The Necessity of Mentoring Relationships: Paul, Tom, and Timothy (2 Timothy 3:10-15)

Orthodox icon of St. Paul
Orthodox icon of St. Timothy

You’ve been a good apprentice to me, a part of my teaching, my manner of life, direction, faith, steadiness, love, patience, troubles, sufferings—suffering along with me in all the grief I had to put up with in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. And you also well know that God rescued me! Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They’re as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse.

But don’t let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers—why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (The Message)

Paul and Timothy had a special relationship. Paul, the Apostle and mentor in the faith; and Timothy, the apprentice.

Together, they saw it all – and experienced it all. And through it all, the Christian tradition was passed on because of Paul’s purposeful mentoring of others, especially Timothy, by both verbal teaching and life example. In this, Paul helped set Christianity on a trajectory of modeling the words and ways of Jesus.

Faith is a gift given by God through Scripture and faithful people – and then received by us. Christianity is designed for community; it is not merely a solitary affair between the individual and God. Anyone trying to go it alone in the Christian life will soon discover they are overwhelmed and in over their heads with trouble.

Contemporary pastoral ministry still needs to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. Just one of the many reasons why churches in the West are in such decline is that Christian leaders are not intentionally focused to passing-on a solid body of teaching, along with a consistent example of how to put it into practice, through close relationships.

Anyone who has been in the pastoral ministry gig for a long time, remaining consistent and faithful, has most certainly had a good spiritual teacher and guide shepherding them through their Christian experience. A good long ministerial life isn’t happenstance; it’s the result of a solid foundation through a Paul-and-Timothy sort of relationship.

Mosaic of Paul and Timothy, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, Italy

By God’s grace, I’ve had several persons influence my life in profound ways in such a relationship. One of the earliest and longest was with Tom – a campus minister on my university who built into my life as an undergraduate and a very young Christian. We remained connected and became good friends for nearly four decades until his untimely death.

Tom knew what he was doing with me. To this day, even with multiple academic degrees and many professional ministry experiences, I attribute most of what I know about Christian faith and practice as simply saying and doing what I saw Tom say and do. And, I might add, Tom consistently saw my true self, even when I didn’t see it myself.

A good model in the faith has the same qualities and insights as the Apostle Paul of old. For example, here are just a few of the important things I learned from Tom:

  • Christian ministry is interpersonal; time must be spent with others, getting to know them and building relationships. Doing pastoral ministry from afar is an oxymoron. From what we know of Paul, at times he had a team of up to seventy persons following him around on missionary endeavors.
  • There are always going to be charlatans and bad apples around. Don’t simply ignore them. Confront them in grace and truth. I still remember a time when I went along with Tom, not knowing where we were going or what he was up to. In retrospect, he probably knew I would bolt if I caught wind of what he was about to do. We went to the dorm room of a believer whom Tom flat-out confronted on his talking and living being inconsistent with his professed Christianity. My eyes got huge when Tom said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you and I call you to repent.” This was said in a gracious and conversational tone, not in anger, which communicated concern and love for this individual student.
  • Develop relationships. And the best way of doing this is by having the Timothy tag along with the Paul. Tom continually brought me along to whatever he was doing, whether it was a weekend retreat he was leading, or going to the grocery store. We cannot learn from others if we aren’t around them, and Tom understood this better than most. As a result, I learned more than lessons; I learned a life.
  • It’s not about me. Tom never took himself too seriously. And because of that, I observed him never becoming overwhelmed or obsessing over the trouble he would sometimes get into. In fact, he typically welcomed the trouble whenever he saw it was not of his own making.
  • Openness and vulnerability are necessary. More than once, Tom strolled into a bible study with me and some other guys, flopped down and said, “Man, I really blew it today…” and then went on to explain some boneheaded thing he did. We unpacked the entire situation together. Not once do I ever recall Tom trying to look like the perfect Christian leader. He embraced who he was and was always willing to shine the light on the shadowy places of his heart.
  • Holy Scripture is central to Christian life and ministry. Inevitably, Tom’s question to us, after describing his bonehead move, was to ask, “What are you learning in God’s Word? Do you have any encouragement for me?” On a daily basis, without fail, Tom asked this question of me: “So, what is God teaching you in the Word?”

