Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Reckless Generosity

What happened to his drink, by the way?
I bet you can remember some of the times in your life when you've spilled something; especially if it was something valuable. I can remember where I've been sitting at certain restaurants when I've heard a huge crash caused by a server dropping a tray of food. I can still picture the bits of plates, meats, and veggies go flying across the floor, bouncing off of my shoe. On some such occasions, I can remember customers erupting in sarcastic applause, to add insult to injury.  

A few of my favorite spilling mental images come from infomercials. People trying to open a cabinet, sit on a recliner, or pour a beverage are suddenly pelted by whatever they're handling in ridiculous quantities that can only have been stacked and spring loaded. The advertisers seem to really understand our discomfort with spills. Unless you didn't grow up being taught the "three second rule"--it's nearly Scriptural, isn't it?--once something has been spilled out on the floor, it has lost all value and is functionally "unclean". It is only a mess to be cleared. Spilling makes us uncomfortable because it is needlessly wasteful.

Mark 14 tells the story of a woman who spilled something on purpose. And it wasn't a glass of sweet tea or even a plateful of prime rib. It was an alabaster jar full of expensive perfume; the kind that would have cost as much as a year's income by the disciples' estimation. It would be like taking the money you would need to pay cash for a new car, and using it as kindling to light the fire in your grill, as they saw it. As the woman anointed Jesus with this perfume as a way to honor him, the disciples had only sharp words for her in response. "Why this waste of good perfume?!" Of all the possible ways to use that much money, each of them could have produced a list of things to do with it, not the least of which was helping the poor.

Jesus teaches us a different way of looking at money. To begin with, Christians don't get overly attached to our money or our material possessions, because we believe they belong first to God, and that God is more than capable of giving back to us far more than what we share. For some reason, God insisted that in Israel's calendar, there would be festivals and feasts and times of celebrating the harvest, rather than putting all of the harvest into savings. This must have been partly because of a trust that God would later provide another harvest. Memories made by celebrating God's goodness are not a waste, as God sees them.

Our hope is not in our bank account, nor should be our greatest treasures, because the location of our treasure will determine the deepest cares of our hearts, according to Jesus. Jesus valued the great cost of this gesture the woman made towards him, and when it comes to honoring God, there's something to be said for trying to do things for God that are beautiful, and that mean something to us. On one occasion in 2 Samuel 24, a man named Araunah offered to give David a threshing floor and some oxen so that David could offer a sacrifice to God. David's response? Absolutely not.
"No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing."
David's view? Worship isn't worship if it doesn't cost me anything. While there is no precedent to be needlessly wasteful in how we use our possessions, there is certainly precedent to do things that are beautiful, and even attention grabbing to honor God. It is appropriate that some of the world's greatest paintings, artful compositions, and charitable organizations exist because of people's desire to do something beautiful for God. Something worth remembering. Sometimes a few acts of random kindness and reckless generosity are just the things we need to remind ourselves that our trust is in God's provisions, and not in our possessions.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Etching Our Character

It is, in my opinion, impossible to solve absolutely the centuries-old debate about whether we are shaped primarily by our nature or our nurture. Are we the way we are because we're born that way, or because of how we are raised to be? This is not only a discussion of how we know what we know, but also of why we do what we do. What exactly is our character, and what produces character?

Some will speak of character as something that is already residing within us, just waiting to be revealed. Since everyone is already talking about Mariah Carey this week after her New Year's Eve performance fiasco, let me reference her song "Hero" as an example of this sort of thinking:
There's a hero
If you look inside your heart.
You don't have to be afraid of what you are.
There's an answer
If you reach into your soul,
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away...
...So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you'll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.
On the one hand, we would want to affirm that as people made in God's image, all of us have incredible potential to accomplish good and important things, and even more so when we work together. In that sense, we all have an inner hero that needs to be let loose. But this type of thinking is somewhat removed from the way a person's character is actually developed. It is not by an increasingly inward, self-centered focus that we find the best answers or our sorrows melt away. The English word "character" comes from a term for engraving. It meant a mark or symbol branded on a person's body, or engraved into an item of property. To have character meant going through the process of being scraped and scratched, often with harsh instruments, in order to bear this mark. For a person to have good character, it would involve good craftsmanship and a lot of patience.

