Tuesday, November 12, 2013
I am not a stickler for expiration dates. Milk does not go bad until it sours; the date on the jug has no direct bearing on when will that occur. When I see that “sell by” date on the milk has come and gone, I use my nose to decide whether or not I will pour it on my cereal. Kara’s philosophy is different than mine. If that date has passed, she pours out the milk. She is unwilling to risk a whiff of soured milk.
That is not to say that the dates on food and medicine are irrelevant. One night before a wedding of a friend, I stayed at the home of another friend’s parents. I got sick that night. When I mentioned that I had a sore throat to my friend, he pointed me to where his parents kept their medicine. He indicated that he thought they kept some sore throat spray there. In fact, there was a whole row of throat sprays in the cabinet. The first bottle expired in 1996; it was 1998. I decided to check to see if there was a newer bottle. The second one had expired in 1991. Behind it was a third bottle that had expired in 1983. I removed the bottle to show my friend for a good laugh when I noticed the fourth bottle at the very back of the shelf. I checked its expiration date: 1978. That bottle had expired before I was old enough to use it! My friend and I threw all four bottles away.
Twice in the New Testament, instruction on God’s Word is referred to as milk and/or solid food (1 Cor 3:2 and Heb 5:12). While the point of both passages is to bring out the difference between the “elementary truths” first taught to believers and the deep truths that mature Christians come to grasp, I wonder if there might also be an application to be made regarding the freshness of that teaching.
An example from my own life:
I never preach the same message twice. I may reuse an illustration from time to time and I may bring out a similar point in more than one sermon, but once I preach a sermon, I am done with it. One reason I refrain from reusing old material is because I believe it is lazy, but I have an even better reason than that. Some way, somehow, that teaching loses its freshness. Maybe it is in my delivery. It seems you can tell when a person is sharing something they have shared with someone before. But I think it may be more than that. I have heard comedy routines that are no less hilarious because the comedian has obviously delivered that same material before. It is different with preaching. It may still be a good sermon, but something (the Holy Spirit?) is missing from it in my estimation.
Could the ineffectiveness of recycled preaching be because, like food, good teaching has a limited shelf life? Here are a couple of thoughts on why I think this might be so:
First, preaching is just teaching the Bible unless that teaching has been prayerfully prepared for a specific congregation at a specific time. It is not the goal of a good preacher to preach a sermon that would be equally useful and meaningful to people anywhere or anytime. The goal is to preach the truth of God’s Word to one group of people on that one day and one day only. Conceivably, a sermon that faithfully proclaims God’s Word from Romans 12-13 today may not even be what our congregation would need to hear next year or next month…or next week. The same is true for your personal study. You should not rely on what you have learned in the past to fuel your way in the present.
Second, while Scripture has no expiration date, interpretations of Scripture do. I realize that this might be a troubling reality to some, but it is nothing new. Much of what we assume is self-evident in Scripture never entered the minds of centuries of Christians who studied Scripture as diligently as we do. Thus, the interpreted it differently. But I contend that this is a strength of Scripture—not a weakness. Were it any other way, we could all simply learn what it says and spend the rest of our lives resting on our laurels. But “the word of God is alive and active” (Heb 4:12). It can teach us truths today that we were not ready to learn yesterday and it can teach us truths tomorrow that we are not ready to learn today.
So, do not neglect to feed your soul the Word of God. And be sure to eat fresh.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Failure is not all it is cracked up to be. In many cases, it is a blessing. Hindsight often provides the perspective needed to see the blessings hidden in even the most spectacular failures. One of the reasons we fail is that we make assumptions about ourselves that are rooted in hubris or (at the very least) wishful thinking.
When I was a junior at Abilene Christian University, I landed the role of directing my class’s Sing Song act (a surprisingly huge musical competition between all four classes and social clubs). I was exuberant at the opportunity. I had ideas that I thought were top notch. Unfortunately, our class was sick of Sing Song. We had the smallest class act ever (…I think). While the other classes had acts of nearly 100 people, ours was around forty—and I had to get about half of those by twisting arms and making promises. To compound the problem, most of those friends were doing me a favor and they did not feel compelled to attend practice or help us with the costumes.
