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.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Transitions, transitions

So for some of you this is new news. I've actually known for several months that there was the strong possibility that my current position with World Vision was going to go away. WV, while a large and successful nonprofit, had finished 2 straight fiscal years with budget-to-actual deficits, and committed to paying back those deficits in FY 13 and 14. This spring, the difficult decision was made to eliminate the roles of about 60 WV staff in the US, including 37 of my peers in US Programs.

And I made 38.

It's been several months of up and down emotions, sometimes understanding, sometimes frustration. But most of the time, faith. God is good, all the time.

Back on May 1 I read this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "You have granted me many blessings; now let me also accept what is hard from your hand." He wrote this from the concentration camp where he would eventually die, just days before the camp was emancipated by Allied soldiers. Charles Ringma, in his commentary on this quote, wrote this:

God's way with us is to move us from dependence and immaturity to responsibility. There are no soft options in this journey. We cannot grow into maturity without the pain of growth, the resolution of disappointments, the acceptance of God's chastisements, the suffering of loneliness and rejection, and the transformation of our self-preoccupation into true servanthood. Having received many blessings from God's hand, we must joyfully accept the difficulties that come our way in order to become transformed into a much greater Christlikeness.

Into a much greater Christlikeness. I like the sound of that.

So this week I head to Seattle for probably the last time with World Vision. My current role ends August 9, and to be honest, I'm excited about whatever is coming next in the journey. Let me share with you a few requests for the next few months, things you can be praying about.

1. Pray for World Vision. It has been a privilege to be a part of the incredible community development and relief work that WV does domestically and internationally. Pray that the deep and broad impact of WV will continue.

2. Pray for the 60 or so impacted staff. Many of them were let go immediately after they found out in April, others like me are around until August.  But all of us are searching for that next thing, and some who have been looking for a couple of months already are still looking. Pray that they find it, and that God supplies all their needs according to his riches in glory.

3. Pray that I finish well with WV. This week I'm sure will be difficult emotionally, saying goodbye to some friends whose paths I may not cross again in this life. I'm working to help the organization with the transition itself around the US, so that our work continues to grow in spite of these setbacks.

4. Pray that I know which path is the next one. God has always been gracious to me and my family around my job, and this current situation looks to be no different. I've got several things I'm looking into, including a couple of things outside my comfort zone. Each is exciting in its own way, and each brings a set of challenges with it. Pray that I hear God's voice should he have a specific one, and pray that I make a wise choice should he leave the decision in my and my family's hands.

Thanks for your friendship, and your prayers.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Be still

I bet I heard that a lot as a kid. "Be still!"

I still have a hard time with it some days. Not so much physically (Lord knows I like those "be still" moments on a Sunday afternoon!) but more mentally and spiritually.

The stillness of the mind. And of the soul.

David Allen is my "getting things done" hero. He talks about having a mind like still water, where there's no latent thoughts poking their way into your consciousness, worried that they will be forgotten. He's got a great system for recording and tracking those tasks that pop into our brains and demand our attention. I like his system and have now used it for years, and highly recommend it (you can check it out at www.davidco.com).

But really this post is more about about the spiritual stillness that we all need, but many of us don't even know how badly. And even if we do know we need it, we have a tough time getting there. Bonhoeffer said "the mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community" (Life Together). Charles Ringma, in expanding on Bonhoeffer's thoughts, says this: "Silence is not busily talking inside one's own head. It is being open and empty, but expectant of God's light and consolation" (Seize the Day).

Patient expectation. Dallas Willard makes that point in both Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God and in Spirit of the Disciplines. Richard Foster goes even deeper in Celebration of Discipline in his chapter on Solitude. All of these acknowledge the sheer struggle of silence for today's follower of Jesus.

But we must learn to be still.

"Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him..." Ps 37.7

Take some time starting today--30 minutes or 3 minutes--and begin to teach yourself the habit of silence. Yes, it's a habit. It requires repetition, over and over and over (redundant?). It takes time to cultivate silence-muscles just like it takes time to develop my body into a distance runner. But we need it. We need a "couch-2-5K" app for our silence times.

Only have a couple of things for your time. One of them should not be your phone, tablet or computer. Stay away from anything that will distract you. Right now as I type this my little Facebook tab above says I have 3 new notifications, and my email tab says I have 2 unread emails. I don't need that kind of distraction in silence! 

Have a pen and journal or paper. When a thought distracts you, write it down, then give it to God. Let it go. Be silent again in your head. And when another thought distracts you (and it will), repeat.

