Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Warmth in a Cold Season




I think I may have overstated a sentiment I shared with a friend last week. I said something like, “I like mild weather and I don’t mind winter weather, but I wish the weather would make up its mind. I can’t take this back and forth bit. Shorts on one day. Heavy coat the next.”
I must have assumed that if the weather made up its mind that it would come down on the side of mild weather. The weather did make up its mind, but it has sided with winter. Now, I must amend my previous statement. “I don’t mind winter weather, so long as it doesn’t come with biting winds from the coldest, darkest recesses of space.” In all due respect to Jesus’ words of warning to the Laodiceans, lukewarm anything sounds pretty nice when you are walking into that wind. (That reminds me of a joke that will go right over the head ofeveryone but my fellow Star Wars aficionados—the rest of you can skip to the next paragraph. Joke: What is the internal temperature of tauntaun? Answer: Lukewarm. Thanks folks, I am here all week.)
All kidding aside, our solid week of winter weather may have forced us to dig deep into our supply of sweaters (warning: if you dig too deep, you might end up looking like Cliff Huxtable), but we managed—primarily by seeking warmth inside. Inside, we turned up the thermostat, lit fires in fireplaces, and cozied up in blankets on sofas. Most of you probably enjoyed a warm beverage or two (though I did not; I don’t do warm beverages—sorry, Sheldon). And while you were inside, you felt good. Sure, you knew you would be right back in it the next time you had to leave home, but for that moment you were warm despite the weather outside.
Life has seasons too. Some seasons are warmer than others. Exciting milestones are met as we grow up, marry, and have children. Our careers have sweet spots where we are needed, appreciated, and duly compensated. Marriages go through stretches where everything seems to be in synch. But those seasons never last forever. Eventually, the weather of life turns colder. Parenting begins to seem like more of an impossible chore than a joy-filled gift. Our jobs become nothing more than the way we pay the bills while we daydream about what life would have been if we had chosen a different career path. Marriages hit rough patches where everything ignites an argument and no disagreement ever seems to get resolved. It gets cold out there and when you’re out there trying to make your way through it, that wind can chill you to your core.
So, you are at church. Maybe it is cold outside. Maybe it’s a bit warmer. (What am I, a wizard? How would I know?) Whatever the weather is outside, seasonal or unseasonal, you are worshiping alongside other folks who are experiencing a much wider array of weather during the seasons of their lives (which admittedly sounds like a bad soap opera). If you are in a warm season, someone around you is in a cold season. And although you have both come to church to ostensibly share the same experience, you have come for different reasons. When life is good, we come to church to praise God. We come to say, “Thanks!” We come to share our joy with others and be warmed in the heart by the joy in the hearts of others. But when life is difficult (and if we are honest, it often is), we come to church for a break. We come in seeking the warmth of home. We know that we are going to have to walk out those doors in a few hours’ time and that when we do the cold will once again hit is in the face. But while we are there, we are at least hoping that the presence of fellow strugglers and the prayers of a few saints will provide us just enough warmth to relax—even if just for a moment. And we know we need that moment to relax. It is only then that we can take a step back and begin to see the cold for what it is: a passing season. It is only during our respite from the cold that we can honestly pour our hearts out before the God we stubbornly insist on believing still loves us. Our previous experience tells us that while some of these cold seasons are longer than others, the warmth of Christ’s church gives us a measure of the strength we need to endure.
If it’s a warm time for you, don’t be discouraged to discover others who are suffering through a cold spell around you. Take heart, for part of why they have come today is to share in your warmth. If it’s a cold time for you, don’t be exasperated by the praise and expressions of gratitude of those nearby, for they are a reminder of what it will be like once the seasons change in your life again.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Discipleship Above Ego



This post is primarily for those who were present for the sermon I preached on Luke 4 last week (January 26, 2014) at Northcrest. For those of you who were not present and choose to read this post anyway, I will say a few words. 
I created three characters who were facing crossroads in their lives. They all had opportunities to do something new and exciting with their lives. They were all seriously considering seizing those opportunities. Jill was about to forgo a business career to live among and work with the urban poor. Her decision was being motivated by her earnest desire to be relevant for good. Jacob was a lawyer who had an opportunity to enter into politics. He was motivated by his hope that by gaining political power he would be in a position to do good. Jason was a preacher for a small church outside the Bible-belt. He had an opportunity to leave that church for a large church in the buckle of the Bible-belt. He was motivated by a desire to make the most of the talents God had given him and do something truly spectacular with his life and in so doing have a greater impact for good in the world. The three motivations (relevance, power, and the spectacular) are what Henri Nouwen names as the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness in his powerful book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. Turning the stones into bread = relevance. Bending a knee to the devil in exchange for dominion over the kingdoms of the world = power. Throwing himself on the pinnacle of the temple so that angels would rush in and rescue him = the spectacular. 
In my sermon, I did my best to demonstrate how even our desires to do good are tainted with selfishness and sin. In the end, however, I fear I left something important unsaid. Below is my attempt to say that important something. 

