Thursday, December 18, 2008
If I asked Republicans who they wanted in the White House, they would say another Ron Reagan.
If I asked people defaulting on their “something for nothing,” buying beyond their means home mortgage what they wanted now, they would say a government bailout.
Hillary Clinton wants to hold another office. Donald Trump wants to amass more wealth. Britney Spears wants one more hit (I’m not sure of what, exactly – uh, I mean, on the charts… yeah, that’s it).
If I asked most Evangelical Christians in America what the world needed, they would likely say more Christians. But what kind of answer is that? I don’t even know what that means? Does it mean more followers of Christ or just more people who think like western Christendom; more people to validate the philosophical ideals of modern Evangelical Christianity? What does that have to do with Jesus?
It’s Christmastime. I’m reminded every year of how, in the name of anti-commercialism and “Jesus is the reason for the season,” Christians have prostituted the sacrifice and love of God. Jesus never once asked anyone to remember His birth. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea in theory. But, did you ever consider there may have been a reason he didn’t? Sometimes I don’t think this anniversary celebration has worked out so well in practice. It’s nothing new. We create a false sense of significance out of a moment, or a mole hill, or a manger, missing the larger point. Okay, maybe not altogether missing it. Rather, thinking somehow that the point is not strong enough to stand on its own without some pageantry or a little marketing push. Who is all this for anyway? Come on, really? Consequently, if the saints capitalize on heaven’s true agenda along the way, so advances the kingdom of the godly. Right?
Please understand, I believe there is great significance in the incarnation. But I don’t believe it is communicated best (maybe not even at all) by a light up, animatronic angel in my yard, glitter laden greeting cards featuring ridiculously large headed cartoons of white Anglo children wearing pastels, ceramic figurines in a miniature stable or the 73 different arrangements of “O Holy Night” I will endure (maybe even contribute to) this holiday season.
The infinite Creator of all things surrendered the omnipotence of deity and, by His own choosing, moved by flawless compassion, submitted to the form and limitation of creation. Love perfection. But, if you had asked the people of Israel what they wanted, they would have said another Moses or Joshua or David. Who told us we have any idea what we really need?
So, I will celebrate the yuletide crap out of Christmas this year. I will make wonderful memories with my wife, my boys, my friends and family. I will do it because it is important. I will do it because I want to do it. But, I’m not hoping to find a faster horse under my Christian-mas tree this year. I’m looking to unwrap a Model-T. Whatever the heck that is. Dear reader, I wish you the same.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
George: I might tell her that I love her. I came this close last night, then I just chickened out.In 2000, I joined the pastoral staff of a moderately large church in Northern California. It was the most huggy place on earth. It seemed whether greeting or parting, an embrace was required. At first, it drove me nuts. I have some real personal space issues. You’re only welcome to land if you have received clearance from the tower. It wasn’t just the hugs. This church was the “I love you” capital of Christendom. Public profession of adoration between friends is a fine gesture to be sure, but not exactly within my stockpile of experience.
Jerry: Well, that's a big move, Georgie boy. Are you confident in the “I love you” return?
Jerry: Cause if you don't get that return, that's a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.
George: Aw, I've just got to say it once, everybody else gets to say it, why can't I say it?
Elaine: What, you never said it?
George: Once, to a dog. He licked himself and left the room.
Jerry: Well, so it wasn't a total loss.
New scene— George and Siena are sitting in the car again. They're listening to the hockey game on the radio.
George: You know, I could have actually gone to that.
Siena: So why didn't you?
George: Well, I didn't want to break our date.
Siena: Oh, well.
George: Because I... I love you.
Siena: You know, I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat.
You see, “I love you” for me is an expression of great import. The phrase carries with it the weight of significant depth and personal covenant. To feel love for someone else is one thing. To say, “I love you,” well, this is more than deep caring, it is a contract—a new level of spoken commitment.
In part, as a result of my brief experience at that church, I verbally communicate my feelings for my close friends more often than before. Still, it can be “a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.” Not for lack of confidence in the “I love you return.” I’m not sure that is always so important. I mean, everyone likes to hear they are loved (whether or not the feeling is mutual), right? Ah, but therein lies the problem.
It’s all about semantics. At that church, “I love you” meant, “I appreciate you” or “I’m glad you’re my friend” or “it sure is nice weather we’re having.” For me, “I love you” means, “built on the qualities I have come to deeply value in you, I care for and trust in you enough to risk a consequential portion of the depth of who I am on my relationship with you.”
Not only are there considerable differences in what these words mean from one person to the next, but, I have come to recognize that many people (including myself) find the idea of being loved difficult. Being loved is not a passive state. It seems to carry implicit responsibilities. If I am loved by you, I must bear the burden of your emotion. I now knowingly have the power to hurt you deeply. Sometimes, however, the problem is even more straightforward and narcissistic. I feel guilty—find it difficult (or even impossible) to receive your love because I don’t feel lovable. If you really knew me, you wouldn’t feel this way. Because of your expression, I am now beholden to continue whatever charade has inspired you to develop such affections. I no longer have the option of ever “being myself.” I must be the person you can love.
I sometimes wonder if this isn’t one of the reasons westerners in postmodern society are so quick to push God away. The formidable complexities—the internal antagonisms involved in the giving and receiving of unconditional, honest, whole love appear insurmountable… or, even worse, strike debilitating terror. The issues of personal space surrounding our heart keep Him (and most everyone else) at arm’s length. What tragic, personal devastation we affect through passive resistance in the name of self preservation.
