Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On kingdoms...

Kingdom. That's one of those words for us Americans that we only really use in spiritual terms these days. We have little understanding of how actual kingdoms work except to believe that they are not democracies, so probably not good.

Except where God is concerned. I mean, after all, the Bible talks a lot--especially Jesus--about God's kingdom or the kingdom of heaven. So when I say my mission is to stimulate redemptive living and kingdom investment, what does that word kingdom mean?

Let me first say that the two authors I'd most highly recommend on this topic are Dallas Willard and Shane Claiborne, specifically Willard's The Divine Conspiracy and Claiborne's Jesus for President. Both are excellent and challenging treatments of the idea. (side note, I'm looking forward to meeting Shane for the first time in person in a few weeks at our No Need Among You conference in Waco, see nnay.org for info).

So at the risk of writing a whole book, let me share a few short ideas about my understanding of what the kingdom of God is about. If I get too long-winded, I'll stop and pick it up in the next blog. There's a lot to say.

First, kingdom is about a King. That probably should go without saying, but alas, it doesn't. There is a King. I'm not him, although the truth be told, I act like it much of the time. We all do. Our allegiances are sometimes divided. Who is your king? Please ponder the question a little, because if Facebook is any indication, many who claim Jesus as King sure promote some un-Jesus-like stuff...living in the kingdom means our allegiance to Jesus is above all other things (see Colossians for some good theology on this): above country, above job, above sports team, above family, above everything. Above all powers of any kind. Is Jesus your King? Are you living as the King would have you live?

Second, the kingdom as it currently exists is a "not yet" kingdom. We live in middle-earth, somewhere between the innocence of sinlessness in the Garden of Eden, and the redemption into sinlessness that will come when there's a new heaven/earth/creation. Jesus launched the kingdom in a new way, but the fullness of it won't be here until he's back. So we are new creations, but still battle the "flesh." We (by faith) are seated with Christ in heavenly places but we're physically still here (see Colossians 3).

Third, for whatever reason, God has chosen to partner with us to make the current "not yet" more like the "someday will be". We pray it in the prayer Jesus taught: "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This is our primary task: discipling people on how to live in God's kingdom now.

Finally, let me throw in one last point. It's not a key point in the defining of "kingdom" per se, but it is one powerful core value of the kingdom that I think of when I see the word in my mission statement. One of the core markers of the kingdom is cultural diversity. When the "not yet" becomes reality, there will be every tribe, tongue, people and nation gathered in a multicultural worship service like no other. I plan to write about this in more detail soon, but the basic summary is this: no earthly culture has it all right (or all wrong, for that matter). We need to be multicultural people to live in a multicultural kingdom. We need to learn other languages, other practices, other understandings of God's kingdom. Our churches need to stop being bastions of cultural protection and become places where cultural diversity is valued and practiced and lived out in grace.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Thinking critically about short-term missions

One of my good friends, Ronne Rock, recently wrote a post on her blog about the value of short-term missions. It is well-written (her stuff always is) and thoughtful (if you know her, you wouldn't ever think she's not thinking about orphans!). You should add her blog, twitter and facebook feeds--not to mention her great Instagram photos--to your daily reading.

If you're not familiar with the argument, short-term missions are basically the few-days-long trips to some faraway (in distance or culture) place to do something "Christian." Churches have been in this practice for decades, given the relatively low cost travel our modern USAmerican culture has brought us. The world has shrunk for sure.

But there's been a backlash in recent years. Many both inside and outside the Church have argued that short-term missions have done more harm than good. I've never been one to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, so as a guy who has seen the good, bad and ugly in short-term missions, I wanted to share a few thoughts based on Ronne's experiences that are vital to the success of any relational endeavor, but especially when it comes to short-term missions, whether you're heading across your community or across the ocean.

First, it's vital to make sure you're exporting love, not USAmerican culture. Every culture is blind to the places where their cultural values shape their perception of the structure and message of the gospel and the kingdom of heaven. Hours of challenging due-diligence is mandatory for churches heading into a different culture than our own. This is true whether you're heading from Dallas to Antigua, or from suburbia to inner city, or from urban to rural. We need to adopt as one of our core beliefs the respect for cultures and their differences, and ensure that whatever work we do has thoughtfully removed as much cultural baggage to the gospel as possible.