The worst part of the experience at the time, however, was the realization that I was not the natural born leader that I thought I was. I was surprised at how often people seemed to disagree with my vision for the show or who preferred that our practice time be a time to cut up and have fun rather than a time to perfect our act.
Our show was likely the worst single act in the history of ACU’s Sing Song. Our show was even worse than a handful of clubs that refused to take the competition seriously. The weekend we put on those shows were some of the most publicly humiliating times of my life.
But I learned important lessons about myself that I might not have learned another way. I learned that if I was going to become a good leader that I would have to work at it. I would have to learn from others who were better leaders than me. I would have to listen to those who saw aspects of myself to which I was blind. None of that was fun, but it was helpful.
Six years ago, I attempted something far harder than directing a class act in ACU’s Sing Song. Kara and I helped form a team to plant a church in the Waco area that we called The Grove. I learned some positive lessons about myself during that time. I found my voice as an evangelist (has that become a dirty word?). I formed relationships with people and became a spiritual mentor to a few special people. In many ways, it was the first time I genuinely felt like I was an adult engaged in ministry rather than a kid playing the role of a preacher.
But I also learned some more lessons about myself that were less positive. I learned that my motives were not as pure as I tried to will them into being. I learned that my impulse for pursuing a life in ministry had more to do with securing respect, admiration, and the following that “successful” ministers seemed to have than it did with a genuine conviction that God had called me to become the “scum of the earth [and] garbage of the world” (1 Cor 4:13) for the sake of those to whom I ministered.
Had I achieved the success that I envisioned when we set out to plant The Grove, I would have never come to terms with the darker side of my motivations for ministry. Having failed (and in somewhat spectacular fashion), I was forced to reevaluate my motivation for ministry. Was there enough pure motivation present to be enough to stay in ministry after such a failure?
Since that time, I have had to fuel my energy for ministry with purer (though still imperfect) motives. I have had to adjust my expectations and to look more for what God can do through me than what I can do for God. I have had to learn to be content with doing my best work with little or no audience at all. I have had to trust that God’s power is at work in my weakness.
As a result, not only am I better for it, but the people I have been called to minister to are better for it as well. God has done for me what God desperately wants to do for all of us, he has redeemed my failure and (by his grace) allowed be to fail forward.
I am no longer as terrified of failure as I once was. Maybe that is just because I am finally growing up. Or maybe I should credit the God that has never allowed human failure to thwart his plans. God called me to a life of service, not a life of success. And if it takes a few failures (even spectacular ones) along the way to learn how I can be of best service to the kingdom of God, then so be it.
That is not been an easy place for me to get. But I believe it is the only place someone who wants to follow Jesus (and I mean follow him for who and what he is as opposed to who and what we wish he was) can ultimately wind up. And it is the only place from which ministry can be offered with pure motives.
So...while I would never suggest that we should set out to fail when we take on ministry projects or ventures, I do suggest that you utilize your failures (and let's face it, you'll have them). Reflect. Pray. Purge false motives. Become more self-aware. And fail forward.
Friday, October 25, 2013
Hollywood has a money-making formula of which audiences never grow tired. Let’s call the formula “The Tale of Redemptive Violence.” The movies begin with a villain or villains performing such heinous and inhuman injustices against the hero and/or his/her family. As audiences we are so filled with hate and disgust for the villain(s) that we crave retribution—preferably at the hands of the hero. The hero then prepares for war. Strategies are hatched. Contingencies are accounted for. Weapons and other tools of vengeance are gathered. Then the hero sets out to even the score—usually against seemingly impossible odds.
The middle of the movie whets the appetite of the audience for violence and bloodshed. Minions of the primary villain(s) are dispatched in creative and (dare we say) entertaining ways. Soon, it is time for the protagonist of the story to deal directly with the antagonist(s). This plan always goes awry at the end, but, just when it seems like the agenda of revenge will not come to fruition, the hero summons strength or insight from deep within and manages to settle the score. Almost always, the villain(s) is killed. The killing is never painless. It is never quick. And we are left to celebrate the hero’s triumph. After such a hard beginning, we now feel good for the hero.
And it is cathartic. We feel better. The score has been settled just before the credits roll and we leave the theater with a rush associated best with victory in battle.