New scene— Jerry and George are at the coffee shop.
Jerry: "I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat."
Jerry: Big matzo ball.
George: Huge matzo ball.
Jerry: Those damn “I love you” returns.
George: Well, it's all over. I slipped up.
Jerry: Oh, you don't know.
George: You have any idea how fast these things deteriorate when there's an “I love you” out of the bag? You can't have a relationship where one person says, "I love you", and the other says, "I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat."
Jerry: Unless you're married.
George: I mean, now she thinks that I'm one of these guys that love her. Nobody wants to be with somebody that loves them.
Jerry: No, people hate that.
George: You want to be with somebody that doesn't like you.
George: I am never saying “I love you” again unless they say it first.
Waitress: Matzo ball soup?
George: That'd be me.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
A faith theme runs strongly throughout most episodes. The season premiere a few weeks ago held no exception. Eli has undergone surgery to remove the aneurism. As a post procedural requirement, Eli must participate in counseling sessions to determine his fitness to once again practice law. Season two opens in one of these sessions (with a counselor played by Sigourney Weaver). The episode's story hinge: Eli comes to realize, though he has been meeting with her for three months, Ms. Weaver’s character is visible only to him. He asks if it’s possible she is only a “supersized vision.”
Weaver - Well, anything’s possible Eli. Isn’t that the very essence of faith?Don’t get nervous. I’m not about to start drawing my theology from the ABC Network writers’ table.
Stone - That’s not an answer. Are you . . . ?
Weaver - God can be a narrow term. Let’s say hypothetically that I am or, to use a term from your line of work, that I’m His “fiduciary.” You had the aneurism removed. You were quite clear that you wanted your life to return to what you consider “normal.” But you’re meant for so much more, Eli. You’re one of those people for whom “normal” is a failure of potential.
Stone - Oh, so, you’re punishing me by dropping a bank on Jordan?
Weaver - That’s not the way of things. There’s no, "you don’t scratch my back, I’ll smite yours."
Most of the time, I love what I do. Still, I have often been remarkably jealous of people with a straightforward, 40 hour a week job; a handsome 501K; and a cake party in the staff room every time someone has a birthday. I wrote in my last post that people often want someone else’s problem. But, sometimes it feels like I already get EVERYONE else’s problem by default—by the very nature of this organism called ministry. There are days when I want to “have the aneurism removed,” as it were. But I keep hearing this voice in the back of my head say, “you’re one of those people for whom ‘normal’ is a failure of potential.” Unfortunately, this voice doesn’t sound much like Sigourney Weaver.
Consequently, depending on how you define the word, one might substitute that “followers of Jesus are people for whom ‘normal’ is a failure of potential.”
Weaver – You’re missing something. It’s true. But, it’s nothing a law license is going to give you.I have a friend who recently wrote about wanting to live among those who fall into the top 1% of self discipline and personal aspiration (e.g. Olympic champions). She feels lonely in her humble pursuit of personal and faith community excellence and seeks hope in environmental change. I understand and can’t discount that this can sometimes be an important part of growth. But, active engagement in the quest to climb one step higher, go a bit deeper, see things more like Christ sees them… these things separate her from others. I have a feeling they always will, regardless of her surroundings. You must find the ideal environment for who you are today, but if you are still (in this case always) becoming, you may just outgrow it tomorrow. For this person, “normal” (even if it is found among the top 1%) is not an environment in which to thrive. Nor is it a place to despise. It is something to transcend. It’s an environment you create, not one you discover.
Stone – [turning to go] Only one way to find out. [pausing and looking back] Or, I guess you could just tell me.
Weaver – I think you’re missing having the sense of the divine in your everyday life. I think you’re less happy now than when your life was occasionally upended by the fantastic. I think that grace fulfilled you in a way you didn’t even know you needed. And the only thing crazy about you is the fact that you don’t seem to realize that.
I guess what I mean when I say, "I sometimes wish I could have a 'normal' job," is that, at times, I wish I could be satisfied with anything else. But I can’t. Not to say anything else is a lesser calling. It just isn’t mine. Whatever God has set before me today, THIS is where my potential lies. It IS my “normal” in and from which to rise. Anything less would be a failure of potential.
Realizing and accepting that makes my heart smile. Actualization is a myth. Satisfaction is a consequence of good choices—of obedience, not of arrival. Joy is the driving force of a great life, not its byproduct.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
in·fa·mous [in-fey-muh s] –adjective 1. when you’re more than famous; you’re in famous.On May 9 of this year, once again for the I-can’t-count-how-many-eth time, I started a weight/muscle gain initiative. For as long as I can remember, I have been under weight. I have a high energy level and an incredibly fast metabolism. I get very hot when I sleep. I burn off calories without doing ANYTHING. Now, before those of you who are trying to loose weight finish cursing me under your breath, consider the frustration of not being able to walk into a clothing retailer and buy a pair of pants off the rack— of having most everything tailored or living with a poor fit. Imagine hearing, “oh, I didn’t see you there for a minute. You must have been turned to the side,” about 20 times a month. I guess it isn’t considered a social faux pas to describe a person as the skinny guy or stick person when pointing him out to friends. After all, it’s not like calling someone fat. But, for a man, it is no less unflattering… emasculating even. (Cue solo violin with haunting, lyrical melody) Imagine feeling helpless to do anything about it. Oh wait. You don’t have to imagine. I’m sure there is something in your life about which you feel the same.