Many teachings in Scripture place character in the realm of one's actions. Jesus says that when Satan lies, he is speaking from his own character because he is a liar (John 8:44). Paul teaches that endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:4). Job was known as an upright and blameless person because he consistently feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1). In all of these examples, it is a person's persistent action that defines what their character is, and not whether they think in their hearts that they are probably a "good person" if you would just get to know them.

Paul's description of his own character formation sounds a lot like a boxer preparing for a fight: "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (I Corinthians 9:27) In physical training, our bodies tend toward whatever motion feels easiest. The only way to get stronger is to identify our weaknesses, and to target them specifically with better form and deliberation. If we fail to correct this, our growth becomes unbalanced.

If you are not quite sure how to approach your own desire for better character, a good baby step is to figure out what good thing you are most inclined to resist, and systematically challenge yourself to do it. Whether it's the social dimension of Christian fellowship, the thinking required to study Scripture more deeply, or the inward urge we must rebuke that demands we keep checking our notifications every 5 minutes, our character is etched into us by what we choose to do with what time we have. Is God being given enough time and opportunity to do his etching work in your life? It is through scratching, hammering, and enduring that our character becomes strong, but only you can decide to allow it to happen.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Something Old for Something New

Any time something comes to be so universally accepted that we take it as given, it might be time to take a step back and reconsider. I suggest that one such mindset we ought to challenge is that new is always improved. The "new" must be better some of the time or we would never adopt it, but ought we welcome with enthusiasm every thing available, simply because it's new?

In their book, Mindhacker, Evans and Evans point out:
We've heard it observed that as Western societies grow richer, with a higher level of technology and more leisure time, they tend to adopt hobbies that used to be considered tedious jobs, such as candlemaking
The Ghostbusters, re-imagined as Steampunk.
The more people are stuck with inevasible technology and suffocating connectability, the more they seem to crave a simpler time. Along this line of thought, the Steampunk movement is likely one of the largest world phenomena that you may not have heard of. It is driven by an obsession with Victorian-era technology to produce modern solutions, and is in some way a colorful protest against the seemingly inexorable advance of modern technology. When you see a reignited love for old materials like brass, copper wood, glass, and ornate engravings, you are seeing an impact of this mindset. Even the great thinkers who launched what would become the Renaissance were obsessed with classical Greek poets and philosophers. "Ad fontes!" they would say. "Back to the original sources!"

On a personal note, I have become a devoted practitioner of bullet journaling as a way to organize myself, and have made a deliberate effort to reduce my own dependence on technology for productivity where possible. If you want to have your mind messed with a bit, click around on this collection of links about why paper is still a superior medium to any other option.

This sort of inclination can also inform our faith. Because publishers need to sell books and because authors desire to speak and be heard, there will always be people trying to say something new about God. Some of these things will be useful. But rather than chasing after whatever the newest thoughts are and accepting them uncritically, we will often be better served to chase after what is true, good, and beautiful, because these things will be valuable, regardless of their age. Some wise people have told me, "Always spend more time reading the Bible than reading about the Bible."

The prophet Jeremiah says in 6:16:
Thus says the Lord: "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
The true, good, and beautiful will sometimes be new, but even when they are old, they have a newness about them when experienced. The end result of chasing incessantly after any trend will be exhaustion. As you think about how you plan to live differently next year than you did this year, I want to encourage you to think about what it is that you are chasing. What is it that is making you exhausted? Must you really do all the things that you are doing and in the way that you are doing them?

If you're trying to grow spiritually, the truth is, the tools through which God shapes us are pretty much the same as they've been for thousands of years: steady practices of reading from Scripture, calming ourselves in God's presence and praying, practicing self-control, choosing to spend our energy on acts of kindness and mercy, etc. Before you try to find a new way to Google yourself into a better way of living, why not first consider the ancient paths, as Jeremiah calls them. They are less flashy than some other options and are generally more difficult than the other roads, but they've been found reliable paths by many generations before us, and they lead us to a place where we find rest for our souls.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Great Revealing

Mystery is interesting. At Christmas time, with God's help, we mature to where we enjoy giving more than we enjoy receiving. But the excitement of gift giving comes in part from the mystery involved therein. Whether you're the young child trembling in anticipation of what could be underneath the beautifully colored paper and ribbons, or you're the giver, watching for the look of joy that appears on another person's face because you've blessed them in some way, it is the cheerful unveiling of a mystery by someone we love which provides us with a deep sense of satisfaction. If it weren't so satisfying, it is hard to imagine this tradition in late December would have persisted for the many years that it has.

