Thursday, June 01, 2017

Egyptian Nostalgia

Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Perhaps. It does seem that with the passing of time, some of our memories become a bit more selective. When people pine away for the "good old days," I've always wondered if the "good old days" were really as good as some people like to remember them. Sure, we all have some happy memories of childhood delights and adventures, but not everything about growing up is joyful, nor are all memories pleasant ones. Somehow when we allow nostalgia to kick in, we can find ourselves longing for a better time that might not have ever existed quite as we are now remembering it. Take the Israelites for example.

Their slavery in Egypt involved unpaid labor, whips and beatings, and targeting by government officials that labeled them as menace and threat to society. Their young baby boys were systematically executed so they'd become a people without men. They cried out and begged God to deliver them, and God answered.

Their delivery from Egyptian slavery involved the direct intervention of God himself. There were natural disasters, plagues, and miracles. There were guiding towers of clouds by day that became fiery pillars by night, leading them wherever they ought to go. And as they went into the wilderness, they neither planted nor harvested, but God dropped bread from the heavens called manna so that they had only to gather and eat what they needed, day by day.

Knowing what we know about the Israelites' experiences, I find Numbers 11:4-18 to be one of the most jaw-dropping passages in Scripture. They complain as they weep:
"Oh, that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at...it was better for us in Egypt."
Wouldn't you love to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them? Such whining! Such ingratitude! Your freedom came to you as nothing short of a divine miraculous intervention, and the only thing you do in response is cry and complain about the food? Are you really longing for the very place from which you begged God to deliver you?

But before we judge them too harshly, I wonder if we are sometimes guilty of the same kinds of actions. Can you put yourself in the mental and emotional place where you were when you became a Christian? Perhaps you were in tears as you confessed your deep need for Jesus to save you. Can you still feel the water on your skin as you were lowered into it and then raised back out of it? Do you remember the sound of rejoicing that accompanied your rebirth? You might have thought to yourself, "This is the best moment of my life. From here on, for me to live is Christ. God is all that matters. I'm giving him my life, no matter what."

In the time since then, have you ever varied from that course? Has your passion ever diminished? Have your priorities gotten clouded with other agenda items that help you with self-promotion rather than Kingdom-promotion? Have you complained about the inconvenience of serving God and gathering with the saved?

The book of Hebrews has a conspicuous central theme: Jesus is better. The writer seems to be addressing Jewish Christians who in the face of persecution were tempted to fall back on Judaism the way that the Israelites had fallen back on Egypt nostalgia. Commenting on this exact comparison, the writer urges Christians not to fall into the same sort of disobedience as them, and continues:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV)
If we are to use our memories for anything, let us remember our confession. Let us remember how badly we needed deliverance, and how strongly we had committed ourselves to walking a better path. Jesus is better than what we had without him. Don't ever forget it.

Monday, April 24, 2017

What Bible Translation Should I Use?

In ministry, by a wide margin, the most frequent question I receive from people has to do with what Bible translation they should use. The truth is, no translation is perfect. In fact, since translations have different philosophies behind them, it's actually pretty hard to even speak of one being "better" than another because it all depends on the purposes for which you are using a translation. Basically, there are two approaches, and all philosophies fall in between the two at various points on the scale.

At one end is a word-for-word translation approach. This means that the translators try to use a minimum number of words to correspond to every word in the original texts. If you are a person who likes to zoom in and do very specific word studies and pay close attention to what words are used, this is a better type translation for you to use. The benefit of this type of approach is that there will be a largely literal translation from the original languages, and you will have fewer added phrases which are included to help with clarity in other translations.

The down side of these kinds of translations is that they tend to be stiff, and sometimes the wording is confusing. The truth is, Biblical languages are quite different from English in the way they are structured and in the way verbs and tenses work. Some words are actually untranslatable because of how they function. Other words are used because they have more than one possible meaning; both of which might be implied. A good example of this is John 1:5, where it says that the darkness did not "κατέλαβεν" the light. This word can either mean "understood" or "overcome" and it's likely that John would intend both meanings. Which do you choose? It's often not easy to decide! Word-for-word translations are helpful for doing highly analytical studies of a few words at a time. The most word-for-word approach is an interlinear Bible, and starting from here, some other translations that lean this way would be the NASB, with the ESV and NKJV on the more moderate end.

On the other end of the scale is a thought-for-thought approach to translation. There are a lot of places in Scripture where a word-for-word translation would make no sense in the English language. For example, Philippians 2:1b would literally say, "...if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of Spirit, if any bowels and compassions..." It was the cultural belief that your intestines were the seat of your emotions and often in Scripture, strong emotions are expressed in reference to one's lower guts. But this isn't how we would typically speak of deep emotions, and so a thought-for-thought approach is helpful here; probably even necessary. I would translate the passage something like: "...if any comfort from his love, if any sharing in the Spirit, if any feelings of deep affection or compassion..." It makes a lot more sense to the reader that way. The best reason to use a thought-for-thought translation is that it will read naturally and more beautifully, and you'll likely walk away with a better comprehension. This approach is used heavily for children's translations and for translations intended for people with limited knowledge of the language in which they are reading.

