Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hitler, Dante, and the Insufficiency of Tolerance

Lately I've been a bit consumed with eschatology (the study of last things). This has been in part because I've been teaching Revelation to the teens class on Wednesday nights for the last quarter, and have had to seriously examine a lot of passages that describe the return of Christ. A relevant issue to all of this is the issue of Hell. 

Hell's pretty unpopular these days. Nobody wants to believe anybody will go to Hell, except for a few choice people like Hitler or Hussein. Those guys could sizzle like bacon for a pretty good while before it would start to bother us.

So I've been thinking about Hitler, and in the spirit of Dante, I've been pondering what his punishment might be like. Dante's Inferno is a fascinating read, and a quite imaginative work. Dante holds strongly to the idea that punishments will somehow correspond to crimes. For example, in the second ring of Hell, Dante describes people being punished who are guilty of lust. Their punishment is to have strong unceasing winds that blow them violently about, taking away their ability to ever get rest or relief. This corresponds to their unwillingness in life to control the desires that they chased in a number of ungodly directions. 

I was wondering what sort of punishment would be fitting of a man like Hitler. He was hungry for notoriety and power. He dehumanized his enemies and treated them as trash. I thought about someone as infamous as Hitler, and wondered what sort of fitting spectacle would be his punishment. And then it occurred to me that perhaps nothing would be more fitting than to see him quietly enclosed in a lonely place and punished secretly, with no pomp or circumstance; to abandon him with no sign at all that suggested this man was in any way worth remembering or acknowledging. 

Up until around the end of chapter 20, I understand Revelation to be a book that is similar to the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the curtain is pulled back so that Dorothy can see what is going on that no one else can see. John is in exile, when suddenly the heavens open up, and he is invited to see what God and his allies are up to while Christians are dealing with oppressive and bestial world powers. We hear Angels shouting victory and singing new songs. We see martyrs and leaders reigning with Christ, and we smell the incense of their prayers. But one group is strikingly absent. 

The lost are kept outside of the New Jerusalem. They are sent to a "second death" in the Lake of Fire. But in all the discussion that goes on for pages and pages of the action and excitement that happens in the presence of God, the lost are completely absent. They aren't protesting, banding together, or knocking on the gates. They simply aren't part of the future that God is bringing into existence. If their souls continue to exist, it is only in that they are tolerated to exist, but no value is attached to them once they've been cast aside to be discarded.

All of this led me to think about the great clamor we all hear these days about the importance of tolerance. In every setting, people are pushing for the perceived virtue of tolerance. (Tolerance isn't always virtuous.) But when you listen to what people are really wanting, tolerance isn't it. Tolerance means I let something exist, despite finding it a total bother. Many of the people I hear shouting for "tolerance" are themselves quite tolerated. They are allowed to exist, so why keep asking for it? The deeper thing I believe people are begging for is to receive respect. Respect goes beyond tolerance. Respect dignifies and acknowledges where it can. 

I read an excellent book a few weeks ago called Leadership and Self-Deception. The book is all about one important principle in dealing with people: no matter what people do or how they have disappointed you, always continue to treat them as human beings. The place we so often fall short is that we allow people to become nuisances, obstacles, or burdens, and in doing so, we cease to acknowledge the value of their humanity. This is why we will chew out a co-worker, we will humiliate a clerk behind a counter, or we will have no patience or second chances for someone who has disappointed us in any way. We mentally categorize them as less than human so that we can treat them as such. They become something we tolerate instead of someone in whom we see value. This is a Hellish way to live.

I believe God will have painful judgments for many people who have lived far beneath what they were created to be. But he will wait until the end of their days to deliver his verdict. A challenge for me is not to be a merely tolerant person, but to be a loving person. It is ok to acknowledge when someone has annoyed or frustrated me, but I can express this in a way that simultaneously acknowledges that I believe they have intrinsic value, having been made in God's image. I can express disappointment for people or condemnation of their behavior in that they were created to do things much better than what they've chosen to do, and with God's help, I know this is possible for them.

