Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sawdust, Planks, and Triangulation

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/22/2012

Let’s begin again by looking at Matthew 7.

7 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

[recap of last week, first things first, responsible for self, responsible to others / downside of over-responsibility (being responsible for others instead of for self) creates destructive stress, a violation of God-given self, makes us fail our true responsibilities / how this is central to faithfully pursuing our mission…1) Follow 2) Create Breathing Room ]

Today we talk about our responsibility for our own planks. Next week we’ll talk about how we help with sawdust.

And for the moment, let’s not define planks as simply sin (i.e., something bad) but rather more generally as something that we must attend to in order to be able to see and serve more effectively. We might even paraphrase Matthew 7 this way, as members of a centered set church:

Why do you look at someone else’s next step of discipleship and pay no attention to your own? How can you say “Let me help you move forward with your step of discipleship,” when all the time, you are stuck in reverse? You who are playing at being responsible for somebody else, first get your feet moving forward on your own path of discipleship, and then you will be able to come alongside somebody else and help them move forward in discipleship too.

Isn’t understanding and obeying this command critical for fulfilling the great commission? Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…”

How can we make disciples if we aren’t first and foremost disciples ourselves? How can we teach others to obey what we’ve been commanded if we ourselves aren’t first learning to obey?

After all, the most effective form of teaching is modeling. Every one of us learned more from what our parents modeled than from anything they said to us. And when there was a discrepancy between what they said and what they did, what they did won, didn’t it?

And the greatest impediment to our own discipleship – the greatest impediment to being faithful to our responsibilities for ourselves – is taking on an over-responsibility for the discipleship of others. The thing most likely to make us overlook our planks is looking over at other’s sawdust.

[my team loses the big game, and I’m upset. Do I take it out on the coach, the ref, a player, the whole system, who knows!?... Or do I recognize in my pain a plank of discipleship I need to walk…? Because I’ll never be in the posture of a servant until I deal with my plank, will I? I’ll just be a judge over everyone else…]

Consider some other examples.

[share personal example…]

Someone insults you, does or says something disrespectful behind your back. You hear about it from someone who’s pretty reliable.

You feel hurt, a little angry, confused, maybe even a little embarrassed.

Do you…

A) Let yourself be offended, try to figure out whether or not you need to confront this person, address it, fume about the injustice of it all, think about how consistent with this person’s character this kind of attack is, try to decide if you even want to be in relationship with them anymore?

B) Remember that you are first and foremost responsible for yourself and your discipleship to Jesus. Say to Jesus, Jesus, I’m having a hard time remembering that this is just gossip, it’s second hand info, and therefore it’s dangerous, like an open can of gasoline near a flame. Help me recognize it for what it is and not receive it. Teach me what you want to teach me about myself through the way I’m reacting emotionally to it. Teach me to have my security in you and what you say about me to my face. I’m your disciple – what’s my next step in discipleship to you? And then, help me learn how to guard my heart toward this fellow image-bearer so I can love and serve him/her with grace so that I can be faithful to my responsibilities toward him/her.

Why is it the case that so often our answer is closer to A than B?

Because of our instinct for triangulation.

Relationships between two people have an inherent instability in them. Sort of like a two legged stool – it takes a lot of effort to balance them, especially when some kind of tension or unresolved conflict enters the picture. And so we are always looking for some third person or issue to focus on instead of dealing directly with the tension that exists between us and the original person.

[use stuffed animals as props…] The classic example is a husband and wife who have some trouble in their relationship – as all relationships do – and then a child comes along. The child can become like a stabilizing influence in the relationship, because the mother and father triangulate – begin to focus their attentions – on the child. On the challenges, the joys, whatever, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the focus moves from the unresolved things in the relationship between the husband and wife onto the third person, the child.

Now triangulation isn’t in and of itself a negative thing, and all relationships have some triangulation going on in them all the time. Think about how much of any relationship you have with anyone close to you is spent talking about other people, or ideas, or situations. It’s completely natural, and in many ways, healthy.