We love these movies. We even give them Academy Awards. Braveheart won Best Picture with this formula for 1995. Gladiator won the award for 2000. And so did The Departed (2006) and Unforgiven (1992). Last year, Django Unchained was nominated for Best Picture and won the Oscar for Original Screenplay.
And here is what is more: these are movies I like. They are sophisticated. They are emotional. They connect to our humanity.
But “The Tale of Redemptive Violence” is a myth. And a dangerous one.
Not only does revenge fail to bring loved ones back or restore innocence that has been stolen, it darkens the soul of the avenger. When all is done, the avenger is less human than when the story began. Revenge (or the pursuit thereof) provides the perpetrator of evil with the power to dehumanize us. That is a power that cannot be taken by force; it must be given willingly. And seeking revenge is the way we hand over that power.
The only way to deny evil the power to dehumanize us is to forgive. Forgiveness cannot undo a wrong, but it can prevent a wrong from defining your life.
Forgiveness is rarely well-received at the box office. Take The Godfather franchise for example. The first two are about revenge. They are considered among the great movies of all time (and they are very good). Part three is about forgiveness. It is frequently trotted out as an example of a movie franchise that made one too many films. There are good movies about forgiveness too. I am a fan of Dean Man Walking (1995) is one of my favorite movies of all time. And while this movie never made it big mainstream, End of the Spear (2005) may be the best of them all. (If you haven’t seen End of the Spear, find it and watch it; it is that good.)
We need stories of forgiveness because these are the only stories in which good truly defeats evil. And we are now a part of the greatest story of forgiveness this world will ever know. The God who was wronged by the rebellion of his prized (though headstrong) creation chose forgiveness over getting even.
It did not have to be that way. God could have destroyed the world with a flood, but God saw that total destruction was just a different way to lose. The only way God could win—given the sinfulness of humanity—was to forgive. And the story we call the gospel is the story of a God who holds nothing back in an effort to win back his creation via forgiveness. It is “The Gospel of Redemptive Forgiveness” and it is the only story in which good truly defeats evil. We could all stand to spend more time contemplating the Gospel and less time furthering the Myth.
Monday, October 21, 2013
I am Ananias
affected by how others see me
overpromising what I intend to give
guilty of holding back that which I have promised
tester of the Spirit of the Lord
deserving of death without warning
I am Ananias
For I have pledged my life to you, God, but I have
held back my trust
held onto my anger
held back my love
held onto my pride
held back my tears of surrender
I am Ananias
I have held onto to the sin that leads only to death while forgetting
that I am your beloved
that my only hope is in you
that I have no security outside of you
that life can only be found in you
that yours is the way of life
I am Ananias
who conspired with Sapphira
who sold a piece of property
who deceitfully held back what he pretended to give
who desired admiration over truth
who laid his lie at the apostles’ feet
But I do not want to be Ananias
At least not that one
Lord, make me more like the other Ananias
who heard your voice when you called his name
who bravely went to call on Saul, the murderer of Stephen
who delivered God’s special calling for the apostle to the Gentiles
who laid his hands on a blind sinner to restore his sight
who played the midwife as Saul was born again through baptism
Let me be that Ananias
because like Saul, I want to be reborn
because I have lived too long with scales on my eyes
because I do not want to be a cautionary tale
because I want to be a part of your redemptive story
because I want to be a proclaimer of your good news
I will always be Ananias, Lord, but help me to become the right one
Friday, October 18, 2013
When Peyton moved out of his crib and outgrew his baby stuff, we kept it. It went into the attic, the garage, and a few different closets in the house. We knew that we might choose to have a third child someday and it would be wasteful to get rid of perfectly good (though well-used) baby stuff that already belonged to us.
When Levi was born, we got all of that stuff back out and we put it back to use. He slept in the same crib that Elizabeth and Peyton did and used much of the same stuff as they did. He wore many of the same clothes and shoes that Peyton wore and we feel that we got good use out of most of that stuff. Recently, however, Levi has moved out of the crib and he has begun to outgrow many of the baby things that we have kept for over eight years now.
For the past few months, we have been unable to walk through our garage. It has looked like something that you would see in an episode of Hoarders (thank you, John Turpin, for that comment). The time had come to purge.