I don't know what God will do with Hitler. I don't fully grasp how all things will unfold as the Kingdom of God continues to break through into the corrupted world we're living in. But I do know that for my part, it is my job to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the oppressed, freedom to those who are captive, and the year of the Lord's favor to all who are willing to accept the good news. To love people in the way that God loves them goes beyond tolerance, because in every person it sees their value and seeks their redemption. 

May you live today in a way that God would deem worth remembering,


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Planning and Fundraising for Short-Term Missions

So it's getting to be that time of year where those of us who go on Summer mission trips begin our signups and fundraising. If you're looking for a trip to get involved with, I'll be leading a trip through Torch Missions to the Buenos Aires Iglesia de Cristo in Costa Rica in 2014. We're looking for teammates if you're interested! Here are a few tips and ideas I've gained from making these sorts of efforts over the years.


1. Listen Well Before You Plan. It is so important to communicate well in every aspect of short-term missions. You should begin by communicating well with the location where you'll travel, to be sure that they can genuinely use the help you are wanting to offer. Do not impose on them. Bring your ideas, but give veto power to the local people who will know what they are needing best. Don't make any plans until you first have the support and welcome of the place you want to visit.

Don't plan on any ideas unless you can confidently state how the church you are visiting feels about your ideas. Let them know what to expect from you so that they can accommodate you well.

A lack of communication will result in both of you being frustrated. We are not here to patronize smaller congregations in poorer places. We are here to love and support our brothers and sisters in Christ in ways that show respect for them and give dignity to their lives and ministry.

2. Communicate The Spiritual Aspects of What You're Doing. One of the most frequent criticisms of short-term mission is that they are often very expensive, and provide minimal bang for your buck in terms of what your team can produce short-term in the foreign location. It is indisputably cheaper to hire a team of local workers in Honduras to build a wall than to fly down 30 totally unskilled Americans, pay their lodging, and have them build a wall. Part of your trip planning should be to ensure you are strengthening local Christians wherever you are. Humanitarianism can be a great part of that. But the selling point for your trip can't be the importance of skilled labor needed in central America, Africa, or wherever.

Be sure in all of this to emphasize how good it is for the members of your team to have the experience of talking openly about their faith, being confronted with their own affluence, and donating their time to do hard work in the name of Jesus. We need to instill in our young people the hearts of missionaries. Short-term trips are expensive, but I would have a hard time numbering all the full-time missionaries I know who started off by going on a campaign to do short-term missions.

Likewise, if you are sensitive to the local church's needs where you are going, it is very possible that your short-term efforts can open up opportunities for them. Short-term trips may see some converts, but more often, by the connection they make through a team's visit, local people may come to experience Christ through the local congregation whom the mission team was serving.

It's true that these trips are expensive. It's also true that they can be life-changing, both for the ones who go and for the ones who receive them.

3. Use a Facebook Group to Coordinate. You need some central places where parents can go to find out about the trip, and where people can sort of meet each other, even if team members are from different locations. I have had good success using Facebook groups to
a. Remind people about what's going on
b. Get feedback about what interests people
c. Share files and links to useful information and ideas
d. Post pictures and information while we are on the mission sites so that parents know where to look for it

I make sure to add everyone and their whole families who are involved in the trip. Even those who have gone in past years like to see what's still happening after the fact. We've even been able to find and connect with some of the local people we've met in other countries whom we've found on Facebook and social media.

Because I don't like to deal with a lot of spammers or people who don't have any business with what's going on, I've opted to make our Facebook group a secret group by invitation only. Otherwise, if you have lots of Facebook friends you don't know well, some of whom could be sinister, you are publicizing the best possible dates to rob your house.

4. Remember to say "Thank You." We keep track of all donations that have names and addresses (checks) so that our participants know who helped them to go. Whenever we receive a donation, my secretaries respond with a letter, expressing appreciation for their donation for tax purposes. Most of my kids thank their contributors on their own. When we arrive back from the trip, I use a program called Comic Life on Mac to design a small picture that I send out as a keepsake and thank you to all our contributors. Here's the one I made for 2012. I print them off as 4x6s and include them in an envelope with a letter talking about the highlights of our trip.


This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the methods that have worked well in some places.