The down side of thought-for-thought translations is a translator's bias has a better possibility of imposing meanings on the text. They are trying to express an equivalent idea, and not necessarily using the exact words. So these translations are not useful for doing specific word studies in English because they will contain a lot of wording intended to help the reader that might not be in the original texts. At the extreme end of the thought-for-thought method would be paraphrases like The Message, which might even try to go for a whole paragraph at a time, rather than a just a phrase or a thought. Beginning at this end, you would have the CEV, the NLT, with the NIV towards the middle.

Somewhere in the center, blending both methods heavily, you would have the CSB and the NRSV. It is also great to know about the website www.biblegateway.com which has dozens of translations available for free and is an easy way to compare options before choosing one to buy. I personally own a lot of different translations, and I love them all for different reasons. Whatever version that would inspire you keep the Word as a more active part of your life, I encourage you to go for it.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Royal Hospitality

When we speak of our Presidents, one of the ways we evaluate their performance is by looking at what they have done during their first 100 days in office. In fact, as I am composing this, Donald Trump is just wrapping up his 92nd day in office. Presidents, Kings and Prime Ministers have a unique opportunity to act in ways that affect large numbers of people, reaching even billions through what they do. It is hard to know, during the time of a leader's tenure, exactly which of their deeds will define them in the years that follow them, especially after some of the political banter has died down.

Some of our leaders establish their legacy in unflattering ways, being remembered for their failures, ineptitude, or indiscretions. Others are cherished and romanticized for their victories, economic expansions, or eloquence. While all leaders have a collection of attributes, both positive and negative, it is still usually a more narrow set of actions and circumstances for which they are remembered.

This is also true of many people we encounter in Scripture. Despite the fact that Thomas was the first person in Scripture to speak of Jesus as "God"--not just an authority, but Deity--we still always call him "doubting" Thomas because of his former skepticism. Antonius Felix was the Roman procurator of the Judea Province from A.D. 52-58. The thing for which we remember him best came when he and his Jewish wife Drusilla requested to hear Paul speak about Jesus. However, as Paul began talking about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and told Paul he would talk to him more about these things, "When I have a convenient season." "Don't be like Felix," we warn. "If you wait to follow God until it's convenient, then your 'convenient season' may never come!"

Of course, one of the greatest villains in Scripture would be the Pharaoh to whom God sent Moses. We remember him for his murderous acts against innocent babies and his harshness towards the Israelite people in slavery. But there is another member of Pharaoh's household whom we see in a much different light: his daughter.

Being part of the royal family must have brought a lot of opportunities to do things of perceived significance. Regardless of whatever else she did in her life, today we remember Pharaoh's daughter almost entirely for one simple act of compassion. She saw a baby, floating in a little basket among the reeds, and even though she knew he was just a slave, condemned to die by her own father, she decided to save his life rather than to ignore it. She never could have imagined that the most significant act of her life would be this generous gesture towards a child. Of course, this child grew up to be Moses, the great leader of God's people.

Perhaps we spend too much time on the things we believe to be "major", shaking the right hands, getting invited to the right places, and having the right letters after our name. Jesus says that even the simple act of giving someone a cup of cold water because of him will be rewarded (Matthew 10:42). Just like Pharaoh's daughter, we can't know ahead of time which of our actions will be the ones that most define us, and if we learn anything from her, it's that we cannot neglect unexpected opportunities for kindness and compassion. The truth is, as Christians we're already adopted members of God's royal family. What promotion could be more important than that? As members of God's household, we must be the ones who make time to value those whom the world doesn't. There are already enough people who are too busy and too self-centered. Because God has lavished us with his grace, it is our role to extend the same kind of royal hospitality to others.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Getting to Know Your Risen Savior


If what you are wanting is a Savior who mostly stays out of your way, a Lord who makes no demands on your time, energy, or priorities, or a Teacher whose ideas you are free to pick through and select what parts you like best, then perhaps the Roman government did us all a favor. A dead Jesus is a much easier Jesus to deal with.