Last weekend, Kara and I participated in a garage sale at the high school. We sold baby and little girl items that our children have outgrown. Not only did we make a little money, it feels like we have moved into a bigger house with a much bigger garage. Every now and then, you just have to purge. Out with the old, the unused, and the worn out. In with the peace of a less cluttered life.
Purging possessions can be cathartic, but there are other aspects of our lives that need occasional purging. Take our resentments for example. It is easy to carry a grudge. Most folks think they are better at avoiding grudges than they are. It is easy to forgive the people that are easy to forgive. Maybe they did not intend to hurt us. Maybe they have repented or attempted to make amends. Maybe we were not that hurt in the first place. It is much harder to forgive the people that we feel have wronged us egregiously (especially if they are unrepentant about it), but resentment and grudges do more to harm us than they do the people we hold them against. From time to time, we need to purge.
What if you purged your resentments? What if you finally forgave your parents for favoring your older brother? What if you forgave the group at work (or church) that gossip behind your back? What if you let go of the hurt you experienced when you got passed over for a promotion at work? What if you forgave your spouse for failing to speak your love language adequately? What if you forgave your children for failing to meet your expectations?
Part of us may feel like we need to hold on to our resentment. After all, some people deserve to be taught a lesson. Don’t they?
But let’s forget about them a moment. If you go too long without purging your resentments, your life can get miserable. It is like having a house cluttered with stuff that you would be better off without. Everywhere you turn, there is another person that you need to resent or show the cold shoulder. You got to work and you have to avoid that co-worker who stabbed you in the back to steal the promotion that should have been yours. You go to church and you have to avoid the teacher that purposefully made you feel stupid after you tried to contribute something thoughtful in a Bible class. You have your family over for the holidays, but you make everyone walk on eggshells to keep you from spewing the anger for them that you carry around the rest of the year. If you don’t purge your resentments from time to time, then you won’t be able to go anywhere without one of them staring you in the face. You will be like Kara and me being forced to negotiate small pathways through the clutter just to live your life. And that is no way to live at all.
You may have been wronged. You may have been right. The other people in your life might still owe you an apology or at least an admission that you deserved better from them. But they haven’t and they probably won’t. Keeping those resentments is as crazy as keeping a crib in your garage forever after your kids have outgrown it. Maybe it is time to purge.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky. At the time, Kentucky was a slave state. Lincoln’s home county was lightly populated, but it is estimated that there were likely as many enslaved African-Americans living there as there were whites. In the midst of that culture, Lincoln’s family attended a small abolitionist Baptist church there. When his family moved to Indiana, a free state, escaping the culture of slavery was one of the reasons why.
When Lincoln grew up, he chose to go into politics and he had to have great courage to lead our country according to his convictions, but one has to recognize that he would never have developed those convictions if it had not been for his childhood.
Childhoods matter. What we are exposed to as a child, what we are taught as a child, and the culture of our communities, homes, and our churches matter. They form who we become and they set us up for who we will become.
I was born in San Antonio. Tejano/Mexican-American culture is not foreign to me. As a child, it was everywhere and it was woven into the fabric of that community. When we moved, I missed the Fiesta and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
But I also grew up churched. Very churched. I was talking with the high school guys on Wednesday night about my own progression in terms of understanding baptism. I never decided to be baptized. I always knew I would be. It was when that I had the power to decide. And by the time I was baptized, I was well practiced in the baptismal arts.
I can still remember the look of shocked horror on the lady in Lometa, Texas, when she caught me baptizing her litter of kittens. I am not sure if she objected because I was practicing infant baptism or because I was holding them under a tad too long, but she was not pleased. It was a friend of my grandparents and I forget why we were there. I don’t remember ever going back to that house. Maybe it would have been too traumatic for the cats.
When I was a bit older, I practiced pre-war baptism. I had an Ewok Village (a Star Wars toy that looked like a giant tree-house). The central tree trunk was hollowed out at the top and if you put Scotch tape over the crease in the middle, it would hold water. Many of my Star Wars figures (yes, I was still performing inter-species baptisms) were baptized at the center of that Ewok Village before they went off to die in the carnage of my next war.
In San Antonio, my family had a pool in the backyard. All I will say here is that if the number of times you are baptized has any bearing on salvation, my brothers are über-saved individuals.