While we wait for the mystery to be revealed, most of our focus is on the packaging. It's the shape and size of the box that gets our imagination going. It's the patterns and colors in the wrapping that keeps us guessing what could be inside. But once the gift is revealed, the packaging is discarded, because the gift itself is greater than the packaging.

In Romans 8:19, Paul says that all of creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. The earth, subjected to many centuries of bloodshed and corruption, stands trembling in anticipation, waiting for Christ to return and for all of God's faithful children to be revealed, to receive their crowns and their beautiful white garments, and to have their proud Father say, "Well done!"

But for now, we're stuck most of the time looking at the world's packaging, and it has not always been well wrapped. Some of this is because of the ugliness of people's choices, their dishonesty, and their corruption. Some of it is shiny and gaudy, because people shower themselves with luxuries, never thinking to share with those who struggle to get by. If you look at history books and magazines, you'll see leaders and dictators, tycoons and socialites. But underneath this crinkly thin exterior, God has many children whose stories remain hidden from sight.

People tend to look past or even avoid the things God thinks are beautiful. The family member who puts their own life and ambitions on hold to be a caregiver for another family member. The person who quietly sends anonymous support to another family who needs the help. The person who accepts a thankless responsibility that no one else wants so that others can be blessed. The quiet things you do because of your love for God are the hidden treasures in this world that, for now, often only God knows.

Jesus has told us to stay dedicated and not to be afraid, because one day all things covered are going to be revealed, and all things hidden are going to be made known (Matthew 10:26). God is going to tear off and discard the world's shallow packaging, and reveal the beautiful treasures that have been hidden from everyone but himself. The real stories will be told, and those quiet souls who've shared God's love without reservation or recognition will be held up and celebrated as the gift to the world that they are; the pride of their Father. It will be the cheerful unveiling of a hidden mystery, and one that we hope to make even more beautiful because of our own unseen devotion. Spend your life showing kindness and mercy with God as your only intended audience. God is watching, and everything is more beautiful when it is revealed in God's good timing.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Healed Again

One of the stranger, lesser talked about miracles is when Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Described only in Mark 8, Jesus spat in the man's eyes and asked, "Do you see anything?" The man replied, "I see men, but they look like trees, walking." It was after Jesus laid his hands on the man's eyes again that his sight was fully restored, and he saw clearly. He had to be healed twice.

This, to me, adds a feel of realism to the stories of Jesus' miracles. I like the idea of the personal interaction with people, and the concern that they really were well. But for some, it adds a layer of discomfort. Did the Great Physician really botch a healing?

This is a case where context is important. Mark has chosen to sandwich this story in between two other stories, and all of them shine different angles of light on a common struggle. Preceding it is the lesser discussed feeding of the 4,000 and a discussion with his disciples. He was warning them against the Pharisees' "leaven" but they were thinking he was talking about physical bread, since they didn't have any with them. The discussion ends with Jesus' words, "Do you not yet understand?"

Caesarea Philippi was several days' journey
from where they had been. The large rock
formation had a cave in front of it with a
pagan temple to Pan built onto it. The natural
stream of water from the cave was like a gate
to the underworld.  It provided a meaningful
location for Jesus to talk about building
his church on "rock" and how the "gates of
Hell" would not prevail against it.
Following the healing story is the journey to beautiful Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus had a conversation with them about his true identity. Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, but as Jesus began to explain the need for his betrayal and suffering, Peter protested, and Jesus offered the famous rebuke to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men."

In all of these scenarios, you have the issue of people who have a glimpse of God, but one that remains obscured. The disciples had learned something about God's provision, but couldn't seem to quit worrying about what's for dinner. The blind man could see something, but not clearly. The disciples could understand Jesus was the Messiah, but couldn't get comfortable with a Messiah who would be both a King and a suffering Servant.