Jesus' journey to the cross, beginning with his birth and continuing to his death is largely shaped by a downward movement. In Philippians 2, Paul shares a hymn about the life of Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
He released his claims to divine glory. He reduced himself to servanthood. He poured out whatever was left in his death on a cross; mocked and humiliated. His execution left him so thoroughly devalued by the world that the apostles wouldn't think of going to see him early on that Sunday morning, instead allowing a few servant-hearted ladies to rise up early and go to do the dirty work of preparing his body. (I saw some irony in the story this very morning, knowing that several servant-minded women came to our church much earlier than anyone else to do the dirty work of preparing for today's activities. If the first resurrection appearance tells us anything, it's that God has a special place in his heart for servant-minded women like these.) Since Jesus hadn't died well in their minds, at least they could give him a decent burial.

When Jesus is dead, we can do with him what we want. His commands can be reduced to suggestions. His demands can be reduced to options. Much like any other historical person or artifact, we can poke, prod, and determine value, chewing up and swallowing what we like while spitting out what we don't.

Perhaps on this Sunday morning you've come here for a viewing of the body. He was, after all, an innocent person who died unjustly. Perhaps you came with a funeral in mind. Let's hear a few favorite memories, share some of his better quotes, and pay a few respects before we get back to doing with our lives whatever we please.

But if you came this morning to pay your respects to a dead Savior, I'm afraid you've just missed him. Don't be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Though you could go and see the place where they laid him, he isn't there. He's gone on ahead of you, making preparations for you, and when you get there you'll see him, just as he told you. Meanwhile, be sure to go and tell the others the good news.

Before we could even finish preparing the body, before we could even work out the details of a proper funeral, Jesus came back. Death couldn't hold onto him. It is not a dead hero whom we've come to respect this morning, it is our risen King who is now reigning at the right hand of God.

This is a new type of Jesus we are experiencing, and we would all benefit from getting to know our risen Savior. Jesus may have emptied himself to the point of death on a cross, but because of his obedience, he snatched victory out of the hands of death and is now glorified again in the presence of God. That Christian hymn that Paul quoted speaks of his humiliation, but it also speaks of Jesus' restoration to glory:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Revelation that God gave to John contains several striking images of our risen Lord; all of which are worthy of reflection, but I wish to reflect on the vision found in Revelation 1. Jesus will go on to give specific messages to specific churches, but he begins with a few words that should mean something to all Christians in every church.

Allow yourself to get caught up in John's vision of this mysterious Savior we follow:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
In fact, before he even speaks, the mere appearance of Jesus in this setting tells us something about him. There is a lot of symbolism going on here, just as there is in much of Revelation. We have the lampstands with their candles burning, representing churches, all of which should keep our lights burning to shine hope on our community.

But John also references that Jesus had seven stars in his right hand. The stars, we are told, represent the angels; God's messengers to the different churches. The word "angel' in the original languages also means "messenger," and this is significant, because much of the ancient world believed the stars contained messages. The stars, they believed, contained a map of human history and determined its course. So they read their horoscopes and stared into the sky with great diligence, desiring insight into how to navigate the confusing waters of life. The stars would often be symbolized by the seven most prominent heavenly bodies, the ones that could be seen with unaided human eyes: the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Much in the way we Americans display "In God We Trust" on our currency--whether we mean it or not--ancient coins would sometimes indicate what they believed determined the course of history. 
Here in our encounter with Jesus, we find a Lord who holds the seven stars in his hand. Whether you trust in the stars, the stock market, or your favorite cable news network, the clear message here is that whatever it is you believe drives the course of human history, it is subservient to the will of Jesus Christ. The Lord of Lords is the one who determines the course of human history, and holds it within his hand.  

In the presence of one as powerful as Jesus is presented here in John's vision, what would you do? Fight or flight only works when you can overpower or outrun someone, and to try either would be obviously futile. So instead, John falls down as if he were dead. Jesus places his right hand on John's shoulder, and speaks to him. I believe Jesus' introductory words here are meaningful to all Christians in every generation.
Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
FEAR NOT
Christians need not waste our time with some of the world's hypothetical questions. If you knew you couldn't possibly get hurt, what would you do? If you knew you couldn't possibly fail, what would you try? The one who leads us has conquered death. There exists no adversary whom he has not already bested. The only questions we should be wrestling with are: What does Christ call me to do next? and What could possibly be holding me back from trying? It is not only the difficult things that we can do with Christ's help, it is often the things we believed were impossible

Paul reminds us in Romans 8:1-2:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 
We are to be people characterized by hope and courage, because in Christ, there is nothing left to fear. 

I AM THE FIRST AND THE LAST
Sometimes when we want to refer to the entirety of something, we refer to the beginning and the end. We've studied everything, we say, from A to Z. We've been everywhere from coast to coast. We've looked it over from top to bottom. Jesus will later say he is the Alpha and the Omega. He is our beginning, he is our end, and he is our everything in between. 

