Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:1-2, 15-16)
I recently wrote on an important concept in kingdom living that I call “turning aside.” This means to live with an awareness of the people around us and an availability to the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to direct our steps toward loving others and living and proclaiming the good news of Jesus in their midst. Since that writing, I have been making a concerted effort to maintain the kind of space (margin) in my life necessary live that kind of Kingdom life.
Interestingly, this attempt has overlapped with some of the busiest months I’ve experienced since God called me out of the marketplace and into seminary back in 2014. As a result, I’ve really struggled, feeling tons of pressure balancing my responsibilities to my family, school, church and work. (Yes, I still work; my friends all tell me I’m a terrible quitter, and that I really need to work harder at developing those skills.) And I’m still not getting the writing or fitness time in that I both want and need. Ugh. Still growing; what can I say?!
Anyway, it’s been tough, but I’ve been making some progress and have tried to be really intentional about creating and maintaining margin, especially for my family and my church. Neighbors, friends and gym … I still have work to do there. And yes, I do think it’s finally time to cut the work cord the rest of the way.
Then last night happened…
McDonald’s, and the search for quiet
Yesterday was rough on my study time. Work needed a lot from me. I had a coffee planned with a friend who needed counsel, which took more time than I budgeted. Kyshirra needed a ride to class. John needed help studying for a test. Faith was working, so I got John ready and talked through his Scripture reading with him in the morning. Family devotions at dinner ran long. And the house was, in general, not a quiet place in the evening. All good stuff. Most of it was investment in family and discipleship. The best stuff really. But the net result was that 9pm rolled around and I’d only gotten about a couple hours of school work done, and nothing in the way of ministry tasks. And I was feeling behind. I was glad to make so much investment in important people and activities all day long, but I also needed to get some work done.
So, I decided to cruise over to the newly remodeled McDonald’s here in town, where I often meet a buddy of mine (we’ll call him “Joe”) to work. Since the redesign, the place is spacious, well lit, with big tables and plenty of outlets. And of course, coffee, Diet Coke and snack food all flow freely! And it’s only 10 min from my house, door-to-door. Translation: the ideal study environment.
So, I pull up, and Joe’s car is the only one in the main parking area. Score!
I walk in, and the place is empty. Crickets. Score again! I am SO getting some work done.
$1 any size soft drink … in hand. Now I’m getting excited.
I walk around the first corner, wave to my work buddy, who is alone in our customary corner in the back. I fill my 158-oz Diet Coke to the brim, and head over to “my table,” ready to get to work. I don’t see so much as one other person in the whole place. Even the music is good. So, I’m thrilled…
I round the second corner, and there, sitting right by Joe is a newly-discovered 3rd person… a rough-hewn, dirty guy in worn clothes who appeared to be homeless. He and his backpack give me the impression that he’s been camped out in here for hours. And the second I start to talk to Joe, he begins to interrupt us and ends up never stopping. His words are slurred (I think, drug-induced), his comments are rarely coherent, and he clearly has no sense of social awareness. Ultimately, no matter what we did — engage him, or not; talking or studying; at one point, we even asked him to let us work —, he continued to inject himself. Eventually, we resorted to putting in earbuds and flagrantly ignoring him, until he finally appeared to fall asleep.
An unnecessary war between false choices
So there I am, studying theology and church history, specifically about the way the Apostle Paul lived the spiritual life. And all the while, I’m ignoring a half-stoned, homeless person who clearly, desperately wanted to talk to somebody … anybody. Granted, I got some much-needed reading done … finally … but I felt so guilty that I wasn’t engaging this guy for Christ, sharing the gospel, and just taking more of an interest in his obviously difficult life … just loving on him.
On the one hand, I had been turning aside all day long. Devotions. Rides to school. Help with homework. Discipleship meeting over coffee. Etc. I had devoted much of my day to being pastor-dad. Surely it wasn’t out of line to ask for just a couple hours to work! Plus, Joe and I had ministry tasks to accomplish on top of an already-compressed study time. And because of constant interruption, that clearly wasn’t happening. 90% of my day had been for God. I just couldn’t afford to spend the next several hours wandering through the labyrinth of this man’s drug-soaked mind. How could that possibly be good stewardship of my time?
But on the other hand, this guy was sad and alone and poor and wretched. Just like me. God rescued me. And I didn’t deserve it one whit more than this guy. What if, all those years ago, Jonathan Kua or Erin Miller (the two human beings most responsible for showing me Jesus when I was 20) had been too busy to take time for me? Granted, I wasn’t in a drug haze and had at least possessed a moniker of social awareness, but I had more than my share of problems and annoying character flaws. Even then, that’s not really the point, is it? And didn’t Jesus explicitly say that what we do for the least of these, we do for Him? (Matthew 25:31ff)
Was I being selfish? Was I being responsible? How much “turning aside” is too much for one day? How do I balance all the pressures of this multi-faceted life I’m in the midst of? When is enough enough? Surely, there have to be boundaries!
My head hurts.
