then to Athens for a two-hour layover, and finally to Tel Aviv. When I arrived in Athens, I discovered my two-hour layover wasn’t two hours but a day and two hours. The hostels were full and hotels cost about $100.

To kill time as I figured out a plan, I visited the famous Acropolis. While sitting on its steps, high above the city, some tourist-kids began to talk with me. It turned out that they were middle-school students from Israel on a field trip to Greece. (I was jealous: my Detroit field trips took me to its sewage and water-purification plant.) They introduced me to their chaperone.

That chaperone happened to be the world-wide head of the kibbutz volunteer program.

He heard my story, suggested the perfect kibbutz for my situation, gave me money for a taxi from Tel Aviv to his office, handwrote a letter for me to give his secretary, and invited me to have dinner and spend the night with him and his school kids.

Christian Meditation

Christian meditation is a gift from God to help us see him. Unlike Eastern meditation, which empties the mind, Christian meditation fills the mind, with God’s words or his actions. In my book Hearing God in Conversation I describe four biblical methods for learning to hear God in meditation. But Scripture itself recommends many more.

One of its best recommendations is a type of active remembering. King David wrote,

I remember the days of old;
I meditate on all that you have done;
I ponder the work of your hands. (Ps. 143:5)

Meditation of this form—Active Remembrance—involves the recollection of an act of God, then a vigorous reflecting on what it reveals of God, and finally integrating that truth into our lives.

Scripture overflows with divine miracles. One spillover from all those stories is the consistency of God. He’s exactly the same today as then. We can ponder the work of his hand in Scripture, and we can also reflect on his work in our lives today.

My accidental layover in Athens was no accident.

What Stirred Me?

The “work of God’s hand” in my travel story reveals many of God’s attributes, but one in particular strikes me: God loves to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

It is a pattern in which he delights. From Joseph triumphing through betrayal and imprisonment, to an enemy army pressing the Israelites against the Red Sea, to Gideon vanquishing the Midianites with 300 men. God loves to turn events upside down.

J. R. R. Tolkien coined a phrase for this. He calls it a eu-catastrophe (a “beautiful calamity”), when evil is unraveled, bad is transformed into good, and sorrows are swallowed up in joy.

In my current stresses, I’ve been acting like the disciples on Easter morning, living life without the resurrection. Today, I’m remembering what I’ve forgotten.

In Christian Meditation.

Sam