It happens sometimes. I think back over what I preached the previous Sunday and I start to kick myself. Why didn’t I say it that way? Why didn’t I think to say it this way? And occasionally, I worry. I hope I preached the sermon I meant to preach.
Last Sunday was one of those days. I liked last week’s sermon and I appreciated the positive feedback from many of you, but I want to clarify something important.
I told a story about three individuals: Jill, Jacob, and Jason. All of them were faced with decisions. They all had opportunities to do something different with their lives.
Here is where I want to clarify. All of the choices available to them were filled with potential for good. There is enormous potential for good and for faithful discipleship in living among and working with the poor, entering into politics, or even moving from one ministry position to a new one. The opportunities themselves were not the temptations I was trying to name. The temptations had to do with the motivations of our heart.
Faithful discipleship to Jesus does more than challenge us to do good. It does more than challenge us to seize opportunities where potential for good exists. Faithful discipleship demands that we calibrate our hearts to the way of the cross.
Henri Nouwen’s reflection on the temptation of Jesus is helpful here. While Jesus’ temptations may seem impossible for us to relate to, Nouwen boils them down in a way that is accessible to us. The test for Jesus was not wrapped up in what the devil was tempting Jesus to do. The goal was to activate Jesus’ ego. To throw him off his game. To hijack his desire to do good and recalibrate it to the way of the world. The way of relevance, power, and grasping for the spectacular. The way of the devil.
As Nouwen says, “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”
The world tells us that we have to play the game by its rules if we ever hope to change the rules. But the way of the cross reveals that legitimate relevance, real power, and the truly spectacular cannot be had by those who grasp for them. They can only be had by letting them go.
What made the opportunities for Jill, Jacob, and Jason temptations has nothing to do with the opportunities themselves. What made them temptations was that the desires of their heart that made these opportunities appeal to them were sinful.
And now for my primary reason for readdressing this particular topic: All three of these individuals could have accepted their new opportunities and remained faithful disciples of Jesus. Maybe, they even should have accepted those opportunities. After all, if we wait to do good until our motivations for doing good are 100% pure—when do you suppose we are likely to get started?
What I wish I had said in addition to what I did say is this: We need to be as reflective about our motivations for doing good as we are about what tempts us to sin. Jesus refused the devil all three times because he refused to chase relevance, power, or the spectacular on the devil’s terms. Yet, we still see Jesus’s ministry as relevant, demonstrative of power, and truly spectacular. When we are faced with opportunities to do good, we should not be dissuaded from seizing those opportunities because we have unearthed some selfish motivation. Instead, we often need to seize that opportunity while taking countermeasures to counteract our darker motivations. Jill might have needed to actively resist her need to be relevant by focusing on how much she needed to be a servant as Jesus’ disciple rather than on how much the world needed her service. Jacob, likewise, could resist his appetite for power by refusing to allow political strategy to dictate what he should do. Jason could resist his appetite for being spectacular by being more transparent about his faults. There is more than one way to fight the temptation to do god for the wrong reasons. The important thing is to fight the temptation by putting discipleship above ego.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Off-Balance



I have issues with balance. When I stand up straight, my feet have a tendency to form a natural wedge. I feel uncomfortable when I self-consciously straighten them out. The problem gets worse when I stand on one leg. (I can hear the smart aleck in the back of the room saying, “Then don’t stand on one leg.” Thanks. You are very funny.) Recently, Kara and I have used a workout program that incorporates some yoga. As far as I can tell, yoga is all about flexibility and balance. I have neither. As such, my attempts at yoga have been comical (ask my eight-year-old daughter). Some of the moves are so difficult that I cannot even imagine doing them (standing splits, for instance).

The benefit of this routine is that it keeps pushing me. Slowly, my balance is getting better. Who knows? I may even be able to touch my toes without bending my knees before Jesus returns. Yet, even as my balance improves, the routine is so challenging that I feel off-balance the whole time. It is only when I attempt simpler exercises on other days that I can see the improvement.

On Thursday, the day after my attempt at yoga for the week, it occurred to me that I felt a bit like the people around Jesus must have felt whenever he was around. No matter what they knew or how righteous a lifestyle they lived, Jesus constantly threw everyone around him off-balance. And he did it intentionally. No matter which Gospel you pick, you would be hard pressed to find a story about Jesus in which he does what others expect. If there is a constant in all of these stories it is this: Jesus always surprises. He is like Barry Sanders. Just when you think you know how Jesus will respond, he jukes left and he is suddenly heading full speed in the other direction.