1. Mission Team works for tips at Church event. For us, the single best fundraiser has been at a congregational chili supper during the winter. We host a chili cook off and have the members all bring chili, toppings, desserts and drinks. Therefore there is no food cost for the event for our team. We show up in matching long-sleeve Ts and spend the whole event waiting tables, refilling drinks, and passing out flyers about what we'll do on our trip. On the side of the room, I have a looping slideshow with pictures of last year's trip. 

Near the front of the room is a big bucket labeled, "Tips for Costa Rica." As far as public announcements, people are never pressured to tip. Tips are appreciated, but not mandated or expected. My experience has been that members are glad to contribute without any pressure. The bucket itself I add eyes and a mouth to so it has personality. I also prime the pump and drop in my own contribution of several $20s and $50s. So when people are wondering how much they ought to give and they see what is already in the bucket, it sets a higher expectation than if it is empty, or only has $1s and $5s in it. 

This is the best approach I've found because it is great PR for the trip, people have given generously, and the team has zero cost to make the event happen since it's a congregational event where people bring all the food.

2. Silent Auctions. While we are overseas, I make sure to spend $100-$200 on souvenirs to donate for silent auctions upon our return. At a church event in the fall without any other trip connections, we will have a table set up on the side of the room with several items that people can bid on.

The most popular item for me has been coffee. Central American coffee is high quality, and when you play up its quality, and people know that whatever they pay for it is helping your trip, I've had some epic silent auction battles going on over bags of coffee. You don't want to spend too much on large items, and are better to get things for which you pay $10-$20, hoping that you will at least raise awareness and not loose any money on the items. I begin the auction with bidding $10 on all items myself. That also helps me not waste money, because I don't get any auction items that I wouldn't want to own myself.

People have a lot of fun with this, and it helps keep the trip on people's minds, even when it's the "off season" and the trip isn't coming up soon.

3. Envelopes for Cash. I have not used this approach, due to the success of these first two methods, but I've had this idea suggested and highly recommended to me. Because my congregation has such a tendency toward generosity, I've worried that this might actually reduce what some people would give. If you're at a congregation where people are less inclined to have extra, this is a neat way to provide people with giving goals.

Take 100 manila envelopes. The 6"x9" size works well. Get your team together and decorate them fancily with numbers from 1 to 100. Include little messages on them like "Ooohh...Pick Me!"

You put up a clothes line along one of your church's hall ways, and hang the 100 envelopes all the way down the hall. The goal is that people will take the envelopes, and return them to you with the amount stated on the outside of the envelope.

This is a great project for parents with young kids. "Aiden, you are going to raise $5 to help with the mission trip. Here are some chores you can do to earn $5." Let the child bring the envelope himself or herself, and they will be so proud to turn it in.

Here's the cool part: If you do the math for adding sequential numbers, using envelopes for 1 to 100, no one is giving more than $100. But if all of them come back with their respective amounts, you will receive a total of $5,050.

If you're ambitious and do envelopes from 1 to 125, your total would be $7,875. Pretty amazing!

4. Retail and Restaurant Helps. These are great supplemental fundraisers.

- Chick-Fil-A has been really good to work with. You have a night where for a designated range of time, they will give you a percentage of all receipts submitted. I understand Zaxby's will do something similar.
- Kroger Refillable Gift Cards can be a great method to raise funds all year long. You get a set of gift cards that are all connected to the same charity account. The way it works is that people who agree to do this will get a gift card. Before you pay for your groceries, you fill up the gift card with the budget you want to spend on groceries. You then use the gift card to pay. When it's empty, you do not throw it away, but instead you refill it and continue to use it.

Basically, every time your group collectively recharges a total of $5,000, Kroger gives you 4% of that amount. ($200) That is not a huge amount, but with a lot of people shopping, it adds up quickly. I know of one group that generates a full $1,000/month using these cards.

The real benefit of these efforts is that it doesn't require any additional spending from your contributors. They spend what they would spend anyway to eat out or to buy groceries, and part of it goes to you.

5. Fundraiser Dinner. This is especially good for raising funds from people who do not attend your church. The dinner itself is simple: I get parents of trip participants to help coordinate food and decorations. We decorate using colors and themes from the country we're traveling to.

