Wax on-Wax off: Listen & Obey

Do you remember the movie "The Karate Kid"? In the original version, Ralph Macchio is a kid who is pushed around by the neighborhood bullies. He approaches the elderly master seeking to learn karate. Instead, the master sets him to waxing his collection of antique cars. He shows him the motion he must use: Wax on in circles with one hand, wax off in opposite circles with the other hand. He is very particular about how his young student should wax the car, but he refuses to tell him why he is doing this. Much later, when Macchio is about to drop from hours of work in the hot sun, the master lets him in on a secret. He has just learned the primary defensive motion to protect himself from an aggressor, and he has been building those muscles by using the "wax on, wax off" technique.

Years ago, Cecil Johnson, one of my mentors, wanted to teach his young son how to hunt deer. He was a consultant for Delta Airlines at the time, and he met a man there who was a longtime hunter. That spring, he approached the man for advice about hunting deer. "Learn everything you can about acorns, and come back to see me in the fall," was the response he got. He didn't realize it at the time, but acorns are a primary food for deer in the fall hunting season. By learning everything he could about the food source of the deer, he would be much better able to track and find deer during hunting season. In the course of his research about acorns, he realized why they were important to hunting deer. The study of acorns made it much more likely he would find an environment where deer would come to him.

Neil Cole, in his recent book Organic Leadership, makes the point that we have been educated beyond our obedience. My wife, who is an educator, took offense to that notion. "How could you have too much education?" she asked. Cole used the "Karate Kid" example to make this point. His master would not teach him a second lesson until he had mastered the first one. We tend to over-complicate the Christian walk. We humans naturally want to know where we will end up before we start out. God, in his infinite wisdom and mystery, does not work that way. God waits for us to humbly take the first step.

I, too, am one who wants a road map showing me the destination before I start out. For years after I was baptized as an adult, I sought clarity about God's purpose and direction for my life. Yet I heard mostly nothing. Now, I was a good Lutheran who didn't spend much time in the Word or in prayer. It wasn't really expected in my church. When I pondered whether God was calling me into seminary, I was given the words I had first heard at Cursillo (now Via de Christo), "Bloom where you're planted." I decided to keep working in my family business, and in my local church, until I heard a clear calling to another path. During the 25 years I was growing the business and rearing a family, I was painfully learning first management, then leadership. Sharp edges of my personality were being chipped away by my relationships with wife and family, the body of Christ, and my coworkers. My character was being formed in the course of my work at home, in my church and at the office. God, in His silence, was preparing me for the calling that would dawn in my life and guide my second career.

While working with the Transforming Leaders Initiative, I visited two churches that had agreed to be hosts for Partner Learning Site visits for the pilot class of our three-year learning journey. Pastors and lay leaders, 35 in all from six churches across Ohio, visited these two host sites. Part of my role was to facilitate the emerging visions being articulated by these teams from the visiting churches. In some cases these pastors are not lead pastors, but associates. In every case, the lay leaders are part of a Lay Learning Team. This team is an informal structure to allow leaders to walk alongside the pastors in our learning journey. The emerging vision statements were often overarching visions of creating discipleship communities within their churches. There will be considerable work involved in persuading their formal leadership, and the senior pastor, where our participant is an associate, to buy in and endorse these visions.

As I met with one of these groups the evening before we would present these vision statements to the gathering, I received a word from the Lord. "I think we are going too far with these first vision statements," I told them. You can't control everything, but you can control some things. I told the "Karate Kid" story. What if "wax on" was listening for the Spirit's leading in our own lives, and "wax off" was obeying what we heard? I suggested that I would be well pleased if they set a shorter-term vision for each on the Learning Team to personally embrace discipleship and to spend the next six months listening and obeying. Then, after six months of prayer and study, sharing and learning together, begin to cast a vision based on what they heard and discerned.

The next morning, I used the same analogy in my scripture reading and meditation for the group. I told of my own experience, that I have gotten pretty good at listening, the "wax on." That muscle has grown stronger. By comparison, I have had a hard time disciplining myself to exercise the other muscle, to "wax off," or obey. When I was suffering a month of disability with a pinched nerve and severe sciatic pain in my left leg, the muscle atrophied. The doctor put a measuring tape around my leg, and it was two centimeters smaller than the other leg. This was the picture that led me to this idea. I have had to work hard to build back the muscle in that leg during my rehabilitation. I hope I put similar work into building up the muscle to "wax off," to obey the word and calling of God.

I used to wonder why God never seems to light more than the next couple of steps on the path. Now, I am content just to know the next couple of steps. I realized that if I could see the whole path, it would be too intimidating to follow it. An old hymn verse from Psalm 119:105 says it this way:

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet
and a light unto my path.

If you think about it, the only way to see further down the path is for us to start moving. If we stand still, we will just see the couple of steps currently lit up by the lamp. Once we start moving, the next steps will appear from the darkness.

For decades, I slammed together the words, Jesus Christ 'Lord and Savior'. I realize now that it was at least 20 years after I began to proclaim Jesus as savior before I began to live into the idea of Jesus Christ as Lord over my life. Listen and obey, wax on, wax off. May you find strength in the spiritual exercise to be obedient to what you are hearing. I'm glad I've finally begun to connect those dots.