In a similar vein, John introduces Jesus to us in his Gospel in the following way:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
If what we desire is a meaningful life, then we should follow the one who is before us. We should acknowledge the one who remains after us. We should honor the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. In Jesus we find life as it is meant to be lived. His life is our light. By looking to him, we can see enough to take the next step on a path that leads us where we want to go. Getting to the end takes patience, but taking one simple step with true light is better any day than taking many stumbling steps into uncertain darkness.

I DIED, AND BEHOLD I AM ALIVE FOREVERMORE 
All elements of this are important. It is significant that Jesus actually died, because it means that he experienced the very worst of what humanity could do to him. We could use our greatest weapons of deepest treachery, and after we had done our worst, he overcame and conquered them all. 

Jesus says clearly that he had died, but now he is alive, and there remains nothing that can kill him again. Had Jesus merely died, we would have no reason to be here. There are many great teachers who have lived and died, and none of them warrants a weekly period of remembrance, or the constant commemoration of their life. We are free to disagree with and dispense of dead teachers. If Jesus were just another dead teacher, Paul believes this would create a domino effect of bad implications in the life of the church, which he describes in I Corinthians 15:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
It is bad enough to be mistaken. But if Jesus isn't risen, we are liars about God. Our faith is a waste, and we are pitiable more than anyone else in the world. But because Jesus is risen, we can read Paul's ideas in reverse.

"Behold! I am alive forevermore," Jesus says. And so we know that because Jesus is raised, our teaching is valuable, and so is our faith. We are God's true representatives because we are telling the truth about Jesus' power over death, through which he redeemed us from our sins. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ are now reigning with Christ. Because of he hope we experience in Christ, we are of all people most to be envied, for we've found a fountain of life that can nourish the soul of every person who drinks from it.

I HAVE THE KEYS OF DEATH AND HADES
The image we should have in our head of Jesus as he broke the chains of death is not that of a hero making a narrow escape of a dangerous situation. Jesus' actions more resemble an explosion of dynamite, crumbling the walls and breaking through the gates of death, who had absolutely no chance of holding the King of Kings. Jesus has taken over, and he is the one who now holds the keys.

I am reminded of a story about a factory. It was a business with a long history, and one gentleman in particular who had worked there for many years. As it grew in complexity, he understood better than anyone else how it all functioned, and the different components worked together. As the years went by and the factory came under new management, the younger management wanted to cut costs, and saw little use in paying an older person so much, when they could hire younger guys for a lower cost and longer hours. So they unceremoniously let the older gentleman go. After a few weeks, something went wrong. Production came to a halt. The young hotshots tried what they knew, but to no avail. It became clear that the only solution short of tearing down and rebuilding the whole factory was to give a call to the gentleman who had been released. A humble phone call was made, and he agreed to come for an hour or so to have a look, understanding he would bill the company as a consultant. After only a few minutes with the machines, he went to one in particular, took out a piece of chalk from his pocked, and marked one section of the machinery with a giant "X". "Here's the problem," he said. "Remove the cover, replace these parts, and it will all work fine." They did what he said, and everything happened as he said it would. The people were pleased to be back in operation. A few days later they received a bill from the gentleman, with the cost being $10,000. The bookkeeper was indignant. How could he charge that much money for only a few minutes' work? So they demanded an itemized list, explaining the cost. The man sent them a second bill, this time itemized:
1 piece of chalk: $1
Knowing where to draw the X with the chalk: $9,999
It's good to be the one who holds the keys. And if you aren't the one who holds the keys, you want to be on good terms with the one who does.
We can disregard him or devalue him if we want, but Jesus is the one who holds the keys to the afterlife. There is no Plan B; no option that allows us to bypass him if we want to have entrance to the presence of God. Jesus wants us not to be afraid, because even though he died, he now lives forevermore, and if we clothe ourselves in him, there is nothing strong enough to take us from the grip of his grace. He shows us the road to where we want to go, and he holds the keys to the kingdom. We can't afford to neglect him, and can find comfort in knowing he hasn't neglected us.

Note: This sermon was preached on April 16, 2017 at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017

More Than Technique

I like talking to people on airplanes. You never have any idea who it is that might end up seated beside you for an hour or two. My temporary acquaintances have included a has-been 80s punk rocker who now paints houses in L.A., the CFO of Johnson & Johnson, a Vietnamese legal assistant for an immigration lawyer, and the manager of a Nike sock factory in Mexico City (he offered to ship me free socks). However, I think my favorite conversation was with a classically trained artist from Belgium who has spent the last several years as a celebrated part of the art community in Nashville, Tennessee. In fact, her work will be on display next year in Nashville's Parthenon, a very high honor.