I put up a screen with images and videos, and make a presentation during the meal about the trip and our plans.

But the fundraising comes from the invitations. We make up packets for all our participants where each of them can send out 20 invitations. These are specifically not for our own church members. We invite our congregation through announcements and the bulletin, and they sign up if they want to come and contribute.

But in the mail, each of our kids sends these invitations out, inviting them to the informational dinner about the trip. We include a self-addressed, stamped envelope where they can respond by:
A. I plan to attend the dinner.
B. I cannot attend the dinner, but will be praying for you.
C. I cannot attend the dinner, but in addition to my prayers, I would like to contribute financially to your trip.

We mention the date of the dinner, but also give a separate fundraising deadline so that even if they can't come to the dinner, they know when we need donations by. This way the team doesn't have too much pressure to write letters well, or to reach out only to local people. They can send invitations to whomever they chose, and the self-addressed envelopes make it easy for people to respond. The picture here is from 2012. For last year, I actually got fluorescent colored envelopes that made the invites stand out a lot more.

6. Golf Tournament. I have to give mention to the annual Golf Tournament that Torch does near Nashville. Some have had great success with these. There are two ways you make money if a local golf course allows you to host a tournament:
a. You collect money from the golfers who pay to play. You can charge fees for individuals and for groups who sign up.
b. You can sell advertising signs to local businesses that will be placed on all the holes for the entire day, providing them with good PR. If you can find a good sign shop that will make up the signs with their desired artwork, you charge the company based on the size of the signs. Generally, you can make an enormous among of funding off of the signs especially.

This sort of event is incredible, but is also a lot of coordination. If you want to learn more about how the Western Hills Church of Christ organizes their annual Torch Golf Tournament, you can look over these materials to give you an idea of how their event is arranged.

Monday, November 18, 2013

When ESPN Comes To Church

Yesterday, we had a pretty unusual experience at the Old Hickory Church of Christ during our Sunday morning service: ESPN showed up and filmed the whole thing. I'd love to tell you the reason why is because of our hard hitting Bible lessons and high-impact classes. But truthfully, it's because of a family at our congregation whose story they are making a special about.

There are several members of the Gaines family over the years who have been successful athletes, particularly in football. Brad Gaines will always have a special place in football history from his time at Vanderbilt when a bad hit led to Chucky Mullins' paralysis, and later death. It was Chucky who hit Brad, and ended up injured, but knowing what happened to Chucky as a result of the collision weighed heavily on Brad. Brad is a person of deep faith, and he has made regular visits for decades now, down to the site of Mullins' grave to honor his memory and show his respects. The story of Brad and Chucky is touching, and later next year, there will be a special on Brad as a 30 for 30 short film. That was the occasion for the filming. They are telling Brad's story, of which his faith is a central part. I appreciate their willingness to highlight this aspect about him. If you want to learn more about this story, you can see one of the previous specials here.

I'm sure I'll be talking about the 30 for 30 short film when it is released. But I wanted to talk about the experience of having ESPN film our worship service, because it was enlightening for me in some ways I hadn't anticipated. They were polite and appreciative, but there was a crew of about 6 people running around with boom microphones and large professional cameras. It was a very different experience. They would run up and get close ups of the people on the stage, and at one point, stood a couple of rows in front of me, panning the camera around at our faces as we were singing. It didn't prevent me from paying attention, but I never ceased being aware of the rolling cameras all around us. 

For me, this was a great wake up call to how many people have probably come in and out of our doors. Much like the big cameras, these people have also been watching. I think for most of us, we were determined more than ever to sing well, to pay attention, to sit up straight, to be friendly...all the things we know we ought to do. But the added reminder that people are watching...maybe even thousands of people...was a powerful motivator. When I am aware that people are watching me, I learned, I put a lot more effort into what I'm doing. 

So here's a reminder to you all: no matter where you are or what you're doing, someone is watching. Your actions tell a lot about what you think, what you feel, and what you care about. You should never do things for the sole purpose of appearances, but you should also remember that in general, perception is reality. Regardless of what is going on inside of you, if you don't make it perceptible, people will never know.