Through both Holy Scripture and the significant relationships I’ve had throughout my life, I can confidently state that there are two indispensable elements to effective Christian ministry:

  1. It must be firmly grounded in objective theory derived from God’s Word.
  2. It must be intentionally practiced with subjective experience derived from interpersonal relationships.

Objective theory without lived practice leads to being puffed-up with knowledge and no love – because love requires people. And subjective experience without a grounded theory is nothing but a form of spiritual A.D.D. in which whatever shiny thing we see grabs our attention.

I always considered Tom as my spiritual father (and his wife as a dear spiritual mother!). They have shown me not only how to live the faith, but also how to be a spiritual father myself. And as a result, my own dear wife and I have many spiritual children scattered throughout the country.

This is the consummate Christian: Coming to faith by God’s grace, mediated to us through actual flesh-and-blood people; being taught and mentored in that faith by proven Christians; and then, simply saying and doing what you have seen and heard from holy leaders and Holy Scripture.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not abstract art. It’s a life. It’s relationships. And it’s absolutely necessary in order for both the church and the world to be blessed.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously. (Micah 6:8, MSG)

Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.

What Will It Take to Reach Others? (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! (The Message)

What will it take? 

What will it take to impact the world with the gospel of grace? 

What will it take to reach your neighbor with the love of God in Christ? 

What will it take to positively influence your relative, co-worker, or friend in grace and truth? 

The answer? It will take becoming a servant to them all. 

Reaching others with the glorious and incredible good news of forgiveness and new life in Jesus requires us to relinquish our rights and freedoms in order to have a ministry of presence. 

Somehow, far too many Churches and Christians have adopted the wrongheaded notion that they can reach people without interacting with them. They wing-it with a few tepid prayers, wishing that people will magically show up their church or event in order to experience their friendliness.

But it takes going to where people are and engaging in real human relationship to reach another person. It ought to be obvious, yet it isn’t for a lot of folks:

We have to be around other people in order to reach them. 

That’s why reaching the party-crowd takes going to the bar. 

It’s why reaching young moms takes sitting with them at the park while the kids play. 

It’s why reaching kids requires getting on the floor with them and playing what they want to play.

This is why it takes being present among the various people, businesses, and institutions in the community in order to reach them.

The goal is not to get other people to show up on our turf and become just like us. The goal is not for us to remain in comfortable surroundings while we expect others to get over their uncomfortableness to be with us.

Rather, the goal is to show up on their turf and relate to them, to become like them.

If it weren’t in the Bible we might think it blasphemous to say such a thing. But there it is, and we must wrestle with its implications for our lives. So, what needs to change?

My wife and I have a lot of experience working with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients – which means we also end up working a lot with their adult children and grandchildren. It’s difficult watching a person who raised you becoming a different person, living in a different world.

Many relatives try their darndest to get mom or dad back into “reality,” to return to their original selves and their surroundings. So, they correct, cajole, and criticize, in order to reach them and pull them back from their supposed mental abyss.

And it doesn’t work. More than that, it’s not only unhelpful, but it’s also often hurtful.

Instead of expecting a dementia patient to come into my world, I must go into their world.

Just the other day, my wife was talking with a self-described “Ninja Priestess.” And this dear woman was refusing to wear her socks on a hospital floor – which cannot happen in a healthcare setting. She didn’t want to wear them because “it diminishes my power and my connection to the ground.”

If we insist on remaining in our world, this immediately becomes a fight. Ultimatums are issued. Policies are pronounced. Security is called because everything escalates out of control.

Yet, if we enter the dear woman’s world, we choose to see things from her perspective and not ours.

My wife’s response? “It’s okay. The socks are cotton. All natural. They won’t hinder your power, at all.” And off they went together down the hall without incident and the patient feeling cared for and empowered.

When it comes to reaching people – anyone, no matter who they are – we must be willing to enter their world and be a part of it, seeing things as they see it, understanding where they’re coming from, without judgment and with plenty of empathy and compassion.

But if we insist on colonizing others in order to harvest their souls for our own spiritual benefit, then we have failed to understand the spirit and intent of the Apostle Paul’s teaching to us.

Being a servant means exactly that – serving others by listening, washing their feet, giving them time, and making compassionate connections.

God has cut us into the action of divine purposes in this world. This is privileged work. So, let’s do it with all the care and concern given us by the Spirit.