When I grew up, I chose to go into ministry. I had to have some aptitude for it and I had to maintain that interest for many years before I would become a minister, but one has to recognize that I would never have developed those convictions if it had not been for my childhood. Childhoods matter.
If you have children in your home, the culture of your home matters. It is helping to form who these children are and who they will become. The best aspects of your home life will likely come to define them in some way, shape, or form. The worst aspects of your home life will present them with hurdles and obstacles to overcome that others may not face. It is worth putting some serious thought into the kind of home life you have. The effects of that home life will carry on past the time that your children are home.
If you do not have children at home, you are still a part of a community and (I hope) a church community. You are a factor in how children are coming to see the world in positive and/or negative ways. We usually think in terms of being a good example—which usually can be translated into “avoiding bad behaviors in public.” But might we excel better in passing down the best parts of ourselves if we were more intentional about putting our faith into action?
What are the best parts of us that need to be passed down to the next generation most?
How should we be markedly different than the dominant culture around us?
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The late Charles Siburt often recited this simple poem: “In heaven above with saints we love, oh, won’t that be glory! But here below with saints we know, now, that’s a different story!”
I know another preacher who I have heard on more than one occasion (I will allow him to remain nameless) say this: “I love the church! It’s the Christians that make we want to quit!”
There are two sides to this church in which we find ourselves. There is the church that should be, or, put a different way, the church as God’s sees us through the blood of Jesus. And then, there is the church that we experience in the day to day life of the church. Of course, there is plenty of sweetness to be experienced here and now. Whenever I witness Christians rally around each other like a family when times are the hardest, I am filled with a sense of awe at this wonderful thing we call church—this hodge-podge body of fellow believers that God has called together to be a common people. It is good. We are often quite good together when facing an obstacle in the present. But our track record isn’t so god when it comes to dealing with looming potential threats and obstacles.
Whenever we see hard times over the horizon (either because of a shrinking budget, attendance, aging facilities, aging memberships, etc.), we can get rather snippy with one another over whether change is necessary and, if so, what change and when. There tends to be two dangerous ways that people react to this tension. The first is the Chicken Little approach. These individuals try to spur change from within by screaming to anyone that will listen that the sky is falling. The Chicken Littles of the world always tend to overreact and overstate the looming threat. They are apt to throw caution to the wind and are, at times, culpable of leaping before they think (or listen to others).
It would behoove the Chicken Littles of the world to take a deep breath. You cannot turn a cruise ship on a dime and trying to do so is not only bad for the ship, it annoys the passengers. Even when the Chicken Littles are sounding alarms that need to be sounded, their responses are more apt to stir up conflict. If the sky does end up falling in the aftermath of that conflict, many will blame the Chicken Little more than the problem that the Chicken Little was trying to warn them about.
Of course, there is a danger on the other side as well. There are those who are so afraid of conflict that they often do nothing even when they know that something should be done. They know that saints can get crotchety and they assume that it is sometimes best just to let sleeping saints lie.
I am not saying that this is always bad. The same Charles Siburt I quoted at the beginning was also fond of saying this about church conflict: “Picking a fight with a confrontational Christian is like mud-wrestling with a pig. Everyone gets filthy and the pig enjoys it.” Sometimes, it is best to leave well enough alone.
But other times, change is necessary and choosing to let sleeping saints lie may just be a way of letting sleeping saints lie to themselves. After all, what good is a sleeping saint? Every pot needs to be stirred sometimes. Otherwise, to steal a line from my friend, Sean Palmer, whatever is on the bottom is going to burn.
The world is constantly changing all around us. To assume that the church can fulfill what God has called her to while sleeping on the job is not only absurd, it is sinful. And we are lying to ourselves if we pretend we can.
God did not give his only Son so that we could be saved and then live the rest of our lives on auto-pilot as we seek out the most comfortable, least challenging, and least demanding congregation we can find to attend. God gave his Son so that we might have life and have it more abundantly—and forgive me if I have assumed that abundant life suggested that we at least be awake!
We may not need Chicken Littles mustering up fear and anxiety where none belongs, but we could do without being afraid of waking each up to what is really going on within and around us either.