And so, I faced a choice…
Option 1: Let him consume the rest of the night while I chased him down rabbit holes and tried to create openings for spiritual conversation.
Option 2: Ignore him, get some work done, and hope he goes away.
What would Jesus do?
I couldn’t figure it out, so I defaulted to the latter. I got out the earbuds, the guy fell asleep, and I got another 2 hours or so of work done. Shortly after midnight, having completing several critical tasks, I snuck out, came home, and went to bed worried that I had made the wrong choice. And I don’t even remember the guy’s name.
It looks different
in the morning when you pray
This morning, during prayer, I mulled this over with God. “I’m afraid I chose poorly, Father. Should I have chosen the other path?” And, as He so often does, God gently explained that I have no idea what I’m talking about. My entire two-choice framework was a straw man.
What follows is what I feel were God’s instructions to me this morning. They are what I wanted to share with you. Because deciding to live a life of turning aside isn’t enough. As soon as you do, you have to wrestle with questions like this one and situations like last night’s.
Here’s what I learned…
God owns my time
First of all, that time at McDonald’s wasn’t my time. I had no right to simply decide how to use it. Every second of yesterday’s 24 hours belonged to God, and it was up to Him how to invest it. I steward His time; I don’t own it myself. So if God wants to disrupt my plans every single second of the day, that’s His right, and it’s my responsibility to receive His wise choices with joyful obedience.
That guy wasn’t there by accident
It’s not like any of us randomly showed up at McDonald’s. That man, my friend Joe, and I were all there by divine appointment. God intended — as He always intends — for Joe and I to act as His ambassadors. And we are, whether it’s intentional or not. It’s not a question of whether or not we proclaim Christ; it’s a question of what kind of proclamation we’re making. We always speak for Jesus, because we belong to Jesus and are united with Him. The question is, “What message are you sending? And does it represent Him well?” I fear we communicated to the guy at McDonald’s that he was annoying and unimportant … certainly not as important as Joe and I … being church staff-pastor-seminary types, and all.
My reaction to him was a failure of leadership
It should never have been on the table for this barely-coherent man to drive the conversation. Jesus would have taken one look at him, maybe waited for the guy’s first question, and then taken total control of the conversation. I doubt Jesus would have lectured him. He would certainly have asked him probing questions. But in no sense would the man have led the discussion while Jesus “chased him down rabbit trails, hoping for an opening to share the gospel.” I think Jesus would have prayed, gotten direction from the Holy Spirit, and then pinned this guy to the wall with an insightful question right out of the gate.
I should have led him toward toward Jesus, not debated with myself whether or not to respond to his attempts to dominate the conversation.
There was a choice, just not the one I thought
Once leading the discussion, the question would have become: Is this conversation going somewhere? That was the choice I really faced. If we had been heading toward Jesus, then I should have engaged this man as long as it took to get there. My time is the Lord’s. But if the conversation had persistently wandered aimlessly through a fog of non-engagement on his part (as I suspected it might have) or if he had otherwise indicated that he wasn’t interested / done talking, then the Christ-like thing to do would have been to stop it … to politely explain that we needed to break off the conversation and get to work. Then, we should have packed up our stuff, moved over to the other side of the restaurant, and conducted our business.
But the worst thing I could have done — as I look back on it now, and as I felt the weight of conviction praying through the situation this morning — is what I actually did… I ignored him, treating him like he was beneath my attention, and hoped he would go away. That’s just not okay; there’s no way that’s what Jesus would have done.
It’s crazy, but I was afraid
I think the truth is that I was afraid of what he (and Joe) would think of me if I spoke more pointedly to him, commanding the leadership position in the conversation, or judging that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere and then moving across the room. I didn’t want to be that direct, to act with that much authority, because I lacked the confidence to do so. And as a result, I stayed where I was, ignored “the problem” and hoped it would go away. And that did not honor the Lord.
I write all this in the hopes that it will serve as a cautionary tail. I’m not proud of last night, but I’m glad for the learning experience. And very thankful that God graciously set me straight this morning. Here are the takeaways, as I see them…
You don’t own your time. God does. Steward it the way He wants you to, even if it costs you something that seems really important.
Don’t succumb to fear. You are Christ’s ambassador. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Jesus (Matt 28:18-20), and just as His Father sent Him, so He has sent us (John 17:18-19). There is nothing to fear, so let us act boldly and confidently for the sake of the gospel.
Lead people to Jesus. Don’t chase them down; have the courage to use the authority God has given you. Discipleship is a form of confident leadership, not chasing.
As long as it’s going somewhere, turn aside as much as it takes. I really think that Jesus’ principle on forgiveness applies here and would be helpful. As long as we are being directed by the Spirit… As long as we’re seeking His counsel in the moment… As long as we’re not getting the “time to stop” signal from a the person we’re engaging… Then we shouldn’t turn aside 7 times, but 70 times 7 (Matt 18:21ff). This doesn’t mean we have no boundaries; it means we have no limits on our willingness to listen to the Spirit’s prompting and love lost people, even when some other important thing is left undone as a result.
May it begin with me.