Merciful God, help us, your people, to live wisely among those who don’t yet know you, so that they can see the light of Christ in us, hear the words of Christ from us, and experience the salvation of Christ which is in us. Amen.

Genesis 33:1-17 – Reconciled

Meeting Between Jacob and Esau by Italian painter Bottalla Raffaellino (1613-1644)

Later that day Jacob met Esau coming with his four hundred men. So, Jacob had his children walk with their mothers. The two servant women, Zilpah and Bilhah, together with their children went first, followed by Leah and her children, then by Rachel and Joseph. Jacob himself walked in front of them all, bowing to the ground seven times as he came near his brother.

But Esau ran toward Jacob and hugged and kissed him. Then the two brothers started crying.

When Esau noticed the women and children he asked, “Whose children are these?”

Jacob answered, “These are the ones the Lord has been kind enough to give to me, your servant.”

Then the two servant women and their children came and bowed down to Esau. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down; finally, Joseph and Rachel also came and bowed down.

Esau asked Jacob, “What did you mean by these herds I met along the road?”

“Master,” Jacob answered, “I sent them so that you would be friendly to me.”

“But, brother, I already have plenty,” Esau replied. “Keep them for yourself.”

“No!” Jacob said. “Please accept these gifts as a sign of your friendship for me. When you welcomed me and I saw your face, it was like seeing the face of God. Please accept these gifts I brought to you. God has been good to me, and I have everything I need.” Jacob kept insisting until Esau accepted the gifts.

“Let’s get ready to travel,” Esau said. “I’ll go along with you.”

But Jacob answered, “Master, you know traveling is hard on children, and I have to look after the sheep and goats that are nursing their young. If my animals travel too much in one day, they will all die. Why don’t you go on ahead and let me travel along slowly with the children, the herds, and the flocks. We can meet again in the country of Edom.”

Esau replied, “Let me leave some of my men with you.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Jacob answered. “I am happy, simply knowing that you are friendly to me.”

So, Esau left for Edom. But Jacob went to Succoth, where he built a house for himself and set up shelters for his animals. That’s why the place is called Succoth. (Contemporary English Version)

Repentance includes more than saying sorry. It also involves admitting wrong and making things right. Turning from erroneous thinking and forsaking past hurtful actions, lays the groundwork for an earnest attempt at reconciliation. 

For example, the Christian does more than a simple acceptance and acquiescence of Jesus, as if merely adding a bit of Christ to life will dash it up and make it better. Rather, we are invited into the very life of Christ. This life turns us upside-down and inside-out in a new and radical allegiance.

Repentance and reconciliation are a way of life. They are necessary skills requiring development through continual practice and use.

Broken relationships are the stuff of life. So, we need gracious approaches to deal with them so that bitterness does not take root in our souls. Connection and peace between two people are a beautiful thing. They bring emotional health, spiritual wholeness, and life enrichment.

From the get-go, twin brothers Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament book of Genesis had a contentious relationship. Their relations became so bad that Esau had homicidal ideation toward his brother. Neither Esau nor Jacob handled things well. Jacob ended up leaving, finding a wife, growing a family, and becoming wealthy.

Twenty years passed before they came together again.

Jacob, knowing he was about to meet his brother, had an encounter with God. It changed his identity from the old deceiver to the new Israel (Genesis 32:22-31).  In a demonstration of his new identity as Israel, Jacob worked at making amends for his old cheating ways. He sought to give the blessing he had stolen from his brother.

Jacob understandably had some dread in meeting Esau. He had connived and manipulated to take the family birthright and blessing from his brother. Fresh from wrestling with God, Jacob demonstrated a newfound courage and humility. He offered Esau respect, gifts, and honor – reversing his past pattern of disrespect, stealing, and dishonor.

True repentance is making things right. Merely having feelings of remorse is not repentance. To repent involves genuine sorrow; an earnestness to make restitution and reconciliation; an indignation over what happened; and, perhaps most importantly, a deep concern for the person(s) harmed by our wrongdoing (2 Corinthians 7:8-11).

The reconciliation between the brothers was a surprise. Jacob was not expecting Esau’s response. It seems Jacob was bracing for the worse, which explains his high anxiety before the encounter.

Esau’s gracious response was an answer to Jacob’s prayer.  For Jacob, seeing Esau’s face was like seeing the face of God. In fact, he saw both faces and lived! Jacob likely would not have seen his brother’s face until he had first seen God’s. His divine experience prepared the way for the human encounter.