We feel so blessed that because of this good family, our congregation has an opportunity to represent our faith before a potential multitude. Realistically, I'm sure our time on screen will probably be seconds at most. But when you are aware that any second might be the second that millions of others could see, you live each second more deliberately.

Live like it matters, and do things you'd be proud of to see again later.

Something to think about.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two Questions for Consistency

There are two questions I've been thinking about. They're two sides of the same coin, really. They are:
(1) Do you do things in private that you would never do in public?
(2) Do you do things in public that you would never do in private?

Both are questions of hypocrisy, "to wear a mask." Both have a common solution as well: consistency. Some people are all around jerks, all the time, of course. But for those of us striving to be better, the challenge is to be the same good person, no matter where we are, and no matter who our audience is. 

Some of my goals are:
  • To demonstrate an attitude of love, regardless of circumstances. Even if something has gone wrong, or someone has done me wrong, I want to always treat the other person as one created in the image of God, worthy of love and respect, even if I have sincere disagreement. I want to treat people as people, and I want to be a vessel through which people can experience grace and acceptance.
  • To be positive and hopeful, helping others around me to be the same. I want this for the people in whose lives I play a public role, but I want to be sure that I treat my family as well as I treat those to whom I minister. It is unacceptable to take out home problems on my friends, church members, or co-workers, just as it is unacceptable to take out church frustrations on my family. Both deserve my best, and both benefit from people who believe that a future with God can be a good future.
  • To be honest in all things, willing to speak truthfully. So many problems are created and perpetuated because people fear that their honesty will cause harm. After all, many things don't have to be said, and honesty stings for those who don't like to admit room for growth. But it's always better to speak truthfully before a situation becomes a problem than to flee from discomfort until a small problem becomes the elephant in the room that is now much harder to deal with. Honesty is also the best way to make up for a limited memory. Dishonesty requires a lot more record keeping and avoidances. Honest people have nothing to run from. 
  • To extend mercy to all people, including myself. After giving the "golden rule", Jesus explains that the reason we should treat others as we want to be treated is because God intends to use our own actions towards others as the basis for how he judges us. No one has ever wronged me as badly as I've wronged God, and there is no one for whom I can only reserve God's judgment if I personally wish to experience God's mercy. My personal struggle comes less from showing others mercy, though, because I have a much harder time accepting mercy for myself. All sins sound very forgivable to me except my own. Yet if God, whom I admire and imitate, tells me that I'm forgiven, who am I to tell him what he can't do? I want to be characterized by mercy, grace, and peace, because this is what God is like.
My walk as a Christian will be different than everyone else's walk. But I think for every Christian, a path to blessing is to (a) fix your eyes on Jesus and all that makes him who he is, and to (b) try to be this way at all times to all people.

I hope yours is a blessed week.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Denied Gratification

I don't think I'll ever cease being surprised by my own capacity for selfishness. We have had an expensive year. We had foundation repair work done early in the spring, followed by purchasing a new air conditioner in the summer, and--coming next week--we have to get a new roof on our house. I'm grateful to God that we've both got good jobs and are well provided for. Otherwise it would have been an even rougher year.

As I was doing my trash duty around the house, reflecting on what money we'd spent, I noticed my thoughts all centering around what else I still wanted to spend. Some of it was charitable, but the bulk of it was selfish. As I thought about what purchases I'd have to delay, I started calculating how long it would take me before I could get everything I wanted.

And then I realized: it had never once crossed my mind that I wouldn't get everything I wanted.

I have been proud of my ability to wait on the things I've wanted. I don't have to have the newest gadget when it comes out. I know that in waiting and saving, I'll get it eventually. I don't accumulate credit card debt. I like to consider myself reasonably patient.

But maybe I'm still looking at things in the wrong way. Maybe the practice in life I need to master isn't delayed gratification, but instead denied gratification. I need to learn how to not get what I want, and still be ok with that. In fact, in many instances, what I need to learn is how to want different things. I need to "seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness" because those are really the things I seek; not just so I can eventually get "all these things" added unto me.