Second, it should be about building relationships, not accomplishing a task. As Ronne points out, it's easy to do the same VBS, backyard Bible club, wall-painting, school supply providing projects week after week, year after year, because, quite frankly, that's easy. And while we genuinely want to positively impact the world, we prefer to do it in an easy and comfortable fashion, except for certain "creature comforts" we're willing to give up on the trip. We don't (usually) mind it being a little too hot or cold, drinking only bottled water, cramming into small vans, etc during the trip itself, but we don't spend enough time on the prep work around culture, values, and long-term, impact, we're just too busy. Churches and groups going on trips have traditionally looked for a variety of trips and projects over the course of a few years. That's probably because we start with the idea that the trips are about our own group's experience. The best mission experiences though are more about building long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between people, churches, and organizations. Churches should choose to head back to places many times over the course of years, maybe decades, effectively turning short-term missions into long-term strategies.

Third, you need to balance overall impact on the culture you're traveling to, not just on your own group. One key aspect of the hard work required is to understand that as great of an impact short-term trips can have on changing you or your church, if the work done is inappropriate or not beneficial in the long run to the place you're going, it's not worth going.

Fourth, because its about relationships, deep listening is required. The most important thing Ronne said in her post was how they listened to the leaders of the orphanage, then abandoned their own plans based on what they heard. I can't emphasize this enough. Listen, and listen hard. Listen over the course of time, not just in one conversation. Listen and listen again, before ever planning a single trip or project.

Finally, let humility reign. Don't, under any circumstances, allow yourself to think that the serving/giving/loving involved is about you, a church of plenty (plenty of wealth, plenty of knowledge, plenty of  "good Christian stuff") taking what is not there to a people without. Be open to the idea that your project idea, your insight into how a culture needs your help, may not be accurate. Be ready to abandon ideas about projects altogether if necessary. If you're willing to do these things, I guarantee you that you will see how God has already been at work where you're going.

And you will likely begin to see how poor you really are.

A resource list:

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Leslie Newbiggin
Cross-Cultural Conflict  by Duane Elmer
Ministering Cross-Culturally by Sherwood Lingenfelter

Friday, September 06, 2013

Making a living

We've been spending some time talking about my mission statement:

Stimulating redemptive living and kingdom investment

What does "living" mean to you? We use the word in several ways:

How do you make a living?
Where are you living now?
This is a nice living room.
I'm glad to be among the living.

What makes something alive? Breath? No, gotta be more than that, because plants and single-cell organisms are alive, and they don't breath. Wikipedia (which  is never wrong) says that scientists define life as "objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes" as opposed to objects who used to have those processes and no longer do (dead) or objects that don't have such processes.

That sounds to me more like a definition of surviving, not necessarily living.

Living is so much more than surviving. Living is embracing what really matters, and sucking the life out of it. Not like that boring acquaintance sucks the life out of a party, but more like the way I suck the melted ice cream out of the bottom of a DQ Blizzard. I do not want to waste a drop of that precious elixir.

That's the kind of life I want to live. And what I hope I stimulate in others. That full to the max, get all you can out of it kind of living.

So here's the deal, the way I see it. Jesus wants people to live. Not just make a living, not just to survive, but to have life. Real life, maximum life. Suck it dry and go back for seconds life. But there is a major hindrance to finding and living this life:

We want to do it on our own terms.

At first I was thinking that there are two ways, but really there's not. Just one, but it shows up differently in two broad ways: some people follow their own terms by looking for life in their own religious piety, and other people follow their own terms by looking for life in the stuff of the temporal. Jesus makes it clear in interactions with both types that neither will ultimately satisfy. We all want to be the doorway to our own happy life. But its only found in a real relationship with Jesus. He's the bringer of life.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Going dark

Going dark is one of those terms that I know is real, because it's in a lot of spy shows. And I like spy shows, so I'm an expert. Going dark is when a spy has to go so deep undercover that they cut off communication with their handler and their peers.

Yesterday, I went dark.

Not that I'm a spy, I'm an "alien and stranger", a sojourner, and that's not quite the same thing. (If you're unfamiliar withe the phrase "alien and stranger" grab a Bible and look up 1 Peter 2.11) Or is it? I'm a subversive member of a King's following, a King who isn't my current world's ruler, trying to overthrow the system currently in place. Hmm...

But I digress. I went dark, not because I was going deeper in my cover, but because I was having a pity party.