The problem with triangulation is when we use it to avoid dealing with the real issues that are compromising true intimacy between two people. 2 dangerous things happen. One, the person in the triangulated position – the child in the example we used – absorbs all the stress that is being offloaded, often unintentionally, by the parents. And two, even more importantly for us – as we think about our relationships with God – is that the false sense of intimacy created by triangulation masks the true needs that the original relationship has, and those needs are never dealt with, and in fact grow more and more significant.

One more example, now that triangulation is in view, and then we’ll bring this home to our relationships with God and what Jesus is getting at as he talks about planks and sawdust.

Any of you watch the Bachelor?

[bachelor example…]

Triangulation – especially triangulating somebody out – is a way of gaining a false sense of togetherness. A way of masking or numbing unresolved tensions or discomfort in a relationship.

We can triangulate others out as a way of achieving a false sense of togetherness with God. A way of avoiding uncomfortable things God might be inviting us to engage with him.

Pharisees did this with sinners and tax collectors.

Jonah did this with Nineveh.

We even see Peter attempting to escape the intensity of intimacy with Jesus at the end of John’s gospel, when he struggles to respond to Jesus’ “follow me” invitation, and tries to put the focus on John…

15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

22Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

All the “do you love me?” stuff is heavy, intimate, emotionally charged stuff – especially given the context of Peter’s previous failure in that department. And perhaps even more especially given Peter’s man’s man kind of personality. And then Jesus drops the ‘how Peter’s going to die’ bombshell and says, “Follow me.” Peter’s looking for a way to triangulate somebody or something else into this relationship, ease the discomfort, buy himself some time and space. But Jesus won’t let him. “What is that to you?”

Jesus is the most self-differentiated human being in history, and he is fully capable, in the way that no one else is, of sustaining direct, intimate relationship with his disciples. It’s another topic for another time, but our relationship with God does not need triangulation to be stable. And Jesus is teaching us that if we want be his disciples, if we want to follow in his footsteps, then with respect to our relationships with him, we must let go of the supports and relief valves that focusing on others sometimes provides us, and in faith, deal with him face to face. And then we will be properly positioned to take the posture of a servant and not a judge towards every other image-bearer, and be a true help to one another in our discipleship with him. Once the love relationship between us and God is on solid footing, we can begin to fulfill our responsibilities to feed the other sheep.

More on that next week.

Practical Tips:

1. Do a little Bi-angulation. Think about your most important relationships. A friend. A spouse. A parent. A child. Think about how much of that relationship is actually focused on some third person or thing. A person you both are upset with or worried about or trying to help. Your kids. Television shows. Some idea or project. Your job. Think about whether any of that focus has become a way of avoiding or not dealing with something challenging or painful or tense or unresolved in the relationship. Ask for God’s help in giving you grace to take a step toward direct relationship and true intimacy instead of lingering too long in that false, easy intimacy that triangulation has given to you.

2. Walk the Plank. Let that situation teach you about ways you might be triangulating specks of sawdust in your relationship with God instead of working directly with him on the planks that are where real relationship with him happens. Those specks of sawdust might be other people – even people you are trying to help – they might be other people’s sin and problems and failings that have your attention instead of your own, they might be things you are trying to accomplish in life, projects you are giving great energy to. How much of your prayer and wrestling with God is about this person or that person or this situation or that situation instead of about your discipleship with him? Prayer for and about others is usually fine and holy – after all, we are to live outward focused lives, to be active in cooperating with God’s new creation purposes in the world, but if it is prayer birthed in frustration about them or about situations, instead of birthed in love, it can often be creating a false sense of intimacy with God, masking what he really wants to do in you.

3. Put Yourself in Peter’s Place. Relive the John 21 conversation as if Jesus is talking to you. Find a quiet place where you can pray, and read the passage out loud, imagining you are Peter. Put Peter’s words in your mouth to Jesus, and let Jesus’ words to Peter land on you as if he is speaking to you.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Specks & Planks

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/15/2012

Let’s begin by looking at Matthew 7.