Over the years, I’ve grown very frustrated with comments like, “I wish I had your problem” or “I should be so blessed.” I want to say, “no, you don’t. You don’t want my problem. You just don’t want yours. There is a big difference.” You see, it seems people with big noses want smaller ones. People with blond hair want brown hair, brunettes want red hair, and red heads wish to be blond. People with straight hair want curly hair while people with curls spend hours straightening their locks. Big people want to be smaller and small people want to be bigger. No one is happy and everyone wants someone else’s problem.
Self discipline, in most areas, comes somewhat naturally to me. Part of my retentive and moderately OCD personality, I suppose. It is both blessing and curse. Sticking to a workout routine or nutritional plan has never been that difficult. And motivation? I have motivation coming out my… (sorry, something caught in my throat). But, up until recently, the most I’ve ever gained was about 5 lbs over the course of 6 months. 5 lbs, consequently, that I would loose if I fell ill for a couple of weeks and couldn’t maintain my high caloric intake.
But May 9, 2008 was different. Once again, I employed my years of research and aggregate knowledge on the subject, detailing a foolproof plan. The same kind of plan that had never really worked before. (I guess it wasn’t non-fool proof?) But, this time— call it slowing metabolism with age, divine intervention, or a combination of the two— this time, I started seeing significant and exciting results. From May to August, I made steady gains; over 21 lbs of mostly lean muscle mass in three months (only a 3-4% gain in body fat)! Nearly 1.5 inches in my neck, over 3.5 inches in my shoulders, 4.5 in my chest, just under 2 inches in my biceps, and a little less than 3 inches in my quads. I did gain 3 inches in my waist (not uncommon when bulking) but, considering I started out at 28.5 inches, I think this is more than acceptable.
Hooray! Right? That was May through August. It is now nearing the end of October. My gains since August 9? Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nicht. Non niente. Neits. Ничто. 沒什麼東西. The dreaded plateau. The frustration that had slowly been melting away has returned with full force to flourish like never before. And why? Why can’t I just be happy for what has been accomplished? Because, like most westerners, I am constantly caught between two primary motivations: abject dissatisfaction or debilitating fear of change. (Wow, did I just sum up the political poles in the U.S. or what? I digress.) Neither are healthy motivations, nor do they lend themselves to salubrious decision making.
What’s worse, still 15 lbs below my target, I continue to hear things like, “you’ve gained 20 lbs? Where did you put it?” This post is not intended as a personal plea for social mercy. Even so, I'm reminded of a Plato quote I once read. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I am learning more and more how very important it is to celebrate even the smallest victories. Not to the point of distraction, but, if for no other reason, because plateaus have a way of draining more energies than the climb ever could. I am convinced that “stuck,” wherever that may be, is the worst location on earth.
I will change tactics and gain more weight. I am determined and not completely derailed. Yet, the disheartening reality, the looming and formidable threat of "stuck," abides. Though much deeper applications abound here, I will leave you to your own meditations on the issue. I close with only this simple query: I wonder if you will join me in lending a more generous portion of grace to those around you. Maybe together and with Gods help we can take on “stuck” in its many forms, and win! “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
His first day of class, my wife (who had taken off work for the occasion) and I walked him into the room, helped him find where to put his lunch pail, backpack, supplies, etc., and walked him to his seat. The next few days, I said goodbye just inside the door. However, for the last couple of weeks, I have only walked him across the parking lot and to his building. I stop just outside the door, kiss him on the head, and send him inside. He usually has much to say as we walk toward the class. He moves at a steady pace, full of energy. But, when we arrive at the door and exchange our goodbyes, a curious thing happens. He freezes at the threshold. He walks right up to the entrance and stops, silent.
Now, the classroom is decorated with kid friendly shapes, letters, images, and games of all sorts. Everything is low and mostly well within his reach. His friends are waiting for him just inside. The whole thing is designed for him—a place where he can thrive.
The exterior of the building is unimpressive and stark. There are no windows. It’s surrounded by other uninteresting structures, black-top, and concrete. Yet, there he stands. It’s not so much that he’d rather be standing on the sidewalk than that he just can’t bring himself to cross the threshold and enter the room.
So, I wondered to myself today, “what is he afraid of? He seems to really like school. His teacher is friendly, mostly disarming, and very complimentary of his performance and behavior thus far. He has already made friends, he enjoys the learning and activities… what’s the big deal? Just walk on in and start your day.”
Then, I realized on how many fronts, in my own life, I am standing outside, staring in the door, speechless, hesitant to cross the threshold. What’s the big deal? For the most part, I’m a risk taker. (Alright… so I am a “manageable” risk taker, but still...) Why do I just stand here, when the promise of what may be much better lies just over a metal plate between the sidewalk and the room ahead?
Curiously, later today, a thoughtful acquaintance (another friend of a friend) wrote to me about life after death and the mysterious way in which we cannot know with any scientific or academic certainty what lies beyond until we cross into it; on this side of the threshold, there's only speculation, faith… hope.
I see a theme developing. I hate that.
I don’t walk my son into the room everyday anymore— not because I don’t love him, or want to ease his trepidation, but because I know at some point, even in the smallest of ways, he must learn that crossing thresholds is an important personal step. Though others may walk you to the door, no one can enter for you. Sometimes, they can’t even do it with you. That's what makes it so powerful.
I don’t need to go to Kindergarten. This is his threshold to cross. I have my own. It seems at ages five and thirty-s i .. . (well, let’s just say I’m older than five), we have a lot in common. Who knew?
So, the question of the day is: “What’s holding you back from crossing the important thresholds in your life?”