Yep, me, Mr. Optimistic under most circumstances. Yesterday I spiraled out of control. My apparently fragile ego was not handling my unemployment situation well, so I went dark. Left God outside and tried to ignore him. Other people too. And like most of those situations, it only got worse from there. I turned to that one thing that if you'd read my blogs before, you know is my besetting sin (besetting is a theological word that means "butt-kicking").

I ate. Overate to be more precise.

I withdrew, shut out the world and the One who cares most, and I ate a bunch of stuff that I found.

And then I felt worse. Surprise!

I'm better today. Maybe. At least I'm confessional. And I'm talking to you, whoever you are. I'm not dark today. It's made me think of 2 or 3 things I probably need to focus on when I'm throwing a pity party.

1. Do some work. Wash the dishes. Do some laundry. Focus on a writing project. Work seems to help the soul regain some sense of purpose.

2. Get around people. People who refuse to be invited to your pity party, but who will be around you nonetheless.

3. Confess. You may not be one to confess on a blog, but confess. Your spouse, a friend, definitely God. Confess honestly, not in a Sunday-school fashion. But confess. Healing is there. His love doesn't go away.

He comes to give life. But that's my next blog.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Broken but redeemed

We left off discussing my mission statement last week after a stimulating post on the word "stimulating." Well, at least the 3.2 faithful readers thought it was. Or maybe they didn't either. Okay, so I like the word, and maybe it's just me.

As a refresher, my whole statement of personal mission is "stimulating redemptive living and kingdom investment." Let me share a few thoughts about my choice of the word "redemptive."

The world is broken. My kids are broken. POTUS and the Speaker of the House, they're broken. Miley Cyrus is broken (obvious after last night). So is Billy Graham (much less obvious but still true).

I am broken. Very broken. At the heart of my very being, I am not who I was created to be. I'm chipped, cracked and falling apart in places. And so are you.

And when a bunch of us broken people get together, the brokenness that can show up is like the running of the bulls.

The Bible uses (often maligned) words like "sin" and "transgression" and "flesh" to describe this brokenness in both people and communities. We tend to think that this is just a bunch of rules a vindictive God enacted to keep us in line, like the IRS or something. Are there some rules? Of course there are. But the real goal of all that religious talk about sin and holiness, is packed into the word "living." But I'm getting ahead of myself, that's the next conversation.

But today, it's the brokenness. Because the brokenness can--and hopefully will in you and me and my kids and Miley Cyrus--lead to redemption. Redemption is the buying back of something, the regaining of something lost.

During our semi-annual gathering at my cousin's ranch, we often drive into town and hit up a pawn shop. You ever wandered around one of those, wondering what the story is behind each piece? What prompted a person to need the cash over that record, that piece of furniture, that power tool? What would make a man sell a family heirloom watch for a few bucks? What motivates a man to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew?

How could someone sell out his rabbi for 30 pieces of silver?

I have sold out my own birthright, my own soul, for the sake of a few somethings. And it broke me, shattered my soul. Every time. And even though I walked past that pawn shop window day after day after day, leaning on the glass so close I could see my breath clouding my reflection, I had nothing to buy it back.

Nothing. I had no redeeming value. Until...

Until the One who loved me most redeemed me. Bought me back. Restored my soul.

I'm broken, but I'm redeemed.

And one day I'll be restored, but that's a future conversation.

The value of courtship

Don't you hate it when you know something, but you still struggle to act on it?

Knowledge, as great as it is, cannot change us alone. Growth requires knowledge plus the will to act plus actually putting it into practice. And none of this can be done in a vacuum, it has to be done in relation to another.

Courtship is like that for me. If you've been to any marriage seminar in the past 20 years (maybe more than that, but I've only been married for 22) you've heard that courtship has to continue after marriage so that the relationship continues to mature. Very true, but challenging to practice consistently.

Oddly enough, it was a marketing email this morning that prompted this post. Roy Williams over at the Wizard of Ads said this:

The perfect customer is like a beautiful woman, distant and desirable and pursued by countless competitors. An appropriate metaphor, don’t you think?
Most advertisers want ads that equate to a magical pickup line. “Tell me what to say to this beautiful woman so that she’ll rip off her clothes and jump into bed with me.”
 (find the whole blog here)

Leaving the sexual innuendo behind for a moment, the reality is we all want people to like us. We want to be desirable, as people, as employees, as spouses, whatever. And a good chunk of our own self-value comes from our success at "selling" ourselves. We could fight this if we want--many people do--but I'm convinced that's the totally wrong approach. We were made for relationship. We were made to love and be loved. And while it's hard work, life is meaningless without it.