We were talking about different philosophies of art, and she lamented how so much art is being created without any real passion or meaning the artist is trying to convey. I was surprised to learn from her how popular abstract art has become. She spoke with frustration about a mediocre student of hers who, within a few months of learning to paint, was selling abstract works for several thousand dollars each. People like abstract art because all they do is select a color scheme that matches their living space and the painting fits right in with no particular shapes or bodies that would cause it to stand out. Real art, she believed, should have something to say. Good art should not be expected merely to blend in, but to matter.

At the other end of the spectrum, we were talking about some of the artists I've seen on social media who can replicate real objects with such total perfection so that you could not distinguish whether you were looking at a photograph or a drawing. In her mind, this was more respectable, because it at least required skill. But in the end, "Though it's very impressive, it's just raw technique," she said. "Most of them aren't really saying anything with their work. It generally doesn't inspire or convict you." There is a need for artists to stay relevant so that their works are marketable, but she urged that an artist must not give up their true voice just to produce what would sell easily. They should care about what they produce.

All throughout Scripture we are reminded that our talents and skills come from God. We develop and refine them, but God gives them. I think of the wisdom of Joseph, received from God, in guiding Pharaoh to prepare Egypt for the coming famine and to grow their economy when all others were declining. I think of Bezalel in Exodus 31 who was filled with the Spirit of God "to make artistic designs." I think of Jesus' parable about the talents. Some of us are given more than others, but all of us are accountable to God, not only to have skills or to use skills, but to glorify God with our skills.

If you're going to be good at something, be sure that your talent means something. We each have our own forms of art, and our own gifts that someone might observe and say, "Isn't it amazing to watch them do what they can do?" It would be a shame to be gifted in powerful ways by the Almighty, and to only ever use these gifts for material gain or self aggrandizement. Be whatever kind of artist God has made you to be, but do something with your work that will make God proud that he chose to give you the abilities that you have.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Theological Puberty

Once when I was talking with a couple of respected ministry friends, the three of us ended up musing for a while on why it is that young adults, especially as they get to college, will bite--hook, line, and sinker--onto some deeply flawed belief systems and find them totally convincing. In context, we were talking about what is called 5-point "TULIP" Calvinism. (You can Google it if it's unfamiliar to you.) Since I brought it up, the biggest problem I have with Calvinism is the kind of God that system requires for the way it interprets reality. Namely, God's total pre-determined control of history removes our free will and implies that when we do evil, it is because God made us to do so. I can't get comfortable with a God who designed me to do evil, gave me no choice but to do what he designed me to do, and then would send me to Hell for doing it. But this post isn't primarily about refuting Calvinism.

As I was expressing my utter disbelief that people buy into this way of thinking, my friend made a significant point. He said, "You know, Mark, I think the reason that a lot of younger people find this belief compelling is because when they encounter it, it is often the first time in their life they have every thought deeply and academically about God, and even though the system has significant flaws, it is both deep and academic and therefore appealing as a more mature way of thinking. It's their way of hitting theological puberty."

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of my own history of beliefs. Though I didn't take the bait on Calvinism, I spent a chunk of my college years holding some other beliefs that I now see as completely misguided, mistaken, and actually heretical. In truth, I have to judge lightly because I was susceptible, too, and needed time to mature. I was also reminded of the haunting conclusion from Christian Smith's book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005). Based on his research, Smith said that even though many teens claimed to be Christian, when they would explain what they thought it meant to be Christian, their actual beliefs didn't resemble Christianity at all. Smith coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as the actual belief system that most teens are following. Here are a few of the key characteristics: Thinking that a God exists who ordered the world and watches over people. Believing God wants people to be nice to each other. Thinking the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. Believing God does not get involved much in people's lives unless they need him to solve a problem. And finally, assuming all "good" people go to Heaven when they die. It's pretty concerning that most young "Christians" could describe their whole belief system without expressing concern about evil and without needing to say the name "Jesus" at all.

I say all of this to invite us to think about the level of depth which we strive for in our learning about God, and especially in how we teach our children to think about God. Parents, if you think a youth minister can accomplish in one or two hours a week all of the knowledge and experience of God that your children need, the evidence says you are gravely mistaken. We need to be studying Scripture together, and asking the hard questions about how the different ideas fit together. We need to be turning to Scripture as we try to make sense of the challenging circumstances we encounter. Paul warns about the importance of helping each other reach maturity in our thinking so that we "may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph. 4:14)" Maturity requires ongoing effort to know and understand the God we follow, and the more we neglect our quest for God, the more we end up warped, deficient, and easily impressionable.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Minding the Excluded Middle

In 1982, long-time missionary and missiologist Paul Hiebert published an important article he titled "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle." He was addressing an issue that many missionaries face when they have grown up in a Western culture that is deeply skeptical of anything supernatural, yet are suddenly trying to work in a culture that believes nearly everything is tied to the supernatural.