I think the first time I ever received a definitive "no" from God was when I prayed--fervently--for an elder's healing at my church when I was a teenager. He was suffering from a brain tumor. I thought he was too important to my church and to my life to lose, so I asked God to heal him. I believed God would heal him, because I knew Jesus said that if you believe that you'll receive what you ask, you'll receive it. I asked. I believed. And after several months of setting a great example of faith during terrible circumstances, this elder passed away. God had different plans, and I have never understood why. But I hope I'm at a place now where I can trust in the wisdom and timing of God. God will give me what I need, and not always what I want, for reasons I don't have to understand.

"If anyone wants to come with me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." - Matthew 16:24

So today I pray that God will help me to grow beyond a life of delayed gratification. I want to learn to deny myself of what I foolishly believe will gratify me. I want to learn to seek what God wants so earnestly that my deepest gratification comes from God's will being done, in my life and in the lives of those I'm blessed to work with. Being a Christian is really hard, but it's also the only thing in this world worth doing. Jesus asks us to give up everything for his sake, and the reason we do is because what we receive is greater than what we've given up.

"My heart is restless until it finds its rest in you." - Augustine of Hippo

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Encouraging Young Women

There are a couple of recent blog posts that have resonated with me. They are addressing the problems with how some preacher/pastors talk about their wives in public. Particularly, they address the tendency to make "sexy" compliments in a public setting, and how this ultimately is a cheapening of something precious. I don't know if I can pinpoint the beginning of the trend, but it surely has something to do with Ricky Bobby's memorable prayer in Talladega Nights where he thanks God for his "Red hot smokin' wife, Carly, who is a stone cold fox." (Quoting Will Ferrell movies is an easy way to try to make yourself appear conversant in pop culture.)

I've heard a few similar comments in public settings, and have always been uncomfortable with them. I personally have an agreement with my wife--which I honor--that I will never talk about her or tell stories about her from the pulpit without her full approval. I think it has gone a long way in helping her feel comfortable with me preaching, not fearing that she'll have to get embarrassed in front of a few hundred people. (Not that I might not embarrass her on my own, but it won't be because I'm telling them stuff about her that she doesn't want them to know.)

There are a lot of good perspectives offered on this issue both here and here.

As one who works a lot with young adults, including teen girls, I've spent a fair amount of time over the last few years trying to think about what kinds of compliments most help young women to feel loved, encouraged, and empowered. Here are my thoughts about how to compliment young women. As I've never been a young woman myself, I would certainly welcome your comments and perspectives on this one.

1. Honesty over Flattery
To begin with, I simply don't go for hyperbole or false assertions. I don't tell them anything that I don't sincerely mean. If they failed, I won't try to imply they succeeded, though I can certainly appreciate their sincere effort. Also, I try to say things in a way that I would say them in any setting. I want for my words to them to be something that I'd be glad for their parents to hear as well, if I were quoted verbatim. Keep your words honest and pure.

2. Spoken over Assumed
Even though one has to be careful about interactions with younger members of the opposite gender these days, it is crucial to say the good things that need to be said. As often as I have a window to offer a genuine compliment (particularly of a type described below), I make it a point to do so. Don't miss an opportunity to build up young people. Don't just assume that because everyone else observes something good about them, they know what people are thinking. Young people are incredibly concerned with how people perceive them.

3. Praise Effort over Intrinsic Qualities
We don't expect our children to have perfect track records in any part of their life. We need to give them room to try things, and even room to fail. But rather than praising something that they can't change, or didn't work for ("You have beautiful blue eyes"), I look for things to praise that show courage, work, and resolve on their part. "I know it was hard for you to hold your tongue about that, but you showed great character. I saw that, and I'm proud of you." "I like the way you try to make Facebook posts that honor God and say positive things." "I know you were scared to try that, but you did your best, and I know it will make it even easier for you to have courage the next time, too."

We want our compliments to help them value what is most valuable. If what we want is for them to be dedicated Christians who show strong moral character, why would we spend all our compliments just talking about how pretty they are? If they seek your approval--and they do--be sure you verbalize positive things about what you most want for them. Not that you can't compliment their outfit, but don't neglect the weightier matters.