Monday, September 22, 2008
Still, figuratively speaking, I recognize how often in life I have changed a line here and there or substituted lines I should be singing for ones with which I am ultimately more comfortable. I wonder if that inconsistency is noticeable—if it creates a credibility issue. What are the consequences of projecting words on the big screen (the words I want everyone to sing) and then demonstrating something noticeably different… even if the “different” is not inherently bad.
There are other times I feel like it is someone else’s version of the song on the screen—a version I have no intention of ever singing. I’m held accountable for a standard I never accepted, one to which I feel no moral or spiritual obligation (only organizational or social).
Either way, it is not okay with me.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
For reasons I will keep to myself, the unfortunate truth of this statement has never resonated more strongly with me. That is, with one significant clarification: I do not believe the root problem is with “churches,” but rather, that “individuals say they want to reach lost people, until they figure out what that means” – personally… for their own life.
Without argument, we know we should be reaching people with God’s love. We want to do it! That is, until we recognize this means our church will no longer exclusively (or even primarily) exist to meet our needs. A church bent on impacting non-members with God’s love is not a safe harbor for personal, spiritual complacency. It is extremely challenging to admit some practices and experiences we guard in tender sanctity aren’t— nay, shouldn’t be important to everyone. It’s not so much that there may no longer be room in the budget or in the bulletin or on the calendar for my favorite ministry, or that I might lose my position or comfortable spiritual identity (though jagged little pills, indeed). But, even more difficult to swallow—having to face the reality that my sorrow (or even animosity) over the pending loss of these things reveals something about myself and the selfishness of my faith. I don’t want to see my reflection in that particular mirror.
“But wait… there’s more!” It’s not just about reaching lost people. Believers want to worship in unity, until we figure out what that means… personally. We want to disciple to real Christian maturity, until we figure out what that costs… personally. We want to minister/serve like Jesus, until we figure out that’s more than a one hour a week attendance effort… personally. We want to fellowship/partner in lasting, meaningful relationships, until we figure out that this requires availability, transparency, and covenant… personally. "Now, how much would you pay?"
It is my experience that most churched people are more resistant to change than the lost people we want to see transformed. Not resistant to the idea of change; just the personal implications of it.
Tim writes, “what they [churches] want is for their methodology to work.”
We hire people and read books and attend conferences and adopt programs to this end. But, a caterpillar can’t fly. He's not the wrong species, just the wrong form. A rather intimate personal (not environmental) transformation is necessary.
I am very challenged by this. Church is not an entity unto itself. A church can only be what its members are willing to be— can only accomplish by the active service of its collective individuals. Heaven help us. So, what do you think?
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
I’m thinking of trying something a little different. For the past year, I have posted entries here in article form—well thought out, focused musings and personal discoveries (see archive). I am finding it difficult, however, to devote the time and energy required to make such complete entries available. I have started MANY posts only to find that I haven’t the time to finish them. So, I am thinking of posting more often and less completely. This is not to say the entries will be any less thoughtful and, from time to time, I still hope to make more fully composed submissions. I enjoy (even relish) your comments and would love to pose some questions in hopes of discussion. Response is wonderful, but mutual engagement is even better. (Fighting the urge to post an emoticon wink right now. Don’t know what is wrong with me that I would even think about it. What has the world come to?)
I look forward to seeing how this goes. Thanks for stopping by my little corner of the internet from time to time. It means a lot to me to have the honor of capturing your thoughts for a moment.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Not only am I inclined to agree with her thinking on diversity, I feel a fundamental issue is curiously ignored in most discussions of church style/form/experience. 
"Why do Christians take everything so personally with Christ, ya know? It's like, not only do you have to worship him, you want everybody to. It's like, I like lobster. Do I go around pushing lobster on people? Do I say, 'you must like lobster? Eat lobster; it's good, it's good!' It's not only where you live. You go to Africa. You travel all over the world. 'Eat lobster. Have some more lobster. It's good! WE WANT YOU TO HAVE LOBSTER!'" - Larry David, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”A growing number of people don’t want plain, spicy, OR extra chunky spaghetti sauce—a reality I believe to be widely overlooked by the church (and most believers in Christ). They don’t want spaghetti sauce, regardless of variety, because more and more people in America don’t like Italian food. They don’t care what Prego or Ragu or any one else produces because they find Italian food to be distasteful or overly simplistic or a key contributor to epidemic human obesity. If they do like Italian, they don’t understand why sauce should be required or they want only the sauce… noodles have WAY too many carbs. Or, maybe, they like Italian food just fine… just not exclusively. What’s wrong with Asian or Mexican or French cuisine?
My point: Only those who value spaghetti have a sauce preference. I wonder if this wasn’t among the reasons Jesus spent so very little time (comparatively) talking about the formation, structure, style, even purpose of faith community. He spoke rather, in words and example, to the formation, structure, style, and purpose of the believer. In fact, the apostles spent an inordinate amount of their energy trying to mitigate problems within and minimize the distractions of early Christian community.
I am not saying the fellowship of believers is bad or even unimportant. By no means. Even so, at what point did we come to understand organization to be the primary outreach tool? When did we shirk the personal responsibility to be what Christ challenged us to be? When did this become something we merely encouraged instead of the foundation of who we are? Why is it something we program, administrate, even cash in on? I wonder if the American aversion to Jesus is not more an aversion to a church who has used His name and message as a marketing tool for building its numbers.