For example, when Hiebert was a missionary in India, there was an outbreak of smallpox in his village. Western doctors nearby had unsuccessfully tried to stop the spread and so many of the villagers turned to a diviner who claimed they would need to sacrifice a water buffalo to the goddess of smallpox named Museum in order to appease her anger with the village. The elders of the village went around collecting money from every household to purchase the buffalo, and were highly offended when the Christians refused to give them anything because it went against their religious beliefs. Because of this, Christians were excluded from drawing water in the village wells or purchasing food from merchants. Things came to a head for Hiebert when a young Christian girl contracted smallpox. A church elder named Yellayya came to the school where Hiebert was teaching to ask him to pray for God to heal the girl from smallpox. In Hiebert's words:
"My mind was in turmoil. I had learned to pray as a child, studied prayer in seminary, and preached it as a pastor. But now I was to pray for a sick child as all the village watched to see if the Christian God was able to heal." 
Hiebert points out, correctly I think, that sometimes we have created an unhelpful divide between heavenly matters and earthly matters. There are all the great doctrines and theologies about the nature of God, angels, demons, Heaven and Hell. 'Separate and apart' from these are the things we deal with every week that we consider 'this-worldly' things, such as our vocations, visits to the doctor's office, the sources and types of foods that we eat, and the relationships we have with our family and friends. In between these things is an area that we do not address enough of the time. How do Heaven and Earth actually interact with one another?

To the spiritualist who sees angels, demons, and miracles hiding under every rock, the secularist offers a valid corrective, that empirical data matters and we have a role in contributing to the path of our lives. To the secular materialist, who wants to claim that we came from nothing, will return to nothing, and our lives mean nothing, the spiritualist offers a valid corrective, that there is much about the world which matters deeply, yet evades our ability to measure, categorize, or explain it.

Fortunately, as Hiebert points out, Scripture offers us a third path which refuses to devalue either the spiritual realm or the world in which we live. God's call to us for salvation has eternal spiritual implications, but is also deeply rooted expectations for the way we love and treat everyone around us, from the President to the 'least of these'.

It is here in the middle that we find important questions addressed. It gives us a healthy place for reflection about things such as the meaning of life and death for those of us still alive, the way we think about blessings, illnesses, successes, and failures, and the way we navigate life in this world through our own uncharted waters. Even if we're going to Heaven when we die, what is our purpose for being here until then? What is the significance of how we use our time and energy in the lives of people around us? How exactly do we involve God in our lives, and what actually happens when we pray?

Scripture affirms both the spiritual and the physical, and I am convinced that the more our churches learn to live and teach into this middle area which connects them, the more people will find our faith relevant and useful in the world they actually inhabit.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Making Space

If I could summarize meaningful leadership in one phrase, I would call it "making space." This begins with God. God imagined the living things he would create, and he made a space that we could occupy to fulfill the purposes for which we were made. To some degree, every time we empower another person to become more than what they are, we have created a space that they can inhabit in a new way. I think Ephesians 2:10 expresses this idea well:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. 
We have the blessing of participating in God's work, but it took God as our leader to create the opportunities for the good works we are able to do. It has something to do with our own initiative, but it has every bit as much to do with God knowing our potential and taking the initiative to give us the space to grow.

In every relationship, there are power dynamics involved. Generally, whether for reasons of age, experience, title, or seniority, in most interactions and scenarios there is a person who has more power and a person or people with less power. Whether they realize it or not, those with power are gatekeepers for how everyone else is able to function and to experience the possibility of growth. I want to invite you to think about the areas in your life where you might possess some type of control, and how people are being affected by your use of power.

What about the person with a great talent who is too shy and uncertain to ask for the opportunity to use it? How about the person who won't be noticed because of their ethnicity or economic status, for whom your influence might could open a door? Who do you know that feels bound by past mistakes and would be deeply blessed if someone were to offer them the chance to be thought of as a valuable person, and not just a "guilty" person? What would it take to create enough space for a second chance for them? What difference could a little of your assistance make? Many of us would not be where we are had there not been someone willing to take a chance on us and give us some space to grow. "Come and help me. Let me show you how."

This is equally true of groups. Need stronger relationships among your people? Create and schedule a space where friendships can develop. Wish that people showed more initiative? Ask them and learn from them what you could do to help remove barriers that are deterring them. Want to move in a new direction? Let your people help you to imagine the world you are all wishing to inhabit together.