7 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

[kids complaining…]

This metaphor of specks and planks and judgment is best understood as a commentary about how we relate to each other with respect to sins and flaws and imperfections and failures and brokenness. Why do you look at someone else’s sin, and pay no attention to your own? It’s a comical, cartoonish, exaggerated image – the plank and the speck of sawdust – but Jesus is using it to make a lasting impression on us, because this really, really matters to Jesus. Because this really, really matters for those of us who want to follow him on his way of love, who want to partner with him in seeing salvation come to this broken world, who want to welcome and embrace the kingdom of God. It really, really matters to us in the Vineyard Church of Milan as well, especially as we try to come to grips with what it means for us to be a centered set church, following the way of Jesus together, creating breathing room for the disfavored to find favor, for the discounted to count, and for the disconnected to connect.

Think about it. Let’s say that you’re curious about Jesus. Something is drawing you to explore him. You haven’t been very religious in your life. Some parts of your life are going great. Some parts have been hard. Something is gnawing at you, whatever the case.

And let’s say, in a moment of crazy hope, you show up at church.

And let’s say the people at this church look at you and say, aha,oooh, er, wow. I see a speck of sawdust there in your eye. Before you go any further, here, you’d better let us help you with that.

If you are desperate, you might let these strangers give it their best shot. Or, more likely, you might not. Because something about the way they are looking at you tells you they are hungry for something different than you are hungry for, and that makes you a little unsettled. It’s not that you think they are wrong about what they see necessarily, it’s just that you are looking hard for God, and they seem to be looking hard for specks of sawdust.

But what if the people at this church look at you and say, aha, you seem hungry for finding out more about Jesus. If you’re like me, you might be wondering if that speck irritating your eye will keep you from finding him. I know what that’s like. I had one just like that, but it was way bigger, more like a log. But God still had favor for me, so much of it. If it’s all that mattered, it may have kept me from finding him, but it didn’t keep him from finding me! And he let me play, he let me count, even before I could see very clearly. And he gave me a big embrace, and put a ring on my finger, and sandals on my feet, and killed a fatted calf and invited his whole household and the whole village to just to welcome me home. Before I even had a chance to get that log taken care of. And I just keep finding more and more logs floating across my vision. But one by one, he’s helping me get rid of them. Come on in; there’s no way that thing can keep you from him any more than my logs have. In fact, when the time is right, he just might take care of it for you, or teach you how to get it out. And we’re all here to help, if help is needed. You just let us know, and in the meantime, get to know us; we’re eager to get to know you. Who knows, you might be able to help us deal with some of our logs.

Now that’s some breathing room, isn’t it? You just might be able to find some favor here, you just might be able to count here, you just might be able to connect to God here. And if you do, well, that sawdust isn’t gonna stand a chance against the river of life that’s going to start welling up within you and the happy tears that will be pouring out of you.

Now this passage about sawdust and planks shows up in Jesus’ sermon on the mount. It’s an epic teaching about the good news of the kingdom of God and what it means to be human in the reality of God’s kingdom.

And at the center of Jesus’ teaching about what it means to be a human being made in the image of God are the twin commands about love and judgment. Love one another. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love each other as I have loved you. And do not judge.


Both commands go hand in hand. If you adopt Jesus’ incarnated way of being human, you cannot help but both love others and not judge. And the reason for that, as we’ve spoken about in various times and various ways, has to do with our posture towards one another.


Jesus shows us that the proper posture for his followers towards other human beings is to be the posture of a servant. One who lowers oneself in order to love and lift up. And in that position, judgment is impossible. Because to judge, one must stand above to condemn. And human beings cannot simultaneously be in both postures. It’s like an on/off switch. We can either love, or we can judge. But not both. And because his command to us is to love, his twin command is to not judge.

Obeying these commands will produce a tension in us. A tension that it is worth acknowledging and becoming conscious of, so that it doesn’t rule us and get us off track.

That tension shows up here in Matthew 7. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye…”

We look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye, often, because we love them and we are concerned for them. I mean, heck, the very reason we notice is because we are looking, and we are looking – assuming we are in a healthy place – because we care.

And yet, Jesus warns us that there is a danger in how we respond to what we see in others as we love them. A danger so serious that we could end up with two tragic consequences. One, we might miss out on some serious problems of our own (the plank in our own eyes). And two, we might do some serious damage to those we are trying to help because we aren’t tuned in to how compromised our own vision is.