Despite our best intentions, we all struggle sometimes to see clearly. Some have been glad to receive the Gospel, but manage to see only more Law where God has given Grace. Some have been glad to receive freedom in Christ, but apply it in a way that is destructive and negligent. Others have settled for a culturally appropriated version of Christ that fails to embody the courage and boldness of the Savior we meet in Scripture.

It's nice to know that for all of us recovering blind people, Jesus is still with us, wanting to know what we can see so that he can help us see more. What truth we've grasped has come by his mercy, and sometimes we'll need more mercy so that we can experience more growth. The good news is that he is patient, and quite willing to help us a second time to see better. Our challenge is to extend to each other the same patience.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Type of Thrones

Martin's mental image of the Iron Throne
is that it sits asymmetrically, and that the
one seated on it is at least ten feet high. 
Thrones mean power and position. In contemporary culture, there is no throne more recognizable than the Iron Throne from George R.R. Martin's book series A Song of Fire and Ice, popularized by HBO's televised adaptation, Game of Thrones. (Though I'm a huge fan of good fictional fantasy, I decided not to watch the show due to the kinds content they've chosen to include.) In fact, it's clear that the typical representation of the Iron Throne is actually much smaller than what Martin had envisioned in his head. The idea is that the Throne was made by a conquering king, created with a thousand swords surrendered by his enemies. Here is how one character describes the throne in A Storm of Swords:
Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Ofttimes I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.
This particular throne is a symbol of conquest, cruelty, and dominance. The one who occupies it has obtained it by ugly displays of power and treachery.

There is an uncomfortably easy connection between power and brutality, and this connection is not limited to fiction. When Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq in July 1979, within one week, he called out an assembly of the Ba'ath Party, his political enemies. In the meeting, a list of 68 names were read aloud, and all of them were arrested and removed from the room. All 68 were found guilty of treason, and 22 were sentenced to death. By August 1979, hundreds of his political foes had been executed. Whatever type of throne he sat upon, his power represented brutality, bloodshed, and ruthlessness.

In any tension between people and the one who rules them, the question often arises about the source of a person's power. "Who put you in charge?" It isn't uncommon for people to mutter under their breath about their superiors' use and misuse of rank and position. We speak this way frequently about our politicians, our police officers, and even about a wide array of people who are gatekeepers to whatever thing that we happen to want right now. 

It is our typical hangups about power and abuse that made a verse in Psalm 22 catch my attention:
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. (Proverbs 22:3-5)
Granted, there is plenty of language in Scripture about God conquering his enemies, but it is God's throne here that I find captivating: God sits enthroned on the praises of his people. There is an extent to which people can say, "Well, it's God, and if God says he's the King, there's nothing you can do to stop him." But God does not sit on a throne of swords or in a position that he has created through terror and treachery.

As the psalmist alludes to, God's people praise him because of the ways he's taken care of us. We've relied on God and found him to be trustworthy. We've been in situations too dense for us to navigate, and he has rescued us and blessed us. The end result of following God is that we've been honored, and not put to shame. The throne God occupies is made of the great praises we can offer because of what he's done for us. It is a reign of peace, blessing, and compassion. God will sit on a throne of well-deserved praise, and it his intention to earn it--not to force it--through the way he cares for us.

Each of us occupies some type of position in life that we have created for ourselves. Some do obtain their statuses in life through shrewdness and manipulation, but these positions have limited staying power. The kind of position we should desire in this life comes from what we sow in the lives of others, and it is not a respect that can be demanded. Precisely the opposite. To be known as a person of integrity. To be trusted as a person of character. To be remembered as a person of kindness and courage. These are powerful positions to occupy, yet they come through the path of service and humility. We shouldn't do good only when we believe we are likely to receive praise, but this should not hinder us from always striving to do things that are praiseworthy.

When it's all said and done, a throne of praise is better than a throne of iron any day.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, 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. (Philippians 2:3-8)

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Prayer for the Season

Our Loving Father in Heaven,

Before we awoke this morning, you were already blessing us. By your help we slept safely through the night, and because of your grace we can rise this day. We can open our eyes, stand, walk, talk, laugh, cry, hurt, and heal because you have given us the gifts of life, health, and a passionate, meaningful existence in this world. Our food, clothing, and shelter all come from things you yourself created and provided. We experience the joy of having them because of the talents and opportunities you've given us to prosper. When we look at our family and our friends, we know that these are all your children whom you've decided to share with us for a while. Help us to value the people around us who enrich our life and make it worth living. In fact, apart from your goodness and your generosity, we would have nothing and no one. All good things come from you. 