People who don't feel powerful will seldom succeed in seizing opportunities for themselves, and might not get up the nerve to try. When you think about people who are a few years behind you, with a little less experience than you and fewer connections than you, I wonder in whom you might could invest a little of yourself so that they have the space to become something more? You--yes, even you--might be intimidating to the person who needs you the most, and doesn't know how to ask for your help. We should be grateful that God sought us out to bless us, even before we knew we needed him. Perhaps we can do the same for others.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

You Can Do Anything, But Not Everything

You can do anything you want if you just put your mind to it. Have you heard that before? Maybe your parents or a favorite teacher said that to you when you were growing up. It is a huge blessing to know people love and believe in you. It is an awesome experience to work hard for something and to have success and achievement. But I wonder if sometimes we've taken the belief that we're capable of doing anything and have mistaken it to mean that in our life we'll actually be able to accomplish everything that catches our interest.

I don't know about you, but I'm a recovering workaholic. Some of the most important people in my life are the ones who have urged me to quit biting off more than I can chew, to put on the brakes, to do fewer things, and to do them well. I have a hard time stopping the cycle where I take on a new task, convinced that with enough time I can master it or make it better, and then before I'm done with it, I've already picked up another. And then another. If I'm not careful, I'll end up with a pile of good intentions, but little accomplished that feels satisfying. 

In a timeless universe where our bodies would never wear down, we could learn to play every instrument, speak every language, build every structure, read every book, win every award, and accomplish everything we intend to do. But that isn't the universe where we live. We live under the restraints of time and of energy which get soaked up with the many thorns, thistles, and unexpected obstructions we encounter.

I'm reminded of the classic song lyrics from Jim Croce: "There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do, once you find them."

We can do some things very well, but the truth is that all of us will have things we look at and say, "If only I had more time, I could have done more, and I could have done better." Knowing that we are going to have to leave some things undone should make us deliberate about what things we commit ourselves to doing. Jesus said in Matthew 16:24a-25:
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
It isn't just the image of suffering for Jesus--picking up the cross--that's important here. It's also the idea that there will be parts of my life that I have to let go, because otherwise I won't give God the space in my life that God deserves. To deny yourself means giving up something. To lose something means you won't have it. On the face of these ideas, that sounds unpleasant. We really will have to say 'no' to some things in order to say 'yes' to God.

But at the other end of this promise is something more hopeful. Jesus assures us that when we willingly deny ourselves and lose something because of our dedication to him, by some wonderful mystery, it is for this very reason that we'll end up finding it again. "Great is your reward in Heaven," he says. Our losses, whatever they are, will be temporary, and God's generous blessings to us will one day overwhelm any sense of lacking we might have had before. Don't let the many things that interest you distract you from the one thing that matters most.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

How to Get a Fresh Start Without Leaving

Around 2011, all signs were indicating that we were about to take on a new role in a new congregation. Arriving at this willingness took a great emotional toll on us, because we loved the people where we were, and knew without question that we were loved and appreciated there. Having spent a lot of time, carefully weighing our options and what church we might actually be willing to go and work with, we went through an awful, months-long application process with that church.

After some re-assuring comments from several elders at the new location--"We can't wait for you to get started"--a few days later I got an expected phone call, and some unexpected information. They were hiring the other guy. It was a kick in the gut and a cut to the ego.

In the end, I stayed three more years at the congregation where I was, and frankly, ended up doing there what I consider the most important work I've done in my ministry to this point, anywhere. I'm glad I stayed longer than I had assumed I would, and am grateful that the work actually grew in its meaningfulness those last years.

But at the time, I realized I was going to have to find a way to get a fresh start. I needed some kind of change for me to be able to adjust my attitude and give myself passionately to my work again. I had burned up my vacation time visiting and interviewing at this other church, and so a dreamy trip out of town wasn't a possible solution.

I decided that since my church needed a new minister (I was getting burned out) and I needed a new start, I would have to let myself be the new guy. I adopted a few methods during this time that have continued to help me significantly in my effectiveness, and in my ability to be joyful about my work, even when parts of it might feel tedious.

How can you give yourself a fresh start without leaving? This is what has worked for me. I'd be glad to hear what works for you.
  • Move out, and move in. Since I had been planning to move, I decided to go ahead and do it. I took all books off of my shelves and several things down from the walls. I emptied my desk and drawers. I did all the sorting process I would have done if I were moving away and got rid of a lot of junk and clutter, and donated a bunch of old books I hadn't been using.

    Beyond that, I had a storage closet with permanent shelving that was nice, but not designed well for the needs of the space. I emptied the space, ripped it all out of the wall, and got better, height-adjustable shelving. I painted the walls and got rid of everything that I knew I didn't need in there.

    In my mind, I got a new office and a new closet space. That process was very healthy for me.
  • Have your parting conversations. From the moment we started thinking we were going to leave, there was a series of conversations that I knew I would need to have. There were people who had been significant in my life, whose influence had inspired me and whose encouragement had carried me through difficulties. I wanted to tell them that. There were areas of great concern I had that I didn't feel were being addressed. I had formulated in my mind what I would need to tell the elders as I was leaving that really needed to happen as things moved forward.