So Jesus’ solution is both simple and brilliant. Our attentions must be properly ordered. First things first. When it comes to sin, you are responsible for your own sin. Not for the sins of others. Attend to your responsibility for yourself, and as you succeed, then you might be in a place come alongside others as they attend to that for which they are responsible.

We are a centered-set church. Which means we are directing our eyes towards Jesus, who has invited us to follow him. Which means our primary concern is drawing nearer to him and being shaped by him as we take our next step in discipleship to him, step after step after step.


Each of those steps is a step of faith. A step of surrendering something he’s calling us to let go of so that he can put something new, and better in our hands, perhaps. Or a step of freedom from a particular sin. Or a step in service to others. Or a step in trusting him with some new area of our lives. Or a step in growing in love. Or a step of obedience. Or a step in taking off a mask and being our true self before him or others.

Being a centered-set church requires different kinds of habits and responses in relationship to God and to one another than we might be accustomed to if our formative faith experiences took place in a church where certain kinds of boundary markers defined who was in and who was out. Because, in a centered set church, what defines our participation in the community of faith is motion. What defines our participation is the direction our hearts are moving us – towards Jesus, or away from him. Regardless of how close or how far from him he might find us in any particular area of our lives. So our faith journey isn’t a story of striving to get to some pre-established point and then stay there, but rather a story of continuously being called further up and further in to the heart of God.

In particular, a critical question that is answered differently in a centered set church from a bounded set church is this one: What are the responsibilities of a member of the community of faith?

In a community defined by its boundaries, the answer tends to revolve around the boundaries. Each person is responsible for the boundaries. Responsible for making sure the boundaries are clear, and well maintained, and honored. Responsible for dealing effectively with boundary infractions. Responsible for successfully getting interested people inside the boundaries, and protecting the boundaries from attack. Responsible for maintaining the purity of population within the boundaries.


In a community defined by movement towards the center, the answer takes on a very different shape. For a member of a centered set community, the answer revolves around one’s responsibilities for oneself and towards others. This week we will begin exploring this idea (and we’ll continue next week, at least, as well). In a nutshell, in a church devoted to centering itself on Jesus, each person is responsible for himself – for his or her own next step in discipleship towards Jesus – and each person is responsible to every other person – to love and serve them as Jesus directs through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the scriptures. Because after all, Jesus himself places loving one another at the heart of discipleship to him.


This, in fact, is the pattern Jesus sets for us, and the pattern he himself followed as he walked in our skin. Jesus is responsible for himself – for doing what his Father has sent him to do – and responsible to each of his estranged brothers and sisters, his Father’s image-bearing kids, to seek them and save the lost. [examples…]


Jesus lives out a basic truth about our responsibilities. I am only responsible for one person in the universe. And that person is myself. I am only responsible for myself because I am the only one I have any true control over (and truth be told, that control seems tenuous at best, sometimes!). I am responsible for my heart towards God, my heart towards others, I am responsible for the condition of my soul, for what I feed it and how I care for it, I am responsible for how I direct and use and nourish my mind, I am responsible my strength. How I care for it, how I steward it, what I train and prepare it to do.

Both go hand in hand. I am only responsible for myself. But God has given me all sorts of other responsibilities towards others. And in fact, I cannot be faithful in my responsibility for myself without also being faithful in my responsibility towards others. And I cannot be faithful in my responsibility towards others without being faithful in my responsibility for myself.

I am responsible to God.

To Love him. To serve him. To obey him.

In fact, it’s because of my responsibilities toward God that I am responsible to be responsible for myself. Because my life, my very self, is a gift that he has given me to steward.

And in the same vein, my responsibility towards God leads me into responsibilities towards others. If I love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind and all my strength, I will also find myself loving my neighbor as myself.

I am responsible to my wife, Ronni.

To love her. To be in a posture of service towards her. To be ready to lay down my life for her in whatever way the Lord may so direct me.

I am responsible to my kids.

To love them. To serve them. To be ready to lay down my life for in whatever way the Lord may so direct me.

I am responsible to the church.