Consider this story in Luke 18: “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” Jesus tells him to follow the ten commandments. The ruler anticipated this. He lets Jesus know that he has it covered. Then Jesus throws him off-balance. “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The ruler was sad because he was very wealthy. Jesus might as well have told him to bring his head to the floor, wrap his hands around his left ankle and then lift his right leg straight up into the air to do the standing splits. What Jesus was asking of him seemed impossible. Jesus continued, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25; imagine the balance and flexibility necessary for a camel to pull that off!)

It turns out that Jesus threw everyone present off-balance with that scene too. “Who then can be saved?” they asked. Their incredulity jumps off the page. Jesus helps them stabilize. He replies, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” But we see in this episode Jesus’ knack for keeping everyone off-balance.

Whether Jesus is refusing to call down fire on inhospitable Samaritans, dining with tax collectors, or healing the ear that Peter had just lopped off in an effort to defend him against those who would hand him over to be crucified, Jesus is full of surprises. And if we will enter into these stories in personal ways, they still have the power to throw us off balance today. But it is good for us to be thrown off-balance in this way in the same way that  yoga is good for us. It makes us more flexible in the long run. When we learn to keep our balance as Jesus jukes left and jukes right—as he welcomes the little children to him or declares that a widow’s 2-mite offering is worth more than the small fortunes given by the rich—we are better able to respond in the same kind of surprising ways as life unfolds around us. But to get there, we have to learn to see the world from a different perspective. It may not involve learning to do a handstand with your legs tucked behind your neck, but it does require intentional progress—the kind of progress that only comes from allowing Jesus to throw you off-balance again. And again. And again…

Friday, January 17, 2014

Before We Change


If you are like me, there are a few aspects of your life or your character that you are vaguely aware should be different. Perhaps you should eat better, exercise, or get more sleep. Maybe you should work on your anger issues or your propensity to join in on gossip. Or you need to put yourself second more often and address patterns of selfishness that have crept up in your life. But we humans are strange animals. Even knowing (however vaguely) that we need to change for our own good (and the good of others), we seldom do.

Part of this is due to the fact that if we could easily do better, we would. The fact that it is hard to do better is the very reason we are not doing better. To do better could mean getting up earlier or biting our tongues or (and this may be the hardest) taking ownership of the fact that we have been in the wrong. Once we admit to ourselves that we have been in the wrong, we no longer have an excuse. Others expect us to change. We expect ourselves to change. But change is hard. So, we generally operate with a feeling that if we admit to ourselves that we have been in the wrong, we are merely setting ourselves up for failure. At least now, we can tell ourselves that we will change one day in the future. But if we try and fail, what will we tell ourselves then?

Yet, people do change. Sometimes. Even me. Even you. Why do we change when we change? Why then? Why that?

The answer is that we became convicted that change was necessary. Necessary to our health. Necessary to our walk of faith. Necessary to being the kind of person that treats others the way we want to be treated ourselves. But how did we become convicted? Chances are, we heard something. A warning. A reminder from God’s Word. A loved one expressed how we had hurt them. It is likely that it isn’t the first time that such a message was presented to us, but, for some reason, we were finally ready to listen. The message got in through our ears, made its way through our gray matter, and wound its way to our heart. The difference between this time and all the other times was simple: we listened.

Once we listened, our hearts were convicted. Once we were convicted, we repented. And once a convicted heart repents, it changes. Every time. But the heart has to be convicted to repent before real change can ensue.

I suspect that most of us have some experience with this process. You have quit tobacco. You stopped abusing alcohol. You stopped screaming at your kids. You started praying and/or attending church. You started exercising and eating right. You were convicted to change your ways. To make your life better. And you did.

In light of your past success with change of this sort, the question worth posing is this: Is this process something you have to wait around on until it happens naturally or is there something you can do to kick start the process? Is there a way to lead yourself to the point of conviction? Again, if you could convict yourself by simply telling yourself it would be better if you changed in this way or that, you wouldn’t be wrestling with this question.

We tend to be convicted when we finally hear a message that breaks through whatever got us stuck in the first place. Those messages inevitably come from outside ourselves. From a blog article or a sermon or a book or an interview on the TV or radio. Still, there are ways we can become better listeners.

I believe the best way to improve this kind of listening in our lives is to concentrate on listening first to God.
So, spend time in quiet before your Creator.

Meditate on God’s holiness. (Can you do so without feeling called to strive for greater holiness yourself? I cannot.)

Bask in God’s love and grace for you. (Can you do so without feeling a freedom from the fear of failure that paralyzes our will to change? I cannot.)

God’s holiness refuses to let us pretend that we are good enough, but God’s love and grace refuse us to make us pretend that we are good enough. When we open our hearts to hear God speak, we are convicted. We are led to repent. And we are changed.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Fresh Food for the Soul


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

Failing Forward


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

The Myth of Redemptive Violence



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.