Thank you, Lord, for the joyful memories, the victories, and the successes, because these remind us that you hear our prayers and that you love us. Thank you also for the painful experiences, the failures, and the defeats, because they remind us how much we need you. Help us to make the most of this busy season, with the opportunities it provides to create memories with the people we love. Be especially near to our friends whose hearts are heavy right now because of those no longer among us, or those who may soon be departing. 

Lord, please work on the hearts of those who make themselves your enemies. Give them what experience they need to awaken them and to help them come to their senses. Work through us so that by the power of the Gospel, our enemies can become your friends. Reclaim and redeem them for more noble purposes. When a lost child wants to return to you, may they find us to be a welcoming family and a warm place to call home.  

We see, Lord, but please give us better vision. We love, Lord, but please give us deeper compassion. We speak, Lord, but please give us greater courage. We believe, Lord, but please help our unbelief. May our own joy be wrapped up in the things that bring your heart joy.

We approach you, Father, with the help of the Spirit, and through the power of Jesus' name. Amen.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Few Predictions

This is a post for my fellow Christians. I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I'd like to make a few predictions. I don't know about for you, but for me, social media has been nearly unbearable for the last couple of weeks. There are lots of people talking, but so few who are listening, and even fewer who seem interested in the credibility of what they are sharing. I try to remind myself that all complaining about social media is ridiculous, because participating in these platforms is a completely optional thing to do. But the truth is, we speak, post, and tweet from the overflow of our hearts (Luke 6:45). If social media is any indication, there are a lot of strong emotions, both positive and negative, which people have been feeling. 

So whether you are elated or horrified by current events, here are a few predictions I would like to make:

1. The world we live in will continue to be a messed up place.
Even when there are fixes for some of society's problems, other areas will be neglected, and still others may be over-corrected. People who've grown up one way in one place will continue having difficulty in understanding people who've grown up in another. No administration is ever going to relieve us of all problems. Our best case scenario for government is that it will make things better than they are for as many people as possible, and certainly, we hope and pray for this. But any government run by people will have all the flaws that its people do. This shouldn't surprise us. Only in the coming Kingdom of Christ can we know that all things will truly be as they should (Revelation 7:17). 

2. God will continue to do amazing things in the world, even through us.
It has never been our goal as people of faith to live in a problemless society. If we are willing to be taught, our problems can even be sources of tremendous personal growth for us when we persevere and endure. Life in this world will give us trouble, but Jesus has already overcome the world, and for this reason we should be encouraged (John 16:33). In fact, regardless of what happens with our nation or our culture, God is going to continue to work all things together for our good because we love him and he loves us (Romans 8:28). God has used good kings like David to bless nations (Acts 13:22), but he has also used terrible tyrants to serve his larger plan (Habakkuk 1:5-6). God is not limited by who is ruling over us. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will continue to witness God doing amazing things in our lives and around the world, no matter who sits on any throne or in any office. God is still with us, and God is at work. 

3. Your happiness will be affected much more by your choice to walk with God than by any other external factor.
The only thing in your life that is truly unchanging is the love of God. When you make your choices based on financial prospects, threats, relationships, or peer pressure, some decisions turn out well and others turn out poorly. But you will never regret any action you take that comes from a pure place in your heart, driven by compassion and faith. God's love stays with you, no matter what, and nothing can take it away from you (Romans 8:38-39). Every extra prayer you offer, every extra bit of encouragement you give, and every time you do something difficult because you've been motivated to do so by your love of Christ, these are things that go with us into eternity, enduring longer than the earth itself (1 Peter 1:7). 

I encourage you to do all the good that you can and give the best parts of yourself to what matters most, then let God worry about the rest.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What Makes a Healthy Church?

Last week I had the honor of speaking at the North Bay Church of Christ in Portland, Texas. The topic they asked me to speak on was "What Makes a Healthy Church?" Here are a few of my musings on the subject.

