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God’s Discipline

Have I ever told you about the time I had a homeless Cameroonian living in my house? No? Well, allow me to share. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll call our homeless Cameroonian friend Ben. A few years back my family was involved with a church where I had volunteered to call people who filled out visitor cards asking for more information about getting involved in small groups. Ben had visited and asked to be contacted. I reached him on the phone a few days later. He was at the airport in D.C. getting ready to return from a conference of Christian aid workers working on water issues in Africa. In the course of talking with him, I discovered that Ben was heading to a homeless shelter that night to sleep. It didn’t feel right to allow that to happen so I called my husband. I asked him to talk with Ben and extend an offer to stay at our place while we worked to find a better solution to the situation. (My husband is preternaturally good at reading people and suspicious to boot, so I wanted him to make sure we weren’t inviting an ax-murderer into our home.) When my husband called back to let me know that he had arranged to pick Ben up from the airport, I said to him, “he’s under God’s discipline isn’t he?” I could just sense it in my spirit. There’s a certain way that things go wrong in a Christian’s life when a person is under God’s discipline. The bits of Ben’s story I had gotten from our phone conversation all pointed in that direction. My husband affirmed my own impression and said, “this should be interesting.”

Ben turned out to be a very devoted man of God. He had been a pastor to one of the largest churches in Cameroon and oversaw several other pastors. He had been dutiful and enjoyed his work. He understood better than most Christians I have known that the answer to any problem was love. Which wasn’t a very popular stance in a country where tribalism, fear and grudges still exerted a powerful force. He didn’t share the disrespect for women that is all too common among African men. Probably most impressively, Ben had a gift for vision. He could see both how things could be better and the steps needed to make them that way. He could spot crap a mile away and was willing to speak out against the indifference and power-hunger of those who came offering help, but were really seeking only their own aggrandizement. He was one of those people who you could easily see God’s fingerprints all over. Unfortunately, Ben had one huge Achilles heel.

Ben was arrogant and prideful. He had a strong sense of his own position and could not tolerate being given anything less than the respect and deference that was his due. This was the flaw that God was not going to allow to stand. Ben was truly devoted to God and a message of love, but as long as he held onto his arrogance and pride, God was not going to be able to use him in the ways that he would like. In fact, if Ben had been a more lukewarm Christian, it is likely that God would have allowed him to continue on the way he had been going. His flaw wasn’t one that was a problem in his life or ministry. In fact it likely as not was a flaw that was supported by the cultural context in which Ben was working. So, the first step had been to take him out of that context.

Ben quickly alienated my husband with his barely hidden disappointment at discovering that his host was an African American man. (Tensions between African Americans and African immigrants are a subject for another day. But suffice it to say that the entertainment and news we export do an excellent job of creating prejudice all over the globe.) My husband quickly keyed in on the root of Ben’s issues. So he made a point of asking Ben to help with little, unpleasant tasks – helping to take the garbage cans to the curb, for instance. Each time Ben visibly bristled before grudgingly pitching in. It was clear that he felt my husband was trying to put him in his place as a lowly homeless African despite the fact that these were tasks which my husband did regularly. My husband finally had it with him when the car broke down while they were driving home. Ben declined to get out and help, stating that it was too cold. My husband ordered him to get out and hold a flashlight, but as soon as other help arrived, Ben returned to the car to complain loudly on his cell phone to Lord knows who. This was a man who was not only under God’s discipline, he was clearly in need of it.

When I met Ben, he was not being particularly open about the events that had lead him to sleeping on my couch – for reasons that would become clearer later. But from what I was able to find out, he had come to the United States after being granted political assylum. It seems that there were serious death threats being made against him on the basis of his work. His denomination was willing to sponsor him (and perhaps pull a few strings) and in what seems like relatively short order, Ben had moved to the great Norther Tundra of the upper Midwest. Which is where his real disciplining began. Like many immigrants, Ben discovered that in America his credentials, education and experience meant next to nothing. He had gone from being a big, important man to not being allowed to preach, do visits, counsel those in need, much less teach other young pastors as he enjoyed doing back in home. He was practically relegated to doing janitorial work for the church. The powers-that-be saw him as ungrateful and demanding and were not sympathetic to his complaints. I don’t know the details of exactly what happened, but I was able to gather from news reports and a few cryptic comments from those involved that it culminated with Ben storming the pulpit one Sunday during services. It seems that he gave a firey sermon denouncing his poor treatment and what he saw as unChristian and racist attitudes towards him. He refused to stop and was still talking when the police dragged him away and charged with various misdemeanors. (Mind you, the church he was working at was not only a stodgy-mainline church, but was located in one of the wealthiest towns in our metropolitan area. Not exactly the sort of place where disgruntled people disrupt service from time-to-time.) A restraining order was taken out preventing him from returning to the church. He was on his own.