Relationship--with God, with your spouse, with your friends, with your boss, with your team--will define  you and shape you. So it's worth cultivating deep and lasting relationships with those around you.

It's worth courting.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


My brother commented yesterday that my mission statement could fit any believer...asking if it's not something all believers should be doing. Hopefully as we explore each of the 5 words and 2 phrases, the uniquiclier pieces of what this means to me (and in turn what your mission could mean to you) will become clear.

Today I want to unpack what is, for some, the most unliked part of my mission, and that's the word stimulating. When I first chose this word, I actually went through a bunch of synonyms before settling on it, using words like promoting, building, leading, etc. But it was reading about oysters that landed me on stimulating. As it says somewhere on my blog, like a tiny grain of dust or some other particle annoys the crap out of an oyster until a pearl is formed, I've become convinced that God's call for me involves using humor, irony and maybe even a little sarcasm as methods to get people to think outside their normal boxes and consider what God might be doing. Social scientists refer to all the things we need to unlearn before we can learn something--that's what I'm trying to stimulate. Particularly for those like me who have grown up in the modern American church, it's so hard to get out of the bubble of our uni-cultural existence and see how incredibly broad and diverse the kingdom of heaven can be.

I usually refer to it as the spiritual gift of button-pushing (listed in 2 Hezikiah).

Now, have I done this poorly at times? Absolutely. Just like a preacher/teacher tempted to use the pulpit to "shout down" people in the church who oppose their leadership, I've certainly twisted my own calling from God for my own purposes. I'd be willing to be that some of you reading this have been offended by something I've said in sarcasm, or something I've pushed too hard. If that's the case, I'd love to hear from you and let you know how sorry I am, for that is not my intent. My intent is to stimulate redemptive living and kingdom investment, but my clay feet sometimes get in the way.

Many of you know I've struggled in the past with "organized" Christianity. I'm not a fan of much of what USAmerican Evangelicalism has become. (I'm tempted to insert several of my pet peeves here, but I'm resisting.) And, quite frankly, I've tried once or twice to leave. Or twenty times.

My mission keeps bringing me back. God's call to stimulation will not allow me to go start something new (like that would work anyway, I'm pretty sure I'd screw that up) but to first listen to him and then be his voice in my circles of influence. I do it well some days, poorly some other days, and probably miss opportunities altogether way too often.

But I do believe its part of my calling. More to come...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mission as calling

We started talking yesterday a little about calling. It's interesting, a couple of the faith-based organizations I've interviewed with have asked some form of this question:

"Do you feel called to work at ABC Ministry?"

I've struggled with what calling means for years now. I remember the Sunday night at Mt. Franklin Baptist Church in El Paso when I walked down and told my pastor, Buster Reeves, that I thought God was calling me to ministry. In a conversation with him later that week I said something like "I don't think God has called me to be a pastor, because I don't think I could come up with a new sermon every week. I think he's calling me to be a youth evangelist, so I can travel around summer camps and preach the same 5 sermons over and over." Those of you who know me are probably chuckling right now at the idea that I would run out of things to say.

When I first finished at UTEP, I just knew I was called to work for Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). FCA had been so influential on me as a college football player, and the FCA staff I had met back then seemed like really cool people, and I wanted to be like them. A brief phone conversation in 1989 with Dennis Conner changed all that, when he told me that I needed to raise my own support. At that time the last thing I wanted to do was raise money, so I quickly backed out of that conversation.

Later I was working at Loma Terrace Baptist Church as the Associate Pastor, and our Senior Pastor got a Masters in Marriage and Family Counseling and opened a private practice. The church called me as the new Senior Pastor.

But what was God calling me to? Was God's calling to a place, an organization, a church? Or was it deeper?

It was during my years at Loma Terrace that I first started using what has become the first half of my mission: stimulating redemptive living. Then, a few years later, as I ended up back at FCA raising my own support (God's great sense of irony), I added the second phrase, kingdom investment, as I learned more about biblical stewardship. So for almost 20 years now, my personal mission has been this:

Stimulating redemptive living and kingdom investment.