Fundamentally, I believe the church should be a community of people in whom the Spirit of Christ is alive and well. Where the Spirit of Christ is present, certain things should start to occur. There are some general guiding ideas here in Scripture. For example, Paul says:
"For God gave us a spirit, not of fear, but of power and love and self-control." - 2 Timothy 1:7
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; against such things there is no law." - Galatians 5:22-23
John says:
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." - I John 4:18
Jesus says:
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." - John 14:25-26
Many churches get their minds too caught up in the world's methods and options, and will live out of fear, rather than faith. Contrary to this, strong churches will act from the hope and courage that result where the Spirit of Christ is present. In light of these and other concepts, here are some ways I would imagine the contrasts between a fearful church and a healthy church. 
  • Fearful churches feel threatened by people who ask questions, and will look to silence them. Healthy churches welcome honest questions, and aren't afraid to patiently examine and re-examine their beliefs and practices in light of Scripture, especially with those who are young in the faith. Those who are really on the side of truth don't have to be afraid of questions, because the truth should withstand hard questions.
  • Fearful churches use Scripture mostly as a weapon, and as a method for fault-finding. Healthy churches turn to Scripture as a source of life, allowing it to spark their imaginations for what sort of world God imagines. If we were to really trust that these words are from God, what is God calling us to do more? What does God invite us to see differently?
  • Fearful churches focus on institutional survival. They don't take risks, don't rock the boat, and don't try anything that could possibly result in failure. As a result, they do very little other than fret about declining numbers. Healthy churches focus on God's mission; to seek and save the lost, redeeming all that is broken within the world. They are willing to experience occasional failure in the pursuit of faithfulness and carrying out the great commission. They don't seek conflict or frustrations, but accept them as a necessary part of growing, because growth can't occur without change. Likewise, while numbers are a part of a church's life and health, they understand that numbers don't tell the whole story about what God might be doing. 
  • Fearful churches stay divided into interest groups; all of whom are suspicious of each other. Most people barely know each other. They may even turn people away if they aren't "our type." Healthy churches promote friendship between groups and between generations, acknowledging that we all need each other, and are better off for the perspectives we gain from those different from ourselves. They know each other well enough, both to mourn and to celebrate as life unfolds together. 
  • Fearful churches have a large distance between those with power and those without. Those with power cling to it tightly. Healthy churches use power to empower. Those with power use it primarily to create space and opportunities for others to use their gifts for honoring God in a variety of ways. They are always looking to create new leaders, open to creative ministries, and inviting ownership in the life and future of the church.
  • Fearful churches are irrelevant to their community. They spend most of their time thinking and talking about themselves, and seldom think outside of the brick box in which they meet. Healthy churches are a blessing to their community. Were they to suddenly go away, the community would lament their loss, because they had been like salt and light, making the community better and brighter.
  • Fearful churches chase after trends. When they hear rumor of a big church's technique, they uncritically try to force that mold on their own situation, hoping it will provide a magic solution to church growth. Healthy churches are interested and aware of how God is at work in a variety of other Christian communities, but are not afraid to grow in ways specific to their own setting. Rather than chasing trends, they build on their strengths, taking the time to know what it is that they as a community love to do and share. 
No church is perfect, but when we seek God diligently and serve God joyfully, there will be evidence of Who lives among us and works through us.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

35 Things I've Learned

Today is my 35th birthday. I think it's important to reflect on your life experiences, so here are 35 things I've learned along the way.