He struggled to find work – especially now that he was on parole. A social service agency was trying to help him. He said that he would take any job, but his obvious disdain for the sort of work to be had made them hesitant to even send him out on interviews. In short order, the family he was living with asked him to leave. We later learned that they asked him to leave because he was married and his wife, tired of being the focal point of his frustrations and ashamed of his arrest was divorcing him. She was welcome to stay. He needed to go. He told no one he was married from that point – it was unseemly for him, a man of God, to be divorced. The man we arranged for him to stay with after leaving our home discovered that he was divorced after running a background check. His lack of motivation in finding work, combined with withholding this information led to him being asked to leave once again. Ben started showing up at leadership meetings for the church uninvited and disrupting them by insisting on leading lengthy prayers unrelated to the business at hand. He tried taking over the weekly prayer meetings. He seemed to think he could impress the church leadership enough to be granted his rightful place among them. Eventually, he was asked to limit his participation at the church to attending Sunday morning services. A man who was once welcomed and respected everywhere he went, was now unwelcome everywhere he went.

When he moved on to another local church the pastor contacted me asking about him. He had given my name as someone who could vouch for him after raising some red flags there. I explained the situation to them: he was man who was earnest in his faith who was refusing to be disciplined. Over and over again, Ben had found himself in a position where what was called for was the one thing he could not bring himself to do: be humble. Accept reduced circumstances and even unfair treatment. Give up what he held most dear with the trust that God would redeem whatever he lost on the way. It wasn’t an easy or particularly fair thing to ask of a man who up to the point of his testing had done nothing wrong. But that’s the deal we make as Christians: “The LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” ~ Proverbs 3:12 Discipline and disciple come from the same place. No one can be a disciple without also agreeing to be disciplined.

All Ben could see was the unfairness of the situation, but he wasn’t being asked to do anything every Christian isn’t called to do: to give up everything to be a humble servant. From his point of view, Ben simply wanted the chance to serve God in the ways that he felt called. And at every turn he was blocked. The more he fought to grab hold of the prize, the worse he made things for himself. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” ~ Luke 14:11 You cannot gain for yourself what is God’s alone to give to you. That’s just the way it is. And unfortunately for us (or at least our comfort) I have seen over and over that the way God disciplines is to take your weak spot and poke and poke and poke at it until you give it up to him.

I believe that we are in a time where more and more Christians are going to find themselves under God’s discipline. He needs us to be better than we are. Hard times are already here and probably won’t get much better for a lot of us for quite some time. We cannot be salt and light in our current state. We cannot take our rightful place as the bride of Christ “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation–“ while we remain married to our own ways, desires and sins. It can be so confusing, disheartening and disorienting to find our way blocked and our good plans reduced to rubbish through no real fault of our own. And like Ben, many people will feel attacked. Perhaps they will tell themselves that it is the enemy at work and do all they can to fight back. But that’s exactly the way that Jesus warns against taking. Over and over Jesus told the Jews of his day to give up their ideas of rebellion and political vindication in favor of the kingdom approach he advocated: being a servant to all, turning the other cheek, being a light to the world. Refusing to do so would lead to their day of judgment and destruction. Fighting was not what God required of them for his kingdom work to be done. It wasn’t the way that Jesus himself took.

Jesus never asked us to go to battle for him. He asked us to pick up our cross and walk our narrow path. When you feel the impulse to fight what is in your way, stop for a minute to think. Often I will do a gut check and see what my response to the idea of simply allowing what is in my way to stop me. When my gut recoils in horror, that’s a pretty good sign that I’m being disciplined. God wants me to let go of whatever is keeping me attached to my own desires and agenda so that he can work. He will block my way over and over until I do. And he will allow whatever it is that he is trying to remove from me to become the thing by which I destroy myself should I continue to hang onto it. (If it is a situation I should fight through, my gut level reaction is quite different, of course. But dread, horror, fear – those are hallmarks of a problem that I need to face, in my experience.)

The last I heard, Ben was still refusing to be disciplined. The church that he landed at after he left mine called to ask if I would sit in on a phone call intervention with Ben. He was still wearing out welcomes and refusing to look for jobs he could get. He was still trying to scheme ways to put himself back where he felt he belonged. He was on the verge of being asked to leave another church. The pastor shared with me that he had arranged for another church to pick up the burden that Ben had become if he did not respond to their attempts to talk some sense (and repentance) into him. I was unable to sit in on the call, but both the pastor and I were doubtful that Ben was ready to face what he had done to himself. It will be ugly and painful for him when he finally does face it – much worse than humbling himself to clean toilets and learning to serve humbly with joy way back at that first church would have been. When that day comes and he can finally stop running from God’s discipline and turn into  it, that will be his moment of redemption. And as stubborn as Ben is, I know that day is will come: “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” ~ Philippians 1:6

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