We all experience times when relationships unravel and need to be mended. Jacob procrastinated for twenty years before working at reconciliation with his brother. What made the difference for Jacob was trusting God, who always works out divine promises, despite our human foibles. 

May you know and experience the God who reconciles and restores, and in so doing, extend that same earnestness to others.

Merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you and against others through my own fault by thought, word and deed in things done and left undone. Especially I confess that I have _____.  I therefore repent; for these and all my sins I am terribly sorry and pray for forgiveness. I firmly intend to make amends and seek for help. I ask for strength to serve you in newness of life through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Luke 12:57-59 – Seek Reconciliation

“Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out, until you have paid the last penny.” (New International Version)

Relational problems and conflicts are endemic to the human condition. And, along with it, comes our anger.

Sometimes, I wonder if some church buildings have an aisle down the middle, is so that one group of people can avoid associating with the other group, like some childhood bedroom squabble where a line is drawn that the other is not to cross.

I also wonder if all schoolteachers’ lounges are a hot mess of anger. I’ve certainly been in plenty that are. And I don’t really have to wonder if most families have relatives they are estranged from – sometimes for years, even decades. Lord knows I’ve counseled plenty of them.

It’s inevitable that any group of people, complete with individual sinful natures, whether a church, a neighborhood, a family, or a workplace, will experience relational difficulties. After all, we live in a fallen world with a bunch of fallen people.

Relationships are important to God. And we need them. We cannot live without them because we’ve been created in the image and likeness of a relational God. So, God is concerned that we have good relations with one another.

Jesus is in the business of stripping away the layers of self-righteousness and peeling back the built up human rationalizations toward our sour relations with one another. At the heart of it all is our contempt for others and our misplaced anger. The only real solution to it is reconciliation.

Anger in and of itself is neither bad nor good; it just is. It’s a normal human emotional response to injustice. Yet, how we express our anger is very much an ethical affair.

Bitterness, nursing a grudge, bearing resentment, saying speeches to somebody in our heads we will never give, and flipping the finger at someone behind their back is the sort of angry response that completely sours relationships and drives wedges between folks.

Those inner attitudes are the factory where the anger will eventually come out sideways in verbal or even physical violence toward another.

Harboring resentment that comes out in name-calling kills people. And when we verbally decapitate people, there is a mess to clean up. Judgement is the lot for people-bashing. (Matthew 5:21-26)

“The holiness of God is at war with all bitterness and hatred and hurting. And where this holiness collides with our hostility the crash is called the wrath of God. God’s wrath is God’s war of love against everything that unnecessarily hurts others. God’s love would not be love if it did not work to remove all that ungraciously hurts. The wrath of God is the proof of the love of God; God’s love is a love that is not merely sentimental, for it grapples with inhumane forces.”

Frederick Dale Bruner

If you think to yourself that you have a right to nurse a grudge because that other person deserves it, you need to know that your hatred will not go unnoticed by God. 

If you have ever wished anyone was dead, hated anyone, treated anyone with contempt and belittled them; then, you have assassinated that person in your heart and come under the judgment of God.

And that’s the reason why we are to work hard at making things right with others.

There is no need for you to live with regret for the rest of your life because of stubbornly refusing to reconcile, and to have to stand before your Creator someday with nothing but hatred and contempt for another person.

Whenever personal relations go wrong, nine cases out of ten, immediate action will usually mend the problem.  But the longer it goes, the harder it is to reconcile. The problem grows and festers. Eventually, if reconciliation is not sought, it eventually spirals out of control. Then, there is full blown bitterness in which more people will be hurt. 

Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people.

Hebrews 12:15, CEB

Bitterness becomes gangrene of the soul. It poisons us within and ends up making trouble for others. Its better to reconcile than to have God amputate a part of you. So, seek amends.

If you become angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin, and do not stay angry all day. Don’t give the Devil a chance…. Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31, GNT)

We always have a choice when relationships are strained: Deal with it immediately, or let it fester. Maybe the reason why so many folks live without peace is that they have chosen unwisely.

Choose wisely, my friend.

Lord God, bring us together as one people, reconciled with you and reconciled with each other – healed, forgiven, and spreading peace rather than enmity, as you called us to do, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.