Do not get discouraged. Wait patiently. Who knows what God may do?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Building character

I think that N.T. Wright is one of the best theologians on the planet today. I've started reading "After You Believe", which deals with the premise that, while we can never earn anything from God, a long obedience in small things is a required practice in our own sanctification. But even that summary is woefully short of this complex subject; it could so easily be interpreted as a support for legalism (and anyone who knows me personally knows I'm not gonna wear that label very long, rebel that I am).

My own core identity statement says this: I'm surrounded, sustained and totally identified with grace; called and sent by God as a grace ambassador. Character-building must happen in the context of grace, but we must work at building a virtuous character.

"Virtue...is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn't 'come naturally'--and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find they do what's required automatically..." (p. 20)

Wright uses the example of "Sully" Sullenberg, who landed an airplane in the Hudson River and saved probably hundreds of lives both in the plane and on the ground. He didn't have time to consult the manual to see what do to in that circumstance. He'd done it in training and in the real world time after time in "practice", and when it counted, he was able to make the right decisions in the right moment, because he'd built into himself that "virtue" of being a great pilot.

So too it is with us. We must read the Bible, we must "practice" virtue, because one day soon (if not already) we're going to need deep Christian character to act and live justly. There won't be time to read the manual; what is built inside us will emerge. It will determine the choices made. In that moment, it is too late to build character.

Whether you want to be an athlete, an artist, or a leader, character is required. And to live in the kingdom of heaven daily, Christian character is a must. I'll try to blog as I read, cuz this book summary would be almost as long as the book. So hang on!

Saturday, April 06, 2013

American Aflame Book Review

My airplane read on the recent overseas trip was a great book (finally finished this morning), America Aflame by David Goldfield. Goldfield is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I had picked up the book last year in B&N, and then asked for it for Christmas. What caught my eye was this: the cover calls it "the first major new interpretation of the Civil War era in a generation. Where other scholars have seen the conflict as a triumph of freedom, Goldfield paints it as American's greatest failure: a breakdown of the political system caused by the infusion of evangelical religion (emphasis added)."

I was hooked from that moment on.

You know that I'm constantly philosophizing the issue of power. I tweeted recently asking if followers of Jesus should strive to have power or strive to be salt. The responses were telling. Like Tolkien's Boromir, son of the steward of Gondor, we can often see power as a gift from God, something to be taken up and used for good.

But my reading of the Bible and history teaches me something different. Two thoughts to share after finishing the book:

1. While the desire to see holiness reflected in culture is good, using political/economic/social power to enact such holiness has never worked well in the history of mankind. Submission to the kingdom of God cannot be coerced. We must take up our own crosses, we cannot pull people out of the crowd and force a cross upon them.

2. Any time a desire for holiness only involves change in the "other" and not in ourselves, we're missing the point of biblical holiness.

The Northern Evangelicals in the 1830s through 1850s were rightly some of the leaders of the abolitionist movement. Slavery was a moral evil that needed to be overturned and destroyed. But in their minds slavery was a southern problem. As Goldfield points out, many of these Evangelicals were just as bigoted as the Southern slaveholders, and in some cases, much more so. They saw no issue with their own Darwinian beliefs that whites were more evolutionarily advanced than Africans or Native Americans.

After slavery was gone, the melting of that form of Evangelical Religion with the political and economic powers it thought it was using to destroy slavery destroyed the prophetic power in that Northern Evangelicalism, in part because the focus wasn't on true, authentic, biblical holiness, but on the evil of slavery itself. And the south didn't fair any better, where Southern Evangelicalism usually focused on keeping the societal power of whites in the same social-Darwinian vein.

In the end, the Civil War did end a certain kind of slavery, but not every kind. Evil still reigned in the treatment of blacks, in both north and south. True holiness is an elusive quarry, and cannot be obtained by human means. As I've heard others say, a partnership between Church and State ruins the State and destroys the Church.

If you like history, one that does a fair job of presenting the many faceted sides of what lead up to the war, this is an excellent read. Goldfield writes well, picking up a number of stories and characters that he follows throughout the book. I especially loved his stories of Walt Whitman, and how the times influenced Whitman's poetry. At nearly 600 pages, its a daunting read, but well worth the time and effort.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Be our guest

I travel a lot lately. Too much. And while I love seeing the work World Vision does around the US--and the people are amazing--I miss seeing those 4 most important people in my world's vision.

Hotels refer to me as a "guest." But a quote from Bonhoeffer I read recently had me pondering the meaning of that word.