"Between the first persecution under Nero in 64 to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians experienced 129 years of persecution and 120 years of toleration and peace.”  During periods of persecution, Christian fellowship was an underground movement. Yet, it was in concurrence to said persecution that faith in Christ spread most rapidly. How was that possible without a local, socially relevant meeting, effectively advertised, with flexible catered structure and presentation to appeal to the diverse masses? When did worship (by way of style) come to bear the weight of ecumenical relevance in our culture? When did organizationally sanctioned children’s programs become the principle entry point for introducing kids to Christ? When did biblical instruction and evangelistic preaching of the Gospel become synonymous? Weren’t these once two different things? (see The Holy Bible: New Testament) Will a shift from traditional church thinking to community (mission) guided church thinking (organization) without a decided shift in the responsibility taking and vision of the individual believer really get it done in the long run? Is that what the organization is even for?
It is my conviction that we do not draw disciples largely because we do not equip disciplers. We do not empower disciplers largely because we have not really made disciples of Christ in the first place. What I mean is, we have made disciples of our church, our form, our style, our understanding… but it might appear that few people are meeting Jesus and engaging in deep meaningful relationship with Him—a relationship from which springs a deep and desperate passion to share His life, love, and spiritual rescue with others (even in the face of severe persecution). Sadly, it seems Larry David has not yet met a Christian whose testimony of Jesus is born of God’s desperate love and concern for… well, Larry David. We are not commissioned to propagate the church-going species. If that is all this is, then we ARE just pushing lobster—and it is ridiculous! God’s love for others must transcend our organization and be the fundamental motivation of its membership.
Getting someone to church isn’t necessarily getting them to God. Helping someone connect to God will not necessarily mean they will connect to your church. Building the Kingdom of God is not the same thing as building a ministry. Jesus didn’t die for churches, He died for people. He did not commission an organization, He commissioned disciples. Consequently, these people, these disciples are the Church… His Bride. When do we get to start talking about “the Church,” an entity (with common responsibility to Christ), instead of “my church,” an organization or schedule or style or event?
1. Please note: (for those who read my post entitled “Two Thumbs Up”) This commentary is in no way intended as external criticism of Christ’s Bride. Rather, it flows from the growing personal conviction of a Christian leader. These issues strike me, as a foremost offender, squarely between the eyes. This blog is a dedicated forum for such discussion and discovery.
2. Maurice M. Hassatt, "Martyr." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IX (Robert Appleton Company, 1910).
Saturday, June 7, 2008
I was chatting with a good friend a few weeks ago. After asking me some difficult questions, fully expecting careful answers, he commented about the level at which I had been thinking the situation through. “Funny, the truth is I haven’t had a chance to give it much thought until just now,” I commented. He jumped to another topic altogether. I tracked with him for a couple of minutes and then, without thinking, somehow connected the conversation back to the earlier depth. The safety I feel in our friendship, his concern, and his questions had commissioned a journey that wasn’t, for me, complete—a journey most would never have started in the first place (not without a good deal of prodding). Though the idea challenges my natural proclivity, I recognize not every journey is completed in a day— not every purchase is made with a single payment.
I caught myself and grinned. “You know what? I think I just figured out why we get along so well. You allow me to go deeper and I have no problem with you pulling the conversation back up to the surface.” In fact, we’ve come to expect it from one another. He laughed, “are you saying I’m shallow?” “Absolutely not.” I explained that the way I am inclined to process, the tendency I have in conversation is to take it deeper and deeper— to hold to one topic or any relative association, break it down to its DNA and/or consider its connections to larger contexts. It is the way I think. He is broader. When I share conversation with him, we are much more likely to cover a wider spectrum of topics— anything from politics to personal struggles, music to mechanical engineering, football to friendships. We may talk about these things only as they relate to a moment in time. I love it. More than abiding these tendencies in one another, I believe we value them, balancing ourselves against them. But, our friendship is unique and I am thankful for the awareness this discovery has afforded me as it bears on other relationships.
More than once over the course of the conversation, we inadvertently traded places. I drew on random connections and shifted topics freely. He connected the dialogue back to earlier, deeper thoughts. We caught ourselves doing it. Very entertaining. “See, we’re rubbing off on each other. Maybe I’m learning the joy of a broader conversational surface area and I’ll just leave the depth to you.” On the other hand, looking back over today’s blog entry... maybe not.
Monday, May 5, 2008
The 1988 film, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," provides an apt illustration. Lawrence Jameson (Michael Cane), a highly educated, refined, and extremely successful confidence man, imparts wisdom to his half-wit protégé, Freddy Benson (Steve Martin).
Freddy, as a younger man, I was a sculptor, a painter, and a musician. There was just one problem: I wasn't very good. As a matter of fact, I was dreadful. I finally came to the frustrating conclusion that I had taste and style, but not talent. I knew my limitations. We all have our limitations, Freddy. Fortunately, I discovered that taste and style were commodities that people desired. Freddy, what I am saying is: know your limitations. You are a moron.Sadly, I fear the church remains caught in the same trap. Just because someone will stock our book, put us on television, publish our article, or listen to our sermon, doesn’t make us an expert. True, taste and style have their relative value. But, where the Bride of Christ is concerned, well… Who gets to tell Her what works and what doesn’t? Who gets to decide these things? The only opinion that truly matters here is that of the Groom. And, it would seem He has made His taste with regard to Her beauty quite clear. He desires Her affection and devotion, that She share in His joys and purpose, that She conduct Herself in ways that bring honor to His Father’s name, and that everyone be invited to the wedding. I hear Him express no real opinion on what band to hire for the reception, what color the living room curtains should be, or whether She should wear Her hair up or down. He will clothe Her so She needn’t worry. Pleasing Him is Her primary concern.