4. Self-expressed over Externally-expressed
The way you word your compliments can make a big difference. A lot of people try hard to pay compliments to kids, such as, "You're so smart!" or "You're so pretty!" The downside of things expressed this way is that the opinion expressed is purely an external one. These are words immediately appreciated, but also quickly forgotten when self-doubt sets in. Instead of just telling them what you perceive to be their qualities, try to get them to verbalize their own good qualities. So if they succeed at something you know they were worried about, you can say something like this:
"So I hear that you aced that test!" "Yeah..."
"Now if I remember, you were worried about that one?" "Yeah..."
"But you spent a lot of time preparing, and you did great! What did you feel like when you got your test back?"
"I felt like..._______"
"So you had a hard test you were worried about, but you ended up acing it...what does that tell you about yourself?"
"Maybe I'm smarter than I thought I was," or "If I work really hard, I can do it."

Many of the young people I worry about most are the ones who use a lot of negative language about themselves. "I'm fat." "I'm dumb." "I'm such an idiot." "I always screw everything up."
They will listen to their own opinion much more clearly than they will to anyone else's. It is important to help them learn to compliment themselves when they do well, and to believe positive things about their own capabilities.

To be a Christian is to be in the minority, and we need young people with a strong sense of Christian identity and moral courage that doesn't depend on peer approval. Women are and have always been such an important part of the Kingdom of God. Their value to us runs so much deeper than how they look. Let's make sure we help them to know it.

What kinds of compliments have stuck with you over the years?
What kinds of encouragement has helped you most?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Christ is the Solution

What sad news from Boston yesterday. My heart and prayers are with the victims of the terrorist attack. I will never be able to wrap my mind around how anyone would think that in order to support their religion, they need to attack innocent people. Though I'm enough of a pragmatist to understand how our nation justifies going to war in some cases, the idealist in me struggles with how violence is ever really the answer. It seldom brings any of us to our enemies' cause, and in response, it seldom helps our enemies to become our friends.

As of the time I'm writing this, not much is known about who committed this crime. Typically, when something like this happens, people will ramp up their war-time rhetoric. "Whoever did this, we will find them, and we'll do to them what they did to us." And of course, government is there to carry the sword, and to be a terror on those who do evil (Romans 13:3-4). But earthly governments will always be inferior to the Kingdom of God because they are largely dependent upon coercion to remain in power. When one strikes, another strikes back in return. Lives are lost. Innocents die on either side. People abuse their power. Hatred continues.

Recently I've become quite fond of the abundance of Youtube videos that feature Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. He grew up in India, and has insights about the value and truth of Christianity that few people would be capable of perceiving. I heard him tell a story the other day about a meeting he had with a Muslim leader of a Palestinian(?) group. He was pleading with him to seek peace. This man was hardened by war, and had even lost one of his sons, whom had been murdered by his enemies.

Ravi made a point to the man that I think carries a lot of importance at a time like this. Before he left the meeting, he told the man, "I believe that God gave his only son to die for the sins of the world. And until we are willing to accept the sacrifice of his son as sufficient for our needs, we will continue to sacrifice our own children on the altars of our gods." (This is my paraphrase from memory.) Keep in mind, he was saying this to a man who had in fact given his son in the cause for which he was fighting.

The only real solution to war, suffering, and hatred continues to be Jesus Christ. Until we embrace this, we will continue to give up what is precious to us to further lesser solutions. God sent Jesus to reconcile his creation to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Once acts of terror and murder have been committed, they can be punished, but they cannot be undone. As Christians, we must respond with compassion, and with an unwavering commitment to speaking the truth on behalf of the voiceless. Acts of terror are unjustified, but bloodlust is not a better response. Christ is the only one who can reconcile all of the problems in the world. By accepting his Lordship and joining his mission to draw all men to himself, we do the best we can do to usher in a better world.