"I ought to behave myself like a guest here, with all that entails. I should not stay aloof and refuse to participate in the tasks, joys and sorrows of earth, while I am waiting patiently for the redemption of the divine promise." 

Now this is not the kind of guest that stays in a hotel. How weird would it be if I participated in the tasks as a hotel guest? "Excuse me, but can I vacuum my own room today?" said no one in a hotel ever. No, this is more like the close friend/family guest in your home. The ones willing to sleep on the floor in sleeping bags, who don't mind waiting for the bathroom because it's just really great to be together.

We have some great friends trying to sell their house to move into a new one they're having built. We live in a solid housing market, so the chances are good they will have to leave their current house before the new one is ready. We've invited them to stay with us. We've got 3 kids, they've got 3 kids; why in the world would we do that?

Because those kinds of guests you love. They share, they participate. They engage.

That is who you and I are as followers of Jesus.

In Hebrews 11, some of the heroes of the faith are referred to as "strangers and exiles." Guests. People looking for their homeland. But as Bonhoeffer says, it was their very guest-status that allowed them to engage more deeply. It was precisely because they were not in their home that they could build roots, share, participate. And God was not ashamed to be called their God.

What kind of guest are you in this world?

Are you a consumer-guest in a hotel, coming out to get served and then retreating into your pseudo-home?

Or are you the guest who knows their very guest-ness demands a sacrificial engagement in the "tasks, joys and sorrows" of those who host?

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Hunchback of Notre Dame

Tonight we're watching movies to get us ready for our Europe trip, and we just watched Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." I had forgotten the greatness of this movie.

As it started, we were all taken a bit aback by the darkness of it. But as Esmerelda took sanctuary in Notre Dame and prayed, not asking for herself, but for the outcast, for those she knew worse off than herself--juxtaposed in her duet with Frolo praying about his own self-righteous desire to either possess her or kill her "in holiness--it brought tears to my eyes.

The movie is about outcasts, about grace, about sacrifice. About justice.

Who is monster, who is man?

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Wealth inequality in the US

This is a must-watch to get a basic understanding of wealth inequality in the US. I've not seen this good of a presentation around what we THINK is the reality compared with what we see as IDEAL reality and how they both stack up with what ACTUALLY IS REALITY.


Wealth inequality in the US

This is a must-watch to get a basic understanding of wealth inequality in the US. I've not seen this good of a presentation around what we THINK is the reality compared with what we see as IDEAL reality and how they both stack up with what ACTUALLY IS REALITY.


Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Book Review: Dirty God by Johnnie Moore

Most of the time, I love to be surprised. But I'm not easily surprised by a religious book anymore.

 The book I just finished is a wonderful exception.

Most of the 3.5 faithful readers of my blog will know that I'm a recovering fundamentalist. In my early 20s, my faith was a  somewhat radicalized one, in a judgmental kind of way. Grace was a theological concept to be debated, not a life to be lived and shared.

But what you may not know--what I have only recently realized myself--is that I'm also a recovering anti-fundamentalist.

You see, when I experience fellow followers displaying that same judgmentally immature faith that I had at 20, it frustrates me. It angers me. I hate the man-made barriers we have Pharisaically thrown up between God and the most vulnerable, "sinful" of people. But in my own desire to radicalize grace and oppose fundamentalism, I may have not shared the same grace I have received.

For we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All. Me too. But I've gotten away from the point of this post.

As a recovering anti-fundamentalist, the mere mention of Liberty University can raise my hackles. I've got some friends who went there and loved the place. It's probably a wonderful university experience in many ways. But I have a hard time getting past the fundamentalist reputation of Liberty having no liberty or grace. So when I received a copy of Johnnie Moore's "Dirty God" to review from Thomas Nelson, I was actually looking forward to reviewing a book that I probably had some issues with. Boy, was I wrong. This is a great book, and all the more great because it was written by a VP at Liberty. Johnnie (I hope I can call him Johnnie and that's okay, but I really don't know him at all) has written a book about God and grace that is excellent. Moving between his own experiences around the world, his wide reading, and his passion for an abiding grace in his own life, Johnnie makes an excellent case for loving God and especially for loving neighbor.

This book is well worth the time invested in reading. And he wrote an afterword just for me--at least that what it says. He challenges me to not just theologically understand grace, not even just to practice grace, but to be involved in a grace movement that changes me. But not just me, the circle of people around me. And not just them either, but the whole world. I finished this book just now, and needed to write this review immediately, but hopefully I can do just that: be a piece of God's wave of grace splashing and crashing around the world.