Yet, we all have an opinion on the how-s, when-s, and where-s. I have struggled all my life to gain weight. Anyone who has felt powerless to change their body mass understands this frustration. I have read countless weight gain and muscle development theories. Everyone wants to tell you their story. How they gained thirty pounds of pure muscle in three months. The trouble is, what works for one body, doesn’t always work the same for the next. Of course, there must be some givens here. Still, many how-s, when-s, and where-s are relative and only a careful understanding of the individual’s unique genetic make-up can reveal the best course of action for maximum results.
Long time critics of Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek model have had a field day with the recent self-publishing of the organization’s internal study. In the past few months I’ve read at least a half dozen “I told you so-s.” God’s people don’t always hit the mark. So, we self assess and learn and regroup and go again. Bravo to Willow Creek for being self-effacing enough to take a hard, honest look at their values, their measures, and reorganize accordingly. Few, if any, churches in America have successfully, consistently, and for thirty years reached with Christ’s love as many people as Willow Creek and its Association. Why doesn’t this fact alone drown out the “I told you so-s?” I would hardly say the organization has failed God. In fact, all Willow Creek has said is that they are dissatisfied with their effectiveness in making the kind of connections God has charged them to make. Why, instead of learning from this beautiful example of real, humble, honest leadership, are churches and Christian leaders so quick to use this study as evidence for validating their own, ineffectual practices—fuel for catapulting their own opinions and formulas to the forefront? When do we learn that listening carefully to those we serve and being honest with ourselves about what is most valuable by God's measure is an essential part of the success process, not a precursor to resignation. It is carefully setting up the next operation, not a painful debrief after a failed mission? Doesn’t it seem a better focus to lead toward positives, not away from negatives? Might not the former inherently take care of the latter?
Positive feedback is often robbed of any credibility because it isn't viewed as "constructive" criticism. Maybe Paula Abdul knows something about criticism that eludes most of us. People grow when they are encouraged and guided. This may most certainly include some pruning or painful shaping. But most of the time, it means fertilization and watering and the proper balance of environmental elements (light, temperature). I’ve grown tired of church critics so quick to negatively assess what isn’t working. They tell us why/when/where the problem began and who is responsible… but where is the encouragement in fruitful direction? Where is the watering of God seed or tending for healthy soil? Where are the examples of success? Oh wait, I just remembered— those folks are out getting it done and inviting us to come along, not chastising us for missing their mark. Well, not yet anyway. Unfortunately, it seems the allure of becoming the “expert” voice sometimes intoxicates the effective servant. Maybe it’s more inadvertent than that.
I have a young friend in his first year of Bible College. Earlier this year, he asked for my opinion regarding what he felt to be the growing prevalence of believer-centric worship. He was starting an “underground” newspaper with a friend “to critically examine Christianity at [this] school and how it can be improved.” I formed a careful response to his question, giving him history and context for my observations. Then I added…
Be careful. Before you go criticizing worship practices in the American church (something you have EXTREMELY limited knowledge of) or any aspects of church for that matter, consider that you are criticizing Jesus’ Bride. You are criticizing the way She expresses Her love for the Bridegroom. If there is something She is missing, ways in which She may be incomplete, it would be better for you to seek to instruct, encourage, support, complete Her than to criticize Her. Jesus will defend His Beloved. I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that.I didn’t hear from him again for weeks. I don’t think my answer set particularly well.
Don't get me wrong. Not all feedback should be positive. Not all criticism results in warm fuzzies. But God's instruction for His Bride, though it may at times be hard to take, always has Her triumph as its inspiration. This is a proper litmus test for church criticism.
So, it would seem the "expert" may not always be one's most valuable assessor. Outside-in objectivity has its place. But, the insider, the one who knows what it smells like in the trenches, the one who looks for the wins and then celebrates them along side you— that is the "constructive" critic. The person who helps you categorize the losses, disarming failure, guarding hope; the person who helps you navigate around potential pitfalls and warns you before you turn down a dead end street— this is the esteemed voice of a godly guide. God, Himself, is not objective when it comes to the Church, without apology. And, when all is said and done, His is the only opinion that counts.
Monday, April 7, 2008
We live in a nation (maybe a world) that has little regard for Christians (though I’m not sure Jesus doesn’t fare a little better than those who live to serve Him). So, I am used to having to earn respect. I don't generally resent this idea. In some ways, it is the nature of the life I’ve chosen and I’ve become accustomed (though not completely immune) to the frustrations of the process. In fact, respect earned has its rewards. Still, there remain a handful of people from whom I hope to be granted generous benefit of the doubt. Not because I deserve it (though I pray I might). Rather, I feel these individuals should understand the nature of the thing. Truly, I respect them enough to expect more from them. It is a small handful, mind you. Is that fair as expectations go? Maybe not. I just had a long, difficult conversation with someone over mutual respect. But, I wonder if it was difficult for all the wrong reasons. Jesus seemed saddened, once in a while irritated; but never derailed or even all that frustrated about an absence of respect from those who should have freely granted it. Huh...