To love her. To be in a posture of service towards her. To be ready to lay down my life for her in whatever way the Lord may so direct me.

I am responsible to every other image bearer, friend or enemy. To love them. To be in a posture of service towards them. To be ready to lay down my life for them in whatever way the Lord may so direct me.

I have responsibilities towards all of creation as well, responsibilities to all God’s creatures, great and small, and to the earth itself that is God’s gift to us and an expression of his glory.

And bringing it full circle, as a member of a community of image-bearers and an ecology upon which I and my life have an impact, I have a responsibility to be responsible for myself. And if I am faithful, with God’s help, to my responsibilities, God’s good purposes can be done in me, and through me, in the lives of those around me towards whom God has given me responsibilities.

This, perhaps, seems a little bit like a “No, duh” kind of a thing. But consider how often we substitute our responsibility for ourselves and to others with a sense of responsibility for others.


The parent who is over-responsible for his children. The spouse who is over-responsible for his or her worse half. The coach who is over-responsible for his or her players. The employer who is over-responsible for his or her employees. (Did you ever see Jesus apologize for his disciples?)image

Being responsible for others instead of oneself creates destructive stress. [monkeys responsible for getting food for others developing ulcers…] Because we cannot control others’ responses. (We can’t even predict their responses with a high degree of accuracy.) And because it will inevitably create conflict (who is responsible for them, us or them?) [Landis’s and the ice-cream]


Making yourself responsible for someone who is not you is a violation of God-given self. A violation of your own self and a violation of their self. It destroys life-giving boundaries. You lose your identity in the identity of others, and others without well-differentiated senses of self will lose their identities as you over-function in their lives. God made you, you. He made her, her. He made him, him. That was his call, and it’s not ours to override. Every unauthorized judgment is a form of over-responsibility.

Love, on the other hand, allows one to embrace others as one would embrace oneself, without violating either self. Love recognizes one’s self as made to be in communion with other selves, while still being fully one’s unique self. This is the truth of the trinity, is it not?


And being responsible for others will cause us to fail in our primary responsibility to them and to God, which is to love them. Because we will inevitably get frustrated. Or disappointed. And then manipulative. And judgmental. And soon enough we will stand above them as we stand above ourselves, from a place of authority instead of service.

“I was responsible for him!” No, you were responsible to care for him, or to watch out for him, or to teach him, or whatever. And you may have failed at that (or not), but he was responsible for himself. For his choices, or actions. That is a holy thing, territory where even angels fear to tread, a place one can enter only as a helper, and even then, only by invitation.


As a church, we are responsible to one another and to the disconnected and discounted and disfavored.

We are responsible to love.

To create breathing room.

To announce good news. To proclaim the message of salvation. To forgive. To heal. To cast out demons. To serve.

To make disciples.

To baptize.

To encourage, exhort, correct.

To speak truth in love.

All of that under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Which brings us back to ourselves.

We are responsible for ourselves. To bring ourselves under the rule and reign of God’s kingdom. To be trained in the way of love and set free from the enslavement of sin. So our hearts beat as God’s heart beats. So that we listen and hear and obey the Spirit of God. So that we will what God wills.

The implications of this are more significant than we might realize, so we’ll explore more next week. The impact on our intimacy with God. How we help one another follow Jesus. What it means to be a leader. Should be fun. In the meantime…

Practical Tips:

1. Next time someone lets you down, take off your speck specs, and fill out your log log. [someone fails in a responsibility they have to you…do you look first at the spec in their eye – their failure in their responsibilities…? Or the plank in yours – your anger, disappointment, bitterness, your need to forgive, serve, love…?] Write down your responsibilities for yourself that the failure of the other person has created for you. Work through those. When you are satisfied that your slate is clean, then you can put your speck specs back on and see how you might serve them in helping them get better at handling their responsibilities towards you and others.

2. Risk 40 bucks on 20/20 vision. Ask 2 people this week if they can help you identify any logs in your eyes. Assure them that they are not responsible for how you respond to what they say. Give them $10 to answer your question, with the promise of $10 more if you get upset with them. If they won’t answer your question, you might already know one of your logs…