To quote the great French/British philosopher Jean-Luc Picard, make it so.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Mean what you say

Sometimes I wonder if people really mean what we say. I've had this thought twice now in the last 24 hours. The most recent example was this morning as I took my daughter to school, and was behind a pickup with a growingly popular bumper sticker in Texas. The sticker looks like the Texas flag with the word "Secede" emblazoned on top. Now, at the risk of outing myself and all Texans as blustery giants who are all talk and no action, let me say that I'm sure there are many Texans ready to back up the bumper sticker with a real vote (and action!). They would be ready to recreate the Republic of Texas in a heartbeat. But, I think, most of us--regardless of how we might feel about the federal government or the president, would see the negative realities of secession long before such a vote could be made. If we think that taxes are bad now, how high would they get if we have to provide for our own common defense, build our own highways, create our own free-trade agreements with surrounding states, patrol our own borders and the like? But I'm not here to argue for or against secession, I just wonder if the guy with the bumper sticker really means what he says. Then yesterday morning in church, we sang a song with these lyrics: "Yahweh, Yahweh, we love to shout your name O Lord." I honestly decided I couldn't sing those words. Because I don't mean them. Forget the fact that my logical brain keeps telling me that we don't really know how to pronounce the tetragrammaton (in Hebrew YHWH, often written in English as "Yahweh"), I'm just not that fond of shouting in general. Shouting names in random moments of worship is frowned upon in our culture, especially in libraries and elevators--don't ask me how I know, those records are sealed. (Okay, so maybe I sing loud in my truck, but that's beside the point here...) So I'm not here to argue against shouting God's name either. Or letting our culture's desire to label religious people as crazy define my behavior. The thought all this prompted in me is that we often say things we don't mean, just for the effect of it. I'm guilty. My guess is you probably are too. And this morning, I pondered the words of Jesus: let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Do I mean what I say? Do my words reflect my character? Are my words and actions in line with each other?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Aim at a Nearby Target

If you're familiar with Birkman as a personal assessment tool, then I'll tell you I'm green normally.

Green is sanguine. Green is the relational people-connector. Green enjoys attention and likes being the guy people want to invite over.

Green is my strength.

But under stress I'm blue. I withdraw, I need alone-time. I don't want to engage people.

I am, what my friend Wesley King once said, a "situational extrovert." Or in my own language, I'm a highly-relational introvert."

So what do you do when you're more blueish than greenish on a given day, working on a given project? I really think Roy Williams, the Wizard of Ads, hit the nail on the head in this post. In a nutshell, he says "aim at a nearby target."

We don't want to do things that feel aimless or pointless, so we end up doing nothing, and melancholy takes over. We spend a day doing nothing. Or a week. Or a lifetime.

But when the aimless, pointless blues creep in, don't try to psych yourself up for some great project you're trying to do. Pick a nearby, doable target; something that needs to be done (Roy's example is cleaning his office), and get it done.

This is one of the great pieces of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system. If you organize your tasks by the context in which they need to be done (@Office, @Home, @Computer, etc) then you have a mix of tasks that need high energy and focus, but also many that you can do when you feel aimless and pointless. Things that need to be done but don't require a ton of concentration or mental energy. Keep a list of those things, and when the pointless blues arrive, pick one and do it.

You might find yourself better aimed, and more to the point.

Read the entire Roy Williams article here: http://mondaymorningmemo.com/newsletters/read/2023

Monday, February 04, 2013

Non-con doesn't work

The gun control "non-conversation" is turning into another pro-life/abortion rights "non-con." In both cases, each side reduces the issues to bumper-sticker rhetoric, shouts at the other side about "life" or "choice"--or "control" or "freedom"...

All the while we neither reduce the number of abortions nor the amount of people killed by guns. Until both sides are ready to really, actually CONVERSE, then conversation is apparently out of the question. And without conversation, very little meaningful change will happen. Meanwhile people continue to die, both before and after birth.

Is there a way for people who believe the 2nd amendment gives us the right to bear arms to stop talking about "cold dead hands?" Can we stop mongering fear? Can those who believe that government should strongly regulate guns stop talking about rednecks and Freudian psychological issues?

Facebook could be a place for a broad conversation.

Facebook has become a place for dropping rhetorical bombs that get "amens" from those who agree with us and unfriended by those who don't.

The gap between Americans MUST be bridged by someone. Actually I suppose it can only be bridged by a bunch of us. What can we do to have a real American Conversation about life or death issues like this?

What's your symbol?

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." John 13.34-35 ESV

The cross is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. No, it doesn't always represent Jesus, but if it wasn't for Jesus it wouldn't be much of a symbol. It has adorned steeples, shields, hospitals, emergency response organizations, vampire-hunters, necks...