    I had framed these things in my mind as parting conversations that would bring a sense of peace and closure to me as I left. But now I wasn't leaving, and I still felt convicted about the need to communicate those things. So I went ahead and did it. I called and scheduled lunches and visits with several different people I wanted to appreciate. I told them how much they had meant to me and how much they had helped me. I discovered that a confession of appreciation is every bit as liberating and life-giving as a confession of wrongdoing. It was great for me to express sincere love and thanks to people who deserved it.

    I met with several of the elders individually, got their permission to be very candid, and told them exactly how I felt about a lot of things. I laid out my struggles, my concerns for some of our blind spots, and some things I really wished we would start working on. It didn't solve every issue, but it took a load off of me to feel like I had done what I could to help them see what I was seeing. And happily, quite a few things got better once we talked through them. In every case, they were highly interested in both my wellbeing and that of the church. (In my next point, I'll share how I've created better dialogue with the elders where I'm working.)

    I have tried to adopt the practice that whenever I have a strong feeling of appreciation towards someone, I try to get with them and tell them about it. Think about how you would feel if someone scheduled a meeting with you just to tell you why they appreciate you? It's been a great thing every time.
  • Seek out spiritual friendship and mentoring. If you don't have a trusted person providing you with an outside perspective on yourself, you're going to develop blindspots. These can be blindspots to weaknesses and unintentional harms you are causing, but these can also be blindspots to your strengths, and things you don't realize that people like about you. Knowledge of either is helpful.

    A man who was not an elder then, but is now, was the first person I asked to be a spiritual companion. We were reading things together, getting together regularly, and praying with and for each other. It became a meaningful friendship.

    My practice now is that every year, I seek out two people: one I view as a mentor and one I view as a peer. Around November I approach these people and I ask them if for the next calendar year, they would be willing to form a deeper friendship with me and agree to get together once per month for the purpose of helping each other to grow spiritually. Most of the time, this has taken the form of getting lunch once per month. "Second Thursday every month." That sort of thing. Set and scheduled on both of our calendars.

    In my role, I have decided that one of these two people for me should be an elder. I generally try to select whichever one I've not had much time with lately to use the opportunity for friendship building. I invite them openly to shepherd me, to help me see my blindspots, and to help me know what they are perceiving about our church family.

    The benefits are numerous. If nothing else, it means that the elders and I always have a direct link, and that our meetings become more like discussions among friends and less like a CEO-Board of Directors gathering. I know what they're thinking, and they know what I'm thinking. Sharing a meal is such a better place to have real conversation than in a stuffy meeting room. But the deeper benefits are my own spiritual growth, and a meaningful connection to the people I work with every week.

    Every year, I end the year sad that the current arrangement is changing, but for the sake of continual renewal, I change up my partnership every time. I continue getting with many of my previous companions as well, but I make a formal, scheduled commitment with at least two new people every year.
  • Take a spiritual retreat. Note: If you do not currently provide this opportunity for your minister, I beg you to do everything within your power to make this possible for them. You'll get a new minister every year without having to hire or fire anyone. Jesus needed significant time alone to pray. We are both arrogant and foolish if we think we can be healthy leaders without doing the same.

    I arranged in my contract at my current church that every fall, the elders give me one week without any teaching, preaching, visiting, or administrative responsibilities, and I dedicate the entire week to finding quiet places, spending hours in prayer, hours in Scripture reading, and seeking God's direction on what I should be preaching to our people about the following year. The best way to do this is to find a place away from home you can stay. I like going to Lebh Shomea House of Prayer, about 60 miles south from Corpus Christi at the old Kenedy Mansion in Sarita, Texas. As part of this, I actively solicit prayer from the congregation for me as I go away to pray and reflect. I fast from technology. I journal constantly about the movements of my mind, heart, and the ideas that come to me while I'm there.

    I will spare you stories for now, but let me say with conviction that I have experienced significant insight through these times that has given me strong conviction that (a) God wants me to be where I am, and (b) that God has been and will continue working through my ministry here; imperfect as I am. These weeks have grown me more than almost anything else I've ever done in my life.

    For those of you not in ministry, or for whom a full week is not possible, I encourage you to take a weekend, or at the very minimum, a half day to go somewhere beautiful and connect with God. At these times, rather than bringing tons of Scripture to read, print a single passage of value, a chapter or so, and read it over and over again, seeking to go deeper. Pray until you have nothing left to pray, and then focus on the presence of God, inviting God to be near, even if you aren't verbalizing anything. Resist the urge to be productive, and focus on being present.
I don't think it's possible never to feel frustration or burnout, but these actions, some of which are occasional, and others of which are regular, have helped me significantly to feel contentment and purpose where I am.

What has been helpful to you?