To further complicate the issue, it seems "respect" has no universally accepted definition. For some, it is merely regard/consideration (to take into account, have or show concern for, think highly of; esteem). For some, it is value (relative worth, merit, or importance; to consider worth, excellence, usefulness, or importance). For others, it is preference (advantage given over others; a prior right or claim; the right or chance to so choose; being given priority). For some, it is an expectation of emotional responsibility (to anticipate and guard against all potential negative feelings in another). For still others, it is outright and unquestionable deference (submission or yielding to the judgment, opinion, will, etc., of another). At best and for most, it seems circumstantial. The kind of respect one gives is relative to whom and the kind of respect one deserves dependent on by whom it is being granted. While I can’t believe this entirely unreasonable, it is often extremely difficult to mitigate the inherent perils unscathed. It seems the arrows are flying before you even draw your bow (or wave a white flag).
So, is respect given, received, earned, lost… all or none of the above? Is it reasonably expected or is respect decorously withheld until one is proven otherwise worthy? What is the value, the power of respect received? Given?
As for earning respect: a friend of mine (musing on a slightly different topic) recently posed these questions…
"How much tooting of one's own horn is necessary?" Or is this something completely foreign to the Christ-centered life? And why is it that we feel that we have to make sure people know what we are doing? Is it because we are a society based on action, and if we do all our service in secret we appear to be inactive and ineffective? I guess it goes back to my favorite quote: "You know you are a servant when you are treated like one and it does not bother you."I like his quote. A lot. It brings me to the rhetorical question of the day... Is there anything of lasting value that cannot be accomplished from a greater sense of respect given than received?
While I would not suppose it an ignoble or ungodly goal to live as one worthy of respect; and, though I cannot disagree that respect carries with it a certain freedom, authority, and responsibility; I wonder if being respected is requisite in the servant life... essential for joyful living. Or, maybe, it is a matter of Whose respect we seek and whether or not, when granted, it is enough.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Lately, it seems I’ve really had to put up a spiritual fight for emotional purity-- a God glorifying center in my attitude. I say it's a fight, but it’s really just having to answer a nagging question over and over. Sometimes, though too seldom, the question seems just silly and I can laughably shrug it off. Sometimes it is annoying, like a fly that keeps buzzing around my head. I can’t catch it to shut it up and I can’t get away from it. Even though I come through with the right answer, having to face the question again and again changes my mood, my outlook for the worse. Still, more and more, when faced with the same stupid question, I am realizing that the number of right answers does not change my holiness grade. It isn’t a test to see how many times I get it right or wrong... whether I will pass or fail. It is more like a thermostat. It is a test to see if I am maintaining my dependence on God, a humble deference to His truth or if I am more willing to try and prove my own strength, make up my own answers using the logic that works for me.
I’ve been reading a lot from the New Living Translation. I didn’t like it at first. I have some kind of prejudice toward the original Living Bible. It doesn’t even pretend to be a translation. It’s a paraphrase of the American Standard Version that Kenneth Taylor wrote as he commuted back and forth to his job (by train). I guess I had always thought of it as the Bible for people who need things dumbed down. It was released the year I was born and, by the time I could read, had become very popular in the church because of its ease of understanding. Funny, the same criticism could be made regarding Eugene Peterson’s sermonization of scripture in The Message, yet I have the whole of Peterson’s work on CD in my truck as I type. How life changes. Still, the New Living is a true translation with the language feel and “everyman” priority of Kenneth Taylor’s original. So, I’ve tried to put my prejudice aside and am really enjoying this new version.
Anyway, I was reading the beatitudes from the sermon on the mount and, in the NLT, Matt. 5:3 reads… “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” Striking. Because of where I am in my journey, this language leapt off the page at me. I dove into research mode to try and find out how accurate this interpretation might be. Everything I could find on the original Greek supported this language. Jesus was clearly saying that the spiritually desperate, those who recognize how destitute they are on their own have God’s government at their disposal. Charles Spurgeon wrote, "the way to rise in the kingdom is to sink in ourselves."
Reading his statement reminded me of one of my favorite John Donne poems.
HOLY SONNETS. XIV.Wow! I haven’t read that in some time. It means more to me now than ever. Though it scares me to death (which may be the point), Father, this is my prayer.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Friday, February 1, 2008
Take me to where greatness livesWrote this poem yesterday. Thought I would share it here. Was a little frustrated with the way a creative project was going. Anyone else ever feel this way?
He was supposed to come over and inspire me today
He taunted me instead
That spiteful little politician
He slips around hiding behind other people’s faces
Never my own
He makes certain I know he’s there
He’s busy giving just enough
To remind me I’m not enough
He deals in illusion— allusion
The brochures are free
But he stood me up yet again
I’m pretty sure he’s laughing about it
Or maybe he just decided to nap instead
So, take me to where greatness lives
I want to have a word with him
Then we’ll find out who the real coward is
He has some explaining to do
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
“If God who owes nothing to us is ready to impart to us no less than Himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves? To give ourselves fully to God is a means of receiving God Himself. I for God and God for me. I live for God and give up my own self, and in this way induce God to live for me. Therefore to possess God we must allow Him to possess our soul.”
I was chatting with another friend late last week. She told me about Maxine, an 86 year old woman who attends her church. Maxine is wheelchair-bound and often unable to see the projected lyrics to the worship songs. The people standing around her unintentionally block her view. She doesn’t know many of the songs. Still, my friend stood next to Maxine one Sunday, watching and listening as the elderly woman threw her arms up to God and, voice strained and broken, with abandon sang out “la, la, la, la, la!” For the most part, Maxine managed to keep in time with the rhythm and follow the melodies. But, if she sounded a few raw notes now and then, she didn’t let it bother her. She had come to worship her Savior. And worship she did. Nothing was going to stand in her way. My friend welled up as she told me about Maxine. What a beautiful expression of deep love between Creator and His creation.