  1. There is no more important set of skills you can possess than people skills. Likability opens doors and builds bridges. Many a career has been built on a person’s ability to get along with others. You’ll be your future’s worst enemy if you don’t learn to value people, and to make them feel valued. 
  2. Every person is in some way superior to you. If you approach every person in terms of how you could be blessed by their skills and understanding, you’ll find it easier to care for them genuinely, and to overlook their shortcomings.
  3. Never stop cultivating yourself as a person. Try new things, especially when they are hard. Spend your life preparing yourself so that some of the best things you’ll ever do will be when you’re in your 60s and 70s as culminations of the person you have spent your life becoming. People who reach for superstardom in their 20s and 30s can easily exhaust their wells of wisdom and experience.
  4. Remember that you’re going to die. Don’t be found anywhere doing anything that you wouldn’t want to be remembered for, in case you make an earlier-than-expected departure.
  5. There is no greater peace you can leave behind to your loved ones than their ability to genuinely say of you, “They loved God with all of their heart, and it really showed in the way they lived."
  6. Everyone understands that change is necessary, but almost no one enjoys it. If you are the one implementing a change, don’t take it personally at first when people react. Much of what they’re doing is just acknowledging that a difference exists. If you’ve been patient with them, have listened to them, and are clear in your reasons and your motives, a lot of them will extend to you the same courtesy. Of course, this won’t always be the case; particularly if you haven’t put effort into #1 on this list.
  7. In dealing with people whose age or health has largely confined them to their home, never make an off-handed promise about something you intend to do for them unless you are absolutely going to follow through quickly. They often have nothing better to do than to sit around remembering what you said you were going to do, and they’ll think less of you for failing to follow through.
  8. The best question for getting to know a new person is: “How do you like to spend your time?” To ask a person about their job or career can make a stay-at-home parent feel you are belittling them, an unemployed person feel embarrassed, or an independently wealthy person feel awkward for having to explain why it isn’t necessary for them to work. Asking how they like to spend their time allows them to tell you what they care about most, or at least what they are comfortable revealing about themselves.
  9. Being fluent in sarcasm is not something you should value. Having a refined ability to cut people with your words does not make you a wise person, and it seldom makes any situation better.
  10. If you are making a speech, it is better to say a bit less than you know, making people wish that you would have spoken longer, rather than to say all that you know, making people hope they will never have to hear another word on your subject; especially from you.
  11. As you get to know someone, there will be scripts that show up in their conversations. Especially when seeking a spouse, pay attention to how they talk to people behind counters and serving at tables. Pay even more attention how they speak to their family. Eventually, every way they speak to other people, they’ll speak to you once they feel like you aren’t going to go away. Everyone can put a good foot forward when they want to make an impression, but what’s more important is that a person you’re committed to shows genuine kindness and patience with everyone, because they’ll be more likely to show it to you. 
  12. Telling someone the truth with a spirit of love and gentleness might not always be received well, but it is never the wrong thing to do.
  13. Don’t allow your critics to take away your joy or your resolve to work with excellence. At the same time, there is usually some grain of truth to what your critics say. If you know someone to be your critic, make a deliberate effort to get to know them better, not for a counter-attack, but to learn what’s driving their concern. They might be giving you a valuable gift, just presented in ugly packaging. Former critics can make some of the best allies if you are able to win them over.
  14. When a person is tense about their life and they come to you as someone to talk to, the best thing you can give them is your non-anxious presence. Take slow breaths, look them in the eye, listen to them without reacting strongly to the things they’re worried about expressing and without interrupting with quick solutions. Just look at them, listen, and be truly present. A person can solve a majority of their own problems when they have a safe space to verbalize and process what they are experiencing.
  15. If you are married, make it your daily goal to invest in your relationship with your spouse. They’ve given up a lot to dedicate themselves exclusively to you and deserve your best efforts to know and love them. One day your children will move on, and one day your career will end. But aside from unfortunate circumstances, as long as you’re both living, your spouse will be with you. No investment will pay you greater dividends than the efforts you make to build your marriage.
  16. Most of the best ideas you’ll encounter in life won’t come from your head. Make wise and talented companions, and form a habit of asking questions and listening well. 
  17. If you desire to strengthen your moral character, it is better to attempt a difficult path than to walk without a path. If you buy into the belief that morality is always subjective, you undermine the possibility of moral growth. Growth requires a steady target toward which you are moving. This is a harder way to live, but choosing to submit yourself to time-tested moral standards will guide you to a much better life than just doing what feels good, or trimming your conscience down to whatever is currently fashionable. 