This is what God has called me to. And it's more about who I am and how that flows into what actions I take, than it will ever be about what job I have to pay my bills. Each of the 5 main words in my mission mean something to me, and over the next few days I want to unpack them.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Refleparation. That's been my word for the recent past, and for next couple of weeks, and I'm sticking to it. I was trying to decide if this recent path has been more about reflection or about preparation, and the answer was yes, so I made up a word for it.

It's my first Monday without a full-time job. I've known for several months now that today would arrive. I've been preparing for it...primping my resume, applying for positions, interviewing, starting my own company.

But today I'm not a whole lot closer to knowing the details of what will be providing income for my family in 3 months than I was 3 months ago. And I have to admit that's a little frustrating. And exciting.

For those of you looking for just the job update, you can scroll to the bottom and read the last paragraph. But let me throw out a couple of thoughts on knowing God's will. I've always lived somewhere between disbelief and jealousy when my friends talk about how God shared something with them about a decision that they needed to make. It's never been like that for me, not when it comes to the future. Sure, I can look back at decisions made, roads chosen, paths walked, and say "yep, that was God's plan all along." But before I made that decision, drove down that road, or walked down that path, I was like "I have no idea what God is saying. Help!"And I think I have a pretty conversational relationship with God, it's just that I have not ever had a sense of him saying "doing that and not this" when I've got one of those biggie decisions. Or even the little ones.

It's led me to these two thoughts: first, the opposite of faith is not usually doubt. It's usually certainty. If I know what God wants me to do today, tomorrow and beyond, if I know what to have for dinner, what job to pursue, and so on, then my relationship with him becomes less about a faith-journey and more about my ability to will obedience. And as a guy redeemed from the punishment of sin but still waiting for the redemption from it's presence in the world (including in me), the last thing I want to do is trust in my ability to will anything into existence, especially my own holy obedience.

So it's a faith journey.

Second then, is this thought: just like college football games aren't won on Saturday, but on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays, wise decisions aren't usually made when the choices are presented in front of you. They are made because you have collaborated with the Holy Spirit over the course of time to produce good character in yourself. You have offered yourself as that living sacrifice day after day after day (see Romans 12.1-2). Then (I love that "then") as you've been transformed by the renewal of your mind, you can test and "discern what is the will of God."

God's calling is so much more about who he calls me to be than what he calls me to do for a living.

What a journey I'm on. Yes, right now I'm excited about it. I'm still considering a couple of options, either a traditional fundraising role, or jumping full time into the consulting world. I'm testing those options, looking to discern his will, and your prayers are welcome. So are your thoughts, so feel free to email, call, text, or grab me for coffee. In the meantime, I'm refleparating. More to come tomorrow...

Monday, June 24, 2013

I'm sullen. Is that a verb?

Sometimes life with God stinks.

I've been in one of those mopy, moody, melancholy places the last 24 hours or so. What my kids call "meh." Maybe even grumpy.

I've wondered publicly and privately lately if there's some form of "manopause" I could be experiencing. I'm 47, after all, which now doesn't seem old but not that long ago sounded like geriatric ward-age.

I'm sure too that job situations and physical tiredness add to the plot. But this morning, as I sat on the patio drinking my coffee, I was sullen. And I'm not even sure what sullen means.

I've made a deal with God, that even when I'm in a stinky mood like this (and maybe even blaming him for it all) I'll still talk out loud to him, even if I'm cranky. Or sullen (I should really look that up, I could totally be using it wrong). So a few minutes ago, as I headed to the water closet, I grabbed my current devo reading and said out loud something like "God, I really don't want to, but I suppose I'll read this since nothing else is handy."

Leave it to Jesus to take the opportunity to stick his foot in that door to prop it open.

Here's what I read from Charles Ringma: "If we are prepared to admit that we, and not simply others, make a negative contribution, then repentance can prepare us for positive action and real responsibility."

When God spiritually slaps you across the cheek, are you still supposed to turn the other one?

It is so easy to blame the other, whether the "other" is a person (my wife, kids, or the person who invented "one-size-fits-all"), an organization (my current employer, potential employers who reject me, the IRS) or an event (hormonal changes in almost-middle-aged men). But the reality is I need to own my negative contribution. I'm working on that.

I'm still sullen (I just looked it up, and oh boy am I using it appropriately. See #1 definition on dictionary.com) and now I'm also feeling guilty. But maybe repentance is around the corner. I do not doubt that grace is sustaining me through all of this, and will continue to do so.

Life with God stinks sometimes. But consider the alternative.