I was reminded of a woman Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote about in their accounts of Jesus life.
Jesus… was surrounded by the crowds. A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding, and she could find no cure. Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. Everyone denied it, and Peter said, “Master, this whole crowd is pressing up against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out from me.” When the woman realized that she could not stay hidden, she began to tremble and fell to her knees in front of him. The whole crowd heard her explain why she had touched him and that she had been immediately healed. “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” - Luke 8:42b-48 (emphasis mine)
This woman approached an influential Jewish man, a rabbi (culturally unheard of). She pressed through huge crowds of people, all the while suffering from a physical condition that made her unclean; a social outcast. She pressed through overwhelming personal, societal and physical barriers to touch Jesus. She did it believing Him to be who He said He was. Regardless of what she might hope to gain, it was a pure act of worship.
I think of how many hoops organized religion often expects people to jump through; how many hurdles one must clear in order to touch Jesus, and I am ashamed. There are already enough barriers (doubt, fear, confusion, pride, disillusionment, relationships, deception, etc.) to keep people from the God who created them—who adores them. Instead of working to eliminate these barriers, the church erects its own. Style, tradition, experience, doctrinal elitism… arguments like which Bible translation is best; or how many new or old worship songs we should sing; or whether sermons should be evangelistic, theological or just plain practical. The dispute crowds in around the central message of Christ, blocking the way more and more. God forgive us for missing the point entirely.
I think of Maxine and am all the more convinced that the only essentials here are truly knowing and loving God. I believe we can trust Him to work out anything that's left.
A tax man, in Jesus’ day, thought he could avoid the crowds and get a better glimpse by climbing a tree. When Jesus saw him, he called the guy down and said, “let’s grab some dinner at your place,” because getting a good look is not enough. Recognizing Christ is passive. Following Christ, that’s something else entirely. Pushing all barriers aside, nothing matters more than getting to God’s heart. At least, it seems that’s how He felt when He set aside the benefits of deity and pushed through humanity to get to us.
In the early days of the church, would-be leaders were trying to convince believers it was necessary they jump through hoops other than Christ in order to know and honor God. Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia charging that these guys just want to…
…look good to others. They… don’t keep the whole law themselves. They only want… to… boast about it and claim you as their disciples.It kind of sounds like that altruistic nun, “I live for God and give up my own self, and in this way induce God to live for me.”
As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died. …What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation.
From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. – Galatians 6:12-17
Sunday, I told the musicians and worship leadership at my church about Maxine. I found myself welling up as I spoke—and I’ve never even met her. It didn’t matter. I feel like knocking down a few barricades to get to Christ. Anyone with me? “La, la, la, la, la!”
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Mind you, talk still abounds. So by way of concession, there is a difference between prolific dialogue and verbosity. The former is intellectually productive. One careful thought may instinctively lead to another in compounding depth and expansion. The latter is just too many words. I should know. I’ve been told I’m pretty good at both.
I process my environment very quickly—in my head, that is. But the depth required for working observations into livable principles usually involves some ruminating, and ruminating some talking out. Therein lies the problem. Catch me on a topic I have processed and my language may be quick, careful and ready for discussion. Challenge me with a situation for which I’ve yet to lay sufficient cognitive foundation and watch out! I have to get my bearings. However, few people these days seem sensitive to the difference between or respective value of both processing-speech and engaging conversation. Though I prefer language, there are other viable means of process. But truly engaging conversation? I believe its value unequalled and frequently discover I’m starved for it. Once found, I am ravenous and sometimes, before I realize it, pick the carcass clean.
I am self aware enough to know I often have too much to say. Sometimes I find myself rattling on simply because I fear the awkward staring if the conversation dies (and I cannot escape). Still other times, I credit a conviction that good conversation has a beginning middle and end (even if it is punctuated with an ellipsis). This, however, requires mutual investment. A one winged plane spins wildly out of control until it finally crashes. A natural, graceful landing takes the balance of two.
Too often I observe and/or experience a profound inequity in substantive verbal engagement. I want to know the people around me and feel as though they know me. I want to hear who and what and where they are and work life out together. There are many wonderful people with whom I’ve had the privilege of doing just that. But, of late, amid all the IM-speak, mobile etiquette and cerebral loitering, finding people who value thoughtful dialogue has become increasingly difficult. Conversation requires thought. It tests defensible opinions. It is an investment in one’s self and others. It is inconvenient. It is extraordinarily worthwhile.
Recognizing how selfish it would be to blankly indict society upon this point, I self examine. A few of the (many) discoveries...
1) My relationship balance may be unhealthy (between protégés, peers and mentors – emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual relationships)
2) I may mismanage how others perceive or measure my intensity in conversation, inadvertently pushing them away
3) I can misinterpret an invitation to deeper thought and exploration (optimistically project shared value)
I yet have much growing to do. Still, none of these considerations disarm my original contention. Where have all the meaningful conversations gone? Is it just me? My humble observation—with the wealth of global information at our disposal, we still don’t really know one another and have, insomuch, lost ourselves. Christian faith is rarely rooted in community these days (read the New Testament epistles and compare). I believe this is one reason the Emerging Church is gaining so much ground. Real conversation sparks real thought about real life. Without it, we live in a cursory world, dangerously superficial. Why are we in such a hurry to get on to the next shallow activity or relationship? What is it we fear?
Here’s to resurrecting the art of great social dialogue in 2008. Vive la conversation!