  18. Greatness and fame can overlap, but are not the same thing. If you have to pick one, strive for greatness. Striving for popularity will always leave you raw and hungry, dependent on people’s approval to have personal validity. 
  19. Everyone is a jerk some of the time, including you. Fortunately, God still loves and accomplishes great things through people who have acted like jerks. If God can value and work through me in spite of myself, I should extend the same grace to others. 
  20. You’ll solve most arguments in life by taking time to understand what people mean by how they use the terminology involved in the discussion. If you don’t mean the same things with the same words, this clarification might reveal that you don’t actually have a disagreement to begin with.
  21. Pain is a powerful teacher if we have a mindset to learn from it. Don’t assume everything that’s unpleasant is bad for you. When difficulties come, the right question to ask is, “How might God be trying to shape me through allowing me to experience this?"
  22. Be sure that when you praise people, what you are praising is what you are actually wanting to see them value. Telling a young person they are pretty or handsome or smart is a nice thought, but when you see an opportunity, a better compliment is, “I’m really proud of you because I saw you make an effort to do this when you could have done that instead. It’s great that you’re trying to be this kind of person, and I hope you’ll keep trying."
  23. You can’t really know that you love a person until they’ve wounded or disappointed you, and you’ve chosen to work things out with them. The same seems to be true of how you relate to God, who doesn’t always give you what you want. Genuine love and trust has to be built on the cooperative overcoming of shared difficulties. 
  24. You can’t do more for a person than they are willing to do for themselves. Even though it hurts to see them make poor decisions, until their desire or pain is great enough that they’re willing to change, you can’t change them against their will. 
  25. The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is apathy.
  26. When making a major life transition or significant move, it’s a good idea to pretend you are preparing for your own funeral. Say all the things to as many people as possible that you’d want them to know. Express as much love and gratitude as you can find time to express. Err on the side of generosity and appreciation.
  27. You don’t control your circumstances or what you’ve been given to work with. You can’t control what others do or how they respond to you. The only thing you fully control is your own actions. Make choices that you can feel peace about, regardless of how people respond to you. 
  28. In trying to sort out major life decisions, assuming that you live to see your 70s or 80s, ask yourself, “Which of these things would I be most proud to tell people that I tried to do with my life?” “If I were to develop scars or to wear out my body in some task, what would really be worth the sacrifice?"
  29. We naturally care more about things into which we have poured energy, time, sweat, and blood. If you find yourself apathetic about things which you believe should seem important, examine how much of yourself you’re really investing in these things.
  30. Make sure you are always doing some good things that can’t possibly be traced back to you. It's especially rewarding to do this for your  enemies, because it means at some level they are wrong about you, and it helps you to practice loving them anyway. 
  31. In a difference of views, it is likely that you misunderstand your opponents as least as much as they misunderstand you. Never portray another person’s position for the purpose of critiquing it until you have first listened to them well enough that you could describe their position and concerns in such a way that they would hear you and say, “Yes, you get where I’m coming from, what I care about, and how I’m understanding this.” Only at the point that you’ve listened sincerely can you really have a productive conversation about your differences.
  32. If you want to become more like Jesus, try treating every person you encounter as if they are Jesus. 
  33. Churches spend much time in tension about the value of following rules and principles in opposition to the practice of extending grace and freedom, often using one as an intended antidote for the other. The solution to legalism is not lawlessness, and the solution to lawlessness is not legalism. God has given us both: solid principles upon which to build a meaningful life, and the experience of grace for when we have shortcomings. Both law and grace are gifts to help us grow into the likeness of Christ, and neither should be neglected or devalued. The solution to either lawlessness or legalism is fundamentally a need to know God more deeply, and to become more like Christ.
  34. It is a mistake to assume whatever is new is intrinsically better than what has already been. Likewise, just became an idea has come into popularity does not make it automatically superior to less popular ways of thinking. Chronology and popularity do not always determine value. Things that are true, beautiful, and loving have always been significant, regardless of when or where they have occurred. There is value in knowing about new things, but make time in your life to focus on truly good things. This is part of why God gave us the church; that together we can learn to see what good things transcend time and culture and therefore not waste our lives on lesser things.
  35. Show mercy and forgiveness to people in your life, not only because they need it, but because you need the experience of giving it. Life is too hard to continue shoving stones in your bag of bitterness. Forgiveness must work as a process, acknowledging the painful realities of your experiences while simultaneously reaching for peace and healing. Commit yourself to the process, because in trying to forgive, you become more like God, and it will lighten your soul.