Whoever did this should be brought to justice. Let's be prayerful for the families involved. Let's be prayerful for our representatives who will decide what happens next. But in loving justice, let us also learn to love our enemies, and to pray for those who are so misled that they would think that violent acts of terror are a constructive means to their desired end. Don't forget that before he was the Apostle Paul, Saul of Tarsus was known and feared as a murderer of Christians. In Christ, there is always hope and redemption. I pray that the families experience healing, and I pray that whoever did this, their sins will find them out. But in this process, my hope is that they will come to know Christ, and will find a better cause to which they can dedicate their life.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Having Nothing and Everything in Common

You have to wonder what Jesus was thinking when he chose His apostles. There were the boorish fishermen, who could have probably fit in well on the Duck Dynasty show. There was Thomas, a skeptic. Then you have the odd pair of Simon, a zealot and Matthew, a tax collector. Matthew's occupation was to collect taxes for the same Roman government that Simon was committed to overthrowing. This is all not to mention Judas Iscariot, a crook and a traitor. Could Jesus have possibly assembled a more perfect mess of personalities?

Community is a hard thing. Sure, it's fun to see other cultures for a few days at a time, or to pose for a few snapshots with a local. But learning to get along with one group in one place for many years is quite a different experience.

G.K. Chesterton had good thoughts on the dynamics that we experience in a smaller community like a congregation:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

Jesus had a way of picking the harder path to travel. His vision for the Church was a united vision (John 17:20-21). Yet the unity He desired would occur between people so different from each other that only something as strong as the love of God could bring them together. If we have Christ in common, we have all things in common. The challenge for us is to embrace and embody this vision. It not easy love, but difficult love which reveals that this narrow path we are on is truly the heavenly path. God has chosen for us a community of people He dearly loves. Let us love each other as He has loved us.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Remembering Ken Neller

I just learned about the passing of a very dear friend of mine named Ken Neller. Dr. Neller was a New Testament professor at Harding University, and he had a profound impact on my life. As I understand it, he had a heart attack very suddenly today. It was completely unexpected, and quite a shock.

As I started thinking about our connections over the years, it really amazed me how many blessings I experienced because of him. I first had him as a freshman at Harding for advanced New Testament Survey. Later, when I was adjuncting for Harding, I would base my class point system on the one he used for us. He was always prepared, and was very clear about his expectations for us. He took time to answer questions, and a lot of our discussions in class have still continued to stick with me over the years. He was a fan of mnemonic devices...I'll never forget the story of him tackling Brian Brophy for the sake of giving the class something to remember. Nor will I ever forget in Greek that when dia occurs with the genetive case, it means "through", due to a rather awkward mnemonic tip he gave us. Dr. Neller was never afraid to talk about anything, even taboo subjects. This helped me to be more courageous as a teacher myself. Still today, when a hard question is posed, I think of how Dr. Neller never shied away from any topic, because he knew that Scripture speaks powerfully to real life issues and challenges. I knew from very early on that he was a person I could trust, because he never tried to hide anything. He was an honest person. He taught me that if I'm going to believe something, I should know why, and that my reasons should be good reasons.

He always had all of his classes over to his house each semester for an excellent meal (for which he readily gave much credit to his wife Barbara), and some fun out in the yard. I will also remember him for the way he made an effort every week to eat lunch in the cafeteria with the students. He wanted to sit with us and to make himself available to us however he could. He wanted to understand our needs and perspectives.

I loved him as a professor, and as I graduated and began my own work in ministry, I continued to appreciate him even more. He's continued over the years to be a true friend and encourager. Even as recently as a few months ago, when I faced a hard dilemma, he was one of a couple of people I contacted for good advice, with which he was quick to respond.

Every time I've been back on campus, if he's seen me, he's immediately come to ask how I'm doing, how my ministry is going, and how my "lovely wife" is. The last time I saw him was this year at the lectureship. I'm doubly thankful that I was able to go this year. He walked with me some around campus and caught me up on some of the good stuff he's been involved with. He never missed an opportunity to verbalize, "I'm really proud of all you're doing."

In terms of losing Dr. Neller, any time would have seemed too soon. I know I am just one person of many who could say so many good things about how Dr. Neller has blessed our lives. I'm sure that over the next few days, many others will share their stories, too. He was an excellent shepherd for the Downtown congregation in Searcy for many years. He truly gave his life one day at a time to the service of the Kingdom, and I'll miss him so much until I see him again.

I would not be who I am were it not for Ken Neller. With this post come prayers for his family, as they will miss him deeply. He's given them much to be proud of and many reasons to be comforted in his passing.