...and at one time, my chest.

Yes, one of those crazy things I did working with youth in my younger days was shaving a cross in my chest-hair. The first time I did it was at Kanakuk in 1987, when I shaved out a cross. Then a few years later I shaved everything BUT a cross. That was really cool.

And yes, I have a picture. I suppose I could post it if you really wanted...

Nearly everyone in world recognizes the cross as a symbol of Christianity. And it's a fitting symbol, what with the sacrifice Jesus made on it on our behalf and everything. He called us to pick one up (symbolically? figuratively? literally?) and follow him.

But if the cross is the greatest symbol of Jesus, then there's a close second. One that I've never seen sold in James Avery, never seen anyone put in their family crest. It's not on the steeples of any church. But it should be.

That symbol? The towel.

In the story I quoted above, Jesus has just washed the disciples' feet. And told them that if he's really their Master then they will do the same (Jn 13.14). And just before they walk out the door and head to the garden, he tells them once more: Listen, I'm about to be gone. We've been together for a couple of years now, and let me just tell you plainly. I've got a new command. Love each other. Love each other with a "wrap a towel around your waist and get your hands dirty" kind of love. Forget status, forget success. Forget position, except to be on your knees washing each others' feet. That kind of love.

If I could just follow that one command...

So when you pick up a towel, think about Jesus. Then think about who you need to love. Who is your "other"? Who has dirty feet around you?

Let's make a towel a symbol of our love.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Gun Control

[Note: I actually wrote this on 1/3/13, and I've had it in my draft folder since then, showing that even now I'm posting this with a little trepidation.]

I've been hesitating from posting on the gun control debate, because I know my position, unlike so many other things I think (he says with snarky tongue firmly planted in cheek) will end up bothering people on both sides of the debate. But perhaps it's a guy like me that needs to say what I think, in hopes that someone out there, anyone, will refuse to take offense and decide that we need thoughtful conversation on all this, not the political cannonballing that has become all too common in our world.

Let me say that my comments are in no way meant to be reflective of an insensitivity to any violence of recent days. I don't want to even pretend I know what it means to be personally affected by extreme violence like that the Sandy Hook incident. I share these thoughts as only my own attempt at formulating a framework for a dialogue around gun control.

1. I believe that the 2nd amendment does guarantee the right for me to own firearms.

2. I have lots of friends and family who own and safely use guns. I also have lots of friends and family who do not own any, and some who believe that no one should. My disagreement with any of them will not permanently rupture our relationship. Relationship trumps political position every time.

3. I think that context matters. It's difficult to overestimate the difference between urban, suburban and rural realities when it come to guns.

4. I think that there is a place for gun regulation. Yikes! I winced a little myself as I wrote that. But it's true. Before anyone (metaphorically of course) shoots my thought down, here's what I mean: nearly every one of us believes that weapons should have some regulation. And in case you want to argue otherwise, I'm going to ask this question: should we regulate who gets access to a nuclear weapon? Of course we should. I can't imagine a gun show or pawn shop offering a nuke to someone willing to pay for it. That example, albeit almost absurdly extreme (I say "almost" because there's probably someone out there who believes they could be a responsible owner of a nuclear missile), makes the point that some level of gun regulation can and should be discussed in our free, constitutional society.

5. Knee-jerk reactions on either side don't help the discussion. Neither do anecdotal stories that spin for one side or the other.

6. Brokenness is a reality we must discuss in all of this. I'm a fan of Jon Stewart, but he was dead wrong on this issue when he mocked Mike Huckabee's use of the word "sin" in describing the problem with violence in our society. Yes, we believers have too often allowed our words about sin to focus on sexuality, but the truth is that sin really is the brokenness of people who are not what they were created to be. We must have solutions that deal with this brokenness, and we must understand that apart from the radical grace of God the brokenness will continue to overwhelm even the best of us in one way or another.

7. Finally, let me say that I myself am conflicted about what I believe to be on the one hand a constitutionally granted right and on the other what best reflects the nature and character of Jesus of Nazareth. Others (including my friends Keith Giles and Terry Austin) have posted better blogs than mine about this, but it's fair to say that I both find enjoyment in the collection and discussion of firearms, and wonder what Jesus would or wouldn't enjoy about them. And I certainly hope that my heart is broken over sinful violence, just like I know his is.

I guess what I do know is this: It's time for us to find the places where we can come together on this, and not focus entirely on our disagreements.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2013 Goals

I think Jon Acuff is on to something here.